What is a rapier?
A sword collecting beginners’ guide to collectible rapiers
Towards the end of 14th century, Europe was undergoing massive structural change in warfare and combat techniques.
Firearms were introduced onto the battlefield as early as 12th century. Plate armors were promptly and gradually discarded. Knight Templar swords and other long medieval swords fell in use and function.
Centralized, despotic kingdoms fragmented into smaller feudal states as town dwellers and wealthy merchants amassed power and influence. The new lords paraded their position with pomp on the streets.
So rapier was born in this late medieval world. Long, beautiful, and light–rapiers could resolve conflicts, settle insults, and cement reputation right in front of the public through impromptu duels.
Description of a Rapier
A rapier is a single-handed, slender blade with a thick cross-section. The blade may or may not have any edges, although earlier versions of the rapier have very clear edges. Its narrow, long geometry tapers to a very rigid, sharp point. In the history of rapier, early rapiers were cut-and-thrust swords with simple hilts. This design later transformed into elaborately hilted, very slender, long blades of virtually absent edges, and was used primarily for thrusting.
Use of rapier
The use of rapier was unarmored personal self-defense. While it is true courtiers wore them as a symbol of prestige and position, it was intended firstly to be used to fend off one’s way and attack in street brawls and private duels of honor. Since the elite at that time were not anymore wearing plate armors, rapier was fatal in stabbing and thrusting.
Later it was fitted on to sword belts or baldrics, lengthened, and decorated. From 15th to 17th century, rapiers were the accepted code of gentlemanly fashion. Without it, any self-important lords wouldn’t be able to survive in largely fractious and dangerous urban centers in Europe.
Parts of Rapier
Rapier evolved out of the Middle Age swords that were long and unwieldy. Where the hilts of previous swords were simple cross guards, the rapier introduced intricate networks of iron called basket hilts. Where the blades of previous swords were broad and long, the rapier introduced extremely slender and narrow blade.
The hilt of a rapier is encased in complex iron strands. It can be consisting of quillons which range from small to large, serpentine coils. Some swords have bars, rings, plates, and cups that are placed instead of the quillons.
For beginners in martial arts, such design serves as protection for the hand from being wounded during attacks. The more important reason however is that it hinders the opponent’s narrow rapier blade from moving about and counter-thrusting.
The cross-section of the blade can be a simple cylinder, diamond, hexagon, octagon, or four-pointed star. Distinct European cultures have divided the parts of rapier blade into three to as many as nine parts. For the sake of discussion, we limit the division into four:
• Rapier Ricasso is the unsharpened, unbevelled part of the blade. It is isolated from the rest of the sword by the intricate hilt on one end and the guard on the other end.
• Rapier Forte is the nearest to the ricasso or guard. It is the widest, sturdiest, and thickest among the rest of the blade’s parts.
• Rapier Terzo or Medio is the body of the rapier. It is usually thick in cross-section, has some kind of beveled sharp edge or none, and is responsible for flexibility and bending. Bending rapiers were not possible though in the Renaissance, as swordsmen favored rigid and unyielding blades.
• Rapier Debole is the weakest among the four divisions. It is farthest from the guard and contains the tapered, sharpened point.
Difference with side sword
Rapier was born out of the side sword, which was in turn a descendant from the Knight sword (the arming sword). The usual length of a rapier is about 0.98 meter long and would weigh typically about 2.2 pounds. There are antique rapiers however that are lighter than two pounds or are heavier than three pounds.
The width of the blade can be around one inch or less. The side sword on the other hand is typically heavier at 2.5 pounds. It has an average length of one meter, and is made of a double-edged, tapered blade. The side sword is also more versatile than the rapier, because it can be used effectively for both armored and unarmored close combat.
Difference with small sword
It later on became apparent in mid-15th century that the rapier was bulky and too long for its purpose. Thus, the small sword or dress sword was forged to address such concern. It was smaller, shorter, and lighter. The small sword is about 0.75 meters long, has a triangular cross-section, and weighs less than two pounds.
Collectible Rapier Swords
If you want to have your hands full on sword collecting, rapiers can be a good start. For one, the antique rapier has a limited period of two centuries, with the side sword preceding it in 15th century and small sword replacing it by 17th century.
There are also many novel varieties available. Since most of the smiths and swordsmen of Renaissance Europe were experimenting on the form and design of the rapier sword, it was inevitable that many versions of the sword were produced. You can narrow down your choices to certain fencing rapiers and designs that are scarce to find then and even scarcer to trade now. In this way, you can build your collection with rare swords whose antique sword values are sure to rise in the coming years.