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The Rapier Revisited
by Tom Leoni

It is much better to be armed with a sword that has two edges than with an estoc [...], which is nothing more than a stick with a point. (Rapier Master G. Morsicato Pallavicini, La Scherma Illustrata, p. 14.)

Since over a year ago, when I wrote the article "What is a rapier?" I have attempted to learn even more about the weapon by reading all I could lay my hands on, by scouring museums, catalogs and private collections that I had not yet visited, and by talking to collectors and curators.

As a result, my ideas and points of view have somewhat evolved--from how I define the weapon to the supporting material I like to use when asked to explain my ideas any deeper. In spite of my hopefully more thorough understanding of the rapier, I have decided to leave the original article up; I still believe in its main message, and I want for students to compare the two versions for their advantage.

What is a rapier?

My new definition of a rapier is that it is a single-handed, straight-bladed double-edged sword used predominantly in the 16th and 17th Centuries and optimized for the defense. In particular, the rapier may be the first single-handed sword specifically intended for use without a companion weapon between two unarmored opponents. What makes the rapier a particularly good defensive weapon is the length of its forte as well as the varied complexity of its hilt--two characteristics that don't always coexist in the same sword, however.

Closeup of a sword from the manual of Salvator Fabris (1606)

The reason I like this definition is that it encompasses all the characteristics of otherwise very different swords of the period, from the early Venetian infantry swords dated around 1480 that A. V. B. Norman already classifies as rapiers to the weapons depicted in the treatises of Fabris and Capoferro; from the thin and long sword classified by Italian curators as "striscia" to the substantial-bladed, complex-hilted weapons that endured throughout the 17th-Century and survived in the form of the Spanish Bilbo.

Also, this definition is in line with how "rapier" treatises of the 17th Century describe the sword: defensively self-sufficient, offensively able to both cut and thrust.

What I did not like about the commonly-heard definitions of a rapier as a "long, thin-bladed weapon," or "a weapon optimized for the thrust" or "a civilian weapon" (or any combination thereof) is that these definitions do not describe the genus "rapier." Rather, they are merely accidents that can be predicated about some sub-species of the weapon. And as such, they are fallacious definitions.

Self-defense and dueling: could the rapier be too specialized a weapon?

The rapier saw its apogee in the relatively short time when swords were regularly carried on one's side by civilians, roughly 1500 or just before to mid-to-late 1700s. Once the flintlock superseded the wheel-lock in the late 1600s, the pocket pistol became a practical and equally deadly alternative to the sword. So we could say that the apogee of the rapier (1550-1650) was also the apogee of when swords were commonly carried as a man's primary self-defense weapon.

Two Rapiers from the Bargello in Florence

This is why, contrary to what many believe, the "rapier" was not and could not be too specialized a weapon. Since one could not predict the nature of the danger from which self-defense would be necessary, why carry a weapon whose scope was too confined? What if a gentleman had to defend himself from a club-wielding assailant? Or from one who carried a heavy sword? Or from multiple opponents? In truth, a sword had to be equally suited to face each of these eventualities--and the great majority of "rapiers" in museums reflect this versatility, although there are of course numerous exceptions.

Also, we all know that the rapier's golden age coincides with the golden the age of dueling. But what many of us gloss over is the fact that every person who got involved in a duel faced a highly unpredictable choice of weapons on the part of the defendant. If I, Titius, sued Caius to appear in a duel, Caius as the defendant had the choice of weapons--period. Therefore, I had better be prepared to quickly adapt my fighting skills to whatever offensive or defensive arm he chose. It is natural, then, that the fencing style taught in the salles would be the most versatile, and that the weapon with which it was taught--the "rapier"--would be the least specialized and the most suitable for imparting and absorbing the general principles of defense and offense. Not coincidentally, this is the very point on which period masters unanimously insist, when they say that "it is through the use of the sword alone that all other weapons, offensive and defensive, can be learned" (Fabris). And this "sword" is what we call the rapier. The proposition that the rapier would be a specialized weapon, therefore, is all the more unlikely considering this general--and amply documented--sentiment shared by Italian masters.

The rapier and blade-width

Even a superficial tour of a museum can reveal that swords that we understand as "rapiers" sported very different blades in terms of width and cutting capability. I have included a picture of two rapiers from the Bargello in Florence, which clearly exemplifies what I am talking about. The one on the left is, indeed, primarily a thrusting weapon with its long, narrow, edgeless blade. The one on the right, however, has a blade well wider than one inch at the forte--and one that, although equally long, has a formidable edge and could be used to cut as well as to thrust.

This picture is representative of hundreds of other "rapiers" I have seen in museums, private collections, antique weapon stores and auction houses. Please don't take my word for it, verify for yourself. And remember that such definitions as "sword-rapier" for a weapon with a complex hilt and a substantial blade are for the most part modern inventions that (as far as I know) had no period counterpart. A "spada" (Italian for sword) was just a "spada." There was no "striscia" or "spada da lato" until collectors and museum curators came up with these terms.

The rapier and cutting ability: the myth of the tip-cut and a challenge

There are those who define a rapier primarily by inability to cut: if a 17th-Century sword can't cut, they say, it's not a sword but a rapier. This definition is due in part to a statement to this effect by noted hopologist Ewart Oakeshott (1916-2002). With good peace with the excellent Mr. Oakeshott, I don't like this definition. Firstly, because it is circular logic: a rapier can't cut because I define any sword that can't cut as a rapier. Secondly, I don't like it because it would make the swords used by Fabris, Capoferro, Thibault, Alfieri, Carranza, Narvaez, Pallavicini, di Mazo etc. non-rapiers--which would be fine if we could find another equally-satisfactory definition for what they are. All these authors use the cut copiously, and Pallavicini goes so far as to advise his students to arm themselves with a sword with a wide enough blade that it can deliver good cuts. Furthermore, he states that it is better to be armed with a sword with two edges ("spada da filo") than with an estoc-like weapon ("stocco" or "verduco") that would be nothing more than "a stick with a point." And if Pallavicini's sword is not a "rapier," I don't know what one is. So if we call Pallavicini's weapon a rapier, we can't then state that it couldn't cut because of someone's definition that came 400 years later: we either find another term for Pallavicini's sword--and his contemporaries'--or we revise our definition, as I am doing here.

There are also many in our community who insist that the only cut that was used in Italian rapier fencing was the tip cut. As I have stated repeatedly, there is zero evidence of this in Italian period treatises--and ample evidence to the contrary. As Fabris and others state, cuts must be produced with the entire debole, which is half of the blade, through the arc-wise concurrence of a strongly percussive (forza) and slicing (segatura) action. Nevertheless, I keep seeing this "tip cut" idea parroted in many circles, so here's what I propose. If anyone can show me one single piece of evidence of this technique--stated in a clear and unambiguous fashion--in any of the Italian rapier texts from the 1600s, I will gladly send them a money order for $100 for setting me straight and teaching me something so important which I didn't know. And no, the mere (and rare) presence of blades wider at the point--most likely hunting blades that may or may not have been rehilted post-facto with "rapier" hilts--does not count.

The rapier hilt and its blade

Throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries, it was quite common to outfit old blades with newer hilts and vice-versa. This means that swords that were born as "swords" could have become "rapiers" just by virtue of having their hilt or their blade replaced. This is another reason why it is imprecise to say that a rapier is only a weapon with a thin blade, or only one with a complex hilt, or only one that has a civilian thrusting blade as opposed to a military one more apt for the cut. These characteristics were mixed and matched at the time, as surviving examples prove; which is further evidence that Italian swordsmen of the time thought of a sword as a sword--with a longer, shorter, thinner, wider, lighter, heavier, military or civilian blade perhaps--but a sword nonetheless.

Rapier as an English word Vs. Spada as an Italian word

We need to remember that neither the Italians nor the French used the term "rapier" (or a translated equivalent) in any of the 17th-Century swordsmanship treatises I have examined. I am fairly sure that neither did the Spanish, while Germans such as Meyer do, although they seem to apply it to a slightly different kind of sword than the rapier as we commonly understand it today. As a matter of fact, a historical Italian term for "rapier" (other than "spada" or sword) is wholly absent from any 16th and 17th Century sources I have studied--be they swordsmanship instruction or any other type of literature.

The only two instances I have come across when Italian masters identify the specific kind of sword they were illustrating in their treatise are 1) Pallavicini (1670), who calls the weapon he recommends a "Spada da filo" (sword with sharp edges, or "edge-sword") as opposed to an estoc or "verduco"; and 2) Marcelli (1686), who calls it "spada lunga" ("long sword") as opposed to the "spadino" or small-sword. But note that in both cases they make it clear that the swords they recommend *do* have cutting edges.

A sample of the various swords
illustrated in the treatise of Pallavicini (1670)

We do know that the word "rapier" was used in England to sometimes describe a type of sword with a thinner blade suitable mostly for thrusting--i.e. more similar to what Pallavicini would have called an estoc, which to him was a specialized weapon. As a matter of fact, a similar definition or "rapier" still survives in today's Oxford English Dictionary, according to which a rapier is "a light, slender sword used for thrusting."

Conversely, Italian dictionaries of the time, first of which is the authoritative Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca (1612), define a "spada" as a bladed weapon that must possess two edges capable of cutting and a point. So, even here, the dictionary definition of the sword used by the Italians in their treatises differs from today's common understanding of the rapier.

So, I am becoming more and more convinced that "rapier" was a narrower definition for some of the English, and that our commonsense understanding of the weapon is heavily informed by the English use of the word. Although this is understandable, especially for us in the English-speaking section of the community, we need to be careful to apply this definition by extension to the swords used in the continent--where the principal "rapier" masters came from.

Again (and this bears repeating ad nauseam), for the Italians a sword (spada) was just a sword--as long as it had two edges capable of cutting and a point. So it is very possible that if you had shown an Italian a sword that the Oxford English Dictionary calls a rapier, he would have simply identified it as a rather specialized sword with a thin blade. And that the Italian would have agreed about the unsuitability of it for (say) military use, for which someone would be better served with a sword with a more substantial blade.

Incidentally, Bonaventura Pistofilo who writes for military officers in the 1620s specifies that the ideal sword to carry in the battlefield should have a blade of moderate length--three Roman feet or just over 36 inches measured from the hilt is what he recommends. Also, the weapon he depicts over and over at the side of pikemen and halberdiers is not any different from that illustrated in the treatises of Fabris, Alfieri and Capoferro, and one which requires a wholly stretched arm to be unsheathed. A rapier? By my definition, very much so. By Sir John Smythe's (an Englishman writing in 1590) perhaps not. But undoubtedly a "spada" by Pistofilo's--as well as Fabris,' Capoferro's, Alfieri's and so on.

Limitations and caveats

There are obviously other types of single-handed, straight-bladed sword from the 16th and 17th Centuries that may be safely used without a companion weapon between unarmored opponents--such as for instance the English baskethilt--which is not a rapier by any commonsense standard.

As with all definitions, there are limitations even with this one, although I am much more satisfied with it than my previous one--or any other currently being used in the Western Martial Arts community.

Suggestions

I strongly recommend that if you are interested in the "rapier" or any other weapon you take the time to investigate it for yourself and come up with your own way to classify it and define it, provided of course that it is supported by convincing historical evidence. This is a fascinating subject, and one on which there is still a lot to learn--from period texts, hopological sources and by direct investigation of pieces in private collections and museums.

Last Updated: 28-Oct-11