wpe31F.jpg (13669 bytes)Replication of Rapier Fencing Today

John Clements, ARMA Directorjcbio.jpg (2938 bytes)

Serious interest in practicing renaissance rapier fencing has been growing for over a decade now and a variety of methods for safely doing so have appeared. Among the most common and popular means is to simply use normal sport epees and associated equipment. Also popular are the use of wider theatrical-epees with historical-style replica hilts and some historical-fencing enthusiasts even can be found using sport foils and sabers. All of these practices are common in re-creational and living-history organizations or with renaissance festival performances. There are also several fencing clubs that also offer forms of "classical fencing" or historical "swordplay". This choice of using epees, whether of the competition or theatrical variety, is very natural and at first thought makes perfect sense. They are familiar, safe, fairly easy to obtain, and compared to reproduction weapons, inexpensive. It is no surprise then that they would be adopted for "make-believe" rapier practice by so many enthusiasts. But does all this justify the practice? Is it sound? The answer is a clear and incontestable no. The compelling evidence and observable facts argue strongly against the practice. But because of its growing popularity and prevalence it must be addressed. Despite the nearly obvious reality that the modern sporting version of fencing is far removed form the martial-art of renaissance rapier, there are some that still do not seem to grasp this. A great many enthusiasts insist upon using sport epees and even foils for imitation rapier fencing. In spite of the significant differences in the weight, length, gripping, and functioning of modern epees and foils from a true rapier, there are those who insist on using them for its practice. This is like doing ping-pong to pretend your playing tennis.

wpe18.jpg (8348 bytes)Rapier fighting cannot be accurately understood or practiced merely by adding in a few historical stances and theatrical moves to modern sport fencing. Changing the rules you fence under is one thing, but changing the weapon itself has a far greater effect. Epees are designed for epee fencing; they are not true rapiers. Pretending an epee is a rapier is a sure way of deluding oneself into misunderstanding the real sword. Even wider theatrical epees with historical hilts just do not handle or perform in a way that closely approximate true rapier blades, and in fact lead to improper techniques. Epees promote a range of inappropriate actions which real rapiers can’t perform while simultaneously preventing many of those they can. Yes, there are plenty of commonalities in basic actions between them, but their more subtle and significant elements are distinct. Using them even in some modified manner not only misrepresents rapier combat but builds disregard for traditional epee fence as well. Surely it makes no sense to use the same exact tool both for traditional fencing instruction and for rapier training? But many do just this out of convenience, habit, or ignorance. Some use epees to practice forms of "classical" 18th century small-sword fencing, which is certainly resonable. But should you then use the same tool for a much earlier sword form?  For students of historical-fencing now to believe that by using modern sport epees they can somehow simulate actual rapiers, does a disservice to the genuine reconstruction of the historical Art. Doing so serves only to further cloud understanding of the true weapon and its significant differences from the modern sporting versions (as well as from stage fighting). This is all the more annoying given the magnitude of people now out there actively training with the real weapons as a true martial-art form and not mere sport or theatrical show (granted, there are a wide assortment of costumed theorists and juvenile fantasy role-players not helping matters much either, but this is changing, thankfully).

Nonetheless, there are actually a few traditional (classical and sport) fencing teachers and masters today who, after spending 30 or 40 years using foils, epees, and sabers, believe this then gives them the sole credibility to make authoritative pronouncements on the use of the historical rapier & dagger and the sword & buckler or dagger (or even on all manner of medieval arms & armor). Renaissance swordsmanship, whether of the earlier cut & thrust form or the rapier, or even the later small-sword should, not be studied exclusively from the limited perspective of the modern Collegiate/Olympic form. What is now left of Renaissance martial-arts within the highly refined sporting skills of modern fencing is far removed from its rapier origins. When we consider the words of Joseph Swetnam from his "Noble and Worthy Science of Defence" written in 1617, we can see this is situation not entirely new:

"Then he is not worthy to be called a Master of Defence, which cannot defend himself at all weapons…and therefore greatly wronged are they which will call such a one a Fencer, for the difference between a Master of Defence and a Fencer, is as much as between a Musician and a Fiddler, or betwixt a Merchant and a Peddler…"

For rapier students today, there are viable and superior alternatives to the limitations and distortions of using foils or epees. Far better as rapier simulators are the newer versions of flexi-rapier and "schlager" blades (the weapon used for the unusual Mensur, German fraternity dueling). For many years they have been adapted for rapier simulation by numerous historical-fencing groups. Although created for slashing techniques, the newer long schlagers have good flexibility and are quite safe for thrusting fence. More importantly, they come in a variety of lengths at 35, 37, 40, and 45 inches. Matched with styles of replica hilts now available from a number of specialty cutlerers and fitted a safety tip (typically an archery "rabbit blunt") they more closely resemble the real thing. They are a superior in representing the feel, weight, handling, and performance of a true rapier than any simple epee or foil. The major differences between the speed, agility, and reach of a schlager rapier-simulator over a sport fencing weapon are profound. The only exception required for schlager "rapier" fencing is that a stronger or more heavily padded jacket is necessary in order to resist the stiffer hits of its larger tip.

wpe17.jpg (8263 bytes)On the downside, they tend to be very whippy and this can be an annoying distraction as well as lead to a significant distortion of technique. Also, schlager blades with a nice reproduction hilt can be up to three times the price of an ordinary foil or epee. They can range from about $85 for the bottom of the line model to $300 or more. Flexi-rapiers such as made by Del Tin Armi Antiche and sold mounted by Darkwoord Armory among others are an excellent alternative.  These also run in the $200-$300 price range.  But like true rapiers, their blades actually taper and have diamond or flat hexagonal cross-sections. For those use to the light, quickness of a sport weapon, the heaviness and stiffness of a schalger or especially the newer flexi-rapiers may seem intimidating and dangerous. But this is precisely what makes them so desirable for rapier practice.

Of course, the obvious way to proceed with learning rapier fencing is certainly through the use of historically accurate replicas. While reproduction rapiers are great for training drills and exercises, they have clear limitations for actual fencing or sparring. They are unsafe for strong contact, expensive, and it’s not easy for everyone to obtain a quality piece. Regardless, thorough experience with them must be considered mandatory. A good replica rapier can be as different from a schlager blade in its handling and performance as a schlager is from an epee or foil. Obviously nothing is a better for teaching the Art of rapier fence than a rapier. Make it a goal to add a fine historical reproduction rapier to your inventory, at the least for solo practice exercises.  For safe rapier & dagger fencing, "flexi-daggers" (varying in quality and rigidity) are also available. These are made strong enough for parrying a schlager yet safe enough for contact stabbing. They are far safer than using any form of knife blade.

RapierLesson2.JPG (39129 bytes)In summary, to think that in the interpretation and reconstruction of rapier fencing today we can go from doing mock combat sparring, based on some limited preconceptions, to then understanding what the real Art was all about, is misguided. This is a backwards approach. What we should and must do, is first reconstruct renaissance swordsmanship as a true martial-art. We must redevelop it as legitimate fighting skills before we attempt to simulate it with any limited set of pretend weapons and rules. Only then can we go on to replicate its own particular principles and concepts. Obviously, we cannot (nor should we want to) engage in lethal combat with real weapons. But there are alternatives to reinventing sport fencing and performing choreographed fight scenes or just play-fighting. Imagine what the state of traditional Asian martial-art forms would be today if there were no surviving schools or instructors, no Karate or Jujitsu, no Tae Kwon Do or Kung Fu, but only people dressing up and playing with sparring gear. What would be the nature of their skills? Could these people with their narrow understanding be realistically expected to reformulate actual, lethal combat techniques by just pretending at it? Could they go on from this to recreate historical killing arts? Hardly. However, such is the state of much of the stylized play fencing that currently passes for renaissance fighting skills today. Indeed, the efforts of many well-meaning living-history organizations and historical role-play groups with their emphasis on the romance and fantasy of historical-reenactment, have at times retarded the interpretation and replication of renaissance (and medieval) fighting arts. Similar criticism can be lobbied against the stage-combat community with its consistent misrepresentation of elements that have little or no place either in real fighting or in the disciplined practice of a true martial-art. But, all this is something that each student of the sword must deal with inidvidually.

Whether as an individual or as a group, the sincere, earnest practice of any martial-art must be, at its core, a very personal undertaking. This is the case with regard to using foils or epees for rapier fighting. In some ways it has become an excuse for neither learning proper fencing form, nor for training realistically in the rapier as a true martial-art. For some enthusiasts, it apparently is just easier to make wild, sloppy movements with a light epee and call it "historical", than it is to put the required time and effort into actually learning the true method with a real sword. Epees and foils are simply not renaissance rapiers, no matter how hard we pretend otherwise. Could they still be tools used in the absence of all other options? Yes, but doing so involves a host of problems as stated above.  If you want to enjoy classical or modern sport fencing, then do classical or modern sport fencing. If you want to learn to use a rapier, use a rapier -or at the least, a proper facsimile of one. Playing with foils, epees, or sport sabers is not going to teach the use of real rapiers, let alone an understanding of its cut-and-thrust predecessors.

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