The rapier: facts, factoids and unanswered questions
by Tom Leoni
What is a rapier?
In order to stay within the scope of a short and general article
such as this, I will start by presenting my own general definition of a rapier.
A rapier is a long, straight-bladed cut-and-thrust single-handed sword optimized
for the thrust and featuring a guard that affords good protection to the hand;
the rapier sees its apogee between the last third of the Sixteenth Century and
the end of the Seventeenth.
Or, since a picture is worth a thousand words, a rapier is a sword
that looks like this as opposed to
I am all too aware that such definition is incomplete and imperfect.
But in reality, there still exists a good deal of debate in the community about the
exact essence of this weapon, and about the precise placement of the boundaries of
when a "sword" actually becomes a "rapier." This is further complicated by the fact
that in Italy, the rapier was simply known as "spada" (=sword), while in other
countries like England, a sword may have been called a "rapier" just by virtue of
being used by a foreigner, especially an Italian.
There are also a number of unanswered questions about the rapierís
development. How early does the rapier appear? In what country does it originate?
Out of what earlier sword-type does it evolve? All these questions and many others
will be hopefully answered as the Hopological (=study of weapons) investigation of
our European heritage progresses. But the stark truth is that, as of today, the
answers we have are vague and often contradictory.
Anatomy of the rapier and nomenclature of its parts
One of the most characteristic parts of the rapier is the hilt.
Rapier hilts varied greatly in shape and complexity, ranging from a simple set of
rings in protection of the hand to the typically Spanish "cup hilt." During the
time of Fabris, a rapierís hilt would typically feature a cross-guard with both
quillons, a knuckle-bow, two arms and an outer and inner guard composed of rings
Sometimes, it is possible to associate a particular hilt-style with
a region or country. For instance, flattened, oval-shaped finials were fairly typical
of England, while the shape commonly referred to as Pappenheimer is associated with
the Germanic countries. But given the strongly international nature of late-Renaissance
trade, it is often impossible to pinpoint a rapierís geographical origin with certainty,
unless the piece is clearly, truthfully and recognizably marked.
To a certain extent, the same is true of age. Several hilt types went
in and out of fashion several times over practically a century and a half. Others, though,
are easier to place within a certain time-frame: the cup-hilt, for instance, did not make
its appearance until the second quarter of the 17th Century.
Rapier blades varied in length, width, shape and thickness. A typical
rapier blade of the age of Fabris was around 40 to 42 inches long and tapered from 1 or 1Ĺ inches to a
fine point. However, this is very much a generalization and it should be borne in mind
that rapiers could vary as much in their blade as in their hilt.
For more on the typical length and handling characteristics of a rapier,
look at Steve Reichís excellent article.
Dispelling a few myths about the rapier
In recent years, the enthusiasm of some researchers has gotten
slightly ahead of their investigation of historical sources; consequently, many
myths that had plagued the rapierís image between the Victorian era and the years
of the Silver Screen have been replaced by new ones. Interestingly, some of these
new myths seem to be borne of a conscious determination to go 180 degrees against
the old ones. And as a result of this determination, the new myths are often more
wrong than the ones they are meant to replace! Here is a few of them.
Myth: the rapier is a slow and cumbersome weapon.
On the contrary, tipping the scale at somewhere between 2 and 3 lbs, a typical
rapier is a very nimble sword capable of the most subtle nuances. Furthermore,
a well-made rapier that balances around 4 to 5 inches from the cross-guard enables a
skilled swordsman to execute quick, elaborate maneuvers that are all but
impossible with other swords. However, the rapier (like most good forms of
swordsmanship) does not strictly rely on speed alone, being instead primarily
dependent on good tempo, correct measure and proper technique.
Myth: a rapier is only "a rapier" if it does not have a cutting
edge. Those who believe this imagine the rapier as some sort of overgrown foil,
but (for some reason) with a virtually inflexible blade. Even a cursory look at a
museum collection and an open mind is enough to update oneís understanding of this
weapon. While it is true that some rapiers (especially in the mid-to-late 17th Century)
featured a blade-geometry not conducive to taking an edge, these are more the exception
than the rule in the age of Fabris. Another rather macroscopic piece of evidence in this
regard are the hundreds of references to cutting techniques contained in rapier manuals,
from Fabris to Capoferro to Alfieri and many others. No real master would have included
a plethora of techniques that would have been impossible to perform with the most
fashionable sword of the time.
Myth: the rapier could not cut. While definitely not
optimized for the cut, most rapiers from the age of Fabris sported a fine edge
that could produce very formidable cuts. The cut is actually utilized in most
period rapier texts, although the thrust is preferred as more lethal and tactically
superior. In some treatises such as Alfieri (1640) the cut is shown as an alternate
offense to almost all techniques. Furthermore, most rapier cuts were aimed at the
head and the limbs, making them potentially debilitating or at least very painful.
Lastly, for any cut to be effective, the swordsman needs to employ proper technique:
no sword, European or Asian, is magical in that regard.
Myth: when the rapier was used for the cut, it was only tip
cuts or harassment cuts. There is virtually no evidence of such technique as a
"harassment cut" ever being employed or even mentioned by period masters. Quite
to the contrary, those like Fabris who speak of the exact delivery of the cut specify
that the whole half of the blade containing the tip should be employed while "slicing"
through the target. With a normal rapier featuring a blade-length of about 42 inches,
that would make 20 inches of sharp blade slicing through oneís scalp or limbs at a
very high speed, combined with a strong percussive element. Only a man of incredible
fiber would receive such cut as merely "harassment."
Myth: the rapier was mostly used with an "anything goes" style,
primarily in street brawls. We should not forget that the rapier was the chief
sidearm of the nobility and the upper middle class. Letís also keep in mind that
good swordsmanship was seen as one of the most important indicators of a personís
upbringing and education. Hence the level of incredible refinement and economy of
motion displayed in treatises such as the Fabris, as well as the degree of ritualistic
codification of the duel during the apogee of the rapier. Rapiers were used just as
much in deadly duels as they were in safe and friendly matches where one could display
his fencing skills before an admiring audience; rapiers were also present on the
battlefields of Europe (with mixed success) and, no doubt, they also would have found
their way to the hands of street bravi and tavern brawlers.
Myth: the nuances of rapier fencing described in the period
texts become unavailable in bouting. A few months of dedication to the weapon
are enough to disprove this theory. Most of the subtle techniques that constitute
the basis of rapier fencing, such as the lunge, the girata, the cavazione, the feint
and the single-tempo parry-counter become second nature in a matter of weeks. As
with most Renaissance arts, that of the rapier is based on a thorough awareness of
body-mechanics, and is actually designed to play on the natural strengths of the
Myth: a rapier blade is too flimsy to execute strong parries.
As Fabris says in Chapter 3, there is no blow, no matter how stoutly delivered, that
cannot be parried with the first half of the rapierís forte. Analysis of several
antique rapiers from Fabrisí time also shows how the section of the blade near the
hilt is very thick, and would be more than suited to withstand a parry against a
strong cut from virtually any sword. This is further confirmed by practice with
good quality modern replicas. Naturally, though, this assumes that the correct
parrying technique is employed, such as that shown by Fabris in plate 38; if the
rapier is not used correctly, it can break as can any other sword.
All in all, the rapier was a splendid weapon that became extremely
popular throughout Europe for its suitability for dueling, fencing and self-defense
as well as for its unique beauty. It is also one of the best-balanced swords of all
times, and its length is very well proportioned to the "natural-defense" range of
humans. And we are extremely lucky that a handful of talented masters and teachers
of that time gifted posterity with their rapier treatises. It is therefore our
privilege and our duty to keep this tradition alive by researching these treatises
and practicing their contents as faithfully as possible.