Cossack shashka

Many people (even in Russia) consider the word “shashka” as a synonym of the word “sword” making no distinction between them. In some books on the history of weapons  any Russian cold weapon with a long blade is called shashka.  But these two weapons aren’t the same.  Saber and shashka are curved cold weapons intended first of all for drawing cutting blows.  Sword is the weapon for pricking (thrust) blows. To understand all the difference you need to delve into the history of Russian cossack shashka.

Cossack shashka is a weapon that has a Caucasian origin. The Caucasus has long been inhabited by numerous militant tribes. From an early age a weapon became a companion who accompanied a man all his life. The ability to use it allowed it’s owner to take a higher social level in the community and just save his life. Therefore, the choice of weapon was given the utmost importance.

The Don Cossacks were occupying the borderland between Russia and the Eastern peoples – Caucasians, Turks, Tartars. Till the 19th century the spoils of war were the main source of existence of Don Cossacks. Each Cossack was a warrior, the value of any member of the Cossack community was determined by his fighting qualities. Therefore, the question of a choice of weapons was for the Cossacks no less important than for militant Caucasian tribes. 

Why Russian Cossacks refused the Russian sword in favor of the Caucasian saber?

Russian sword

Image by Evgenij Rabchuk (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s look on the main arguments of supporters of  thrust or pricking weapons — swords. Energy of blow is proportional to the weight and a square of the speed (mv2/2) therefore it is rather simple for moving horseback rider to direct an edge on the opponent to give him a terrible wound.
At the same time it is much more difficult to strike the opponent with cutting blow — put slightly earlier or later, the cutting blow has neither the necessary accuracy, nor force. In addition, the cutting blow requires two separate movements – swing and striking, and a trusting – only one.  During blow the horseback rider opens himself, and holding a sword for a prick — on the contrary, is closed from blows.

Arguments are very convincing, therefore the heavy European cavalry also was generally armed with broadswords. Dragoons and other types of a light cavalry, not to mention artillery servants were armed with swords too.  Since 1711 in Russia broadswords completely forced out sabers. Special cult of swords existed in France, where they were used as duel weapons, and every self-respecting person would have had to learn methods of sword’s fencing. This fashion spread throughout the whole Europe.

All these harmonious reasonings have one weak spot – the Eastern cavalry. After all the East is the cavalry homeland, and in centuries east sabers turned into the ideal weapon where each detail was thought over and checked in practice.

At a small speed in hand-to-hand combat  rider’s sword loses all its advantages, while the speed of the shashka decreases slightly. So all  the Eastern warriors, the main shock force of which was the cavalry, preferred the curved sword.

Thus the choice of a form of the Cossack shashka was caused by practical reasons – in continuous armed clashes the preferable weapon for horseback fights was naturally chosen.

Role of the Shashka in the life of Don Cossack

Cossack shashka

On the 40th day after the birth every cossack boy was clothed into a little armor and a little saber was hitched to his side, after this his father gave him back to his mother with the words “here is a Cossack to you”.

Shashka – the main weapon of the Cossack which has symbolical and almost sacred value for the Russian Cossacks. It was one of the symbols of male Cossack along with nagaika – Cossack whip.

It was handed over to the Cossack by old men in the age of 17 years.

In church during service  shashka should be bared on a half that meant readiness of the Cossack to protect Christianity.

Shashka remained in a family in a visible place. It was transferred from the grandfather to the grandson when “the old man lost forces”.  If Cossack didn’t have male successors, the shashka was  broken in a half and was put in a coffin of the dead. The Cossack could lose a shashka and a hat only together with the head.

Those who didn’t possess all completeness of the rights didn’t dare to carry a shashka.v By the decision of the Circle Kazak could be deprived of the right to bear arms for a certain period of time. The following punishment was to be an exception from the village and the Cossacks.

By the decision of the Cossacks Circle (the meeting of all Cossacks living in the village) the Cossack could be deprived of the right to bear shashka for a certain period of time. The following by severity penalty was expulsion from the Cossacks.