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Fencing and History Nut Extraordinaire. While I am tending toward 16th century at the moment, I am and have been interested in history for a long time. Hence the fencing focuses more on the Renaissance period than the modern. This explains two out of three of my blogs. The third is a more personal one focusing on fibromyalgia. What I write in these blogs, I hope will be of use to people.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Rapier to Civilian Sword - Editorial



The rapier has to be one of the most argued about weapons. Every time there is a discussion about the rapier there is an assumption made about this weapon. There is an assumption made by the writer that the reader is going to conjure in their mind the same weapon that they are writing about. Unfortunately this is sometimes not necessarily the case. The result of this is that arguments ensue. The problem is the word and the connotations associated with it. Maybe it is time for a change in thinking.

Earlier Discussion

There has already been a post made with regards to the origins and identification of the weapon known as the rapier entitled, "What is a Rapier?" (https://afencersramblings.blogspot.com.au/2015/02/what-is-rapier.html). It attempted to identify and pin down this ever elusive weapon. It discussed that there were several different forms of weapon which were identified as being rapiers. This post also stated that there was a very limited presence of the word "rapier" in the period in which it was used. It indicated that there were several etymological claimants for the word, most of which were from fencing historians as they were not actually called those things in the period in which they were used. In essence it took the weapon apart and shredded many of the common "known" so-called "facts" about the origins of the weapon. It resulted in that, for the most part, the author has to identify the weapon and hope that the reader has a common opinion.

Curatorial Issues

With all of the infomation presented above alone, it can clearly be stated that there is a lot of confusion about what a rapier is and is not. For years museum curators and collectors have identified weapons primarily by their hilts rather than the entire weapons, and had only a passing interest in their blades. It is thanks to this group of individuals that you have the term "sword rapier", a ridiculous term that was supposed to indicate a rapier with a broader blade. More to the point they have also gotten confused about where the rapier stops and the smallsword begins, which is understandable considering this line is very blurry.


Added to the confusion of how to identify the rapier itself, there is a lot of "baggage" associated with the weapon. Some of this comes from the curatorial mistakes made by museum curators in the earlier periods when the weapons were mis-identified. Some of this comes from fencing historians who were desperately trying to claim the rapier as the sword of the Renaissance, the beginning of brighter times, but not so nimble as the smallsword which led to the truer art. The last of the baggage comes from more modern times in which reproductions have been used for test cutting to prove that the rapier was could or could not cut, depending on their particular bias.

Where to Go?

With all of these issues with regard to this weapon and the word "rapier" a person has to ask, what are we to do about it? How can a person have a discussion about such a weapon in a relatively intellectual atmosphere when there is so much emotion and confusion about it?

Solution: replace it with "civilian sword".

Civilan Weapon

The primary purpose of the rapier, whatever its form, was for civilian self-defense and duelling. Sure, we occasionally see them on the battlefield, but this was not their primary purpose. Thus to call it a "civilian sword" be it a "rapier" or a "sidesword" is more associated with what it was primarily used for.


"Civilian sword" also more closely associates the weapon with its context. Especially in the Elizabethan treatise His True Art of Defense of Giacomo di Grassi of 1594 he discusses a sword, indeed he uses the word "spada" in the 1570, which was translated sometimes as "rapier" and sometimes as "sword" depending on the context of the weapon and its companion. Thus in the context of thus treatise it is actually more accurate to discuss a "civilian sword" rather than a "rapier" anyway. The same could be said of Saviolo's His Practice in Two Books of 1595, even though it does say "rapier" all the way through. In the case of both this weapon is mentioned all the way through as it was fashionable in England at the time.

Less Prejudgement

Using this newer term moves away from preconceived notions of the weapon, thus the reader will read about the weapon and understand its capabilities by what has been written by the author without pre-judging the actions of the weapon due to what it has been called. Also there will be less chance of bias for or against the weapon due to a lack of pre-judgement based on what the weapon is called. Further to this, the term "sidesword" is for the most part anachronistic in nature, determining a term for a weapon which would have simply been called a sword. Added to this, it has been noted the actions of the one, a sidesword have been noted to work quite well with the other the rapier, and in some instances, especially with earlier manuals, vice versa.

Better Coverage

A weapon which has a blade which is 45" (114.3cm) long and is 0.6" (1.5cm) wide and a 3-ring swept hilt is a rapier, but so is a weapon which has a blade which is 36" (91.4cm) long and 1" (2.5cm) wide and simple two port rings. Both are considered to be rapiers. Both are quite different weapons, the former being a weapon more found in the earlier seventeenth-century, and the later being from the mid-sixteenth-century. One only needs to look at a book or image search for "rapier" to see the many different variations. "Civilian sword" covers these and other weapons which fit into the same usage category much better.


For the most part we find a word and we tend to stick to it, even if it is not the best word. This is because we are lazy and because we get to used to using the word. With regard to the word "rapier" it is about time it had a change for a term which was much better aligned to the weapon which was actually used with the manuals, also better aligned with the weapons which were actually carried.

There is just simply too much baggage associated with the word "rapier". Too much assumption goes along with it when it is used and often those assumptions do not match up between authors and readers and this creates arguments which otherwise need not happen. Examples of these arguments can be found all over the internet. For some reason when the word "rapier" is brought up it brings out the most fervent idealists and the most passionate arguments as well.

The use of this new term "civilian sword" takes away all of the emotion which is associated with the old term and presents a clearer idea. It also presents a clean slate for an author to present their ideas about how to use the weapon without any pre-judgement on the part of the audience. The arguments associated with this new term can be transferred to more intellectual arguments of presenting sides until some sort of consensus is made about what a weapon is able to do, not with the idea of settling it once and for all but just for that weapon.

Using this new term "civilian sword" will enable a much fuller and better understanding of the Elizabethan texts also as it is more suitable to the forms of fence which are presented in these treatises. These treatises are on the cusp of change between a more cutting sword to a more thrusting sword, thus they are perfect for this term. They pin-point a position in time where the action of the cut was almost as effective in combat in a civilian combat with swords as was the thrust. With this new term a greater understanding of the art of the sword is the hope and goal.