Rapiers are a great example of how the people of the Renaissance blended deadly function with ostentatious beauty and display. In the golden age of the rapier hilts were often adorned with sculpture and intricate structures but the decorative effort did not stop there. People of means who wanted to display their great taste and wealth would often add various decorative elements to the blades of their swords such as etching, a flammard form, or piercing. In this blog we explore why and how decorative piercing this was done, and examine some examples of these incredible blades.
Multiple fullers and piercings were often used to add some extra flamboyance to a weapon. These could be as simple as a single fuller and some round piercings or as elaborate as several narrow fullers and almost a basketweave pattern of piercings.
Over the years various myths developed to explain the function of these piercings. These include assertions that it was done to lighten blades and change their balance, and that the piercings were to enable the addition of poison to an assassins blade. Neither of these theories hold any water. The amount of material removed in piercing would not create a noticeable difference in the handling of the weapon in real world scenarios. A blade adjusted to the specific weight desired by cross section and distal taper would be faster, cheaper, and probably stronger than one so pierced. Aside from the lack of historical evidence for the poison hypothesis, most piercing is at the base of the blade rather than the tip, which means you would need to run someone entirely through to poison them, not very efficient. Much like flame-bladed swords, the primary reason to pierce a blade is decorative.
A Renaissance dagger with simple circle piercings.
Arms & Armor Three Ring Rapier with a custom Pierced blade.
Parrying Dagger with simple pattern piercings from the Wallace Collection A808
The expression of wealth and taste was the main goal of these decorative and impressive blades. Carrying such a blade let everyone know you were fashionable and rich. Nonchalantly drawing your blade just enough to show the piercing would let your friends, foes, and any nearby ladies know that you were a man (or woman) of both taste and action.
Most piercings on European swords form a pattern of slots and dots. The rapier below shows a three fullered blade with the two outside fullers set with two groups of five piercings dot-slot-dot-slot-dot and a third group near the end of the fuller of dot-slot-dot. Each group is separated from the other evenly with about the same distance as one of the five piercing groups.
Here we can see the same pattern but with three pierced fullers. These slots often have a small detail at the ends, such as below where they end in small points. They can also be simply squared off or end in a V shape.
3 pierced fullers on an impressively decorated rapier
In the construction of these blades the use of grinding wheel, chisel, and file was equally as important as that of fire and hammer. While some fullers were usually hammered in, the use of grinding wheels is probably essential for these close set fullers done in any kind of consistent production, even if it is to polish roughness from dies and hammer. The need to remove material in the base of the fullers for piercings was probably started with punches and then the use of jewelers saws, files and chisels were used to sharpen and define the shapes. As one can see from these examples, these were not the work of a rough forge, but the skill of craftspeople of a caliber equal to any other artisan of the day.
Some examples became very elaborate, even to the point where the functionality of the blade took a back seat to its value as a piece of artistry.
German Parrying Dagger c. 1600
This artistic traction continued well into the 19th Century. This knife is an excellent example.
18th C fighting knife
The use of piercings in the blades of swords and daggers was a trend driven by fashion and display. It created fantastic examples of the blade makers art and was used by those who wore a rapier on their hip to create an impressive display. Today we will see these intricate details created by historical artisans and try to find a tactical reasons for their use. But this is to miss how important the representation of your status and position was to the renaissance person. Even if you were reaching above your means, it was considered a vital to display the embodiment of the person that you wanted to be. This was a driving force of the social structure of this time and should never be overlooked when studying the period.
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.