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ARMA Director John Clements answers email on swords and swordsmanship:
Questions and Answers
About the Rapier   

As a trained fencer and a martial artist who has studied swordplay since 1980, and worked out vigorously against all styles of weapon fighters, I feel confident enough in my understanding to offer qualified opinions on weapons and their use. I’ve examined and handled dozens of real rapiers from the 16th and 17th centuries in seven countries and two private collections and also viewed them in museums in ten countries. I’ve researched sword history in five major European libraries, and three private collections, as well as major libraries in the USA. I also own an extensive library of books on Renaissance swords in six languages. As a teacher as well as researcher, I have a good grasp of what students want to know about this subject.

What kind of sword is a rapier?

The best answer I can give is that the true rapier is a long, narrow, rigid, nearly edgeless single-hand thrusting blade with a thick, tapering cross-section and very narrow and sharp point.  There is no question rapiers vary in their shape, length, and width and especially in their hilt configuration.  But rapiers are generally thin, light, fast, and well-balanced thrusting swords intended for unarmored single-combat.

The definition of the rapier as a form of Renaissance sword differs among various authorities on historical arms. The various historical terms for rapier referred to a slender cut-and-thrust sword capable of limited slashing and slicing blows and equally suited to military or civilian use. Eventually however, it came to mean exclusively a long and slender thrusting sword with virtually no edge. 

Rapiers come in all shapes and sizes, and classifying them all as “rapiers” is not always easy (and as I described in my 1997 book, they are quite typically misidentified).  But what they all have in common is that they are decidedly slender and rigid blades designed for a thrusting (as opposed to a “cutting and thrusting”) style of swordplay.

Why is there some misunderstanding about what a rapier is?

There is often some confusion over exactly what kind of sword is really a rapier because classification of swords was never something that was exact, since historical swordmakers and swordsmen didn't go around labeling their weapons for us. They did not categorize them the way we do today by appearance, but instead defined them more based on their function and capability. But modern arms collectors and arms curators have typically labeled nearly any blade with a close-hilt that wasn't clearly a cruciform Medieval sword as being a "rapier" even though this was not the case historically. Modern swordmakers have also followed this habit and it has added to the confusion surrounding the weapon.

Plus, fencing history is not a straight line of evolution from primitive to more advanced weapons and methods (though this has been the view of fencing history since the 19th century)—as if the development of different swords was a process of working toward some ideal “higher” form . 

Change in sword forms over time has been more like a tree with several branches growing out and declining while new branches formed. This was a process of innovation and adaptation to new circumstances and needs.  It is therefore acceptable for clarity today to apply the distinctions of “early” rapier, to the wider flatter form, and “later” or “true” rapier to the more slender kind.  Also, many times a short arming sword with an acutely pointed and tapering style of blade (typical of those used since the 15th century) will get labeled today as being a type of “rapier” merely because of hilt that resembles those on later 16th century rapiers.

What are real rapiers like?

While it is difficult to make specific generalizations about any class of swords, and the rapier is no exception, there are certain attributes and qualities about them that I can offer comments on.

Over the last few years I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to have personally inspected about four or five dozen antique 16th & 17th century rapiers of various sizes, and I’ve actually exercised with several specimens, and even test-cut with some. I’ve paid particular attention in my research to the cross-sectional changes along their length, their stiffness (as much as was possible without actually bending them), and to their edge sharpness. Further, I have looked at these weapons from the perspective of a fighter, as a martial artist and fencer familiar with the historical ways and results of using them. I also own about a dozen different makes of historical reproduction swords, and have test-cut extensively with them on raw meat and other materials. So, I have good basis by which to compare rapiers.

How do real rapiers handle?

In my experience researching authentic pieces I was especially stunned at how fantastically well-balanced most were so that they felt absolutely weightless, lightning fast and agile (completely beyond even the very best modern reproductions I’ve handled). Only a few antique rapiers of the wider variety felt a bit awkward to me—and even then rather actually than being poor weapons, that may have been because they were experimental designs or designed for some particular person’s fighting style, or in recent times were given different hilts that changed their feel. The specimens I’ve weighed or have specifications on were all less than 3 pounds, with most under 2.5 pounds and a few even less than 2 pounds.  They were not the least bit cumbersome. As both a student of Medieval swords and a former sport fencer, I can declare with authority that these weapons were not slow or clumsy to wield.  With few exceptions, I have no doubts whatsoever that nearly every rapier technique described in the historical sources (and then some) could be executed effectively with most all of these weapons.

What kind of blades did rapiers have?

Like any other sword, the variety of rapier blades is considerable, as all sorts of designs were being experimented with at the time (which creates confusion about them now and makes classification of them very difficult). Rapier blades varied considerably in length, thickness, cross-sectional shape, and edge sharpness. Many of these rapiers are hard to completely distinguish from the varieties of military cut-and-thrust swords then in use. They ranged from flatter, tapering blades to thicker, narrower (so-called “true’) ones. But nearly all are rigid, quite narrow, and become thinner toward the point and, rather than flattening out, many actually become oval or round in cross-section at the last quarter or last fifth of their length.  Their weight was concentrated in their hilts, thereby facilitating an agile point to make rapid long-reaching stabbing attacks.

Rapier blades are relatively thin but have thick cross-sections. Some rapier blades are of flat diamond (or triangular) shape capable of holding a shallow edge, while other cross-sections are thicker hexagonal, octagonal, or four-pointed star-shaped with virtually no sharp edges. These various cross-sections were all simply efforts by sword makers to produce a light and very stiff blade. Rapiers may have thick, squared off and blunt ricassos (the blade portion just above the hilt) or be wide and entirely sharp at this portion. 

How strong were rapier blades, couldn’t they break easily?

There is substantial historical evidence for rapiers breaking during fights (in bodies and against other weapons), and I have held several real ones that had broken or even bent points. I’ve examined many others that to me felt so thin and light I am sure they would readily break if used to slash with or even if seized by a hand and forced to bend. I have broken enough different kinds of modern blades myself, both by accident and in testing, to have a good idea of the force required.

Of the some 70 or so real rapiers I've looked at by hand, there was considerable diversity in the geometry of their blades. Some of these designs intended to produce a light and especially agile thrusting weapon resulted in particularly thin points that tended to snap off when an edge blow was struck against a firm target. Several rapier masters even advised not to strike any edge blows at all, or if you did, to not use the force of the whole arm from the shoulder (since this was slower).

Yet, a rapier blade is by no means fragile nor vulnerable to being easily broken or cut by other swords (though its slender tip might on occasion snap). The rapier can be quite sturdy and capable of parrying the cuts of heavier swords, but only with the thicker section of its blade or hilt and (preferably) in a deflecting action to redirect the attacking point rather than a passive, rigid block. From the many specimens I have handled I would have no concern with the majority of them being able to parry blows from heavier cutting blades in this manner.  But, it was better to avoid or dodge cuts from broader blades than to parry them with a slender sword (though I’m sure it was performed when unavoidable).

Where does the name “rapier” come from?

There are several theories as to the origin of the word. Originally, by the 1470s the French referred mockingly to any excessively long and slender weapon as la rapière, while the Spanish called a small sword worn in civilian clothes at court or about town a spada ropera, a “robe sword” or “dress sword.”  At least by the 1530s such weapons became known in English as rapiers and in German fencing works by at least 1540 were called Rappier and Rapir. Undoubtedly it was in use earlier.  The word rapier eventually came to refer exclusively to the slender thrusting sword we now know. In modern Italian they are sometimes now called striscia. There are also several other theories and words relating to the term rapier, such as rasper, rappen, and verdun.  Interestingly, the Italian and Spanish originators of the rapier never referred to the weapon itself as anything other than simply spada or espada, generic words meaning “sword.”  French sources from the 1530s and English sources of the 1540s both refer to rapiers as being “the Spannyshe sword.” The term Ensis Hispanis (or Ensis Hispanicus, meaning again, “the Spanish sword”) was used by Paulus Hector Mair in his compendium of c.1542. But as his many detailed illustrations show it referred unmistakably to a form of tapered cut-and-thrust blade of moderate length with a compound hilt employed in unarmored combat.

However, there are no descriptions as to exactly what the original espada ropera or la rapière actually were. We do not know its size, its length, or its blade or hilt style. Given the nature of fighting and other arms at the time, it must have had some characteristics that were different enough to warrant a new label. Intriguingly, there is evidence that men at Italian courts of the 1480s and 1490s were beginning to wear blades that were much longer and heavier than ordinary daggers but shorter and lighter than ordinary arming swords. These swords typically had compound or close-hilts (with extra rings or bars). It may very well be that this cut-and-thrust style weapon was produced in longer and longer varieties, to become in time the new rapier.

Because courtiers in later half of the 16th century did indeed wear rapiers to court as well as a sign of gentlemanly status and the privilege of engaging in extra-judicial duels of honor, there has been a certain assumption that this was the original purpose of the weapon rather than its eventual role. If they rapier is to be considered as first originating among courtiers, then we must wonder why a sword with no "knightly" tradition as a weapon of war (or even judicial duel) would have suddenly been adopted by nobles for court dress? We should perhaps instead consider the rapier not as a sword for "noble dress" but for civilian dress, that is, street clothes for going about town-where a lighter blade would have been more suitable for personal self defense. Eventually these weapons were lengthened and thinned to permit a more agile thrusting style of fighting found more useful in unarmored street brawl and private duel. This style of sword soon gained popularity out of the necessity for such a weapon among rival gangs and clashing urban militias in the crowded, fractious, Northern Italian city states.

Why was the rapier created?

Rapiers developed from earlier forms of cut-and-thrust swords as a weapon for urban self-defense and private dueling. By the 1540s, swordmakers were responding to the self-defense needs of unarmored fighting men for a fast single-hand stabbing sword with a long reach that could be used in the street or back alley or an enclosed space. Following the ancient process of feedback between makers and users, their creations were tried out, and whatever worked best was then continually refined based on the advice and requests of swordsmen. 

At first, the rapier developed in response to cut-and-thrust swords, and only later did it find use against other rapiers.  As I pointed out in my '97 book on Renaissance swordsmanship, no one suddenly invented a pair of rapiers complete as is, then decided to go around offering to fight someone with them.  In fact, portraitures of noblemen as well as patrician families and royal courts from the first half of the 16th century are decidedly void in depicting long slender single-hand swords being worn.

Over time, new swords were devised along with new methods for using them. While a man of the early 1500s might not go around in public wearing a conspicuous sword of war with a broad cutting blade, a lighter, thinner weapon was at once both less menacing and less encumbering.  But designs for an optimal thrusting sword for unarmored single-combat continued to evolve over the next hundred years.  They did not develop into their final form until the 1570s or 1580s.

 

 

Why was the rapier something new?

As it spread across Western Europe, the rapier was a new distinct form of sword as much as it was a new method of fighting. By the 1530s there were changes occurring to swords and swordplay, but they were neither immediate nor sweeping nor even unprecedented. Sword designs had always been revised to fit new requirements that resulted from technological, military, or social changes. What was unique was the development of a weapon that for the first time emphasized unarmored civilian single-combat rather than overall self-defense or battlefield use. What was new with the rapier then was the idea of a light, long-bladed, single-handed stabbing sword.

The rapier originated in Italy and Spain and from there spread throughout Western Europe. The rapier’s introduction as an urban side arm was gradual and not immediate. Despite the ascent of the new weapon and its linear thrusting method, when taken as a whole it can be seen that fencing treatises throughout the 16th century consistently reflected a range of self-defense concerns, both military and civilian. While swordplay in Europe had always stressed footwork, the new foyning style required a new and less instinctive manner of moving and for this to be more effective a specific footwork had to be learned. 

There is an obvious direct and discernible link between the brutal, practical fighting methods of the earlier Middle Ages and the more elegant Renaissance fencing systems.  The new style of thrust fencing was not an “evolution” but an adaptation to the needs of a changing social and self-defense environment. In fact, the rapier was originally not even a weapon innovated by professional fencing masters, but by other fighting men, and the two weapons styles and their methods were for a considerable time contemporaries of one another.

In the Renaissance social and technological changes accelerated experimentation in Western fighting arts and civilian schools of fence proliferated. A systematic study of civilian rather than military fencing grew into a new “Science of Defence” emphasizing the private duel. Like much of progress in Renaissance learning and science, changes did not occur in a vacuum. Advances in self-defense were based on what had already been commonly established for centuries.  No tradition of fighting or methodology of combat exists by itself.  It comes into being due to environmental pressure as only a processing or refinement of what existed previously.  So it was with the thrusting swordplay of the later Renaissance. 

Curiously, while earlier rapier blades were flatter in their cross-section (and thereby capable of more effective edge blows than the later far narrower and thicker-edged versions optimized for thrust only), they were also stiffer in cross-section than more traditional single-hand cutting swords. Thus, on the one hand earlier rapiers resembled the familiar stiff tuck or estoc. But on the other hand, they were lighter, longer, and more tapered than other contemporary military blades. Hence, the reason why these blade forms came to be distinguished as something else by the new name, “rapier.”

When did slender swords turn into rapiers?

Exactly when a slender sword “becomes” a rapier is not an easy question to answer. Because a sword is designed to fulfill a particular purpose, and is then used in a manner that accomplishes that purpose, a sword is therefore defined by its blade geometry, not its hilt configuration (as has so often been the case among collectors, curators, and fencing historians).

In experimenting with designs for tools used to defend and take lives, some things worked better than others. But these took time to permeate across regions to replace earlier patterns. The diversity among rapiers is explained easily enough when we understand that fighting men at the time were discovering what types worked best and how best to use them as swordsmiths were struggling to fulfill their needs. In the “evolution” of Renaissance weapons there were forms of blades developed that were not quite wide enough to cut strongly as other kinds but were also still not narrow and light enough to foyne as well as later “true” rapiers.  Being unable to do either very well, they were not popular and in a few decades were quickly replaced by newer forms.

Another factor which has gone overlooked in the rise of the rapier as an urban weapon is that Renaissance cities were made with notoriously narrow streets and alleys. As well as offering shelter from sun and rain and conserving space this was done as a means of defense. An invading army could not easily march through tight confines nor could an occupying force easily travel through before barricades could be raised. Crowds could also not easily gather nor mobs form in such constricted spaces. In this environment, a long thrusting sword was better suited than a cutting one.

Why is there confusion over what kinds of swords are rapiers?

Because rapiers were not “invented” overnight, but quickly developed from slender cut and thrust arming swords of the early 1500s, the two families of weapons are very closely related.  There is often a blurry line separating them and no clear-cut linear evolution from one form to the other. At the time a variety of designs were being experimented with. Fencing treatises of the 1500s typically do not clearly define or differentiate whether they are teaching the use of civilian rapiers or military style cut-and-thrust swords—which were sometimes called arming swords, field swords, Reitschwerte (“knight’s sword”) or spada di lato (“side sword”).  It is often difficult to gauge what kind of sword the authors preferred, as their illustrations are vague and inconsistent, plus their methods may work well with either slender military swords or their thinner cousins, the true rapiers.  Thus, it is often easier today to refer to “early” and “later” rapiers and even “transitional” rapiers, even though these are not historical terms and do not fully describe the subject.

Today, because very few people who write or speak about rapiers and rapier fencing have ever actually handled antique specimens (and even fewer ever actually practiced with a real one), a lot of misstatements, assumptions, and conjecture has built up.  With the long-time prevalence of poor rapier fighting in movies and TV and inaccurate displays by stunt fighters and reenactment troupes, considerable misunderstanding surrounds the true nature of the weapon. Unfortunately, there are also many poor quality reproduction rapiers on the market today that are inaccurate in their blade stiffness, overall shape and weight, as well as hilt structure. This problem has been widespread for many decades and has added to the confusion about the qualities and attributes of real rapiers, how they functioned, and how they were properly handled. 

What time period was the rapier in use?

The swords that meet the loosest definition of what a rapier is first appear by the 1540s, though the word predates this. The truest form appears by the 1580s but the weapon continued to evolve into the late 1600s, and in Spain to a small degree was still used even into the 1800s.  During the 1700s and 1800s, in some parts of Europe select antique rapiers were occasionally brought out for formal duels. Older rapier blades were also sometimes shortened, modified, and re-hilted.

There is an oft repeated myth of fine thrusting swords develop by fencing-masters by the mid-1500s as having replace the older style “heavy cutting swords.”  This assertion not only ignores the fact that various types of tapered thrusting swords (both heavy and light) existed from about the 1300s onward, and that the rapier’s development originally came first from outside the traditional military focus of established “fencing masters,” but also ignores that during the weapon’s less than 200-year reign all manner of “heavy cutting blades” still remained in wide use, even continuing to be developed (e.g., sabers, broadswords, etc.) long after the rapier’s popularity for civilian duelling had faded. As with any sword form, the rapier’s development and adoption should instead be viewed contextually: a weapon designed first for unarmored urban self-defense that evolved into an ideal private dueling weapon and thrusting style of combat soon favored by the aristocracy.

How do rapiers relate to other kinds of thrusting swords?

While there were special Medieval thrusting swords, called estocs or tucks and used since the 1300s, these were not early rapiers and there is no direct connection between them. They were large, heavy, stiff, two-handed blades specifically designed to puncture or beat on plate armor. They were not handled like rapiers but are directly related to the use of Medieval swords held by the blade (what was called at the “half-sword”).  Yet, it is conceivable that the idea for a rapier could have developed from an estoc or tuck.

They had many names in different countries and were essentially just sharp metal rods with square or triangular cross-sections and typically two large, round hand guards. These tucks were also used in shorter single-hand versions in the late 1500s and early 1600s, but these weapons could not be handled like a much thinner and lighter rapier.  Also, the ancient Minoans on Crete devised a type of rigid, narrow, tapering sword of bronze that was very similar to the tuck.

Were there any special kinds of rapiers?

As fighting men using rapiers developed their own unique new form of thrusting swordplay, and sought to answer the challenge of how to deal with others doing the same, a variety of distinct rapier forms were created. Some of these specialized weapons had extremely long blades in an attempt to gain reach over an opponent in a fight.  Some types were also produced with extra long grips for the same reason. There were even some rapiers made with extra-thick and extra-long ricassos to assist in parrying the blows of broader blade swords. Other specialized rapiers had their tips flattened and widened to permit a sharper cutting edge—the so-called “spatulate” point. This allowed the favored technique of delivering a quick facial slash with a motion from the wrist.

Other kinds copied the remarkable “wave” or “flame” edges of certain larger sword blades or even had unique saw-like edges. These unusual styles were attempts to add some degree of slicing or draw-cut potential to the narrow weapon (as well as a way for the sword maker to show off his artistic talent, since such designs were difficult and expensive to produce).  These waved blades were also sometimes used on daggers and even pole-arms. Other unique rapier designs included ones with spike pommels as well as highly ornate and decorative hilts or blades with perforated holes and even with single-shot pistols built-in. Special rapiers were even produced with extendable blades hidden in hollow handles that could increase their length by some inches 8 or 9 inches in some cases.

Was there ever such a weapon as a “sword rapier”?

Historically, there were no such names as “cutting rapier”, “sword-rapier”, or “transitional rapier” ever used in the Renaissance.  With the ascendancy of civilian rapiers over traditional military swords in personal duel and private quarrel during the 1500s, a new era in personal weaponry began. There were always attempts to combine the slashing and cleaving potential of broad cutting blades with the quick, stabbing agility of a slender thrusting one. This led to a great deal of experimental weapons types, some of which were failures with neither the cutting power of wider swords, nor the speed and lightness of narrow ones. 

Today, some of these forms are sometimes described as “heavy rapiers”, or “sword-rapiers” while others are assumed to be a form of transitional blade between the two. Older style tucks were also occasionally remounted with the newer types of rapier hilts and these are also occasionally misidentified as being “heavy rapiers.” 

How did the rapier change fencing?

The essence of rapier fencing is the view that in fighting the shortest distance between two points was not the curved line of a cut, but the straight line of a thrust. The quickness and reach of the rapier in unarmored combat could be surprising and unexpected to those not used to its kind of fight.  In skilled hands it was unpredictable, swift, and easy for an inexperienced adversary to underestimate. A stabbing wound can be made very easily and it tended to be fatal. A man attempting to slash or chop with a comparatively less agile and slower cutting sword could find himself being hit with a well-timed and well-placed thrust from a faster, longer-reaching rapier.  Yet, without experience or training, two rapier fighters might even charge one another and be mutually run-through. 

Against the linear attacks of other rapiers a fighter would typically try to simultaneously defend and counter-attack by a carefully timed movement which parried by deflecting the adversary’s point away as he made his own thrust in reaction. This was achieved as one single action by maintaining contact or “opposition” with the opponent’s thrusting blade and, if necessary, using his second hand or weapon to assist. A long, thin sword was ideal for this, but at some lengths could also become a disadvantage as an opponent with a shorter and faster blade could close in past its point or use his dagger.

The slender, deceptive rapier was a personal weapon for civilian wear and private quarrels rather than one carried for war. It was designed for the needs of back-alley encounters and sudden assaults and indeed, it was the first truly civilian weapon for urban self-defence developed in any society. It rose from practical tool to popular “gentleman’s art.”

What does it mean that the rapier is a “foyning” weapon?

The term “foyning fence” refers to an essentially thrusting versus thrusting style of swordplay.  The term “foyne” (or “foign”) means to thrust straight, as if to stab from a distance by extending the arm and the lead foot. The rapier was conceived as a thrusting sword rather than a “cut and thrust” sword. The earliest types might be considered more “thrust and cut.”

Rapiers were well suited to unarmored street-fighting and private duelling. They were simply more adept at the newer style of foyning fence than the wider, flatter kind of blades, which by the late 1500s were declining in general military use. But thrusting was hardly a new thing in the 1500s. It was an important part of Medieval swordplay and had been commonly used since ancient times.

Through experiment and observation Renaissance fencers discerned that the thrust traveled in a shorter line than the arc of a cut, and against an unarmored foe would reach farther and strike sooner.  The rapier was designed along these principles. In execution, it produced a method of fighting with a grace and elegance all its own.

Why did they have such elaborate hilts?

There is actually no such thing as an exclusively “rapier” hilt. The hilts on rapiers existed in a great variety of styles but were dominated by “close” forms consisting of large quillons (cross-guards) and various kinds of bars, rings, plates, or cups. But most all of these “compound-hilt” styles were not exclusive to rapiers alone and had actually begun earlier on various wide cutting swords. They were also used on many later types of swords other than rapiers. 

Unlike the small, light, standardized hilts used on modern sport fencing epees and foils, the various larger complex-hilts on rapiers were designed not to prevent thrusts on the hand so much as intentionally prevent the opponent’s narrow point from easily moving around the weapon and counter-thrusting.

The wide cross-piece and assorted counter bars, first developed to defend against cuts, would obstruct the attacking blade. It also proved a useful weapon in itself when used to strike at an opponent’s face.  Over the next century, as thrusting blades were made increasingly lighter and quicker as well as shorter this concern became less of an issue. Additionally, such large cumbersome hilts were a nuisance for gentlemen in fashionable dress wearing them at their sides.

How were rapiers used in fighting?

Rapiers were not used the way we typically have seen in movies like musketeer or pirate films, and others like The Princess Bride or Zorro. Despite frequent misrepresentation in popular culture, rapiers are not employed in rapid exchanges of thrust and parry as in modern sport fencing nor in slashing through ropes and leather belts or carving letters in things. That kind of fictional stunt is only a fantasy.

The action of the rapier in a fight was, in one sense, far more violent and ferocious, and on the other far more cautious and precise.  Attacks were more often “voided” (dodged) than blocked and when they were blocked, it was typically done with a deflection that simultaneously rode the other blade to continue on to make a counter thrust.

What other weapons were used with rapiers?

A rapier was virtually always used in conjunction with the free-hand, or either a parrying-dagger, a buckler, or a cloak, but also even a scabbard or other item. The dagger was consistently held with the point up and the cross-guard “sideways” in order to parry or bind the opponent’s blade. Some had elaborate guards and were specially designed for trapping and parrying. A method of dueling simultaneously with two rapiers also developed.  But there is no evidence of any “sword catchers” or “sword breakers” being used effectively. Such tools might help in defense by delaying an opponent’s ability to respond or renew an attack, but it is unlikely they could actually trap, hold, or really break a rapier blade.

Most every person carried some sort of dagger during the Renaissance, and gentlemen typically went about with a cloak or cape which could be used in defense.  A man would need to be able to defend himself not only against another rapier, but also against common military swords as well as polearms such as spears, pikes, and halberds.

What style of fighting did the rapier involve?

Essentially, the rapier was a one-handed sword that employed and allowed for dexterous use of the point for thrusting combined with a cool, calculating style of fight relying less on striking power and more on careful judgment of timing and range.

Its fighting style was an apparent break with the legacy of Medieval cut-and-thrust traditions in favor of new systems advocating thrusts over cuts.  But thrusts were not deemed “superior” to cuts, as in the right circumstance with the right weapon each had their place and advantage. When facing another rapier, a range of linear movements and traversing footwork was employed with quick feints, jabs, and angulated and circular thrusts.  Though there were different ways to approach it, the style was generally energetic, aggressive, and cautious.  But for the most part rapier combat was not anything like the “genteel” fencing with “decorum” practiced among gentlemen of later centuries.  Depending upon the situation, rapier fighters would readily employ punches, kicks, hilt strikes, tripping, arm locks, blade grabbing, leg sweeps, chokeholds, and other all-out combat techniques other than just sword on sword actions.

How effective as a weapon was the rapier?

The rapier had the unique capacity to make incredibly deceptive and agile attacks and the dangerous capacity to renew continued thrusting attacks at unpredictable angles, even after parrying the attacks of wider cutting swords. It could also accurately stab at the face, throat, eyes, teeth, and especially the hands with rapid light wounds to distract, provoke, and harass an opponent.  The rapier’s quick, powerful thrust was lethal in its penetrating power. A simple stab wound of only a few inches could instantly prove deadly. Narrow holes made in vital internal organs could not be treated and would not heal.  However, even when mortal, its wounds were not always immediately fatal. Unless punctured clean through the skull or heart, a man might be run through and continue fighting for several moments, or even win a combat but die sometime later from shock and loss of blood.

Historical authors complain of the rapier’s inability to deliver decisive killing blows and the capacity of men to withstand several injuries from them.  The historical records of combat with the weapon support this view.  Yet, the historical accounts of rapier combats also include substantial examples of men instantly killed from quick single thrusts.

When a rapier thrust hit it would invariably produce a serious hole in the person’s body or head. Unlike a cut, which might only be a shallow flesh wound that will heal in time, a thrust can puncture organs internally, will not stop bleeding, and cannot be treated. While a cutting sword can be used to make light or flat-side blows that are not lethal, with a rapier there is no way to really control the depth of a stabbing attack to only cause a minor shallow stab wound. With rapiers, men could not merely brawl one another indifferently with slashing and clashing blows as they sometimes did with other swords. Each attack was therefore potentially a mortal one and there was little room for error or leniency.  The result surely gave a new earnestness to what were once common clashes.

Despite the rapier's unique fighting style, it still relied on time-honored principles of understanding and controlling distance and timing while skillfully delivering techniques. An experienced fighter good at employing these core elements with a traditional broader bladed sword could successfully combat it. It was not the weapon itself but how and where it was employed that made all the difference.

Could rapiers be used for both defending as well as attacking?

Rapiers were without question capable of defending and offending; otherwise they would not be of much use as a weapon.  If it couldn’t attack to wound an adversary effectively why even use it to fight with?  If it couldn’t defend you from attacking weapons what good would it ever be?  While different weapons have different defensive and offensive capacities, any long metal blade can be employed as a good defense against blows.  The rapier is no exception.

While a slender thrusting blade does not perhaps have the warding ability of heavier, more robust swords, to imagine a rapier wouldn’t keep other weapons from hitting you is a notion ignorant of the realities of personal combat. As many masters of the time wrote, in skilled hands, it was well-suited to an unarmored man’s urban self-defense needs.

But, as a lighter, thinner blade, it obviously lacks the mass to easily beat down a heavier blade or displace its attack by counter-cutting—which was commonly performed with other swords.  As well, if forced to employ such a rigid defense against a strong blow from a larger weapon it was not as sturdy for parrying with a direct static block. As a specialized weapon, it is therefore not as well-rounded as a broader blade intended for fighting under more generalized circumstances.

Being a one-handed sword, a fighter wielding a rapier would naturally choose to employ his free hand to assist him, whether empty or holding another weapon. Using two weapons like this was common with warriors throughout history and in no way does it imply any deficiency with the primary weapon (as is sometimes alleged).  As with anything in fighting, it required coordination and practice.

This was also not a matter of armor having been discarded either. Many earlier swords were also used in combination with parrying weapons such as shields, bucklers, and daggers. As with rapiers this was not done out of any necessity of their being somehow unable to parry alone, as is often wrongly asserted, but rather, from the inherent advantage of using two weapons together.  The combination of a long rapier with a short parrying dagger proved very dangerous to unarmored fighting men.

Could rapiers be used for edge blows?

As with any long bladed weapon, rapiers could always be used to strike a blow with the “edge.”  Many rapier texts include such actions in their repertoire and any swordsman would make himself familiar with them. But, whether such a blow, or “cut”, actually injured or wounded an opponent was dependent upon many factors.  The question is then, how effective were rapier edge blows and what result would they be expected to achieve against an attacker?

Rapiers lack the blade width, blade mass, and edge bevel and angulation to do more than lacerate with an edge blow (if it were otherwise, there would be no need for so many other types of broader cutting swords). As a sword that emphasizes agile stabbing attacks, the true rapier had little to no real edge sharpness and could not be used for wide slashing cuts, despite what is notoriously depicted in film and sometimes used in staged performance fencing. 

How well could rapiers cut?

There are many period writers who complained the rapier did not cut well (relative to dedicated cutting blades) and were unsuited to the needs of the battlefield for this reason. They were not designed for nor capable of lethal cutting blows and no period fencing text actually instructs to use them that way. Nor are there historical accounts of any deadly cutting blows with true rapiers being made in fights.

This lack of cutting capacity did not discount making light, quick slashes with the edge or even the point against the face or wrist.  This was useful to harass, provoke, and distract the enemy. Doing such could certainly lacerate skin, and depending upon the type of blade, even more, but they simply could not shear or cleave into flesh and bone, as could wider and flatter swords designed for cutting.  While some rapier texts refer to non-lethal cuts made as a facial slash or performed with a pulling slice, the weapons were simply not designed either to hack and chop or slice and their blade geometry prevented it. 

The issue is clouded, however, by the existence of wider, tapering blades with flatter cross-sections and sharper edges, which were capable of slashing open a throat or cutting off a hand.  These weapons, though used similarly, were not identical in performance to the far more slender variety of what can be called the “true” rapier.

How sharp were rapiers?

Given the changing cross-sectional shape of a rapier’s blade along its length, different portions might have different degrees of “edge” sharpness. Sharpness is a relative term. A razorblade, for example, is very sharp, but it is also very fragile and easily dulled. A butter knife by contrast is not very sharp, but its edge is still quite thin and hard. A sword blade would have as much edge as physically possible as a matter of course, if only to prevent it being easily seized by an opponent's hand. But, with such thick shapes and broad bevels, rapier edges simply could not retain much sharpness (especially after repeated forceful contact against other blades).

Where the blade became the thinnest, at the point, there would be the least amount of sharp edge. On those with blade shapes that prevented especially sharp edges, they obviously were unsharpened. 

When I consider the teachings from historical rapier texts in light of all of this above, combined with the wounds recorded in rapier duels and street combats compared to those with larger cutting swords, I reach certain conclusions that are very consistent with the rapier's inability to make serious cutting wounds. Rapiers simply could not dismember, decapitate or make strong cutting blows, nor were they ever intended to do so. 

It is also very improbable that over time rapiers surviving in museums and collections could have had their edges dull or rust away to any degree that we now cannot judge their original sharpness.

What would happen if you made cutting strikes with a rapier?

The results of a rapier cut would be dependent upon many factors: the mass and the edge configuration of the blade (a factor of its cross-sectional shape and thickness), the angle of the cut, the force behind the blow, the portion of the weapon that impacted  (closer to or farther from the point), and the location of the strike on a person (against a softer or harder area). The Renaissance teachers of the rapier frequently instructed to use cuts as secondary attacks only when the adversary’s point was not directly threatening, or they advised not to use them at all.

Given what has already been described above regarding the nature of rapier blades and their use in cutting, it can be surmised that the results of any cut might be that no harm would be done (because the edge turned and did not hit correctly, the blow was not hard enough, or the target area was too tough). Or the results might be a painful stinging injury to the face, arm, or leg, that causes a severe welt or a surface scratch and perhaps then annoys, infuriates, or intimidates the opponent.  Or the results might be a lacerating wound to the musculature of the arm, leg, shoulder, or torso that inhibits to some degree the opponent’s freedom of action. It’s also conceivable (with a flatter, sharper edge) that the throat might even be slashed, the eyes blinded, and fingers or perhaps even a hand severed.  From the historical accounts however, what we can believe the results surely would not be is immediate debilitation, incapacitation, or outright death.

From my personal experience over the years using a wide variety of sharp blades, including some antique rapiers, in test cutting on numerous materials I have little doubt about how strikes with the edge of rapiers would be employed. Depending upon the kind of blade and portion of the arm used to strike with (shoulder, elbow, wrist) our tests on fresh, raw meat produced nothing greater than shallow surface cuts or tearing rips. Typically they made little more than welts that did not even break tissue. If the blade was flatter and wider, a hard blow with a quick, immediate follow-on “drawing” pull caused a significant slicing wound. These cutting results however were very poor compared to those possible with wider kinds of heavier cutting blades, which can cleave and shear to a considerable depth even through bone. Interestingly though, slashes using the very tip of the rapier, even particularly narrow ones, invariably would quite easily cause short ripping tears in the meat. When we cut against soft cloth, the results were even weaker. In all cases, the rapier cuts did not seem to be sufficient to either disable the limbs of an aggressive man or kill him on the spot.

Why is there controversy over cutting with a rapier?

A “cut” is any blow with the edge of a sword, regardless of the actual sharpness of such an edge or the capacity for that sword to make an incise wound.  So, just as a particularly curved sword can still thrust, though not nearly as well as a straight one, even a slender sword can “cut”, but not nearly as well as a wider one. After all, even a car-antenna or a slender cane rod could “cut” if you slashed someone with enough force and hit them on the right spot. 

If we think of edge blows with a light, slender, rigid blade not in terms of being shearing blows intended to incapacitate, but rather as distracting and harassing actions designed to open the opponent up to a more lethal thrust, then “cutting” with a rapier can make sense.  These cuts will hurt, they can bruise, they will likely break skin and more, but they won’t stop an attacking man intent on killing.

Misunderstanding over cutting with a rapier frequently comes about when people with rapiers try the things they see in movies and TV shows (cutting through ropes and belts and clothing, etc.).  Or else they rapier fence with super light and thin sport epees or foils and try to chop and hack like they are using a wider arming sword.  Or worse, they fence very sloppy with flexible practice rapiers and when recovering back from missing a thrust, in the process brush the blade against their opponent and then yell, "I cut you! You're disabled!"  To justify all this they quote and misquote the source texts, ignore historical and physical evidence, and misrepresent the actual handling and performance characteristics of the real weapons.  The solution, as we see it, is educating enthusiasts as to the actual effects of applying the actual techniques using real weapons.  It’s a process that will take time, since we are all still exploring.

Noticeably, today’s’ enthusiasts of the “rapiers cut everything” view consistently misrepresent the teachings of historical rapier masters so that they utterly fail to distinguish the substantial differences between edge blows by wider cleaving and shearing blades that kill and disable, and those by lighter, narrower, thrusting blades that simple harass, distract, provoke, and injure.  They completely ignore the criticism of the rapier’s lack of significant cutting capacity as stated by historical writers such as Silver and Smythe. They provide no examples of historical combats in which rapier cuts alone actually kill anyone and they ignore modern experiments that objectively demonstrate the poor cutting ability of slender rapier blades. They instead try to purposely obscure the differences between military cut-and-thrust swords (or “early” rapiers) from later civilian duelling weapons (or “true” rapiers). The apparent motive for this is a personal need to maintain a pre-conceived conception of sword combat for “play” within their own pretetious make believe duelling games.

Could bare hands be used to grab or parry a rapier blade?

Rapiers were quick and agile, but they could still be quickly seized and held tightly by even a bare hand.  There would be little chance of the hand being injured in doing this.  Indeed, as the historical texts instruct, even wider cutting swords can be held by the blade or grabbed safely if done correctly.  Several rapier treatises depict the empty hand being used to slap away or deflect rapier thrusts.  This was a common technique and because a man might easily close to grapple in this way, it was another reason to employ a dagger or other weapon in the second hand.  If a special grasping glove covered in maile or heavy leather was worn then grabbing or swatting away a sword was even safer.

How were rapiers gripped or held?

Rapiers were both balanced and gripped in a manner that facilitated point control for accurate thrusting rather than edge control for strong cutting. Their handle shapes were devised with this in mind and permitted them to more effectively jab by extending the arm. The primary grip was actually one which permitted them to be easily drawn from the thigh by pulling the arm straight up above the head. This typically involved the thumb being placed on the flat of the guard at the core or écusson.  Other grips consisted of “fingering” or wrapping the index finger around the cross and ricasso. Two fingers might also be used like this with the thumb put on the edge of the ricasso. A strong hand might even grip the weapon only by the pommel in order to gain extra reach.  The grip used was whichever suited the technique or the swordsman.

Why is there controversy over how the rapier was used?

The Renaissance fighting styles changed so much over time that they died out and now no one alive knows for sure how it was done back then. Different swords often require different methods of using them and this leads to different styles of fighting.  These change over time and there is no one alive today who really knows the forgotten styles.  The old teachings have been lost from disuse and the old styles went extinct due to their obsolescence. Any modern enthusiast or student of swords must therefore interpret the old texts and rediscover how to handle the old weapons. Yet few individuals now possess the knowledge or experience with real weapons and genuine Renaissance fighting techniques to demonstrate them correctly.  There is also a lot of misinformation on the Internet from those who base their understanding of the rapier more upon modern sport fencing rather than the actual weapons and historical source works.  So, in the process, misconceptions develop from assumptions that are made and from the misrepresentations that exist in the pretend sword fighting of games and entertainment. The examples of swordplay we see today portrayed in movies, TV, sport fencing, as well as many Renaissance fairs and reenactment societies, do not offer the most accurate picture. 

Did rapiers ever face broader or heavier style Medieval swords?

By time the rapier came about, older styles of traditional military swords and Medieval weapons (used primarily for facing armors) were generally obsolete on the battlefield and were no longer carried for general self-defense on the street either. While they still had application and were studied to a degree in traditional schools of fencing during the 1500s, the new rapier was not designed or intended to defeat them. From time to time it was possible to still encounter the older weapons in single combat and there is evidence the rapier then proved a difficult challenge. But it must be considered that unlike the new civilian rapier, due to changing military conditions, these broader and heavier weapons were largely past their prime and thus were not being practiced as intently as they once had been. So, as a weapon of street-fighting and single-combat duelling, it is not a matter of the rapier having somehow "defeated" or "overcome" Medieval swords.

Were rapiers ever taken into battle during wars?

There are some accounts of rapiers being carried into battle, particularly by mounted officers (the least likely to engage in close combat), but not of any rapier being effectively used in actual fighting. Many military writers during the rapier age advocated the use of tucks (short stiff thrusting swords) and later authors sometimes mistook these swords as being “rapiers.”  Several authors of the time complained specifically of the rapier not being suited to the battlefield while others said it was fine.

Were rapiers ever used against armor?

Rapiers were not designed nor intended to be employed against armored opponents. Yet, encountering armor was a common occurrence for any fighting man of the time. Rapiers were capable of piercing soft armors but historical evidence shows that fine maile (chain-link armor) was a sufficient defense and was often worn under clothing for this very reason.  If an opponent were wearing any portion of plate armor, which was still possible on the battlefields and within urban militias of the 1500s and 1600s, attacks would naturally be directed to other more vulnerable areas. At times, for aesthetic reasons today museums will often display suits of 16th century plate armor holding or wearing rapiers, even though these were not used together in war, tournaments, or private self defense.

Who carried or wore the rapier?

Though associated with late Renaissance gentlemen, the rapier at various times was carried and used by all classes and the earliest references to the weapon’s use from the 1540s to 1560s, in fact, concern common urban self-defense, not aristocratic private duels. While the rapier is often associated with cavaliers and courtiers of the aristocracy, it in fact originated as a weapon of street fighting among commoners, merchants, and shopkeepers.  Though swords worn with civilian dress (as opposed to battle dress) may have begun with the nobility at court, the need for a self-defense weapon was also felt by ordinary citizens.  As the foyning method developed, however, it came to be employed more and more by that class which most engaged in private duels of honor, the nobility. Within a generation it became a popular martial skill to study for most sophisticated Renaissance gentlemen. In some places it was a fad to study in private the “secrets” of an exotic style under a foreign master. As with later smallswords (the duelling blade of 18th century gentlemen) some rapiers were also carried by unskilled men simply as symbols of rank and authority. 

Did the rapier require special training to learn?

Every sword requires specialized training in order to use it to its fullest capacity and the rapier was no different.  However, it has been said that slashing or chopping with a cutting blow is much more instinctive than delivering a straight thrust.  Unlike earlier traditions of martial arts in Renaissance Europe which focused on battlefield use and general self-defense skills, the thin and light rapier required a change in the stance as well as the footwork in order to gain maximum reach while avoiding being stabbed or cut in return. So, over a generation or two a new method of training was specifically developed as preparation for the unique nature of fighting a duel with a rapier against another rapier.

Rapiers could in their time reasonably expect to face a range of cutlasses, sabres, broadswords, two-hand swords, and daggers, as well as bucklers and pole-weapons while still encountering buff coats, chest plates, and maile armor (sometimes worn under clothing).  So a man would need to learn in general how to “fight”, not simply “fence” with rapier against rapier.

Rapier fencing was taught by gentlemen and nobles, true, but this had always been the case with virtually all earlier forms of swords and weapons. Most every form of fighting was practiced by the aristocracy in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance and taught in private or at court. The rapier was no exception to this. Yet, as with earlier weapons, it was also taught by professional instructors who were common tradesmen and soldiers.

Did fighting with the rapier involve any grappling or wrestling?

With few exceptions, until sometime in the 1700s all sword combat invariably involved grappling and wrestling as an important component. A skilled fighter could always close in with his opponent to disarm or throw him or otherwise trap him in some way. He also had to be able to defend against his opponent doing the same.  A weapon certainly helps you to fight, to protect yourself from blows, and to deliver lethal ones of your own.  But it does not entirely eliminate the possibility of an enemy getting at you and grabbing hold. 

How did a swordsman learn and practice rapier fencing?

In the age of the rapier men had to train carefully even though they were learning how to fight for real.  If a man were injured by a practice partner he might easily be blinded or maimed for life and thus, be unable to work or earn a living.  He might also seek revenge for the accident by assassination or murder. 

To learn effectively how to fence together men therefore had to be cautious but trusting. Blunted and unpointed weapons, originally called “foyled” blades, were typically used that would not hurt if they hit too hard.  Additionally, agreements to abide by certain safety rules for practicing were made, such as not aiming blows at the face. Men would exchange as drills certain pre-arranged attack and defence actions and, eventually, conduct open bouts of mock combat. But even then, they were careful not to thrust too high or too hard. Without the fencing masks developed in the 1700s, they simply had to be wary and alert.  Yet this approach evidently proved effective enough and surely must have developed alert and precise fighters. 

The physics of thrusting swordplay, unlike the dynamic clashing of broader blades, can be worked out and learned slowly, provided care is taken.  Though developing the quick vigorous skills for actual combat still required considerable exercise. As with any method of fighting, rapiers were taught through a series of drills and exercises that conveyed the weapon’s techniques along with core principles of fighting (that is, timing, distance, technique, etc.). However, just what the lessons were and how they were passed along is something we no longer have any record of and can only speculate on in our reconstructions. The key or foundational elements of the weapon are clear enough from the surviving historical study guides. Still more has been learned from literature of the period and modern experiments. But just how rapier fencers actually practiced their craft is something still being explored at the present.

Men learning to fight with a rapier would have been taught fundamental warding postures or fighting stances, basic attacks, how to step and move, and how to deal with attacks by putting them aside, evading them, or closing in against them. They would have been taught awareness of the different divisions of the blade, where it was stronger or weaker when pressed or pressing. They would have been instructed in using their free hand or dagger to parry, trap, or strike and they would have learned when to hit with their hilt and when to grapple and wrestle as needed.

There were schools and masters of Renaissance martial arts all over Europe teaching swordplay in the 1500s and 1600s. According to some teachers of the age the rapier’s manner of fight was actually very easy to acquire. It was still highly methodical, often presented with a wrapping of geometry and involved jargon, and frequently viewed as more refined and scientific than the traditional “military” fencing that it largely replaced off the battlefield. One master in 1617 even claimed a boy of fifteen could learn to defend himself against any man in very few lessons. Other teachers wrote the rapier’s basis could even be learned without a teacher.

How were rapiers made?

Because they did not require especially hard edges, nor great flexibility, a rapier was actually not that difficult to produce. As with any sword it had to be both strong and resilient. It had to be able to withstand blows without breaking but it also had to be able to hold an edge or point without staying bent or dulling instantly after an impact. As swordsmiths now will point out, there is an almost infinite variety of ways to produce such a slender sword with one geometric shape or another that adds rigidity and lightness. (Despite the many different rapier blade shapes I have not seen a modern replica yet today that unfortunately doesn't rely on the same simple flat-diamond shape, even though this represents only one small form of earlier rapier blade styles).

There are several modern myths about how swords are made.  Select iron ore had to be first processed by heating and working it into steel before it could be shaped.  Swords were never made by pouring molten metal into molds (this would only produce a brittle and weak cast-iron shape).  Swords were also not created by pounding red hot metal into shape on an anvil. Rather, after heating, the material had the consistency of soft clay and needed to be carefully and gradually hand-shaped by a skilled craftsman slowly and softly working it. Blades were also not made by merely quenching (dunking) them into water or some other liquid while red hot. This merely was a finishing step in hardening the outside after a final careful reheating. Before this a complex process of slow tempering (heat-treating) was conducted to ensure the blade had the right stiffness and resilience. This part was a major aspect of a swordsmith’s art.

Most every kind of sword blade involves combining a softer inner core of iron with a harder outer surrounding of steel.  Getting this “sandwich” combination right for the kind of job a particular blade was being called upon to perform was not easy.  Most blades were produced by a folding process (something not exclusive to Japanese swords) which mixed the required attributes of hard and soft metal. Finally, their end shape would be produced by hand grinding and polishing. To test rapiers, they would be thrust and flexed against a resistant target. This was not to make sure they could repeatedly flex, for that was not what they were intended for, but rather to test whether they were well tempered and durable. If made too stiff they would snap, if too soft they would not recover from the bend.  They might also be thrust against a softer material to see how easily they pierced it.

While the basic geometry of a rapier blade was probably produced in the forging process, the final shape and the beveled facets of the edge would likely have been created by grinding (perhaps even after the blade had been heat treated).  Compared to those on a broad cutting sword, the tapers and cross-sectional changes on a narrow stabbing blade would also be minimal. Additionally, a thin blade would be less likely to distort or warp during the hardening by heat (tempering) process.

Are practice rapiers and modern replicas different than the real ones?

Real rapiers were quite stiff. They needed to be very rigid in order to easily thrust into human bodies when trying to harm an enemy. If not, they would be unable to successfully puncture through material such as cloth, leather, flesh, and even bone.  They also had to be able to deliver techniques as well as deflect and beat other blades without wobbling or whipping. To ensure this, rapiers were made with cross-sections that added rigidity and strength without being too thick or heavy.  They were also tempered in such a way to give them additional stiffness while retaining the necessary resilience.  Today, instead of being properly rigid most all reproduction rapiers are made much too flexible and sometimes even wobbly. 

This is perhaps due to the desire by many rapier fencing aficionados to have a safe practice weapon while sparring that will easily bend to a considerable degree without breaking or accidentally penetrating. But this degree of flexibility, appropriate for sport weapons, affects the way such blades perform and distorts the true techniques of real rapier fencing. There is also so far no actual evidence of any flexible practice rapiers having ever been used in the Renaissance.  Bendable practice weapons for foyning fence do not seem to appear prior to the use of the smallsword in the late 1600s. Surviving specimens of “practice” rapiers from the Renaissance are themselves quite stiff and not overly flexible.  However, there are many examples in both artwork and literature from the age of practice rapiers with large ball tips for safe training. These were used from at least the 1560s.

What is a “smallsword” and how did it descend from the rapier?

By the mid-1600s, as fashion, firearms, and necessity altered the need for personal self-defense weapons, the long bladed, large-hilted rapier fell out of general use. Much lighter, shorter versions developed which in time came to be known as smallswords (sometimes also called court-swords, town-swords, or walking swords). The distinction between the conditions under which civilian rapiers and gentlemanly smallswords were each used greatly influenced their development and design. The lighter, shorter, quicker smallsword was not an inherent innovation over the earlier rapier and did not “outfight” it. Rather than the smallsword design being in itself any great virtue over the longer rapier, it was instead developed for more specific and narrow circumstances.  The smallsword was a more poised, somewhat formalized, dueling weapon whose teachings involved as much deportment and composure as it did technique. In contrast to the longer rapier, the smallsword fencing style, using a much shorter and lighter blade, made a separate parry and riposte (counter-attack) as two distinct movements.


The smallsword’s method of both parrying and counter-attacking as two separate actions (in “double time”) was not an intrinsic “improvement” over earlier methods of fighting—which employed simultaneous actions of offense and defense by counter-blow—but an adaptation. When an exceptionally light thrusting sword came about, purposely developed for civilian duelling with another similar weapon, it naturally could affect two separate motions out of the action of parrying a thrust and returning another.  This was no great advancement in fencing theory as much as common sense fighting by using a weapon’s intrinsic speed to its logical technical advantage. 

Many elements native to the rapier were naturally carried over with the fighting style of the smallsword. But with each generation of fencers, as instances for self-defence with a sword became less and less frequent while duelling became more and more ritualized and sporting play increasingly replaced earnest fighting, fewer aspects of the older rapier were maintained. In time, it took on a character all its own-one which owed far more to baroque sensibilities of deportment than practical Renaissance street-combat.

How does rapier fencing of the Renaissance compare to modern fencing styles?

Modern s sport fencing developed in the late 1800s from styles of fencing created in the 1700s at a time when fewer kinds of swords were being used by fewer men under less varied conditions.  It is the smallsword, and not the earlier rapier, from which modern sport fencing styles are directly derived. It has far more in common with this humble weapon than it does with rapiers or any earlier Renaissance swords. Modern fencing’s “weapons” were in fact never real swords. They were designed specifically for simulation in a safe duelling game. They are much lighter, softer, and faster than their historical counter-parts. Their specialized rules of play observe artificial constraints that have very little to do with any elements of Renaissance swordsmanship. Despite what many people commonly try, real rapiers, being heavier, stiffer, sturdier, and with larger hilts than today’s relatively flimsy sporting weapons, cannot be used in the same flippy manner as modern fencing does (and vice versa). 

By the mid-19th century it was already being recognized that fencing was changing further. Things that could be safely done in the fencing classroom with blunt flexible weapons and protective masks would never be attempted in real fights with sharp blades. This process of transition from martial art to martial sport accelerated with each decade. Techniques possible with feather weight tools designed for a game of scoring points would be suicidal in a real duel. But increasingly these actions alone were the only ones permitted in friendly competitive bouting, and thus, were the only ones being taught any longer.

Though rapiers and later smallswords, foils, and epees all utilize similar core movements (since they are all forms of foyning fence) on the whole there are considerable differences between them. Many elements of rapier fighting described in accounts of combats and duels or taught within texts from the period are simply illegal in the modern sport.  There is no use of either secondary weapons or the free hand, for example, and combatants are not permitted to use too much force against their adversary’s blade. This alone in itself alters the nature of the fight and the techniques used significantly. There is no blade grabbing or manual disarms allowed, nor can the fighter grab his own blade with both hands in any manner.  There are also no cutting strikes at all used with later foyning weapons, even if just to aggravate and harass the opponent and sometimes no blows are delivered below the waist. There is no body contact permitted at all in modern fencing, and certainly no grappling allowed to hold or trip or throw the opponent. This alone fundamentally changes the approach and attitude brought to such a fight. 

Why did rapiers fade away?

The rapier era was active for some 150 years, just long enough for several varieties of the weapon and several fighting theories for using them to have evolved before firearms made them truly obsolete for personal self-defense. The rapier stayed in wide use as the premier personal weapon for urban self-defence and duel of honor in Western Europe until the mid-to-late 1600s, but was largely outmoded by the early 1700s. Their long blades and elaborate hilts were largely impractical in the changing social environment, where they were an encumbrance while walking through crowds, dancing at balls, sitting in formal rooms, getting in and out of carriages, etc. As the daily wearing of swords about town and at court declined there was no longer the opportunity for sudden challenges and assaults as there once was. Similarly, there was no longer the same urgent necessity to employ a dagger or suddenly parry a thrust with the bare hand. Thus, rapiers fell out of use. It took time however before the tens of thousands of excellent rapiers then in existence were slowly modified or abandoned by men seeking more fashionable, shorter swords.

What makes the rapier special?

As a personal weapon of urban self-defense, the vicious and elegant rapier became the dueling tool par excellence.  In my opinion (speaking also as avid admirer of both longswords and sword & buckler fencing), for single unarmored duels with a sword, in skilled hands the slender rapier is a vicious and formidable weapon for single combat not to be underestimated (especially by those unfamiliar with its unique style of fight). Its method is quick, deceptive, subtle, and represents one of the most innovative and original aspects of our Western martial heritage.

The rapier was distinct in Western European sword history in that it represented a specialization of design—that is, a weapon optimized for unarmored single-combat rather than fighting most anywhere, anytime, or under any conditions.  It was strictly a personal weapon, never used or intended for war or battlefield. However, what a rapier arguably did best was fight another rapier. As a slender, civilian thrusting sword the rapier was a sophisticated and highly effective form of personal combat, vicious and elegant in its lethality. 

How come so many different looking sword blades seem to have been called “rapier” over such a short span of time?

This is not a hard concept to grasp. Regardless of the names continually evolving for different types of swords in the period, there were tapered single-hand swords and then there were rapiers (hence, the new methods of civilian fencing that developed in the 16th century). The weapons are not identical and do not perform or handle identically. This is self-evident in handling original specimens and in test-cutting with modern reproductions of each type. Military and civilian blades of radically different cross-sectional profiles are simply not synonymous. They cannot all be employed as some foil/saber hybrid. Arguing that they do is an astounding display of idiocy and ignorance. The whole idea is simply that there was a new slenderer, tapered, single-hand sword blade becoming popular that was not intended or suited for military use and which emphasized thrusts. These weapons eventually grew so slender that they lost all cutting capacity as they developed a particular method of counter-thrusting use. Oddly, despite the sometimes view that all slender Renaissance swords and rapiers are essentially the same, it is not generally claimed that rapiers and later smallswords are identical even though many smallswords were merely rapier blades shortened and given different hilts. It makes even less sense then to argue that blades of radically different cross-sectional profiles are somehow synonymous.

How can someone start studying the rapier now?

If you want to begin exploring the rapier without spending hundreds of dollars on equipment, you can purchase an inexpensive wooden rapier waster, try working with some of the material in my ’97 Renaissance Swordsmanship book as a basis for study (in which many of the elements raised here are addressed), and read through the many rapier articles and manuals online here at the ARMA website.   Practice thrusting against a target, moving by stepping quickly forward and back and diagonally while thrusting, and practice lunging and thrusting while using the left hand to parry and trap. It’s really not a difficult weapon to practice (as one master even said) once you have grasped the simple foundation of its method. It just takes time and sufficient effort.  The seemingly complicated exchanges of rapid thrust and counter thrust of foyning fence can appear highly technical and indecipherable to the uninitiated beginner, but there really are only a few movements at work. 

If you have never practiced any form of swordplay, it can be very useful to learn modern styles of foyning fence with foil and epee, as it is a descendant of the rapier.  But be aware at all times that these are very stylized forms of duelling sport far removed from Renaissance martial arts. They are taught and practiced with a number of artificial rules, limitations, and restrictions that have nothing whatsoever to do with the combat effectiveness or history of how earlier swords were actually used. The polite ritual swordplay of late 19th century duelling was a far cry from the savage ferocity of Medieval and Renaissance hand-to-hand combat. While there are core movements common between them (and between most all forms of swordplay), the differences in the weapons and the conditions they were used under are important.

Where can someone learn more about real rapiers and rapier fencing?

There are unfortunately still very few reliable sources for learning about real rapiers and real Renaissance fencing. My advice is to follow along with the articles on the ARMA website and read the books on our reading list and, of course, consider becoming a member.  Also, pay attention to everything you can and collect your own study notes. But, be always wary of its accuracy.  When it comes to rapiers (and other swords), popular conceptions in general are considerably different than both the historical and the physical reality.  In my experience, it’s often difficult for some people (whose knowledge of swords and swordsmanship primarily comes from movies, TV, video games, and comic books) to put aside their preconceptions and instead, consider the reality of the historical record when forming their opinions. What is worse, however, is that some modern fencing teachers will intentionally put forth known falsehoods concerning the rapier as a way of camouflaging their ignorance of fighting arts from the Renaissance era and their own virtual irrelevance to its study. So, read a lot, study hard, but be cautious about what information you accept as correct. As with many things, when learning either history or fencing, skepticism is healthy.

Rapier fencing is neither difficult nor complex. It existed not on its own but within a larger context of Renaissance arms and armor and fighting skills. Only the later Baroque smallsword and modern fencing made foyning fence into something elaborate. Beware of modern teachers of the rapier who, as neither high-caliber fighters with long training in Renaissance combatives nor highly skilled martial artists, go out of their way to promote the mystique of the rapier rather than its practical simplicity.

Why does historical accuracy matter when studying the rapier?

Because the rapier was a real weapon invented by real people to really fight one another, we owe it to their legacy and our heritage to respect the history involved.  History is about what actually took place, not some imaginary or pretend things. It presents for us the record of the ideas, the events, and the people that formed our world.  It is not merely a starting point of inspiration for fantasy entertainment and role-playing amusement.  History really happened.

There is nothing imaginary that can compare to the reality of the millions of our ancestors having over centuries lived out their lives, working, playing, loving, creating, thinking, fighting, and dying. Their efforts and ingenuity, their sweat and blood, their continuous life and death trial and error testing are our sole best source for what truly worked in personal combat.  They learned from earnest experience. They knew what worked and what didn’t because their lives depended on it.  It was real.  Rather than just make things up now or mix things together today we owe it to both our forebears and our descendants to appreciate their world and the struggles that created it. To best understand the present and prepare for the future, we must consider the past. Because to know where you’re going, you have to know where you’re from.  Whatever the motive for your interest in swords and swordplay, it must begin with a firm appreciation of the history behind when and where and why they existed.

The preceding has been excerpted from a forthcoming book on Renaissance swords. Please note this article is protected by copyright. To use, quote, copy, or reproduce any part of it for a school project or website you must contact us for permission first.

 
 

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