Defining the Rapier


By Cory Nelson

Free Scholar - Bankeside Schoole of Defense


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The term “rapier” is one of the misused descriptions of a European sword used today. This is partially because of misidentification of the weapons, but also because the definitions themselves are a modern day phenomena. When one describes a rapier the immediate image is that of a slender slashing weapon used in movies such as The Three Musketeers or The Adventures of Robin Hood where the actors swing the weapons around wildly jumping among tables. Either that or the description shifts to that of modern day fencing where the blade point is the only sharp area of the weapon and the idea of stepping offline is unheard of. Neither of these descriptions is true; and both are, depending on the weapon.

The History of the Rapier

            The rapier was a weapon carried by the European middle and upper class between the late 15th and 18th century. Not a military weapon, they were used a primary as a means of self-defense in cities and would be carried on the side, occasionally with a parrying dagger or buckler. As a result, they were made lighter than the common arming swords of the time and designed to be versatile as possible. After all, an Englishman did not know which weapons he would need to defend himself against. This alone explains why so many varies of the rapier exist and why it was adapted so quickly. They were looking to perfect its design and usage.

The term “Rapier”

            The issue with defining the weapon begins with the name; as even origin of the word itself is greatly in question. Many believe that the word “rapier” came from the Spanish term espada ropera (sword of the robes) or “dress sword” (dressed clothes vs. military) to describe the lightweight swords carried by civilians at the time. The more likely source of the word comes from a description in a French document published in 1474 that references a “epée rapiére.” In either case both references were meant to simply describe a lightweight sword; nothing so specific as what we today call a rapier. Instead, these definitions simply described the weapons carried casually around the streets at the time. When you’re comparing your weapon to that of the heavier long swords and backswords of the day; anything is light.


All technically rapiers

The Slashing Rapier

One of the misconceptions propagated by modern media is that the rapier is a light slashing weapon. Movies have used scenes to romanticize them for years showing daring duels of swashbuckling as the actors do more acrobatics than actual sword fighting. This description fails to work when set against the many of the weapons carried by European men at the time and commonly referred to as rapiers. For one, many of these weapons had extremely thin blades, far too thin to produce effective damage in a cut or to effectively hit with full force against the heavier arming weapons of the time (something that if you were primarily cutting you would likely need to accomplish). The rapier on the right uses a blade far too thing to effectively slash a primary mode of attack.


The Piercing Rapier

On the other side of the argument is that rapiers were used only as piercing weapons. The claim is that rapiers never slashed or if they did it was purely a tip cut. This assertion fails however from the other examples of the weapons we have. Many of the weapons (certainly those in Fabris’ time) were clearly designed for slashing with sharpened edges. In addition, most of the rapier treaties written at the time describe not only piercing but also slashing attacks. The weapon shown on the left has a blade thickness which would imply its usage as a primarily slashing weapon vs. piercing. It also would weight enough that much of its effectiveness would from a swing versus a piercing attack.

The difficulty for the modern swordsman is that historically, all these weapons were referred to simply as a “Spada”, or simply sword. Occasionally the description at the time would include a specialization such as “Spada da filo” (edge-sword) but the word typically described everything from an arming sword to a small sword. Of the modern masters of the day their treaties which describe their styles support this, making no mention of the term “rapier”, though they clearly describe light blades capable of both thrusting and slashing attacks. Hence, the problem is that we’re working with is a relatively modern day term applied to a historical weapon. If you apply the term to the historical weapons then it describes a “light” sword that weights as little as 2 lb and as much as 6 lb. It has a sharp point for thrusting, but can have a blade varying as much as 3x in thickness when compared to one another. The thicker the blade the more likely it was used for slashing attacks (possibly instead of thrusting). Clearly that results in wide description of what a rapier truly is.

The designs of the hilt and the lengths of the blade varied widely across different cultures. The appearance of the hilt can sometimes be a giveaway to its origin. For instance, the Spanish rapier is recognizable by its cupped hilt, the English rapier by its flat oval finial, the German rapier for its two clamshell-like covers, and the French rapier for its intricate, complex hilts.”

The best definition that I can provide is that a rapier a lightweight sword designed primarily for thrusting but capable of slashing cuts. The weapon was oftentimes accompanied by a companion dagger or buckler and was carried among the middle to upper class European citizens to defend themselves among the streets of England. I like this definition; while it does not describe the modern day fencing blades it does cover the wide variety of European rapiers that existed during the Elizabethan time period. So while it may not cover all the modern occurrences of the term, it does cover those that we as Bankeside students are concerned with.