When you are passionate about a subject, everything about it sparks your interest. The scimitar vs katana debate is a great example. You won’t believe how many people engage in never-ending arguments.
Guys are very competitive, we constantly show interest in “ultimate battle” videos and articles like bear vs lion, boxer vs wrestler. There is something in our psyche that needs to feed on competition and comparison. I see this need and I want to do what I to satiate it, for me and for others. That is why I thoroughly enjoy doing this kind of research: weapon vs weapon.
Let’s meet our competitors. On my left, we find the scimitar, a weapon whose ferocity is outmatched only by the speed by which it was incorporated into and adopted by other cultures.
On my right, there is the katana – a Japanese sword famed for its sharpness, which can make quick work in a few fell swoops out of any opponent.
What Is a Scimitar?
The scimitar is not a specific sword by itself, but a category of swords that follow a similar design pattern and aim / application: long, curved, single-edged, one-handed cavalry sabers.
This blade first appeared on the scene of history during the invasion of the Tungusic Tribes of the Central Asian Steppes. They were the ancestors of the Ottoman Turks. This long, curved sword was a devastating weapon in the hands of these horse-back invaders that conquered large swaths of land in the Middle East.
What I find fascinating about the scimitar blade is that many contemporary cultures have adopted the model. They improved and integrated it into their military. The Europeans, Indians, Africans, they replaced the straight, medieval swords with the curved, cavalry saber. Why did they do it? The answer is, obviously, because it is a better, more effective blade. Weapons need to be constantly improved, to keep up with your enemies.
After the Middle Ages, all European countries switched from the long-sword, broad-sword models to a cavalry scimitar. Of course, this coincided with the introduction of firearms, which made swordsmen obsolete. I don’t want to take too much credit away from the straight sword. It has its uses and in specific cases, it is a better option than the scimitar.
The name comes from the French “cimeterre” / Italian “scimitarra”. They used these terms to refer to the commonly known middle-eastern curved blades. But lots of countries and cultures created their own scimitar versions, including the French and the Italians. For example. the following single-edged weapons are all scimitars:
- the Persian Shamshir
- the Turkish Kilij
- the Indian Talwar
- the Afghan Pulwar
- the Swiss and German Schweizersäbel
- the Polish, Russian, Ukrainian cavalry swords
- the Caribbean Cutlass
- the French Falchion and Sabre
They have crafted and improved these weapons based on the original middle-eastern swords, originally developed by the Turkic nomads in the 7th Century. The Arabs and Persians were the first to take a liking into these blades. So, did the Europeans later, after repeated clashes with the Ottoman Turks.
There are several differences between these scimitars, in terms of strength, steel, use, design. And these factors make a difference. Each type of scimitar vs katana comparison deserves special attention. However, this article focuses on the first model, the early version, the original scimitar blade.
Scimitar vs Katana
I must point out that my preference and bias towards the katana will not affect my judgement. I have previously written a piece comparing the katana versus the kilij, and I fairly concluded that the Turkish kilij is the winner.
Technically, the kilij is a scimitar, so it might seem redundant to compare again. But given how much scimitars can differ from one another, I think a new article is worth a shot… Or a swing!
I will compare the two weapons across several categories: design, size, use, speed, strength, handling, cutting power, effectiveness in battle, in a duel.
Scimitars are very curved and long, with a short handle, and a T-shaped guard. They have a single edge and a flat back. Because of their triangular cross-section, people call them “backswords”. The most pronounced feature is the exaggerated curvature. Some scimitars, like the kilij, take this to the extreme.
Japanese samurai swords are less curbed and pointier. These blades have a sharp-edge and a flat spine, just like the scimitar. But the cross-section is not perfectly triangular, it looks like a triangle sitting on a square. It may also have a groove. The handle is long, with a minimal round guard.
The katana has a thicker blade, but that doesn’t mean it is stronger. It is not designed for parrying a blow. If you try to intercept another sword swing with a katana, you may chip the edge. That would be a shame since the blade’s advantages lie in its sharpness.
Plus, it is very expensive, as opposed to your standard scimitar. Even if the risk of damage is equal, the cost is much higher.
Application, Use, Combat
Before we go further, we need to see how these tools were deployed in combat. This is critical if we want to understand the scimitar vs katana dynamics.
The purpose of this Middle-Eastern blade was to allow cavalry to rampage through the enemy infantry lines. The nomadic warriors were great horse-back riders and a long, curved sword was perfect for the job. With one hand they held tightly to the horse strap while swinging and flailing the sword with the other. This was a devastating tactic against infantry.
The scimitar needed to be longer, to give the horsemen extended reach. The backward curvature helped to balance the weight, reduce the center of gravity, and increase control / handling.
I saw historic re-enactments that sought to educate people about ancient fighting styles. In a duel, the warrior would constantly swing the scimitar with fluid motion, trying to find an opening and catch their opponent off-guard.
An unmounted fighter (or a duelist) could use a small shield to go along with the sword. But given the length and size of the blade, there was little control over its movement. You could not stop / redirect it at will. Swinging and rotating it, keeping it in motion did help a lot in terms of handling. Plus, it was a unique method of combat and the attacks are hard to predict.
The scimitar is a very adaptable sword, and you can use it in a wide variety of ways, as this guy explains:
They created it for horseback, but it was versatile even for infantry combat and dueling. This guy reveals just how deadly the scimitar can be in the hands of experienced fighters. In his narrative, the combat conditions were favorable for the swordsmen, but… You get the picture. It is a fierce, adaptable combat tool.
The katana is the exact opposite, compared to the scimitar. For starters, it is two-handed. It was meant for dueling, infantry warfare, and ground fighting. Not cavalry!
It outshines the Middle-Eastern blade as a weapon of duel. Samurai fights were short and violent. They didn’t last more than 3-4 strikes before one of the fighters got severely injured or killed.
The katana is quick to draw and slash, and easy to handle. It is a weapon designed for a quick kill. Most Japanese soldiers did not own katanas, and the Samurai often used bows, spears and other weapons on the field of battle.
Size, Length, Weight, Thickness
The average scimitar is longer than a historically accurate katana. This is necessary for reach since its purpose is to function as a hack and slash weapon, from horseback.
Imagine a band of mounted skirmisher warriors driving through enemy infantry. Imagine them swinging the devastating scimitar left and right, wounding and decapitating enemy troops.
The scimitar’s total length is about 95 cm. But the sharp part (no handle) measures about 85 cm. Very short handle and a long blade, but if you’re on a horse who cares?
The point of balance (center of mass) is about 20 cm from the pommel. For such a long blade, it weights surprisingly little – close to a kilo (2.2 lbs.).
Typically, you would expect a two-handed blade to be longer than a one-handed. But apparently, the scimitar vs katana combo defies the rule. Here is a simple equation:
Two Hands = More Strength and Leverage = Better Handling, Wielding and Flexibility
That means we can sacrifice flexibility to extend reach. But the scimitar doesn’t need to be flexible only deadly from horseback. We can then sacrifice more flexibility for a far greater reach.
Even though the Japanese sword is shorter, it has more bulk and thickness. The katana weighs more than the kilij. Japanese swords have thick, bulky blades. There is a lot of “meat” there.
Forging the katana by folding layers and pattern-welding results in thick, heavy blades. The process was vital because the Japanese did not have access to quality ore. Their steel refining skills were not that great either – so they had to fold steel.
Additionally, they fused several layers of soft and hard steels to make a katana both strong and sharp. Modern-day heat-treated, tempered Tool steel is a cheaper, better alternative.
So, the scimitar has a thinner, deeper blade. In contrast, the katana was thick and nimble. Heavier as well.
Steel and Forging
Middle-Eastern blacksmiths were the best steelmakers in the world without a doubt. Of course, they had easy access to prime quality materials.
On the other side of the continent, the Japanese had a much harder time procuring and refining iron ore, to make steel. So, they developed complex sword-smiting techniques; they had to put more work, to outweigh the disadvantages of using low-quality steel. There were many more steps towards finishing the sword – it was a difficult and lengthy process.
They needed to refine scrap metal and rocky masses of iron and slag into the “jewel steel”. The molten product was smashed, heated, cooled, and separated into categories of “hardness”.
Hard, brittle, high-carbon VERSUS tough, low-carbon chunks of steel. The forge-master melted these pieces to create individual sheets and fuse them together. Then they had to differentially harden them. When the product was ready – someone had to sharpen and polish it.
But this hard, lengthy process was necessary because steel was scarce in Japan.
Access to iron and steel was not a problem in the Middle-East. They were famous for some extremely tough and sharp alloys like Damascus and Wootz steels.
They made scimitars from wootz, which was difficult to forge in the initial stage, but became easier to work with, later. The nice part is you don’t need to fold or weld different pieces to get a strong, sharp sword. You can use a single bar of wootz steel to create the entire blade.
The curvature of a katana results from differential hardening. When the blacksmith finishes with forge-welding the layers, his blade is straight. But then you cover the edge with clay and unevenly heat the spine versus the edge – this makes the blade curve slightly. By differentially heating the sword, you make it bend.
To remind everyone: forge-welding (pattern-folding) means to fuse together soft and hard steel pieces. Fusing two pieces of metal can be done by hammering them together while red-hot. This process of heating, smashing, cooling needs several iterations for a successful pattern-folding.
After the blade smith completes that last step, he needs to harden the edge of the katana differentially. To make the sharpness last longer.
He uses clay to cover that part of the sword he does not want to harden. The clay insulates and protects the covered part while exposing the uncovered part to heat. Then he exposes the blade to a high temperature (much below the melting point).
Katanas were tucked in the sheath with their edge pointing up. This allows it to be swiftly drawn in a quick offensive slash. In contrast, scimitars had their edge pointing downwards while worn in the scabbard.
Both swords served their purpose faithfully, in a given historical context, against a certain kind of enemy. I had trouble figuring out the katana versus kilij debate, but this one is harder still. The Arabic scimitar is just a generic scimitar, so I can’t narrow it down to a specific set of characteristics like I managed to do with the Turkish kilij.
Depending on the kind of steel and craftsmanship, and the skill level of the fighter, my intuition tells me this is a 50-50 split. But if the scimitar wielder is going to take out an elite samurai, he would better know his game!