From the swashbuckling swordplay of old Errol Flynn films, to The Princess Bride, the Three Musketeers, and Arya's needle in Game of Thrones (which is actually more of a smallsword, but more on that in a forthcoming blog), rapiers are usually portrayed as the ultimate light-weight, fast and nimble weapon. Even within Historical European Martial Arts and SCA rapier communities, folks who have never held a historically accurate sharp rapier are often surprised at the heft of these renaissance weapons. In today's blog post we explore the dimensions and dynamics of several historical rapiers and a few sharp rapiers that we produce to give some better context for understanding these beautiful and deadly, but often misrepresented swords.
Rapiers from The Oakeshott Institute collection.
Are Rapiers Light?
Most historical rapiers weighed between two and a half and four pounds. This many not sound too heavy (or it might), but consider that it is very similar to the common weight range for longswords. In fact, this longsword, which is a replica of a sword in the Oakeshott Institute collection, weighs 2.9lbs, several ounces less than the two of the historic rapiers below. Additionally, longswords are usually held in two hands while rapiers are (almost) always held in one.
In fact, almost all of the historically accurate longswords and one-handed swords we make fit into the normal weight range for rapiers. To demonstrate this point check out these photos of four original rapiers from the 16th - early 17th centuries from The Oakeshott Institute collection.
From this evidence we can conclude that rapiers are not particularly light. In fact, the weight range of historical rapiers is very much in line with other medieval and Renaissance swords.
Are rapiers fast?
This question is a bit more tricky. The perceived speediness of a weapon has as much to do with how it is used as with its particular characteristics. That being said, three physical qualities of rapiers have a very large impact on the handling of these weapons: the length of the blade, the thickness of the blade, and the weight of the hilt.
Some rapiers were very long with blades upwards of 44" inches from the hilt to the point. To put this in context, the blade of our Highland Claymore, a very large sword indeed, is only 40" from cross to point. As rapiers were primarily intended to be used in the thrust (yes, yes, I know, Meyer used a lot of cuts too) these long blades require a thick central diameter to keep them rigid. Most rapiers have a diamond shaped cross-section that remains very substantial all the way to the point, unlike many arming swords and longswords that exhibit very pronounced distal taper (the sword gets thinner as you get toward the point). This means that rapier blades have a lot of steel way out toward the tip, and steel is heavy and has a lot of inertia. This means that most sharp rapiers do not feel particularly fast and nimble when compared to other sword types with a more pronounced distal taper. Rapiers also have a lot of steel in the protective hilt for which they are so well known, a quality that increases the weight and inertia of the sword, and that therefore decreases its liveliness.
Nathan (5'10") holding one of the Oakeshott rapiers for scale
Of course, the final characteristic of rapiers that influences perceptions of the sword is the fighting style for which they were designed. The rapier is commonly held extended with the point toward the opponent. This position gives maximal reach, keeping ones foe as far away as possible. It is also arguably the most physically taxing way to hold a sword, with the arm held up at 90 degrees to the body.
A plate from Thibault's 1628 Academie de l'Espée
A plate from Giganti's 1606 treatise Scola, Overo, Teatro
This position, with the arm fully extended allows one to parry and attack without moving the point of the sword offline very much. Remember the old fencing maxim, 'small movements are fast movements'. The goal of most rapier fencing is to develop an economy of movement that will allow this relatively heavy weapon to be fast because it is moving very little.
I couldn't resist adopting a guard with this amazing antique rapier. What you cannot tell is how tired my arm was getting while I waited for Craig to take just the right photo...
But my training rapier is light...
I think that this is the issue that causes the most confusion among contemporary sword fighters. Most training rapiers used in HEMA and the SCA today are very light. This is because, in order for a rapier to be safe to train with, it has to have considerable flex in the thrust. The primary way to make a blade flexible is to increase the distal taper and make it thinner in cross section. Obviously you have to make it blunt and take the edge off too. However, a blunted rapier that maintains the rigidity of a real rapier will be far too dangerous to spar with outside of very controlled conditions.
You may be asking yourself "if my training rapier is too light, then how should I train to use an actual rapier?". I would suggest that it would be ideal to have a sharp or blunted rapier at historical weight to practice forms, do cutting, or, with a blunt, to practice controlled drills with a partner. This will allow a student of the rapier to develop a nuanced understanding of the weapon they are training to fight with. Below I have inserted photos of a few Arms and Armor rapiers of historic proportions for your consideration.
Arms and Armor Milanese Rapier~2.5lbs depending on blade options
Arms and Armor Writhen Rapier ~2.8lbs
Arms and Armor Musketeer Rapier ~3lbs
Arms and Armor Lombardy Rapier ~2.8lbs
Or, check out our full selection of rapiers here.