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 are 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 evolves into the small sword.
Here we see a simple finger ring, inner guard loop with thumb ring and simple side ring for outer guard.
Swept Hilt – This is where the bars and rings on the hilt will move from one level to another in a diagonal fashion. This can be as simple as a side ring being rooted at the forearm end and then flowing upward to anchor the other end at the block. In more elaborate pieces there can be multiple sweeps and they can goal the way from the forearm to the knuckle bow.
Writhed detail swept hilt rapier
Seven Ring – Seven Ring rapiers do not always have seven rings. But rather a group of side rings that originate at the base of the forearm and branch of in a series of close-set rings that create a cage like structure around the hand. They will often have a small bilobular plate at the front decorated or scalloped.
Seven Ring Style
Cup Hilt – A hilt that has a plate at the front that is cup or bowl shaped. The earliest ones where quite deep and some are very elaborately decorated with chasing and piercing. This hilt style is associated with the Iberian Peninsula and originated in 17th century.
Cup HIlt Rapier
Dish Hilt – a later development of the rapier transitioning into the smallsword. They would usually have a circular fore plate with a slight dishing, it was often decorated or pierced. It had a simple cross guard and small forearms.
Smallsword – The earliest smallswords would probably have been just called Rapiers. They are a relatively simple guard with small forearms and cross arms. The knuckle bow tends to a capital D shape and the front of the hilt is a bilobular plate.
Loop Hilt - this style of hilt is a simple form but was very popular with sword users looking for a more robust alternative to some of the smallswords of the period. It was favored by military and travelers as a good side arm. A simple knuckle bow with a sweep out to the base of the back guard. Sometimes this was a sweep to the edge of a side ring.
Town Sword - Usually refers to a shorter lighter version of a rapier designed for use in the crowded urban environment.
Shell Hilts – The addition of a plate on either side of the guard incorporated into or over the bars of the rings or sweeps. This evolved to be done symmetrically in most cases.
Bilbo – Contemporary with the cup hilt and favored on the Iberian Peninsula and Kingdom of Naples. These hilts are two large shells that nearly complete a cup in whole with only a small area between the two plates, the space often with additional bars as protection. The term probably comes from the Basque city of Bilbao where some of these may well have been made and the hilt form continues for quite a long period of time.
Pappenheimer – a Victorian association for the name of this hilt style, it consists of two large, usually, pierced plates set in bars on either side of the hilt with supporting sweeps to the guard and/or the knuckle bow. The fore and back guards are curved to form an S shape.
Military Rapier – a modern term used by lots of auction houses to define a heavy or sturdy constructed rapier usually of plain form and often with a wider blade. Little or no actual form that equates to the term.
Court Rapier – another modern term used to define heavily enriched hilts often covered in sculpted decoration over the entire hilt. Some will be embellished with gold, silver and even precious stones.2
Creating an overview of the rapier is a monumental task as the variety and specifics are endless. There are two quite good systems for describing hilts. Here is a quick overview.
A.V.B. Norman created a comprehensive typology of rapier hilts and published The Rapier and Smallsword 1460-1820 in 1980. The work creates a number for each identified hilt form and differentiates between each by description and example. He identifies 112 hilts, some with variants, from the earliest additions to the cross hilt through to the smallsword. Each form is accompanied by a sketch and details of known surviving examples and depictions in art. It is an excellent resource.
Type 61 style of rapier hilt in Norman Typology.
In European Weapons and Armour Ewart Oakeshott lays out a general description of how to describe rapier hilts based on the amount of structures that are on the hilt. He identifies them as
Quarter Hilts – The fore and rear cross guard, two forearms, and a lower side ring or equivalent guard, single loop inner guard if one is present.
Half Hilts – as above, with double side ring or equivalent guard, inner guard often two bars.
Three Quarter Hilts – as above, without a forward guard but a knuckle guard. Multiple rings or loop outer guards and double loop inner guards.
Full Hilts – as above, with both rear and forward guards and knuckle guard, often with three bar inner guards, though sometimes the inner guard will mirror the outer symmetrically.
A full hilt with additional shell plates.
The variety and range of rapiers is almost beyond description in a way that is comprehensive, but we hope this little primer helps to make some sense of all this glorious history to explore.
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.