Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0
Jib

The demise of the rapier as the weapon of choice

4 posts in this topic

At some point in the history of the sword the rapier was replaced by the small sword. Curious to know why this occurred. Was the rapier still in use by the GAOP or had it already been replaced?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I've just read bits and pieces about this, all jumbled together in my mind. No promises of accuracy here.

Of course, the rapier was the "weapon of choice" only for the very well-to-do who could afford a very expensive weapon and the lessons in the salle to use it. Samuel Pepys, though comfortably middle class, owned a hanger (basically a nice cutlass), not a rapier.

What I remember reading is that the classical 16th-century rapier gave way to the "transition rapier" during the later 1600s, and shortly after 1700 the transition rapier was replaced by the smallsword. The transition rapiers had shorter, lighter blades for fast work and more thrusting, but they were still basically flat and sharp-edged and could deliver a deadly cut. Some time around 1680, the "colichemarde" appeared, which had a wide flat forte that could parry without breaking, but a thin thrusting foible that was hardly useful to cut at all. The final smallsword was a very thin, short, thrusting-only weapon, many with triangular cross-section blades. The triangular, "bayonet" cross-section stiffened the blade and would make a nasty puncture wound, but could not slash effectively because the spine of the blade would prevent deep cuts.

In terms of why the change, I read once that improved quality steel was an important reason. 16th-century fencers used the main gauche for defense mainly because their rapiers tended to break if they blocked a heavy cut. As the quality of steel improved, it became possible to use the rapier itself to block, which put a premium on making the rapier small and quick enough to block, and caused the main gauche to fall out of use.

But why did thrusting completely eclipse cutting, thus dooming the sharp-edged, cut-and-thrust rapier? I don't really know. Certainly thrusting tends to be more lethal; as long ago as the Roman general Vegetius, people noticed that cuts rarely killed, while even shallow thrusts were often fatal. But come on; a man may not die if you cut his hand off, but he'll drop his sword and then you can stab him all you want. There was a famous rivalry between the French and the Italian styles of rapier fencing, both of whom had their devotees throughout Europe, but I don't know if that had anything to do with the point becoming supreme; the rapier fell out of use in both France and Italy, after all.

But in one place, the rapier held on after everyone else had switched to the smallsword: Spain. The unique Spanish fencing style was never popular outside Spain, and was until recently derided by historians of fencing, but lately has seen a resurgence of interest and respect. Well into the 1700s the Spanish continued to use the rapier, although I don't know if it was a classical or transitional style. The Spanish rapier wasn't much use on ship; Bartholomew Sharp easily defeated the rapier-armed officers of a Spanish barque in the early 1680s. But it may have been more practical on land. (The word "rapier" derives from Spanish, by the way; it was originally the espada ropera, the dressing sword, meaning the kind of sword you wore with your street clothes instead of when armored for battle).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I was curious because I'm reading a novel (fiction of course) and its set during Queen Annes War. Mentions several men carrying rapiers.

I believe I read someplace that early small swords did have a slight edge on the tip but as Daniel mentioned evolved into a triangular shape which prevented a cutting edge making the weapon only useful for piercing attacks (very fatal).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Daniel covered a good amount of the history and fine points (if you'll forgive the pun). I'm just going to jump in as a martial arts fencer (as opposed to Olympic), and instructor.

What we have here is evolution at work.

The rapiers that first developed in the late 15th century were more similar to medieval style swords than their descendants. They had the thickest blades (usually and inch and a quarter in width), and were equally effective at cutting and thrusting. They had quillons that were thick, and very like earlier crosspieces. Due to the weight of the blade many early fencers gripped their forefinger over the quillon in order to have better control of their weapon, especially while thrusting. As armoured gauntlets were going by the wayside due to the introduction of firearms rings were added to protect the fingers. Eventually a knuckle bow was added, and the hand was better protected. The swept hilt developed from this.

As various nations, namely Italy, Spain, France, and Germany developed their own styles of rapier fighting they also started developing their own guards. German General Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim developed the style named after him: highly decorated grillwork or shells in the rings of the anneau. His blades remained thick as they were a military sword. In the late 1500s, early 1600s you see the bell shaped guards replacing the swept hilt, and quillons becoming longer. This is true mostly in Spain and France. Sadly, England got to the game late as they actually passed laws against fencing schools in the 13th century where heavier blades were preferred.

Blades thinned started thinning over time. Early rapiers were thick and mostly used for cutting like their ancestors. Most of the "standard" attacks were countered by moving, or parrying with a dagger. Then, just after 1600 Di Grassi (my hero) wrote his treatise on rapier fencing and pointed out that the thrust is the fastest way to kill the other guy, and that the best strategy to use was one where you killed the other guy first, and didn't get injured yourself. Angelo Viggiani then developing the lunge, followed by Vincentio Saviolo who went even further than Di Grassi in favoring the thrust over the cut.

Due to rapiers being used for thrusting over cutting they no longer possessed the weight to cut by percussion and began to be on average 40 inches in blade length alone. Because of this fences, when they had to cut, were using the draw cut. In order to do this properly you place your blade on your opponent and push or pull your blade. If you try and "thwack" them, your blade will use most of its energy bouncing off.

These thinner, thrusting weapons eventually started becoming smaller again as they were used more for dueling by citizenry, and not used in warfare as often. several hundred years of experimentation had made complex swordplay where the lightest, fastest possible weapon usually won. The weapon's component parts–the quillons, cup, knucklebow and pas d'âne–all shrank down to the smallest useful size. The result was the'small sword,' a weapon that eclipsed the rapier completely in the 1700s.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!


Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.


Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0