So wrote Monsieur l’Abbat in The Art of Fencing, Or, the USE of the Small Sword first published in Toulouse in 1690 as L’Art de l’Epée and translated into English by Andrew Mahon, professor of fencing (a term still used today for top-level fencing coaches), published in Dublin in 1734 and reprinted in London the following year. It is worth considering what Labat (in his translation, Mahon managed to misspell his predecessor’s name) had to say on the matter of swords as this went to the heart of swordsmanship. Labat believed a blade should be proportioned according to the
Stature of the Person who is to use it: The longest Sword, from Point to Pommel, should reach … from the Ground to the Navel, and the shortest, to the Waste [probably the waistband of the breeches rather than a man’s actual waist]… the over large Blades being unwieldy, unless very hollow, which makes them weak, and the narrow ones being not sufficient to cover the Body enough.
He was not alone in advising that the size of the sword should be in proportion to its owner. Most fencing masters of the time agreed with him. That such advice was thought necessary is indicative of the persistent desire of men to have a bigger sword than their rivals. The belief that a long blade conveyed to its owner some sort of advantage over someone with a shorter one was pernicious and persistent. Alas, longer did not equate with better; rather, it tended to equate with less good. A man armed with a longer blade tended to be less skilled than a man armed with correctly proportioned sword. Fencing master John MacArthur writing in 1780 stated that a sword should be of such a length that the
pommel should reach the to the hip-bone when you stand in an erect posture with the point resting on the ground near your heel.
Smallswords were usually around 97 cm (38 inches) from the pommel to the tip which more or less accorded with Labat’s criteria for the shortest sword.
A swordsman would choose a blade and a hilt from a wide selection offered by a sword cutler but what he chose depended on the size of his purse. Not surprisingly, the best blades and hilts cost the most money while the cheapest were sometimes hardly worth buying in the first place. In 1669, Pepys gave his servant a sword which cost 12 shillings (when an excellent income of the time would have been £500 per annum). At about this date, the Duke of Bedford spent £5–15 each year on swords, including repairs to old ones. In 1666, a sword with a blade of the highest quality (a damascene blade) cost between £2 and £2 10s. If a weapon had an ornamented hilt such as one made in silver or a russet and gilt hilt, the cost was considerably greater. The more elaborate and showy weapons could cost upwards of £50. Some cost hundreds. Old Bailey court proceedings often show that a sword cost only 5 shillings but this was not its true value, merely a legal figure for the purposes of prosecuting an assailant or murderer.
Although the triangular-section hollow-ground blades are supposed to have replaced the double-edged flat blades during the seventeenth century, it is evident from the Enclycopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné de Science, Arts et Métiers (edited by Diderot and d’Alembert, published in Paris 1751–65) that this was not, in fact, the case. The Enclycopédie clearly describes Paris sword cutlers selling double-edged blades as normal practice. And it is likely that such blades would have been given sharp edges despite the fact that smallsword play did not involve the cut, La Touche’s estramaçon notwithstanding.
First, that the Blade have no Flaw in it, especially across, it being more dangerous so than Length-way. Secondly, That it be well tempered … The third Observation is to be made by breaking the Point, and if the Part broken be of a grey Colour, the Steel is good; if it be white ’tis not
Breaking off the tip of the blade to observe the crystal structure of the steel might seem a bit extreme but the cutlers did not object if absence of comment on the subject may be taken to be acceptance of the practice. The records of the Cutler’s Company in England certainly failed to note any objections to the practice. Indeed, cutlers had suitable vices on their premises to allow the tip to be snapped off without damaging the rest of the blade. And one of the sword slippers (someone who finished a blade and polished it) employed by the cutler would have had no difficulty in grinding a new point.
Labat suggested that the prospective purchaser ‘strike the Blade with a Key or other Piece of Iron’ then listen to the sound it made. If the blade rang clearly, it contained no faults. The tempering of the steel could be tested by placing the point against a wall and pushing but not too forcefully in case the tester inadvertently weakened the blade by bending it too much. A weakened blade could easily break in a fight. The Diderot Enclycopédie includes an illustration of the interior of a sword cutler’s shop in which a client is testing a blade in precisely this way. If the blade bent
only towards the Point, ’tis faulty, but if it bend in a semicircular Manner, and the Blade spring back to its Straitness, ’tis a good Sign; If it remains bent it is a Fault, tho’ not so great as if it did not bend at all; for a Blade that bends being of a soft Temper, seldom breaks; but a stiff One being hard tempered is easily broke.
Labat was talking about both hollow-ground V-section blades and double-edged blades. However, V-section blades were stiffer than double-edged blades so they tended to resist being bent. In trying to produce a semicircular bend in such a blade was likely to damage it beyond use. Double-edged blades were more flexible and straighter than V-section blades so that bending them to that extent would be less likely to damage them. Hollow-ground blades were stiffer and often had a slight curve in them, deliberately introduced, a practice that was frowned upon at the time. Such a blade was termed a bully’s blade, le tour de breteur. This bend is a feature of modern sport weapons and is known as the ‘advantage’. While such a curvature helped to preserve the blade by ensuring that when it bent it did so in a predetermined direction, it also meant that the point had the potential go round an apparently good parry and strike the target. This kind of thing was best avoided by stepping back on the parry rather than into the attack or remaining stationary.
In the 1760s, Domenico Angelo, one of the greatest swordsman of his day, offered much the same advice as Labat had done seventy years earlier. And the French master, Guillaume Danet, Angelo’s great rival, writing a few years later in Paris, offered similar advice, adding that the customer would be wise to remove the layer of grease in which cutlers kept their blades (to prevent corrosion) to inspect it for flaws. This could be done by pushing the blade in and out of a pile of hot sand which, presumably, was available on the cutler’s premesis. Having removed the grease, Danet advised the customer to run his fingers along the blade to detect any undulations in the surface. If present, they would indicate a substandard blade which should be rejected.
Labat also recommended that the prospective purchaser have the cutler assemble the hilt in front of him because they were not always scrupulous and
to save themselves the Trouble of filing the inside of the hilts and pommel, to make the Holes wider, often file the Tongue [tang] of the Blade too much, and fill up the Vacancies with Bits of Wood, by which Means the Sword is not firm in the Hand, and the tongue being thin and weak, is apt to break in Parrying or on a dry Beat, as has been unhappily experienced. Care should also be taken that the End of the Tongue be well riveted to the Extremity of the Pommel, lest the Grip should fly off, which would be of very dangerous Consequence.
Angelo offered similar advice as did other masters of the period. However, the use of thin slivers of wood as packing was common practice to ensure the handle was a snug fit on the tang and did not move. These pieces of wood were simply replaced whenever the blade needed adjustment or refurbishment. When it came to the guard, or shell as it was now termed, Labat advised that it should be in proportion to the size of the blade and be suitable for resisting thrusts from a sword point. In other words, brass or steel were preferable to silver if the weapon was meant to be of practical use rather than mere adornment.
The grip or handle should fit the hand.
Some like square Handles, and others chuse round Ones; the square are better and firmer in the Hand, but as this Difference depends on Fancy, as does also the [knuckle] Bow, which in some Cases may preserve the Hand, but may be a Hindrance in inclosing, I shall leave it to the Decision of the Fashions.
How much of this was derived from Labat’s view of the ideal and how much came from what actually occurred is difficult to resolve as there are many smallsword grips which are barrel-shaped and others with oval cross-sections. Some, like modern sport weapons, had square-section grips because they allowed a firmer grasp of the weapon and were easier to manipulate with the index finger and thumb. Donald McBane, who wrote from practical experience of fighting both on and off the battlefield, offered advice on hilts. In 1728, he advised
Let the grip of your sword be no bigger than that you can close your little finger round it and touch the palm of your hand.
In 1771, when the smallsword was no longer de rigueur, John McArthur believed the hilt should be no more than 7 inches (17.8 cm) from the shell to the pommel button.
Irrespective of their size and shape, the ‘handles’ were usually bound in wire, sometimes with a spiral ridge running up the length of the grip and finished top and bottom with Turk’s head knots (so-called because the knotting resembled a turban worn by the Ottomans). Such knots had also been used on rapier hilts. Some hilts, particularly German and Dutch ones, were made entirely of steel or brass and, thus, had no wire binding but this was a matter of fashion not function.