Smallswords: yep, light and fast

In our post entitled "Are Rapiers Light and Fast?" we explored the basic attributes of the rapier and how it compared to other European swords.  In that article I argued that rapiers were not any lighter or faster than other one-handed swords, they were swords optimized for the thrust instead of the cut.  One type of European sword that was, however, significantly lighter and faster than others is the smallsword.  The smallsword is a thrust-oriented dueling weapon of the 18th century that is shorter, lighter, and more nimble than its ancestor. It is often sited as the ancestor of the modern Olympic foil and epee.

Exploded image of smallsword hilt from The Oakeshott Institute

A 3D model of a smallsword from The Oakeshott Institute collection and several others as well 

The smallsword first appeared as an evolution of the rapier in the mid-17th century as it was becoming less necessary for gentlemen to wear a large sword for self-defense.  By the late 17th century smallswords emerged as a dueling weapon and fashionable accessory on both sides of the Atlantic (check out George Washington's smallsword collection here).  These weapons usually had blades shorter than 36" mounted on a small, often ornate hilt with short quillons and a light knuckle guard. In most cases with a bilobar plate at the front. In a sharp divergence from the earlier rapiers that featured large and complex hilts designed to protect the hand and body, smallsword's had minimal protection.  

Smallsword #069 from Arms & Armor

In addition to the shorter length of smallsword blades vis-a-vis rapiers, they were also much, much lighter.  Below I have included photos of several swords from the Oakeshott Institute collection to illustrate this sword type.  The sword at the top of the below photo, for purposes of comparison, is an early 17th century rapier with an overall length of about 51.5".  The second from top is a transitional rapier blade mounted on a smallsword hilt that dates from the middle of the same century.  This sword is interesting because it demonstrates a transitional form offering neither the reach and power of a rapier, nor the quickness of a smallsword.  The blade is of a rather heavy, fullered, diamond section and the overall length of the piece is 41". Next are, two true smallswords, respectively, a triangular sectioned smallsword, and a diamond sectioned smallsword, both dating from the 18th century.  



546 grams/ 1.2 lbs


 493 grams/ 1.08 lb


460 grams/ 1.01 lbs

These blades around are very light, the average smallsword blade will run between 170 and 230 grams (6-8 ozs). The drastic change in the form of thrust oriented swords from the relatively long, and stiff rapier toward the lighter, shorter smallsword required changes in swordsmanship too. The most famous historical treatise on the use of the smallsword is Domenico Angelo's 1765 L'Ecole des Armes.  


A plate from Domenico Angelo's 1765 L’Ecole des Armes

 The depiction above shows a type of swordplay we associate with the smallsword. Masters such as Hope, L'Abbat, Liancour and our personal favorite and hero Donald McBane. These masters fought and taught these skills to the fighting men and gentry of their day. If you are not familiar with McBane he was a soldier, gambler, tavern keeper, fight master and prize fighter, also probably lived a life most would find unbelievable. His work is written as a biography but is full of practical sword fighting details from a man who fought many times.


Thrust from McBane's book

Thrust from McBane's The Expert Swordman's Companion

Although we mostly focus on making replicas of Medieval and renaissance weapons, we have made and practiced the smallsword from our earliest days of sword making. The clear derivation of these swords from rapiers, alongside their amazing handling characteristics make them a piece we couldn't do without. We make a production smallsword based on an original from the Victoria and Albert Museum, and have a large portfolio of custom pieces with triangular or diamond-section blades, blunted for sparring or sharp depending on your preference.  Check out some photos below of some custom smallswords we have made over the years.

A&A Loop HIlt

German smallsword with copper wire grip

Loop hilt on wide smallsword blade after German original

#069 Smallsword with blued hilt and plate pierced with cross shape

Our stock smallsword with blued finish and custom pierced fore plate

Spanish style cuphilt smallsword

Smallsword in the style of a Spanish Military sword based on one at the Met

Pierced plate smallsword with large beadsCustom pierced plate smallsword

Custom Smallsword molded from an original hilt

Custom Smallsword with Flammard Blade

Double Loop Hilt with scabbard and Hanger

Check out a video review here of our #069 Smallsword.

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