Understanding medieval swords, shields & daggers
Understanding Medieval Arms: Shields, Swords & Daggers
There were probably various types of sword used at Plassey:
- With the introduction of central Asian cavalry warfare into India from the 13th century onward, the Asian curved blade sword became the preferred choice throughout much of India. Called the talwar in India, shamshir in Persia, pulouar in Afghanistan. They developed a distinctive north Indian form of hilt with a disc pommel, itself with regional variations, though the Persian form of hilt with a pistol grip was popular in some areas such as Sind and Lucknow.For Rajput men, their talwar was more than just a sword; it was also the embodiment of their honour, commitment and agency.
- It is not unusual to see this mix of cultures in a single weapon since the talwar became widely distributed in India during the Islamic period and gradually supplanted older forms of sword, especially among the elite. Indeed, the talwar’s influence did not stop at India’s borders. It was swords such as this that inspired the curved cavalry sabre used by the British Army from the 18th century onwards. Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.
- The indigenous Indian sword was called a khanda. It had a straight double-edged blade, usually with a basket hilt with a solid guard protecting the hand.
- From the early 17th century a fashion for carrying swords with European rapier or broadsword blades, usually with old Indian basket hilts grew up. These swords were commonly called firanghi.
The vast majority of medieval and later shields from India are of the same form; circular, sightly convex, and fitted with a central grip formed of two hand loops. They are held by four robust iron loops which are rivetted through the shield and secured by large bosses on the exterior. The two grips are held together in the left hand, rather than having the arm passed through them, so the shield can be moved around to block blows and missles dextrously and rapidly. A fabric suspension loop was often attached to two of the loops so the shield could be slung over the shoulder when not in use. Most shields were of leather, either of buffalo hide or rhinocerous hide, or of steel’. (Royal Armouries, ‘An introduction to Indian Arms and Armour’)
- The katar, with its transverse grip, was unique to India, and was to be found across most of the sub-continent. It was fitted with a wide variety of blades, ranging from narrow wavy blades preferred in the south, to short, straight and broad blades in the north.
- Typically, katars were used in close range hand-to-hand combat, and were effective in piercing armour. The blade was often corrugated for additional strength. “Hooded katars” are katars with a shield extending over the back of the user’s hand. The handle sides were also used to block attacks, since all katars had an “H”-shaped handle. Because of the nature of the weapon, attacks were mainly direct thrusts that would easily pierce the enemies’ armor with a single but strong blow, possible because of the light weight and amazing attack speeds that could be achieved. katars ceased to be in common use in the 19th century.
- The khanjar is the commonest type of dagger, found in a variety of forms across the Muslim world. It has a double-edged and double curved blade, and in India often has a reinforced point to give strength to enable the blade to be used against mail armour. Rock crystal, nephrite (jade) and other hardstones usually form the hilts of these daggers, and they are often carved in the form of animal’s heads, and set with precious and semi-precious stones in gold.
- Found only in the north was the pushqabz, a dagger with a single-edged blade, either straight or double-curved, with a T-shaped back and a long taper to the point, sometimes even reinforced.