North Caucasian Weapons
     The History Museum in Moscow has a large collection of weaponry of the mountaineer peoples of the North-Western Caucasus and Daghestan.
    The making of weapons, associated first of all with their military organisation, was a time-honoured occupation among the hill men. Every male between the age of 20 to 60 was regarded as a warrior expected to answer a summons fully armed. As a rule, every warrior was expected to acquire armour and weaponry; the poor were assisted by the community. In addition, the feudal rulers maintained a standing host of professional men of arms.

     The weaponry of the Caucasian hill men traditionally consisted of defensive armour - shirt of mail, a helmet and armlets, and offensive weapons - a bow and arrows, a spear, dart, sabre and dagger. When the fire-arms became widespread in the 18th century, the bow and arrows, the gun and the defensive armour coexisted for some time. As time went on, fire-arms replaced the bow and arrows while the defensive armour, which afforded no protection against bullets, was discarded. Beginning from the second half of the 18th century the armament of a Hillman consisted of a gun, pistol, sabre or cavalry sword and a dagger.

    Surviving specimens of ancient Caucasian weapons are very few. Archaeologists find ancient swords, sabres and daggers manufactured before the 16th century. A few Circassian blades and shirts of mail come down to us from the 16th - 17th centuries, and they are kept in the Kremlin's Armoury. 18th century cold steel and even that of the first half of the 19th century are great rarities. This is quite understandable- such weapons were heavily used, were subjected to wear and tear, got broken, and since the initial materials were in short supply, weaponry out of repair was never discarded but was forged and hammered into new weapons. Much greater is the number of surviving cavalry swords of the late 19th century and still greater is that of late 19th and early 20th century daggers. There is quite a number of fire-arms - captured as trophies during the Caucasian war they were never used again and are preserved better than the cavalry swords and sabres.

    The History Museum collection contains diverse types of mountaineer weaponry and accoutrements: helmets and elbow guards, bows and arrows, quivers and bow cases, guns and pistols, breast cartridges and powder flasks, sabres and cavalry swords and daggers.


    This is the home of related Adighe peoples - the Kabardians, the Circassians and Adighes, all of them formerly called Circassians. The Adighe peoples had from ancient times the highly developed skills of making and adorning weapons. This was noted by all foreigners who hod visited Circassia in the 15th - 19th centuries. Some of the weapons were home-made - arrows, spearheads and gunpowder. More sopphisticated articles were made by professional armourers. There were no large armour manufacturing centres in Circassia - all demand were met by two or three armourers working in each village.


Defensive Armour

     Circassian defensive armour was of the general Caucasian type, consisting of a helmet, shirt of mail, elbow guards and gauntlets.

     The tall conic iron helmet was riveted of two halves and modestly decorated with a few silver or even iron plates engraved in niello or gilt with very moderate ornamentation. It is these ornamental curlicues in the shape of a comma that make it possible to identify a Circassian helmet. Occasionally the armourer would engrave his name and the date of manufacture on it. Quite a series of such helmets were mode in the 1780s, as follows from inscriptions on them, by the armourer Ali, son of Haji Bek. A ring on the crest served for attaching a red morocco flag edged with galloon and ornamentally embroidered. A pendent mail neck guard protects half the face, descending at the sides and behind onto the shoulders above the shirt of mail and secured with a hook in front. In addition to tall helmets, low ones were used with a similar long mail neck guard.

    A warrior's body was protected by a hauberk - a shirt woven from metal rings. One ring as a rule was interlinked with four neighbouring ones. The hauberk had two cuts: one at the collar for the head and the other at the hem for unimpeded walking. Rawhide leather straps were interwoven into the collar to stiffen it for better protection of the neck. The collar hooks were frequently adorned with nielloed silver. The hauberk of a foot soldier was longer than that of a horseman. A medium-sized shirt of mail contained 20 to 25 thousand rings. Distinguished among the coats of mail were those in which the rings were made of wire with a round section and those with a flattened section. Kabardian hauberks won great fame and were bought for the Persian shah; in the 16th century the Turks exacted tribute from the Circassians in humans, horses and hauberks. Kabardian armourers worked in the Russian city of Astrakhan in the 1660s and were eventually transferred to Moscow.

    Armlets and elbow guards protected the arm against blows by the blade. These are plates secured to the arms by means of other two small plates, mail rings and clasps. The surfaces of armlets were at times adorned with engraving or gilt inscriptions.

    The warrior's equipment included also gauntlets of red or black morocco with lengths of mail attached and leather bands for securing to the hand. The gauntlets were made by women who adorned them with galloon woven from gold or silver threads. Curved horns, a typical Circassian ornamental motif, were embroidered in the middle of the gauntlet.

Cold Steel

    The Museum has a large collection of Circassian sabres, made at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries, which were found during excavations of the Belaya Rechka burial mounds near Maikop. A remarkable feature is the bayonet-shaped tip intended in all probability for piercing the shirt of mail. The Historical Museum collection boosts a very rare blade manufactured in all probability in the 16th or 17th century, also with a bayonet tip; a damaskeen gold inscription says: "Worked by Hussein". Blades of this type are kept also in the Armoury and a 1687 inventory designates them as "Circassian". They may have been made by Kabardian armourers who worked of first in Astrakhan, and since 1661 - in Moscow, transferred there "as damask steelmakers of the highest order".

    It was probably in the 17th century that the Adighes developed a new kind of cavalry sword - the "shashka", which means "long knife". This weapon differs from the sabre: it has no cross-guard for protecting the hand and the blade is sunk into the scabbard to the very top of the hilt. The cavalry sword was worn with its cutting edge upwards and the blade was withdrawn from the scabbard right in front, without the arm sweeping to the right.

    The cavalry sword blade is much shorter than the sabre: the length of a sabre blade with a bayonet tip is 104-114 cm, of the cavalry sword - 75 cm. The cavalry sword blade curves very slightly. West European blades, imported into Circassia through Black Sea ports for several centuries were used for making cavalry swords. Particularly popular were the Genoese "gourd", the Solingen "top", and the "Transylvanian knot" and "hussar" of Hungary. We can see these symbols on cavalry swords of the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of them are old genuine blades, others are copies made by local armourers; and still others are products of the Solingen factories which in the 19th century  made blades specially for the Caucasus bearing images popular there.

    Cavalry sword hilts were made of horn or silver. The hilt beads were rounded with a wedge-shaped notch at the top.

     All foreigners who visited Circassia in the 15th-19th centuries noted the extremely elegant silver finish of the weapons. A special niello alloy composed of silver, copper, lead and sulphur was used for adorning the silver hilts of cavalry swords, daggers and scabbard plates. Niello on silver resulted in very original ornamentation.

     Scabbards and sheaths were made by women of the home for the warriors of their family. Two wooden planks cut to fit the blade were covered with green leather and then tightly sheathed in a velvet easing adorned with galloon laces. These velvet attachments were secured with small nielloed plates. Girdles and yokes were made also of silver.

    The cavalry sword was suspended on a shoulder strap made of galloon or leather, its individual parts fastened with buckles. Silver was in short supply and was used very sparingly.

    The "shashka" cavalry sword became so popular that it completely ousted the sabre; at any rate no Circassian sabres of the 19th century have been found.

     The collection of the History Museum contains the earliest dated cavalry sword bearing the year 1713 on its blade. The blade is of West European origin and the hilt is made of black horn. An interesting cavalry sword in the History Museum collection is dated 1857. It has an elegant narrow blade and the hilt is adorned with engraving, niello and gilt - a characteristic Circassian ornament of rings and semi-ovals, and horn- like curlicues, garlands of leaves shaped like commas. The grip of the hilt features slanting stripes drawn with a sharp tool against a zigzagging background - a technique characteristic of the Circassians.

    There are very few surviving Circassian daggers: unlike sabres and cavalry swords, they were not regarded as treasured weapons handed down from the ancestors: they were simply personal effects which were occasionally used even for domestic purposes. Broken and spoilt, they were forged into new ones. Daghestan craftsmen, who appeared in the Western Caucasus in the 1870s, produced the greater part of the surviving daggers. The Museum preserves an interesting dagger of Circassian work of the first half of the 19th century with niello ornamentation and an old type hilt, and also an early 20th century dagger adorned with large granules, very much in vogue in the Western Caucasus at the time.

Projectile Weapons
   Very few projectile weapons - bows and arrows - have survived. Caucasian bows belong to the composite ones, i.e. made from horn, cooked sinews and wood glued together. The horn was on the inner side of the bow and ensured strong tension. The cooked animal sinews attached with fish glue along the horn made the bow more springy; a fine layer of wood made up the external side. The lips to which the bowstring was attached were made of bone. The wooden side of the bow was covered in black leather adorned with gold starlets. Arrows were made in the home. A 15th century writer informs us that all the Circassians, not excepting the nobles, made arrows for themselves daily, and that those arrows had a long range and excellently tempered heads. Women made the cases for the bows and arrows - bow cases end quivers, of red or black morocco trimmed at the edges with strips of coloured leather or galloon.

    Bows and arrows were still widely used, along with fire-arms, in the 18th century. Circassian arrows were purchased by the Tatars and Nogais in quantities amounting to about 300,000 annually.

    Fire-arms have been known in the Northern Caucasus since the 16th century, but become widespread only in the 18th century,  coexisting for some time with bows and arrows. Guns were brought from the Crimea and Daghestan (Kubachi) and were also made locally. Guns with faceted barrels and a Turkish inscription "tested" and dated    the late 18th and early 19th centuries are probably of Crimean origin. These guns have long and narrow butts, lined with leather and almost unadorned. Guns made by local gunsmiths have heavier barrels with silver yokes and plates on the stocks adorned with Circassian ornaments.

    Museums in Moscow and Leningrad preserve Circassian pistols, some of them dated the 1840s and 1850s, i.e. the time of the Caucasian war when arms manufacture went on at a particularly high rate. They are fitted with flint-locks of the Turkish type. The barrels are occasionally adorned with gold chasing. The stocks are lined with black leather, the handle terminates in a bone sphere frequently with silver side plates. The yokes and plates were made of silver and adorned with engraving and niello ornamentation. There occur some highly ornamental pistols whose stocks are made entirely of ivory with silver inlay.

    Fire-arms required special accessories. Measured gunpowder charges were kept in wooden tubes carried in special pockets on the breast of the cherkesska, the distinctive Circassian tunic. The projecting tops of the tubes were closed with ornamented silver caps. High quality gunpowder to be placed in the pan of the flint-lock was kept in powder-flasks made of wood, horn or bone and adorned with silver plates. Pistols were carried in leather holsters. The holsters, like all kinds of casings, were made by the women; they were embroidered with gold and silver thread or decorated with fabric woven of gold and silver. Holsters were frequently made without a bottom to accommodate pistols of any length.


    Many objects are associated with the harness. Horsebreeding was particularly widespread in Kabarda where bigwig feudal lords had excellent stud farms. Each stud farm had its own branding iron, damighe, to brand its horses. Circassian thoroughbreds were sold to other parts of the North Caucasus, to Georgia, Russia, the Crimea, Lithuania and Poland. The price of a Kabarda thoroughbred horse in the Crimea was 25 times that of a local animal.

    The making of saddles and other furnishings for saddle horses was an important activity of Circassian handicrafts. Four craftsmen took part: the saddletree-maker made the wooden frame; the saddler covered it with leather and made all the straps and harness and the padding; the blacksmith made all the iron parts and the stirrups; the silversmith provided all the silver decorations. The harness was made of black rawhide straps and adorned with round buckles, engraved, nielloed or gilt. A common ornamental motif was the family cattle branding iron - the damighe. Caucasian saddles are high, lined with red or black morocco, and padded with down. They were occasionally adorned with large ornamented silver plates. Round iron stirrups were painted red or black. Caucasians never used spurs, controlling the horse by means of small riding crops adorned with galloon and silver capped at the top and bottom. Carried on the lip of the loop was a leather or felt pennant embroidered with curlicues and trimmed with a silver thread. Women adorned the riding crops with galloon and embroidered the pennants.


    If you ask for the place in the Caucasus where the best weapons were made the invariable answer would be - Daghestan. Indeed, Daghestan was famous for its weaponry for beyond the boundaries of the Caucasus - in Russia, Iran, Turkey. Many villages were engaged in weapons manufacture, but the greater part were made in large specialised centres.

Defensive Armour

    Just as with the Circassians, the defensive armour of the Daghestan people consisted of a hauberk, helmet and elbow guards. The making of armour was one of the ancient crafts in Daghestan. In the 7th century A.D. the village of Kubachi was called "Zirekhgeran" which in Persian means "makers of mail shirts". The word "Kubachi" is Turkic and gives the the same meaning. Later on the manufacture of armour continued
both of Kubachi and in other Daghestani villages; in the 18th century chain-mail was part of the armament of Daghestani warriors. At times, the wearing of a hauberk was combined with the use of bows and arrows and sometimes with fire-arms. Chain-mail was made at Kubachi till 1830. The History Museum preserves several Daghestani helmets and shirts of mail which are tentatively dated back to the 18th century.

Cold Steel

     Daghestan always made a great number of cold steel. In many villages it was made by local armourers and silversmiths, but there existed in addition specialised centres - the villages of Kubachi, Amuzghi, Kazanishche, Kumukh, to name but a few. Sabres, cavalry swords and daggers were made in Daghestan. Sabres had been in use from time immemorial, while "shashka" cavalry swords spread here from the Western Caucasus evidently in the early 19th century. Earlier dated blades were not used at all on Daghestani cavalry swords. After forceful incorporation of Daghestan in 1859, the making of sabres and cavalry swords by the local population dropped as they were needed only by those who joined Russian military service. But new customers appeared: the Cossacks of the Terek host were obliged to sport Caucasian cold steel in local trimmings; the Cossacks of the Kuban host ordered blades from Caucasian armourers. The output of daggers increased - they were now worn by both the local popullation and the Cossacks.

    The villages of Kubachi and Amuzghi were major cold steel manufacturing centres. The making of cold steel at Kubachi was reported back in the 10th century by an Arabian writer, and all the Russians who visited Kubachi in the 18th century also noted this production. In the 19th century there was division of labour between the armourers of Kubachi and the neighbouring village of Amuzghi: while the latter produced the blades, the former made the hilts, scabbards and decorations.

    All men, women and children took part in making blades at Amuzghi. They were capable of producing blades to any taste - the West European type with appropriate trade marks and inscriptions, and the Persian type; blades of their own Amuzghi type were also made. Preserved at the Historical Museum are numerous weapons with Amuzghi blades adorned with floral ornament, the image of a warrior on horse-back, a foot soldier or the portrait of Shamil. There is a two-pronged blade, so-called Zulfakar, which, legend has it, belonged to Caliph Ali. The inscription "there is no hero but Ali, and there is no sabre but Zulfakar", is frequently found on such weapons. A genuine Zulfakar is bifurcated at the tip of the blade like a swallow's tail, while 19th century armourers forged it from two parallel halves. Such a blade was, of course, unsuitable for battle, but looked quite formidable. The completed blades were transferred to Kubachi where they were adorned and fitted with a hilt and scabbard. Different materials were used, not infrequently burnished iron. It was intaglioed with an elegant composition of twigs, leaves and flowers and then fine gold or silver wire was hammered into the grooves and flattened out. The surface of the wire was frequently engraved. Hilts were made of bone and horn, bone and horn plates were inserted into openings cut in the scabbards. Bone and horn were also adorned with gold inlay. These Kubachi articles enjoyed great fame. The workmanship was of such high quality that the wire never fell out.

    Another material used for adorning the hilt and scabbard was silver. Silver was engraved and nielloed. In the first half of the 19th century engraving was not very deep and the design was large. Towards the end of the century deep engraving come increasingly into fashion. According to a Kubachi engraver, the engraving should be such that one could well hold on to the ornament. The Kubachi engravers describe such deep engraving as chasing. The articles are adorned with the famous Kubachi ornament consisting of stems, twigs, leaves and flower beads arranged symmetrically (called in those days "twig", or "tutta" in the Kubachi dialect), or in the shape of a spiral ("thicket", or "markharai"). Towards the end of the 19th century the ornament become finer but of a stricter composition and more intricate. The Kubachi engravers began to use new materials, for example, coloured enamel. Articles presenting a combination of engraving, niello, gilt and enamel appeared. Silver, formerly used sparingly, was now used liberally. Sometimes the scabbards of daggers and cavalry swords were made all silver. Such articles were very highly valued. Not infrequently one finds on them donatory inscriptions indicating that they were made to order as presents to officers to mark jubilees and other occasions. The bulk of the Kubachi output at the turn of the 20th century were daggers. Depending on the wish and taste of the customer, they were made in different sizes: the Daghestanis were fond of large daggers, while the West Caucasians preferred small ones with narrow elegant blades.


    The villagers of this settlement were engaged in armour making. Kazanishche daggers were sold to Russia and to local people. One Daghestani scholar describing his youth (the 1850s) recalled that young people of his home village regarded a Kazanishche dagger as a weapon of special pride, as something of a show-off piece. Many good armourers worked at Kazanishche but specially famed were a grandfather and grandson with the same name of Bazalai. Their daggers were so popular
that some other armourers counterfeited the trade mark "Bazalai" on their blades still during their lifetime. The Historical Museum has two blades that may be regarded as genuine articles worked by Bazalai the Grandson.


    Metal-working crafts such as weapon-making, silver-working, the production of brass utensils, etc., began to rapidly develop in this and other villages of the Kazi-Kumukh district of Daghestan in the 1860s. The craftsmen had to seek customers outside their district and they migrated in large numbers to the towns and villages of the North-Western and Central Caucasus, to Transcaucasia and the towns of Southern Russia.

    Contemporaries regarded the work of Lakh silversmiths as the best in the Caucasus (the Lakhs were the people who populated the district). The armourers and silversmiths made and adorned cavalry swords, daggers, belts and firearms. Their favourite decorating technique was deep engraving with niello and gilt. Filigree work was used less commonly. The most widespread ornaments are "kuradar" and "murkh" which corresponded to the Kubachi "markharai" and "tutta". Other types of ornament were also employed. Quite original is the ornamentation of a sabre by the armourer Rusul of Kazi-Kumukh. It consists of symmetrically and fancifully shaped leaves, buds and rosettes entwined into a pattern of duck heads. An attractive ornament of small rosettes adorns a dagger and pistol.

Avar Armourers

    The Avar districts did not have such major centres as Kubachi or Kumukh nor such a number of craftsmen. As a rule an Avar village had two or three craftsmen, or at any rate no more than five or six. They worked to custom or sold their wares of the large markets in Daghestan. Foremost among the wares of Avar craftsmen were women's ornaments, weapons being secondary. Perhaps because the Avar craftsmen did not engage in the mass production of weapons, they were able to avoid the
clichés and standards characteristic of part of the Kubachi and Lakh weaponry.

    The History Museum has gathered a good collection of Avar weapons. The oldest exhibit is a sabre that can be dated to the early 19th century. It is adorned with deep engraving, almost without niello. The Avar craftsmen, it must be said, used less niello than the Kubachi or Lakh armourers. Many articles have been acquired in the villages where they were manufactured. A dagger worked by the armourer Mahomed of the village of Gotsatlya, dated 1910, has a somewhat unusual ornament of symmetrical, elongated, entwined stems. Other daggers were made by the armourers Said from the village of Karonai and Iskhak.

    Severe pattern, perfect detail, clear-cut ornament and a good feeling for background distinguish the Aver wares.

    The Daghestanis were able to adapt the styles of other Caucasian peoples. Particularly widespread was the Circassian style. The History Museum preserves cavalry swords worked in this style by Kubachi, Lakh and Avar armourers who at times introduced their own Daghestani
elements in the Circassian ornament and in other cases executed it in the purely Circassian style. Daghestani work can be distinguished from Circassian only by the method of working the background: the Circassians adorned it with small zigzags, while the Daghestanis covered it
with dots.

    Many men's belts were mode in Daghestan which could also be used as shoulder straps for swords and daggers. The belts were made of narrow rawhide straps adorned with silver buckles. Formally each buckle had its own purpose - it joined the shoulder straps together, later the buckles turned into pure decoration. Small silver imitations of pistols and revolvers, of cartridge belts, etc., began to be made and attached to a belt where once real weapons were worn.


   The manufacture of fire-arms began in Daghestan in all probability in the second half of the 17th century. In the first quarter of the 18th century they became the main type of weapon for many peoples of Daghestan. They were manufactured in several villages, the largest centres being the villages of Kharbuk and Kubachi.

Kharbuk and Kubachi

    The village of Kharbuk specialised in the making of barrels. It took three armourers to produce a barrel. One did the rough forging offer which he handed over the barrel for rifling and finishing. The ready-made barrel was sent to Kubachi where they were adorned with gold damascening. The Kubachi craftsmen also made the lock, all the small parts and the stock, and assembled the gun. The silversmiths made all the silver parts and ornamented them with engraving and niello. According to eyewitness accounts, hundreds of manufactured guns were exported from the Kubachi village in the 1880s to other villages of Daghestan. Flint guns continued to be made and used for so long for fear of uprisings. the sale of modern guns and pistols to the Daghestanis was prohibited. Nevertheless, towards the end of the 19th century the manufacture of flint-lock weapons somewhat declined.

    The History Museum preserves Kubachi guns and pistols, both sumptuously decorated and plain ones. One gun was in all probability manufactured for an exhibition - it is very long with rifling extending to only one centimetre from the muzzle, with an ornamental pattern characteristic of the first half of the 19th century. Occasionally the entire gunstock was covered with ornamental silver plates. Very rare are double-barrel hunting guns - they were commissioned by wealthy customers.

    Kubachi pistols of the early and mid-19th century are massive weapons with a pear-like handle. The barrels manufactured at Kharbuk are adorned with an ornament in the shape of an arch covered with gold damascening. The stock could be unadorned but covered entirely with silver plates. Gold damascening over bone, and silver and gold damascening on iron began to be used in the late 19th century. The Kubachi armourers also rnanufactured many accessories that went along with firearms - powder flasks, cartridge tubes and cartridge belts.

    The time has long passed when Caucasian guns and pistols, daggers and cavalry swords were used for war. Today we look upon them as remarkable monuments of folk art, as testimony of the remarkable skills of Caucasian armourers, as exhibits enjoyed by visitors to museums and exhibitions.