The rapier was not a military weapon. On the contrary, it was worn with normal clothing when a man went out and about in the sixteenth century and early part of the seventeenth. Its English name is supposed to be derived from the French la rapière which in turn was derived from the Spanish espada ropera, literally meaning ‘sword of the robe’ or ‘civilian dress sword’. At least, that is one theory; no one really knows how the term came about. The term spada de lato meaning ‘side sword’ was invented in Italy during the twentieth century by curators to distinguish a civilian sword such as a rapier from a sword of war. Some of these rapiers became highly ornate items of male jewellery with gold, enamel and gem inlays, hardly suitable for fighting. Weapons intended for fighting had no such decoration; the hilts were plain steel.
It was customary for a man to be armed for self-defence in medieval times and this remained the case until about the middle of the eighteenth century when wearing swords in public began to go out of fashion. The medieval arming sword was not only too large but too precious for everyday use so it was customary for a man to carry a shorter sword. They carried backswords known as hangers, although sometimes they were armed with what was a cross between a short sword and a long knife called a baselard (supposedly, the weapon originated in Basel). This was commonly carried by men of lower birth than those of the knightly classes but it also became fashionable for the knightly classes to carry them. It had a plain wooden handle which combined cross, grip and pommel. In Italy, the upper classes favoured a short sword called a cinquedea the blade of which was broad at the hilt (supposedly five fingers wide: hence the name) and tapered its entire length to a sharp point. It came in a range of sizes.
By the middle of the fifteenth century with the evolution of the sword hilt and the introduction of narrower blades, some Spanish noblemen started wearing a different sort of weapon in public instead of the less elegant backsword; these became known as espada ropera. Thereafter, this type of sword and the fashion for wearing them in public spread to Italy and the rest of Europe so that by the middle of the sixteenth century these weapons were commonplace. Nevertheless, the backsword or hanger remained a sturdy standby into the eighteenth century; they were often called cuttoes. These often had bone, antler or ivory handles like hunting swords.
The first true rapiers appeared in Spain and Italy during the second quarter of the sixteenth century. They were cut and thrust weapons with an emphasis on the cut despite their long slender blades being better suited to thrusting. Arguments persisted into the seventeenth century, particularly among those of a reactionary turn of mind, about whether the cut was quicker than the thrust. The size of the weapons meant that there were occasions when a cut was quicker; the lunge had yet to be invented. With the rise in popularity of these weapons, fencing schools began to pop up to teach those who wore them how to fight with them, particularly in Italy, Spain, Germany and France. In England, the rules about who could teach fencing discouraged adoption of the new weapon so the English style of swordplay (ie with swords) persisted until the end of the sixteenth century. However, Italian masters came over to London and taught rapier play from the mid-sixteenth century onwards which caused a certain amount of antagonism. The Italian masters in England were not restricted by the rules that applied to the English Masters of Defence who had been granted a charter by Henry VIII. Moreover, there was a class distinction; Italian masters came from a higher social level than English masters who tended to be regarded little better than actors.
From about 1550 to about 1610, rapier play was in constant flux as it was developed and formalised. In time, the cut was almost completely replaced by the thrust. While masters published treatises on rapier play from about the middle of sixteenth century, often well illustrated by good artists, in which they expounded their theories and practices, no universal method ever existed. Indeed, two distinct schools emerged: Spanish and Italian. All other styles of rapier play in the rest of Europe were derived from one or other of these two schools. Moreover, nearly all schools taught what was called ‘the secret thrust’, a supposedly special technique with which an adversary could be suddenly overcome when all else had failed. They were all bogus (as well demonstrated by d'Artagnan when he fights Rochefort in Richard Lester’s 1974 film The Four Musketeers). It was not until the seventeenth century that the spurious nature of these secret thrusts became self evident. Yet some of the less reputable masters still taught them in eighteenth century.
The length of rapier blades increased beyond what might be considered as reasonable, partly because of fashion and partly because many believed a longer blade conferred advantages over a shorter one. While this assertion contained some validity as far as the thrust was concerned, it was far from a universal truth. Eventually, blades became so long they were almost useless for fighting and blade length became a matter of bravado. The wearing of rapiers in public certainly gave rise to disorder. Men fell out and brawled and fomented duels for little reason other than it what would be termed in a later age as machismo. The civil authorities in England grew weary of the problems caused by the fashion for long blades and brawling. On 12 February 1566, blade length was prescribed by statute in which
her majesty … ordereth and commandeth that no person shall wear any sword, rapier, or suchlike weapon that shall pass the length of one yard and half-a-quarter of the blade at the uttermost, nor any dagger above the length of twelve inches in blade at the most, nor any buckler with any point or pike above two inches in length. And if any cutler or other artifices shall sell, make, or keep in his house any sword, rapier, dagger, buckler [a type of shield], or suchlike contrary thereunto, the same to be imprisoned and to make fine at the Queen's majesty's pleasure, and the weapon to be forfeited; and if any such person shall offend a second time, then the same to be banished from the place and town of his dwelling.
‘One yard and half-a-quarter’ amounted to 40.5 inches (nearly 103 cm) although the ‘yard’ measure was imprecise at that time. It is significant that the word ‘rapier’ was used explicitly at that date.
Duelling was a bane in Elizabethan England as well as in continental Europe. Bans on it were enacted but only erratically enforced, although anyone who killed a man in a duel could be put on trial for his life, especially if he had provoked the duel in the first place. The rapier encouraged every man who wore one to think he could fight with it. This was in contradistinction to the medieval ethos whereby only the knightly classes were permitted to fight duels over disagreements, although in England more lowly men learned the ungentlemanly art of foyning from the likes of John Cotton, a wiredrawer by trade but a fencing master in reality.
Rapier blades were mostly in the region of 90–97 cm in length but some were as long as 115 cm and even 122 cm. The longest blades were mostly seventeenth century. Early seventeenth century Italian master Ridolfo Capo Ferro recommended that a rapier ought to be
twice as long as the arm, and as much as my extraordinary pace, which length corresponds equally to that which is from my armpit down to the sole of my foot.
This translates as 137 cm for a man of about 1.83 metres height (approximately 6 feet tall). He was talking about overall length of the sword. Blade width ranged between about 2 cm and 3 cm, the narrowest tending to be from the seventeenth century and the widest from the middle of the sixteenth. Some were very narrow indeed, being in the region of 1.5 cm. The widest blades were meant for both cut and thrust work while the narrowest were only suitable for the thrust. The blade cross-sections were diamond, hexagonal or lenticular. Blades were often hollow ground to make them stiffer although not so stiff that they broke easily. Alternatively, the apex on each face of the blade was ground out to make a fuller. Some blades, usually the wider ones, had two or more narrow grooves in the blade’s forte.
The weight of a rapier obviously depended on the length and width of blade fitted to the hilt but they were not heavy. Weights ranged between about 1.1 kg and 1.6 kg but most were somewhere in the middle. The balance of these weapons was such that most of the weight was in the hilt and, hence, in the hand when the weapon was wielded. This allowed the blade to be manipulated very much more quickly, and with the fingers, than had been possible with arming swords of the medieval period.
Four hilt types were typical of rapiers: the so-called swept hilt (c.1570–1630), the Pappenheimer (c.1610–1640), the cup hilt (c.1650–1670), and the English/cavalier hilt (c.1620–1650). There were many variations. The so-called swept hilt was a term coined by Victorian collectors and curators to describe the full or three-quarters hilt because all the bars and rings swept back over the grip towards the pommel. The Pappenheimer, although named after the German Graf zu Pappenheim who fought in the Thirty Years War (1618–48), was not devised in Germany but in The Netherlands. Mostly, it was used on military swords but some rapiers had Pappenheimer hilts. These were similar to the sweeping bars and loops of the three-quarters and full hilts but included shells, often pierced, located at the base of the ricasso in place of some of the lower loops or rings. These shells were thrust plates, stichblätter, intended to protect the hand from thrusts down a blade. Some of these curved or dished plates became quite large but they only extended over the ricasso, not the grip.
SECOND ROW LEFT Pappenheimer, c.1630 SECOND ROW RIGHT German Pappenheimer, c.1620
THIRD ROW LEFT German swept hilt, c.1600 THIRD ROW RIGHT Italian cup-hilt 1650
BOTTOM LEFT English cavalier hilt, c.1640 BOTTOM RIGHT English transitional rapier, c.1650
The English or cavalier hilt was favoured in England and The Netherlands as rapier blades became shorter and the cut was largely abandoned in favour of the thrust. The hilts reflected the fact that they were intended to protect the hand against the point rather than the edge. They were almost symmetrical and had a cup-like shell from the base of the ricasso with one or two rings above it. In its earliest form, the shell was an openwork arrangement of up to four rings joined by short bars to resemble part of a basket. The hilt had a knucklebow and usually straight quillons although the ends of later versions were scrolled downwards. This hilt evolved during the 1640s and 1650s into a form in which the shell consisted of two slightly dished oval plates, a transition on the way to becoming the smallsword hilt.
Holding the rapier was quite different from holding an arming sword, partly because of the greater length of the blade but also because of the growing emphasis on the point over the edge. Grips were often formed with a large diameter spiral shape in their surface and covered with untanned leather, velvet or shagreen (shark skin), then wound with wire. Such grips allowed a firm hold. There was no universally accepted method of holding the rapier but all methods necessitated placing one or more fingers over the quillons and curving them round, thereby effectively making the ricasso part of the grip. The thumb could be placed over the quillons on to the ricasso (like some longsword holds) or simply folded over the grip. Significantly, whichever method was adopted, the main part of the grip was effectively held in three fingers rather than a fist-like grip familiar to medieval swordsmen. While placing fingers over the quillons shortened the reach of the weapon, the extra control it afforded, particularly for thrusts, ensured widespread usage irrespective of school or style. One reason for the excessive length of rapier blades was to compensate for the foreshortened reach of this sort of hold.
Unlike swords in the medieval period, rapier blades could be used effectively irrespective of their orientation with respect to the alignment of the edges. Thus, the knuckles could be uppermost (pronation), turned downwards (supination) or held somewhere in between although the middle position was more a case of poor practice than good style. While a strong grip was important, lightness was essential to allow for ease of manipulation of the blade, achieved through the fingers and the wrist. Now, actions hardly employed with medieval swords rose in importance, among them the disengagement. Here, the attacker’s blade was moved in a small semicircle from one side of the opponent’s blade to the other, passing beneath rather than over it, from an inside line to an outside line or vice versa. This action was an essential element of rapier play because of the rise of the thrust over the cut as well as the increasing importance of feints and compound attacks. And it was quick.
To execute a lunge, the swordsman extended his point towards his opponent by straightening his arm, took a step forwards with his front foot, leaving his back foot in place, straightened the back leg and flung out the left arm behind him as a counterpoise, leaning slightly into the thrust. All these movements were coordinated to be almost simultaneous. The first action was supposed to be the straightening of the arm but with less skilled fencers the foot tended to lead thereby signally the attacker’s intent and providing the defender with ample time to respond. The lunge did not require the blade to be withdrawn in preparation which differentiated it from previous forms of thrust; indeed, that was counterproductive as it took the point away from the target rather than towards it. Again, less skilled fencers did tend to withdraw their arm first.
The lunge carried the point to the target with a lot of momentum without the swordsman having to force the blade forwards. With all the force being focused in the sword tip, the point penetrated the target with little effort. Indeed, it could easily go right through the skull and emerge the other side; the head and neck were primary targets. The lunge could be executed with the hand pronated or supinated. By flexing the wrist, a pronated hand could direct the point downwards over a defending blade, whereas a supinated hand tended to direct the point straight ahead. The lunge allowed the point to be delivered suddenly and quickly from the left, right or centre line and to go over or round an opposing rapier or dagger blade without the need for a change of engagement. But timing was all.
In less than a decade, the lunge replaced the pass as the principal means for delivering the point. Nevertheless, the pass was never entirely eliminated and it remained a part of fencing well beyond the age of the smallsword (c.1660–1760) and still exists to this day, albeit in a very different form called the flêche. Similarly, avoidances and sidesteps were never quite eliminated from rapier or smallsword play nor, indeed, were disarms which were highly dangerous when fighting with smallswords because of the speed with which these lightweight weapons could be manipulated. The volte, where the back foot was passed behind and a little beyond the front foot while extending the sword arm, was a means by which a counter could be made into an attack without bothering to parry it as it served the double purpose of avoiding the attack and delivering a counter to it. Sometimes the volte could be combined with a left hand parry but mostly the head was turned away from the attack and the free hand was put in front of it. The volte could be made with opposition whereby the defending blade engaged the attacking blade and prevented it from harming the attacker as his point was pushed home. These sorts of actions were feasible with the rapier but foolhardy with a smallsword.
The smallsword hilt consisted of a grip, a single quillon, the other bending up to the pommel to form a knucklebow, two arms which curved over the ricasso and two oval thrust plates where the arms met the ricasso, at right-angles to the blade. The ricasso was often fitted with a separate shaped extension of the hilt to accommodate one or two fingers. Masters of the eighteenth century discouraged the placing of fingers through the arms because it hindered fine control of the blade while unnecessarily exposing the fingers. By the late eighteenth century, the arms had shrunk away to almost nothing leaving no room for fingers. While some early smallswords of the mid-seventeenth century lacked a knucklebow and retained two quillons, these were the exception to the general form of the smallsword hilt. These are sometimes termed pillow swords because it was believed they were kept under a pillow for emergencies.
Smallsword blades were initially shortened versions of rapier blades but by the end of the seventeenth century a new sort of blade had replaced these. The new blades first appeared in 1680s (although similar but far longer blades had been known for a couple of hundred years). They had no cutting edges, were hollow-ground V-sections and had very fine points which required very little pressure to penetrate flesh. These blades were no more than 75–85 cm long. In 1686, French master André Wernesson de Liancour recommended that a smallsword should be no more than 36 inches (91.5 cm) but was preferably only 30 inches (76.2 cm) in length. The fortes of some of these new blades were very wide, supposedly to make parries stronger but there is little evidence to show that it made much difference. These are often termed colichmerde blades, supposedly after Graf von Königsmark who is alleged to have devised it, but the origin of the name is obscure. The smallsword often weighed no more than about 50–60 grammes, making it the lightest of all swords as well as one of the deadliest. It is from the practice weapon of this sword that the modern fencing foil is derived.
Smallsword play had been more or less perfected before the end of the seventeenth century as shown by de Liancour in Le Maistre d’armes ou l’exercice de l’espée seule dans sa perfection published in Paris 1686 although he still taught the volte and the left-hand parry among other archaic practices including disarms. Indeed, they were still being taught as late as the 1760s because, as Domenico Angelo ruefully commented in L’Ecole des Armes published in London in 1763, pupils expected it despite being discouraged by masters who regarded such actions as foolhardy with the lightweight smallsword. De Liancour taught only the point. Yet, only sixteen years earlier, another French master, Philibert de La Touche, taught edge work with the smallsword in his Les vrayes principles de l’espée seule published in Paris in 1670.
The cut La Touche advocated was what he termed estramaçon, a cut to any exposed part of an adversary, executed by using the wrist to turn the blade in a small circle and strike. He recommended that the edge be drawn through the target rather than strike it with a ‘downright blow’ as practiced with medieval swords and, indeed, by practitioners of the so-called English style of swordsmanship of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. La Touche’s action was a rapier cut. And, indeed, rapier masters advocated drawing cuts. The narrowness of rapier and double-edged smallsword blades meant that a ‘downright blow’ was not going to have an effect. In the second half of the sixteenth century, the stramazone, a flick across the face of an adversary with the tip of the blade, was an action that made use of the rapier’s lack of weight. Rapier cuts were mostly made by turning and flexing the wrist to strike arms, hands, legs or feet; either edge could be used. But by the mid-seventeenth century, La Touche was alone in teaching any sort of cutting techniques with the smallsword. The no-edge V-section smallsword blade made the cut redundant.
The wearing of swords as a part of male attire began to go out of fashion in Bath in the 1760s and the new mode for going abroad without a sidearm soon spread to London. By the end of the century, no one wore the smallsword in public anywhere in Europe and as a consequence the desire to learn fencing also declined. Attempts were made to revive it as an exercise in the early part of the nineteenth century but it was not entirely successful. By the 1840s, the art of fencing was nearly extinct but was revived by the London Fencing Club in 1848. Although rules for competitive fencing with fleurets (early versions of foils) date from the end of the seventeenth century and French master l’Abbatt, it was not until the 1860s that fencing was established as a sport. In the 1880s, enthusiasm for old styles of rapier play was revived by a group of enthusiasts in Britain among whom were Alfred Hutton, Egerton Castle and Cyril Matthey, all of whom wrote books about the evolution of swords and swordsmanship.
Despite the decline in the smallsword as a practical weapon, it survived albeit in a different guise, that of the court sword so called because it was worn with formal court dress on ceremonial occasions. It remains a part of court dress and some formal uniforms to this day but has little practical value as a weapon. Eighteenth-century military swords with hilts similar to those of smallswords are not smallswords. Their blades were intended for cut and thrust on the battlefield which no smallsword ever was.
BELOW German swept-hilt rapier, c.1600–10. It has a 104 cm blade