Friday, June 15, 2007
Two 19th century swords are pictured here. Photographs of the hilts were included to show artistic details, although the photography is poor. The longer flat sword actually has the date of its manufacture, '1867' engraved near the hilt.
One was made in Toledo. The other is Italian. Both are fashioned of good, flexible steel. Unfortunately, both blades show some pitting from neglect. The entire hilt of the longer sword is solid brass. The grip on the other is wood, with a guard and pommel of solid brass. Swords of this type always remind me of my childhood. Most people would refer to them both as rapiers at this point in history, although there is a wealth of difference between the various swords now described as rapiers. Both swords have sharp tips, but the edge on each is different. The longer sword was designed as 'cut and thrust' blade, but the shorter really was designed only for thrusting. The longer flat sword has a double edge along three-quarters of the entire length of the blade. If sharpened properly, it would be a formidable slashing weapon. At present, only the tip remains truly sharp. The smaller sword, which could in fact be called a 'small sword' has a double edge that extends only for about six inches to the tip of the blade. There are two reasons to sharpen the edges of a piercing sword near the tip. It would discourage an opponent from grasping the sword in order to deflect the attack, and it would allow the blade to slide into flesh easily.
Regrettably, both swords were designed for right-handed fighters.
For those interested in the history of Western swords, a brief paragraph may be in order. Originally, European swords were heavy military blades, designed for armoured combat. The weight of the blade had to be sufficient to propel it through the enemy's armour. Swords at that point were heavy and hand-to-hand fighting was fairly slow.
'Cut and thrust' swords developed as a means by which faster attacks could be performed. Smaller and somewhat lighter than the older swords, they nonetheless were intended primarily as weapons of offence. Parrying was done with a buckler or 'main gauche', a shorter dagger held in the left hand. Where formerly only a few inches near the tip would be sharpened in order to discourage an opponent from grabbing the sword tip to deflect its thrust, a greater portion of the blade was given a sharp edge often on both sides, to make it suitable both for cutting and thrusting. Thus the name 'cut and thrust' sword, also known as a 'side sword'. In fact, the term 'swashbuckler' refers to this stage in weapon development. 'Swash' or 'swish' described the sound that the lighter blade made when a cutting move was performed and 'buckler' referred to the defensive shield carried in the other hand.
It was this type of sword that ultimately developed into the small sword and rapier.
The small sword or rapier was a sword favoured by civilians for its lightness and elegance. The name rapier in fact is derived from the Spanish word 'ropera' for clothing and although the rapier was a very efficient weapon of self-defence, it became part of a gentleman's accoutrements. The rapier could be used both for offence and defence, to attack and parry, making the cumbersome buckler obsolete. Although many individuals carried both sword and dagger, and sword and dagger fights were common, a rapier could be carried and used by itself.
Use of these lightweight blades inspired an art known as 'double-time fencing', which allowed a quick succession of thrusts, parries and ripostes. Rapiers provided the model for 'dueling swords', weapons with no edge at all, used exclusively in duels.
It is the small sword that is the model for the modern 'fencing sabre', although style of combat is the same as that of the cavalry sabre. Epee fencing imitates combat with dueling swords, where only the tip is used in attack.
Experts in edged weapons might quarrel with the rather simple definitions given here, but it is an attempt to describe the development of the rapier without waxing too technical in the process.