The sabre or saber traces its origins to the European backsword and usually but not always has a curved, single-edged blade and a rather large hand guard, covering the knuckles of the hand as well as the thumb and forefinger. Although sabres are typically thought of as curved-bladed slashing weapons, those used by the world's heavy cavalry often had straight and even double-edged blades more suitable for thrusting. The length of sabres varied, and most were carried in a scabbard hanging from a shoulder belt known as a baldric or from a waist-mounted sword belt. Exceptions not intended for personal carry include the famed Patton saber adopted by the United States Army in 1913 and always mounted to the cavalryman's saddle.
The word sabre was thought to derive from Hungarian szablya "sabre", literally "tool to cut with", from szabni "to cut". However, a linguistically and historically much more realistic etymology was presented by Marek Stachowski in his study "The Origin of the European Word for Sabre".
The origins of the sabre are somewhat unclear, and it may come from designs such as the falchion or the scimitar (shamshir) used in the Middle Ages by such Central Asian cavalry as the Turks, Tatars, and Mongols. The sabre first appeared in Europe with the arrival of the Hungarians (Magyars) in the 10th Century. Originally, the sabre was used as a cavalry weapon that gradually came to replace the various straight bladed cutting sword types on the battlefield. As time went on, sabres became insignia of rank in many armies, and dress use of sabres continues to this day in some armed services around the world.
The sabre saw extensive military use in the early 19th century, particularly in the Napoleonic Wars, during which Napoleon used heavy cavalry charges to great effect against his enemies. The sabre faded as a weapon by mid-century, as longer-range rifles made cavalry charges obsolete, even suicidal. In the American Civil War, the sabre was used infrequently as a weapon, but saw notable deployment in the Battle of Brandy Station and at East Cavalry Field at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Many cavalrymen—particularly on the Confederate side—eventually abandoned the long, heavy weapons in favour of revolvers and carbines. Although there was extensive debate over the effectiveness of "white" weapons such as the sabre and lance, the sabre remained the standard weapon of cavalry for mounted action in most armies until World War I (1914–18). Thereafter it was gradually relegated to the status of a ceremonial weapon, and most horse cavalry was replaced by armored cavalry from 1930 on.
In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (16–18th century) a specific type of sabre-like mêlée weapon, the szabla, was used. The Don Cossacks used shashka.
During the 19th and in the early 20th century, sabres were also used by both mounted and dismounted personnel in some European police forces. When the sabre was used by mounted police against crowds, the results could be appalling, as in a key scene in Doctor Zhivago. The awkward and heavy sabre was later phased out in favour of the baton (or night stick) for both practical and humanitarian reasons.
In the United States, swords with saber blades are worn by Army, Navy, and Coast Guard officers. Marine officers and non-commissioned officers also wear such swords. They are not intended for use as weapons, however, and now serve primarily in ornamental or ceremonial functions.
A derivative of this weapon is used under this name in the Olympic sport of fencing. Ornamental versions of the sabre are sometimes spun and tossed by color guards or majorettes in modern marching bands and drum and bugle corps.