Types of Rapiers

In popular culture, the rapier is often incorrectly depicted as a fencer’s weapon for sport. However, this misconception fails to capture its true brutality- which was so potent, in Britain it was often considered a common bully’s or murderer’s weapon. The rapier is a weapon that has been used in civilian dress with heavy emphasis on point work, and this inflicts horrendous internal damage.

Rapier teachings were brought to Britain in the 1570’s and soon became the most dominant type of blade across Europe. Of course weapons like longswords and broad-bladed swords were also favoured by soldiers, which featured similar guards. The rapier most commonly used offhand weapons, such as knife or buckler; techniques are covered by Capo Ferro across many different types of these weapons.

Types of Rapiers

Rapier Overview

It is not uncommon for those who study different types of swordsmanship to get started on the rapier without adapting what they already know about sword fighting.

See Also: Best Rapier

Although it is necessary to learn new techniques, many basic principles learned from other sword types are transferred over as well. Rapier fighting uses some of the same principles as other swordfighting styles, such as longsword or saber.

It is a powerful art that should not be thought of delicately. The Italian rapier system of fighting has linear movements and striking targets, unlike other fencing systems like the small sword or sabre, which features double-time parrying.

When attacking your opponent with a cut, use it against unprotected limbs and vulnerable areas such as the groin or neck.

Rapiers were invented by men living in Spain during the 15th century. They refer to any of the swords worn on a belt-like clothing usually for both offense and defense. The first mention of rapiers was in Juan de Mena’s poetry from 1468.

Historical examples of rapiers tended to originate in The Three Musketeers, a nineteenth century novel created by Alexander Dumas. Modern film studios combine the features of authentic-looking miniature versions and sport fencing blades; however, these adaptations do not line up with the original rapier coming out during the Modern Age.

The rapier sword was popular in the mid 16th century to early 17th century period, but its use peaked from the middle of the 15th century to the end of the 17th.

Then, under Habsburg rule (a dynasty) across Europe and Africa to the Americas and Philippines, Spain saw true global domination. Carlos I, the first Emperor of the House of Bourbon and grandson of Catholic Monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabella), was thought by many to be monarch on whose reign would always shine.

The rapier sword is a weapon that was originally used by high society. It has since been depicted in paintings and drawings as a representation of elegance and refinement among intellectual classes of the upper class or bourgeoisie.

The rapier sword, often used for personal defense and duels, was stigmatized by a decision made at the Trent Council in 1563. Sometimes people would spontaneously start dueling in the street and it could be fascinating to watch–almost like people watching fencing or boxing today. Rapiers were usually combined with daggers whose design always kept up with

Rapier Typologies

There are many different types of rapiers and variations to consider. A.V.B Norman’s seminal publication, The Rapier and Smallsword 1460-1820 (1980), offers a detailed breakdown of rapier hilts from the earliest examples to time smallsword in chronological order. Norman’s work is a precise research and restoration guide that gives detailed instructions on identifying 112 types of rapiers. The book also lists surviving pieces or images associated with those sword types.

In Ewart Oakeshott’s work European Weapons and Armor, the author lays out a variety of different ways to describe rapier hilts. There are five main categories depending on how many structures there are:

Quarter Hilts – The Sabre’s previously mentioned protective equipment includes the saber guard (the metal cross piece of padding that protects the horse and rider) as well as a bitted mouthpiece, breastplate, “capa” throat protector, vestigial rear crossguard brace that is attached to the outside of the saddle flap at wearer’s preference.

Half Hilts – Double sided rings or equivalent guards and inner guards that are often two bars.

Three Quarter Hilts – The knuckle guard is meant to protect the hand and fingers by covering them. The best knuckle guards are made from several rings, or a loop outer guard with a double loop inner guard.

Full Hilts – The outer face protector is usually angled downwards and often has horizontal semi-circle cuts on either side to give clearance for the lower lip which could otherwise be held with a mouthpiece.

Rapiers have been in use for over 600 years, so it’s difficult to comprehensively cover all the variations that exist.

A Study of Period Rapiers

German Rapier

This piece dates from 1550-1560. The overall length is 48 1/4″ with a blade length of 42 3/4″. The width is 1 1/8″. The sword weighs 2 lb. 11 oz. The pommel is large and spherical. The quillons and guard are round in a cross-section. The ricasso on the blade is stout and ribbed. The blade itself is diamond in cross-section with fluting.

German or Swiss Rapier

This sword dates from the late 16th Century. The overall length of the piece is 45 1/4″. The blade is 39 1/2″ long with a width of 1 1/4″. The weight of the weapon is 3 lb. 2 oz. The pommel is diamond shaped and chiselled with lions’ heads. The original grip is fluted wood. The guard itself is also chiselled and is symmetrical front to back. The blade is a hexagonal and is double edged.

Seven Ringed Rapier

This sword dates from approximately 1620 and is either Spanish or Italian. The overall length is 55 3/4″ with a blade length of 50″ and a width of 1 1/8″. The guard is symmetrical with stylized shells near the ricasso. The blade itself is a diamond cross-section.

English Rapier

This sword dates from approximately 1630 and is believed to be English. The overall length is 50 1/4″ with a blade length of 43″ and width of 3/4″. The sword weighs 2 lb. 4 oz. The hilt on this piece is very large; larger than most of its type. The pommel is about 3″ long and 1 3/8″ wide maximally. The grip is octogonal with wire wrap and turk’s heads. The quillons are flattened and florally engraved as is the cup. The cup itself is pierced with squares and circles.

Cup-hilt Rapier

This sword dates from approximately 1630 and is believed to be Italian. The overall length is 51 3/4″ with a blade length of 46″ and width of 3/4″. The sword weighs 2 lb. 12 oz. The hilt on this piece is decorated with a trellis design. The blade is hexagonal in section.

Cup-hilt Rapier

This sword dates from approximately 1630 and is believed to be English. The overall length is 51 1/4″ with a blade length of 45 1/4″ and width of 3/4″. The sword weighs 1 lb. 12 oz. The hilt on this piece is a shallow cup. The guard and pommel are chiselled and engraved. The blade is diamond in section widening out at the tip for the “stramazone” or slashing cut.

Militay Backsword

This backsword dates from 1640 and is thought to have belonged to Oliver Cromwell. The basket hilt is of a mortuary type. The blade is straight with a single edge and a single fuller near the spine. The overall length of the sword is 38.2″ with a blade length of 31.9″. The weapon weighs 2 lb. 6 oz. The sword was included to show some differences and similarities between military and civilian swords.

Cup-hilt Rapier

This rapier dates from 1634-1650. The hilt is British and the blade possibly North Italian. The overall length of the sword is 46 1/2″ with a blade length of 38.7″. The weapon weighs 2 lb. 4 oz. The guard is saucer shaped and is heavily chiselled. It appears that the heads of Charles I and his Queen are in relief on the guard. The blade is a diamond section.

Shell-hilt Rapier

This rapier dates from 1640-1655. The hilt scabbard are British and the blade possibly German. The overall length of the sword is 47.2″ with a blade length of 39.5″. The weapon weighs 2 lb. The shell hilt is late in period for this type of sword. The hilt is chiselled with foliage in relief. It is also blued and fire-gilt. The blade is a flattened hexagonal section.

Cup-hilt Rapier

This sword dates from approximately 1660 and is Spanish. The overall length is 49 1/4″ with a blade length of 44 1/2″ and width of 5/8″. The sword weighs 2 lb. The hilt on this piece is a pierced cup. The grip is bound with silver wire and is made of four vertical steel bands. The blade is diamond in section.

Case of Rapiers

This set of rapiers is in a Museum in Dresden. The set is from the late 1600’s and is possibly from Augsburg.

Styles of Rapier

The form of the hilt is often what is used to define how we categorize rapiers today. Many of these have names that are associated to them by collectors and scholars over the last hundred years and not what they would have been identified as in the time of their use. We will often be asked what this type or that form is and thought a quick guide might be helpful for folks who are interested in studying rapiers further. We will just look at hilts for now blades are a whole thing on their own with rapiers.

Transitional Hilt

Hilts were the various components that comprise the guard being added to the cross hilted sword. This could be as simple as a finger ring (forearm) to something that has two forearms and a ring attached at the end and possibly a back guard. Note: there is also a group of hilts that are called transitional as the later swept hilts evolve into the small sword.

Swept Hilt

This is when the bars and rings on the hilt will move along a diagonal path from one level to another. This can be as simple as a side ring anchored at the forearm end, then flowing upward to anchor at the block. There may also be multiple sweeps along with goals reaching upwards from the forearm in some more elaborate designs.

Seven Ring

Ring rapiers do not always feature seven rings, but they tend to have a series of close-set side rings that originate at the base of the forearm and branch into what creates a cage-like structure around the hand. Many ring rapiers will also have a small bilobar plate on top decorated or scalloped with engravings.

Cup Hilt

A sword hilt with a plate at the front that is either cup or bowl-shaped. The earliest versions were deep and some elaborate, decorated with intricately carved details (chasing) and pierced decoration (pierce). This style of handle originated in 17th century Iberian Peninsula regions.

Dish Hilt

In the later stages of development, rapiers transitioned into smallswords. The guard was circular and slightly dished with decoration or piercings, whereas it had simple, cross-shaped guards and forearms that were short.

Smallsword

The earliest smallswords would be called rapiers. They have a relatively simple guard with forearms that are narrow and cross arms, as well as a knuckle bow which tends to fit into the shape of a capital D, and there is usually a bilobar plate on the front of the hilt.

Loop Hilt 

This was a simple-yet-popular form used by travelers or soldiers who liked more robust weaponry than the smallswords of that era. The hilt often had a simple knuckle bow with a sweep out to the back guard, or sometimes an edge sweeping to one side.

Town Sword

Rapiers were historically shorter and lighter than the typical swords of the day to enable a fencer to sidestep opponents in rush hour streets or city spaces.

Shell Hilts

In order to protect the horse’s legs, riders developed a protective system consisting of a plate on either side of the guard. The plates were usually attached to metal bars above and below it.

Bilbo

The term “cup hilt” is derived from the form of two large shells that nearly complete a cup in whole with only a small area between the two plates, and also provides additional protection around this space.

Pappenheimer

According to the Victorian Association for the name of this hilt style, it consists of two large pierced plates set in bars on either side of the hilt with supporting sweeps to the guard and/or knuckle bow. The fore and back guards form an S shape.

Military Rapier

A term used by auctioneers to define a heavier and sturdier rapier with a wider blade. These weapons of war are usually plain in shape, without any distinctive features which might equate to the name.

Court Rapier

Another modern term used to define large and extravagant hilts often covered in sculpted decoration over the entire hilt. Some will be adorned with gold, silver, or even precious stones.

The rapier was the fastest and lightest form of sword, making it ideal for those who preferred a more agile combat style. Rapiers were faster than bigger swords, making them better in a duel. They are also less heavy, allowing everyone to use them. The merchant class was never intended to engage in military activities.

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