License to kill: Sabers and saber-tooths

There are few things as exciting as the clash of blades. The sound of steel on steel, the feel of stopping the momentum of your opponent’s blade, the thrill of turning that momentum back on him or her, and the joy of connecting blade to foe. Because these are just practice weapons, there is also the joy of getting together and cooking afterwards.

Modern competition fencing has evolved over several centuries from the traditions of Western Europe. Its current iteration emphasizes the intent and equipment of the 19th century. By the 19th century, bladed weapons were on their way out as practical armament and had taken a more athletic aesthetic. By the end of the 20th century, the sport of fencing consisted of just three different blades: the foil, the epée, and the saber.  The epée is modeled after rapiers and short swords, while a foil was just a practice epée that took on a life of its own. Both the foil and epée are thrusting weapons (i.e. the pointy end goes into the other person) and work much like an ice pick.

The saber is modeled after cavalry sabers, which were in use up through the First World War. The saber is a curved, single-edge sword made to cut and thrust. While the tip can be used to thrust, the edge of the weapon can cut across. When used in a charge, the blade goes where the tip side is pointing. If the blade is held with the tip side pointed toward the sky, the blade goes up, and the cavalry officer will have a broken wrist. If the tip is pointed to the ground, the force of the charge will carry the blade through the target and toward the side of the rider’s horse. Throughout history, there has been a debate over whether a straight-edged sword or a curved sword is better for use by cavalry. Because I like to have my wrist after a charge, I always choose the one with the curves.

Some ancient animals made use of saber-like teeth much the way fencers do. The most well known is the saber-toothed cat. What we call “saber-toothed cats” actually comprise a number of different feline and marsupial species. They all had overly large canine teeth, most of which could still gleam menacingly while their mouths were closed. One of the most iconic “cats” is Smilodon. Erroneously known as the saber-toothed tiger — despite its lack of relation to tigers — Smilodon was a 1,000-pound ambush predator. While Smilodon did not have as strong as bite as a modern day lion, its long teeth more than made up for its bite. It used its power to wrestle prey to the ground and then followed up with its saber to deliver the coup de grace (not to be confused with the Kansas City shuffle) — a very efficient way to take out prey.

There were even some herbivores that picked up the saber teeth. Uintatherium was a rhino-like (although not related) planteater that possessed a pair of saber teeth. While they were the cool “cats” on the herbivore block, they used their formidable teeth as weapons of defense against predators and against other males to win a female’s favor.

The new Morian Hall of Paleontology hall contains fabulous fangs. Check them out!

100 years – 100 Objects: Smilodon

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from David Temple, the museum’s curator of paleontology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating fossils in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and at – throughout the year.

Lower jaw of saber-toothed cat, Smilodon
(Pleistocene, Rancho La Brea, Los Angeles, California)


The saber-tooted cat, Smilodon represents a kind of power and ferocity unmatched by modern big cats. There has been some scientific debate as to how saber-toothed cats hunted, some arguing that the victim’s throat was neatly sliced by the saber-like canine teeth as the cat’s jaws closed. Others believe that the soft underbelly was the target for mortal injury.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at

Wander among prehistoric beasts in the Paleontology Hall, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.