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Weaponry: The Rapier

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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The rapier conjures up myriad romantic allusions–the Three Musketeers, Don Juan, duels in the ghostly mist of early dawn. It is strange, then, to realize that the development of this courtly weapon was furthered primarily by the development of the gun.

The development and widespread use of the matchlock, chennepan, wheel lock and other forms of personal firearm put the final nail in the coffin that the full suit of armor had rapidly become. The knightly harness was now a liability, and with its demise followed the decline of weapons designed to combat it–the mace, the war hammer and swords whose efficacy depended as much on percussion as on edge. A lighter, faster blade became both feasible and necessary. The time was ripe for the rapier.

The word 'rapier' is thought to have come from a Spanish term, espada ropera or'sword of the robes'–hence, a dress sword or one associated with civilian rather than military clothing. It also may be traced to a French document of 1474 that makes reference to the epée rapière. Whatever its origin, the term was in common usage by the late 15th century.

The sword in question resembled its medieval predecessor more than the popular 20th-century conception of a rapier. Its blade was still fairly broad–usually an inch and a quarter wide–and its hilt still had stout, straight quillons. The necessity of accurately directing the point had led swordsmen to slip their forefinger over the quillon for greater control. Soon, probably after numerous untimely losses of the aforementioned digit, rings were added to the quillon. Since armored gauntlets were no longer in use, further protection for the hand was needed. The hilt gained a knuckle bow, and curved bars grew out of the quillons and rings of the anneau to enclose the hand in a metal cage. The swept hilt was now fully developed.

By the late 1500s, the rapier had undergone a subtle alteration. The open space in the rings of the large anneau were often filled in with decorative grillwork or shells–a design known as the Pappenheimer, named after German General Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim. This weapon often had a rather wide blade, since it evolved partially as a military sword.

By the early 1600s, the first cup-hilt rapiers had begun to appear. Their name exactly describes their design. The swept hilt was replaced by a metal bowl, often 3 to 4 inches deep, inside which was the ricasso, flanked by pas d'âne (a ring-shaped guard). The knuckle bow was preserved, and the quillons became straight and often quite wide. This final form persisted until the early 1700s, especially in the hands of the Spaniards, who doggedly retained the rapier and their almost mystical school of the 'magic circle,' the Destreza.

The history of warfare shows a constant battle of one-upmanship between the concepts of offense and defense. Since armor was no longer a consideration, and the rapier's design allowed for a much wider range of movement, the new competition became one of vying philosophies of defense, or, as the term evolved, 'fence.'

Initially, the rapier was used like its medieval predecessor, that is, as a cutting weapon. The first cogent book on a coherent rapier technique was the Opera Nova, written in 1536 by Achillio Marozzo de Bologne, which stated that cuts were to be delivered horizontally, vertically upward or downward, or obliquely. The thrust was aimed primarily at the face and was often coupled with a motion that beat one's opponent's attack away. Defense was achieved by body movement (if a cut was coming, make sure not to be under it) or with a secondary or 'off-hand' device–in Marozzo's case, usually a buckler shield.

In 1604, Camillo Agrippa wrote a treatise that simplified Marozzo's 12 guardia to four, whose positions suggested that the point now held at least parity with the edge. The concept of parrying with the rapier had not yet been systematized, so it should be noted that the term guardia at this time referred solely to a position from whence an attack might be launched. The job of fending off a foe's blade fell to the main gauche (left hand) dagger, a weighted cloak, or a gauntlet, the palm of which was often reinforced with chain mail.

Around the same time as Agrippa, Giacomo di Grassi was teaching a style that favored the thrust. The thrust at that time was delivered directly from the shoulder from a stance that placed the left foot forward. That put the off-hand weapon (usually a dagger) forward of the rapier, where it could beat aside or deflect an opponent's blade, thus clearing the way for a simultaneous attack with the rapier.

Angelo Viggiani then advanced the art by developing the lunge or, as he termed it, the punta sopramano. That technique led him to teach a stance that led with the right foot. This side stance, reducing the visible target area, eventually led to the abandonment of the off-hand weapon.

Vincentio Saviolo was the first master to insist on the total superiority of the point, which led to the narrowing of the blade. Since the rapier no longer possessed the weight to cut by percussion, the draw cut was used. In that technique, the blade was placed against the target and rapidly pulled back under pressure, creating a slicing action that often involved a fair length of the overall edge. During that period, it was not uncommon for blades to exceed 40 inches in length. Held with the palm facing backward, the pommel was often butted against the wrist to help counterbalance the weight of the blade.

By now one may have noticed that all the names mentioned thus far have been Italian. That is not to imply there were no masters of significance elsewhere. The art of fence flourished in Germany, France and Spain as well as Italy, and masters such as Besnard, Narvaez and Sainct Didier were well known and revered. The Italians, however, did most of the work that significantly advanced the art of fence and, hence, the design of the rapier. In England, where a 13th-century law forbade the establishment of schools of fence, and the social status of a fencing instructor was on a par with vagabonds and (God forbid) actors, the atmosphere was less conducive to the advancement of the art.

The last master of importance was Salvator Fabris. The lunge, in real combat, requires a fair bit of nerve, since such an extension not only exposes the thruster but also limits his options for recovery and response. Fabris, therefore, taught to engage in misura stretta–close measure–wherein one can hit one's opponent through a simple arm extension. To do so, the swords end up crossed. Since the major target area is on the side of the opponent's blade, it now became necessary to remove one's blade and reposition it to the other side by dipping under the opponent's blade. The cavatione di tempo–or disengage, as it is known today–necessitates a similar counteraction to negate it, returning the blades to their original position. The contra cavatione, which modern fencers would recognize as the circle parry, is the first instance of a technique designed solely to parry an opponent's blade with the rapier itself.

That and subsequent techniques would result in the quillons of the rapier's curving up and away from the hilt on one side, the better to catch and immobilize or entrap an opposing blade. The curved quillon entrapped more readily than a straight one, but also made it harder to release or 'lose' the captured blade. In effect, if you had him, he also had you. When a dagger was employed, it could take over the offense, but later fencing styles (those that employed the cup hilt) had abandoned the main gauche.

There were three main methods of making hits with the rapier: the imbrocatta, which thrust over the opponent's sword; the stocatta, which thrust under; and the punta riversa, delivered from one's left to the opponent's right, with the palm forward and upward. There were also techniques where the sword and dagger both hit simultaneously, and where two swords were used together. These twin rapiers, known collectively as a 'case,' were often designed to fit together side by side to resemble one sword, and were released into individual weapons by depressing a stud. Rapier and dagger were often made as companion pieces with beautifully wrought hilts of matching design. Regardless of its ornamentation, however, the rapier remained a highly functional and deadly weapon.

One of the significant social aspects of the rapier was its status as a 'civilian' weapon. Prior to the Renaissance, the sword was a symbol of the titled classes. But now, with the rise of an affluent merchant class, the sword was used by the upwardly mobile. If it did not confer class, it suggested it, for apart from self-defense, a gentleman was expected to be capable of defending his honor.

The rapier was not universally accepted, especially as a weapon of war. Armor, although greatly reduced, was still worn, and military men preferred the reassuring weight of the heavy, single-edged blade, as exhibited in the so-called mortuary sword, to a thin rib-sticker like the rapier.

Eventually, the evolution of complex swordplay demanded the lightest, fastest possible weapon. The cup hilt's component parts–the quillons, cup, knucklebow and pas d'âne–all shrank down to the most perfunctory size possible. The blade itself became much shorter, with a deeply indented fuller. The result was the'small sword,' a weapon that eclipsed the rapier completely in the 1700s.

And so one of the most elegant swords in history passed out of use–except on the late show, where one can still see it spectacularly misused by some of the greatest names of the silver screen.

This article was written by Braun McAsh and originally published in the August 1996 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!

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4 Responses to “Weaponry: The Rapier”

  1. 1
    Racgs says:

    Thank you. I enjoyed your article…

  2. 2
    James Madgin says:

    Well said. I agree with all of that. I've handled hundreds – if not thousands – of rapiers, including my own, and I've found most of them very heavy, very rigid and often unweildly because of their length. This does not deter my liking for them! Fabulous weapons.
    In comparison, the smallsword is indeed incredibly light and fast.
    Some of the finest in the UK are in the Victoria & Albert Museum,
    London, but they were put into storage many years ago and show
    no sign of re-appearing. Same applies to their rapiers, which I always say are of 'drool quality'!

    James, British Academy of Fencing

  3. 3
    Karl Gorman says:

    This is fascinating.

    I just need to ask you two questions:

    1 – Was the naval cutlass was used as much as the rapier was in the 1700s?

    2 – Did the Conquistadors use the rapier? While they wore full plate armour? (Or is that just an image.)

  4. 4
    Karl Gorman says:

    And was the the rapier ever used against a non-rapier in a duel? (Like it was in the movie Rob Roy with Liam Nelson.)

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