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Old 2nd May 2019, 04:17 AM   #1
shayde78's Avatar
Join Date: Mar 2017
Posts: 227
Default African sickle swords as effective weapons

Digging thru the archives (one such example here) , I've noted that there seems to be a perpetuation of the belief that the sickle swords of some African cultures were unwieldy, impractical weapons. I'm posting this to respectfully disagree.

Some months ago, I picked up the example pictured below. I believe this form is from the Azande and is sometimes called a mambele (although I see that term applied to disparate types). Having this in my hand, I was very struck how impractical it would be if trying to wield it as one would a typical saber/talwar/kilij/etc. Being sharp on the concave edge makes the striking dynamics unfamiliar and awkward (at least for one trained in European-based sport fencing).

However, I found that if one abandons trying to wield this as a typical sword, it reveals itself to be a lethally effective weapon. I know there is also the long held belief that the design is intended to wrap around shields and strike the opponent behind their defensive guard. This may be a slightly possible technique, but it makes more sense against an opponent who doesn't move their shield in response, stands still, and isn't trying to hit you back.

The most effective analogue to employing such a weapon, IMHO, is to treat it more like a war hammer or axe. If one orients their distance and striking angles to utilize the birds-head point as one would an axe head or hammer spike, and the effectiveness of this weapon become clear. The penetrating power would likely inflict much more damage than a slash from the edge. It is almost like a spear head that can be deployed by swinging it in an arc (think the gunstock clubs of N. American Natives that were often fitted with an iron spear point). Potentially deadlier than a sword or spear.

So, why did Africans invest so much steel into creating something that really only needed a few inches of metal mounted to a club? I think the primary reason was prestige. A sword was/is a difficult thing to produce. When one thinks of the various forms of currency that existed in Africa, the prestige of having a large piece of metal as your primary weapon would not be lost on the local cultures.

However, I propose there is a martial benefit, too. At the risk of being a bit too graphic, if one strikes an opponent with the spike of a war hammer, or an axe, or even on of the gunstock clubs described above, the business end will very likely get lodged and require some recovery time to extract and regain use of your weapon. While the person you struck would likely be incapacitated, you would be vulnerable to attack for the seconds needed to recover. For an unarmored (or very lightly armored) African warrior, this could be deadly.

With the shotel or mambele, if you land a blow with the point and it lodges in flesh, the sharpened concave edge allows the attacker to simply yank backward and, in grisly fashion, both quickly recover use of their offensive weapon, but also cause a more serious wound.

Having acquired this weapon, it has reaffirmed for me the belief that if we don't understand something, we probably don't have enough information. While I don't pretend that my limited understanding of the concepts I just espoused are at all authoritative, I do think such musings are warranted when so many folks seem to dismiss the usefulness of certain weapon forms simply because they are unfamiliar. There is a colonial hubris revealed in applying European techniques to non-European weapons and declaring these weapons to be impractical.

I'm happy to hear everyone's thoughts (even if to tell me this is all madness on my part )

So, here's some (sadly blurry) pics of my mambele (if there is another name I should call this, please advise). Also, a page from a fechtbuch depicting the only Black person I have seen in such texts. Probably not a mere coincidence that Paulus Hector Mair depicted him as part of the series of using a sickle in combat.
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