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Old 2nd May 2019, 04:17 AM   #1
shayde78
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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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Old 2nd May 2019, 09:03 PM   #2
Jim McDougall
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These are well thought out and well stated observations and most interesting looking back at the discussions linked. In looking back at some of the notes made by Burton in his 1884 "Book of the Sword", he described the shotel or Abyssinian sword as a pretty much useless 'gigantic sickle'. Well known as profoundly Anglocentric and a skilled swordsman, he noted "....such a weapon never belonged to a race of swordsmen" (p.163).

Turning to Christopher Spring, "African Arms & Armor" (1993) , the author describes the ',..western obsession with explaining form by function in the study of African weapons". Here he notes many forms of course and some of the notions and consternation created by writers centered on stories of native savagery and the variety of blades as exotic means of inflicting injury (p.84).

There is attention to the 'sickle' type swords such as the mambele of the Azande of northwest Zaire where J.Vansina ("Paths in the Rain Forests", 1990) describes them as being used to '...hook aside the shields of opponents to make way for fatal spear thrusts".
It seems that the 'shotel' (described by that term by Pearce, 1831) being noted in Spring (p.98) is also claimed to be for hooking over the shield, but having a deeply parabolic double edged blade.

While Spring notes that there is some sort of data available in certain cases of explaining the forms of some African weapons, he notes that the problem with the hooked shield idea is that the warrior would have to drop his own shield to make the spear thrust while also using the sword. I am not sure if the handles in the shield would allow the forearm to hold the shield as well as spear etc.

Still, many of the other analysis of other forms, become almost fanciful in some cases. The most likely explanation for many of the weapons look to the potential as parade weapons and prestige oriented.

It seems that each form must evaluated individually to come to reliable theories, and there will be variations in accord with different tribes who share similar forms.

Excellent topic!
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Old 2nd May 2019, 10:00 PM   #3
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I can't say there is anything I can add here that would really provoke much discourse, but I completely agree with your observations. Just because a sword can't be used in the same way as an olympic fencing foil doesn't make it an "unwieldy ceremonial status-symbol" or whatever. I also like your observation on colonial hubris; I think that's actually the best way of describing the thought process that has resulted in the weapons of entire cultures being deemed as purely ceremonial.

I agree with Jim though that absolutely some forms were for status or parade, however I think most of these "parade forms" are pretty obvious. IMO there's a pretty clear difference between what the intentions behind a standard mambele and say, some kind of abstract, sculptural konda sword were.
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Old 2nd May 2019, 10:54 PM   #4
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Well said Nihl, and the situation with many ceremonial, parade and bearing weapons can at many times be quite obvious, especially with those with abstract character as you have noted.
In many cases however, there are traditional circumstances, such as with the Tuareg and their well known takouba. Though these swords which were historically used as intended are still likely worthy as weapons, but actually as worn in modern times they remain traditional accoutrements . They are of course subordinate to the firearms which have become the weapon of choice.

In much of African tribal history, the primary weapon has always been the spear (as seen with the observations of shield 'hooking' to facilitate spear thrust). However with outside influences, particularly colonial of course, varying types of swords and edged weapons became notably present. In the Congo for example, the native interpretations of Portuguese rapiers were there. Naturally they had no concept of the swordsmanship used with the originals, so of course prestige was the case. An obvious example to be sure, but just to express the kinds of circumstances possibly at hand.
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Old 3rd May 2019, 05:19 PM   #5
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Generally, most of the Sub-Saharan Africa did not have a concept of a " state". Their societal unit was a tribe, and those do not wage serious wars. They might have minor territorial disputes or personal squabbles that were decided in semi- ritual manner, with a lot of dancing, occasional hurling a javelin or two and ending with a couple of scratches, mutual singing and triumphal return to their villages. The purpose was not mass killing, but just an imitation of confrontation with minimal casualties. These occasions did not need special weapons. This is likely why Central African weapons were semi-artistic and woefully inadequate for serious organized fighting.
See examples:

https://www.hamillgallery.com/SITE/Knives.html

General trends of African swords are nicely summarized in that article:

"Knives, axes, currency blades and spears, most made of forged iron, attest to the skills in metal of the blacksmiths of many traditional African peoples. Most exhibit an inventive variety of form and workmanship far beyond what was functionally necessary. Some functioned as weapons. Many , however, were solely for ceremonial or ritual use, or displayed for prestige or status. The largest selections also served as currency, with forms made in the style of weapons, but not functional."

I can imagine 3 events that introduced changes in this : Islamic influence ( slavetrader parties, mostly to the East); European colonization and trade ( see mass presence of firearms in the Kingdom of Dahomey, an important source of slave trading to the West); and the most astonishing one, - Chaka. He converted the nation of Zulu into a real state, with organized military, development of battle order and conversion of a javelin into a stabbing spear-sword. Conduct of Real War required serious killing and truly effective bladed weapons.
If anybody here can recall additional factors, please feel free to add them to the list.
All of the above circumstances resulted in virtual disappearance of old fanciful and engineeringly incompetent swords and streamlining them into deadly fighting implements, true implements of Real War.
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Old 3rd May 2019, 06:15 PM   #6
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Shaka effectively reinvented the Roman legion and the gladius. He steamrollered over all the dancing posers of the surrounding tribes, At least until he and his descendants came up against the muskets of the europeans.

I posted this earlier: The video referenced appears applicable to the posts above.

http://www.vikingsword.com/vb/showthread.php?t=19202&
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Old 6th May 2019, 12:56 PM   #7
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Shaka's successful imperialism wasn't the result of weapons - weapons rarely make the difference in war when neighbours fight each other. The credit should go to discipline and organisation (both on and off the battlefield). Same for the Romans - they didn't win wars due to using sword and shield, but due to discipline and organisation (and numbers and industrial capacity (e.g., building fleets on demand)).

Thrusting spears were around in Africa long before Shaka. Shields were around long before Shaka.

IMO, "engineeringly incompetent" isn't an accurate description of swords with effective cutting edges, often effective thrusting points, and weight, balance, and length that make them easily usable weapons. If they have an unusual stereotypical appearance, but will effectively cut (and sometimes thrust), they appear to be engineered well enough. Often, they have ergonomic grips, blade cross-sections that give good stiffness for low weight, very effective cutting cross-sections, and features such as forward curved tips (e.g., sickle swords as in the OP) and pointy bits (e.g., flared-tip Konda swords) that will give fearsomely effective penetration on a cut. They no more deserve being labelled non-functional due to their appearance than exotic-to-European-eyes weapons like the kukri, kora, kampilan, and kris.
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Old 6th May 2019, 02:24 PM   #8
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Interesting elucidation, which does make a good point, although I am not sure who or where the notion of Shaka's imperial success being based on weapon(s) came from. As far as I have understood, the success of the Zulu nation militarily was enhanced through Shaka's attention to organization and tactics and the proper use of the weapons already extant.

The assegai (iklwa) was a shorter stabbing spear which Shaka insisted be used in contact combat over the use of throwing spears (which were still used but only prior to direct attack). The shield was of course known, but improved by Shaka by being made larger and used tactically in a more combative manner (hooking opponent shield aside for fatal assegai thrust).

While Shaka was long gone by the time of Isandlwana (1879), Cetshwayo the Zulu king effectively carried forth the methods and battle order of Shaka, though finally defeated.

There have been many perceptions of 'exotic' weaponry in European view, but certainly as pointed out, many 'unusual' in appearance have proven to be quite deadly in instances of actual use. Obviously the kukri has been proven incredibly so of course through the almost legendary exploits of the Gurkhas, and the kora, kampilan and keris have been deemed effective as well.

In actuality, the question of actual use combatively of many weapons which are seen as unwieldy, and ineffective when gauged by either western or other perspectives is not likely to be 100% accurate. It is well known that many of these African edged weapons are indeed used ceremonially, and perhaps these versions derive from forms which were indeed used combatively in some less exaggerated or embellished form.
However, it is also the case that many such edged weapons forms have become relatively inert traditionally held arms, such as bearing swords, dress and parade swords, and ceremonial accoutrements.

While these types of weapons are not considered battle worthy in many cases, virtually any weapon can become one of opportunity or necessity in the right circumstances. Even the much contended Omani dance sa'if was noted as being 'razor sharp' , yet with its relatively flimsy blade, would render it hopelessly uncombative, but could certainly badly wound if the situation warranted.
In another discussion I mentioned the Kabyle flyssa of Algerian Berber regions, and that its long, terribly balanced blade with needle point, has never been accurately accounted as far as its actual use. The open hilt without guard offers little in supporting use of this blade in a thrust, nor can this seemingly be used in a swinging cut for slashing. Obviously those of this form smaller (they are in range of sizes) may be more effective, but most of length seem unlikely for combat use. Still, as noted, the deadly prospects of sharp blade and needle point as well as hefty blade weight could be seen as possibly usable as a weapon.

I think it is necessary to consider these many types of African edged weapons pretty much individually rather than with a broad brush. There are some that are most surely ceremonial alone, but it would be interesting to look into their source or symbolism in learning if earlier actual weapons influenced their use.

Returning to the native tribes of Africa and their warfare, I agree that their systems of conflict were based more on intertribal 'negotiation' and limited contest rather than pitched battles and war. As well noted, tribes were allied confederations in many cases or smaller groups, all maintaining a degree of autonomy. One of the primary goals in many cases in addition to situations of internecine dispute was captive taking, which led into the commerce of slaving. Outright killing in battle was not conducive to these goals obviously, so aside from limited combat in raids, or other incidental cases, there was not a need for heavily armed forces. This may be why the spear was traditionally the primary weapon of African tribal peoples where these other edged weapon forms came into being in more recent times through the many outside influences.

Att: Zulu tribesman with 'assegai' from "The Lure of Africa" C.H. Patton
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Last edited by Jim McDougall : 6th May 2019 at 02:40 PM.
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Old 6th May 2019, 04:26 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Timo Nieminen
Shaka's successful imperialism wasn't the result of weapons - weapons rarely make the difference in war when neighbours fight each other. The credit should go to discipline and organisation (both on and off the battlefield).


Chaka's " successful imperialism" did, in fact, result from the modification of the throwing assegai into a stabbing Iklwa. It changed the entire tactic of the confrontation, allowing coordinated face-to-face contact and converting ritualistic hurling of solitary assegais from a distance with extremely low probability of any damage to the opponent into a dedicated mass murder.
In this he ( likely unknowingly) reproduced the Roman tactic: tightly organized legion moving inexorably forward and performing non-stop deathly stabbing.

Yes, stabbing spears were present in other African societies, but it was Chaka who conceptualized their use on a mass scale and integrated them into his vision of a novel military force dedicated to a total war.



In this Chaka was not alone: Mongols of Chingiz Khan devastated Russian and later East-Central European armies with new tactics based on the softening of the opposing force by rapid feighned cavalry assaults, false withdrawals, and tight communications between units. For that they used powerful bows and arrows and light sabers to slaughter disorganized and separated enemies. That was how Subedei and Jebe with 20,000 cavalrymen utterly annihilated 120,000-strong Russian army at Kalka river and, later on, the flower of European knighthood at Legnica.

And, yes, Ngombe/Ngulu beheading swords and the like could inflict damage, but they were not optimized for any stabbing or cutting function and, from the engineering point of view, their artistic/ ritualistic construction severely impaired their functional performance.

Every successful military requires a concept of the battle order and provision of the most appropriate weapons. Deliberately artistic configuration of the blades only gets in the way.

And you are correct: a conflict between neighbors does not require tactics and weapons optimized for killing. After all, each tribe will end up with its own territory and will continue to be autonomous. Former opponents will continue to co-exist. Things change when your goal is to acquire their territory and subjugate their population. This requires a lot of blood and gore. Chaka understood it.

Last edited by ariel : 6th May 2019 at 04:39 PM.
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Old 6th May 2019, 08:44 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ariel
Chaka's " successful imperialism" did, in fact, result from the modification of the throwing assegai into a stabbing Iklwa. It changed the entire tactic of the confrontation, allowing coordinated face-to-face contact and converting ritualistic hurling of solitary assegais from a distance with extremely low probability of any damage to the opponent into a dedicated mass murder.
In this he ( likely unknowingly) reproduced the Roman tactic: tightly organized legion moving inexorably forward and performing non-stop deathly stabbing.

Yes, stabbing spears were present in other African societies, but it was Chaka who conceptualized their use on a mass scale and integrated them into his vision of a novel military force dedicated to a total war.



In this Chaka was not alone: Mongols of Chingiz Khan devastated Russian and later East-Central European armies with new tactics based on the softening of the opposing force by rapid feighned cavalry assaults, false withdrawals, and tight communications between units. For that they used powerful bows and arrows and light sabers to slaughter disorganized and separated enemies. That was how Subedei and Jebe with 20,000 cavalrymen utterly annihilated 120,000-strong Russian army at Kalka river and, later on, the flower of European knighthood at Legnica.

And, yes, Ngombe/Ngulu beheading swords and the like could inflict damage, but they were not optimized for any stabbing or cutting function and, from the engineering point of view, their artistic/ ritualistic construction severely impaired their functional performance.

Every successful military requires a concept of the battle order and provision of the most appropriate weapons. Deliberately artistic configuration of the blades only gets in the way.

And you are correct: a conflict between neighbors does not require tactics and weapons optimized for killing. After all, each tribe will end up with its own territory and will continue to be autonomous. Former opponents will continue to co-exist. Things change when your goal is to acquire their territory and subjugate their population. This requires a lot of blood and gore. Chaka understood it.




VERY well said Ariel, and really brings better perspective to understanding the character of these aspects of African tribal warfare . From what I have read concerning Chaka, while may not have 'invented' the shorter version of the assegai, he certainly promoted its use and the 'methods of engagement'
including the tactical 'bull horn' formation which in turn made his military formidable and indeed successful.

Returning to our topic on the actual effectiveness of African sickle swords as weapons, and by association other African tribal edged weapons, again, I think individual examination of select forms is best.
In my opinion these 'sickle swords were effective as weapons, but perhaps not necessarily in the manner often suggested, by hooking the shields of opponents.
However, it is interesting as we discussed Chaka, that he also enlarged the Nguni form of shield ( 'modification' just as with assegai) with which he trained the warriors to use the shield to 'hook' or pull the opponent shield aside for fatal assegai thrust to ribs. It would seem that the compromising of opponents shields was a known combat maneuver in African warfare here, so perhaps known in other regions as well.
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Old 7th May 2019, 06:16 AM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ariel
In this he ( likely unknowingly) reproduced the Roman tactic: tightly organized legion moving inexorably forward and performing non-stop deathly stabbing.


As I said, discipline and organisation. Everybody in the region used shields and spears, and one can implement this same tactic with a multi-purpose throwing/thrusting spear (or with a variety of designs of thrusting spear). If Shaka's enemies had thought that the short thrusting spear was the key to his victories and adopted it (without the discipline and organisation), they would have lost just as badly, if not worse.

Quote:
Originally Posted by ariel
In this Chaka was not alone: Mongols of Chingiz Khan devastated Russian and later East-Central European armies with new tactics based on the softening of the opposing force by rapid feighned cavalry assaults, false withdrawals, and tight communications between units. For that they used powerful bows and arrows and light sabers to slaughter disorganized and separated enemies. That was how Subedei and Jebe with 20,000 cavalrymen utterly annihilated 120,000-strong Russian army at Kalka river and, later on, the flower of European knighthood at Legnica.


The sabre had been around for centuries. The composite bow had existed for over two millennia. Feigned withdrawals, and many of the other tactics the Mongols used were old and well-known steppe tactics. The elements of the Mongol military system that weren't just the usual steppe military system were largely adopted from the Khitans. There were no revolutionary changes or advances in weapons and tactics that enabled Mongol success.

Indeed, tactically the Mongols often only performed comparably with their enemies. Where they excelled was at the operational level, consistently fighting favourable battles, bypassing strongpoints, and achieving surprise. This achievement didn't depend on weapons, but on disciple and organisation. Part of that was good communications, which was achieved through existing technology (couriers on horseback) and organisation.

Quote:
Originally Posted by ariel
And, yes, Ngombe/Ngulu beheading swords and the like could inflict damage, but they were not optimized for any stabbing or cutting function and, from the engineering point of view, their artistic/ ritualistic construction severely impaired their functional performance.


Consider the attached photos of two Congo swords. These are, IMO, quite typical Congo swords. Both show stereotypical design with prominent artistic elements. How do these artistic elements severely impair their performance? How is the function of the sickle sword in the OP severely impaired?

It's true that there are many African weapons that are purely ritual/ceremonial. In my experience, these are a small minority of the weapons, and in any case are militarily irrelevant since they're not fighting weapons.

Quote:
Originally Posted by ariel
And you are correct: a conflict between neighbors does not require tactics and weapons optimized for killing.


You misunderstand. Neighbours (especially pre-industrial neighbours) are generally at similar levels of technology, and have access to the same or similar weapons. The main advantage of one neighbour over the other comes from organisation, numbers, or economics, not weapons.

Non-neighbours such as colonial European powers often had a major advantage due to weapons, which local powers could not always match due to their inability to manufacture similar weapons. An advantage in weapons, especially at the level of modern rifles vs muzzle-loader, bow, and spear, can make a difference (and was typically accompanied by an advantage in discipline and organisation, which made things even worse). Weapons can make a difference. Menelik II was wise to buy modern rifles as quickly as he could.
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Old 8th May 2019, 03:05 AM   #12
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Timo,
There is no disagreement between us: both “organization” ( in a larger sense of the word) of the military as well as the weapons at its disposal are important. My point is that they mutually influence each other and should be compatible to be fully effective in their common goal: the “ways”( tactic) and “means” (instrument).
Inverting your example of assegais used as stabbing weapons without proper organizing principle one can imagine what would have happened had Chaka’s Impis , properly deployed and trained, used their iklwas as hurling weapons from a conventional distance :-) The whole idea was to make spears utterly unusable as hurling implements, to force the fighters to engage in the face-to- face confrontation. For that, spear heads had to become massive to inflict maximal damage and the shafts short enough to make them unusable for hurling, in fact converting a traditional assegai to a stabbing sword analogous of gladius.


Thus, only a marriage of trained Impis with a weapon suitable for their optimal function could assure final success.

In modern times tanks, initially imagined as self-propelled movable cannons/ machine guns, mutated into highly mobile analogs of heavy cavalrymen capable of converting static trench defense into dynamic attack force. Again, a revolutionary idea of aggressive maneuverability coupled to a proper instrument.
Six foot tall English bows would be unsuitable for Mongolian light cavalry, but the absence of its mobile tactic would be equally unsatisfactory despite massive use of long distance nomadic bows.


In different circumstances the primacy of the chicken vs. the egg could be switched: sometimes the ways dictated the means, sometimes vice versa. But the general principle of their mutual compatibility remained inviolable.
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