The Weapon Arts
The rapier is a long, thin-bladed sword particularly suited to the thrust. It was first popularized in the late 1500s and early 1600s as the primary weapon of the duel throughout Europe. An intricate and sophisticated weapon, the rapier is ideal for teaching the fundamental swordplay principles of distance, timing, blade interaction, and combative strategy.
Though the modern fencing épée is derived from the rapier, the sporting form seen now in the Olympics is quite distinct from the martial dueling techniques taught at Academie Duello. The rapier is a much longer and heavier weapon suited to both the cut and thrust. The system of fencing employed includes movement in the round (circling an opponent), use of a second hand or ‘offhand’ to deflect and seize an opponent’s rapier, and the use of various complimentary tools called secondaries, such as bucklers and daggers.
See more about learning how to use the rapier on our Getting Started page.
Anatomy of the Rapier
The rapier is a long and slender weapon oriented to thrusting. It reaches typically from 41″ to 50″ in total length, while the blade itself is between 36″ and 45″ long. Typical rapiers weigh between 2 and 4.5 lbs overall. The balance point is typically 2″ to 4″ from the guard along the blade.
Most rapiers also have a complex hilt that provides protection for the wielding hand, either in the form of a swept hilt (bands of metal stemming from the crossguard, ‘sweeping’ around the grip) or a cup hilt (a cup-like metal plate fixed in front of the crossguard, with one or more sweeping bands as well).
The Nature of the Rapier
Duellists seek positions where they have optimal leverage and cover from an opponent’s rapier. They use rapid and delicate movements, sliding along, turning and occasionally clearing an opponent’s weapon. The threat of an opponent’s rapier point is constant, pointed always at its intended target.
At Academie Duello, the core strategy for rapier in the Italian system is to constrain an opponent’s options through conscientious positioning of sword and body. The posture for rapier involves standing in profile, leaning forward and back into the guards, proper sword and body alignment for optimal strength and striking angles, and the use of the lunge as a primary striking movement. The line of the entire body moves the rapier; the thrust comes from the lunge, not a movement of the arm.
Sword and movement place a duellist in such a position that renders an opponent unable to attack from their own position, causing them to move to a more advantageous place. During this movement, a duellist creates an opportunity to further improve his or her own position or strike.
History of the Rapier
Late medieval and renaissance cities were rapidly growing, crowded places filled with people from all walks of life. Violence erupted often enough and many people carried weapons for protection. By the middle of the sixteenth century, a new and socially acceptable practice had emerged to settle civilian disputes with weapons—the duel—with specialized weapons and fighting systems to complement it. Up this point, the swords most often carried by civilians were sideswords, primarily designed for cutting, but the evolution of duelling arts steadily transformed these weapons into long but thin-bladed swords with complex hilts to protect the hand. Today, we usually call them rapiers. While there is no clear-cut definition of a rapier, nor any neat historical dividing line to designate at what point the rapier had entirely evolved out of the sidesword, specialized duelling swords recognizably different from common sideswords became common during the latter half of the sixteenth century, and remained in use until the early eighteenth.
In addition to its place as a duelling weapon, the rapier carried an important social function in Early Modern Europe. Any proper gentleman wore a rapier as part of formal dress: a basic symbol of his martial training and prowess as a gentleman, and of his readiness to participate in duels should the need arise. This practice was within the limits of social acceptability so long as it was done by men of the right social class. Other swords used in war—as well as any defensive accoutrements, when worn on the same occasions— would imply that the wearer was looking to pick a brutal street fight. This practice of wearing rapiers continued for about a century.
In the the second half of the seventeenth century, duels to the death fell out of fashion in favour of duels to first blood, prompting a somewhat modified form of the rapier called the smallsword to replace its predecessor. With most duels no longer as dangerous as they were, the complex, protective hilts of the rapier vanished in favour of a simple hilt with minimal hand protection. Otherwise, however, the wearing of smallswords continued in the same fashion amongst European gentlemen until in the middle of the eighteenth century, when the non-military formal wearing of swords fell out of fashion entirely.
While the works of Bolognese master Achille Marozzo (1484-1553) had a great influence on the development of Italian rapier-fighting systems, the first work that many today consider to be significantly devoted to the rapier (or a very late form of the duelling sidesword immediately preceding it) is the Treatise on the Science of Arms with a Philosophical Dialogue (Italian: Trattato di Scientia d’Arme con un Dialogo di Filosofia) by Camillo Agrippa (fl. 1553). This seminal work sets forth the model of a novel fighting system with the familiar four guards of later rapier fighting and the form of lunges. Agrippa’s work also includes a profound body of fencing theory based on mathematical and geometrical principles. By the turn of the seventeenth century, systems of rapier fighting were well established, and other masters like Salvator Fabris (1544-1618) and Ridolfo Capoferro (fl. 1610) continued to elaborate on the techniques and theory that Agrippa had established. Their influence not only informed classical Italian fencing, but as some of these masters travelled elsewhere in Europe, they also spurred the development of rapier-fighting systems in other countries.