rapier sword originated in Spain during the fifteenth century and refers to
the type of swords that men used to carry when dressed in civilian clothes.
Thus the rapier sword was another piece of clothing and in turn could be
used as both a defensive and offensive weapon. The term 'rapier' is attested
for the first time in some verses of the poet Juan de Mena dedicated to a
baker; also in the Inventory of Objects by D. Duke Álvaro de Zúñiga dated in
1468. From Spain the term "rapier
travelled to territories such as France, where it is translated as
rapière or England under the name rapier.
Rapier of Spanish origin with ribbon trim.
The rapier sword is usually
identified with those swords carried by the "Three Musketeers", characters
in a literary work created in the nineteenth century by Alexander Dumas,
brought to the big screen on numerous occasions in many different versions.
However, we would need to clarify that the rapier swords that we usually see
in the films do not correspond exaclty with the original rapier swords from
the Modern Age, as in the cinema we only see the hybrid swords, composed of
rapier sword fittings with modern blades used in today's sport of fencing.
Representation of the Musketeers, representatives
for the excellence of the Rapier sword.
The use of the rapier sword spread from the middle of the
fifteenth century until the end of the seventeenth century, although the
heyday and development of this sword in Spain was in the Golden Age, during
the middle years of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. During
this period the Habsburg family reigned Hispanic territory, a dynasty that
consolidated a great empire whose territory extended from the American 'New
World' towards the territories of the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. Such
was the power that the Spanish Monarchy reached in these times that society
thought of Carlos I, the first Emperor and grandson of the Catholic Monarchs
(Ferdinand and Isabella), as the monarch on whose reign the sun would never
Initially the use of the rapier sword was resticted to
the higher spheres of society such as the members of the royal family,
monarchs or military gentlemen such as those of the Order of Alcántara.
Therefore, to own this type of sword was a symbol of power and prestige.
However, as time passed intellectuals, bourgeoisie or military men began to
use the rapier sword as well.
Gentelman duel in the Golden Age with rapier swords.
The rapier sword was used above all for personal defence
and duels. These situations must have been rather common at this time, as
testified by the decision taken by the Trent Council in 1563 when they
condemned the accused tendency to defend honour by the sword.
Sometimes, fighting a duel took place spontaneously in the streets and
squares of towns and people would get absorbed in watching the art of
fighters similar to how people watch fencing or boxing championships today.
The rapier sword was usually combined with the use a dagger whose design was
always in keeping with that of the sword.
Rapier, accompanied by matching dagger.
in its origins the rapier sword possessed a long, wide blade with the
advance in the art of fencing the cutting technique was overtaken with that
of stabbing and the sword evolved into a straight, thin and long blade, able
to surpass, at times, a metre in length with a weight of approximately a
kilogram. The blade of the sword was destined as much for attack as defence.
The fulcrum of this sword is usually placed about six inches of the hilt,
however, depending on the use intended for sword; if it was with the
intention of stabbing or cutting. Rapier swords were wielded with one-hand
and had a hilt (part that protects the handle of the sword) that could be
very ornate, there were generally three different types: loop, shell or cup.
Outline of the main parts of
the rapier sword and main types of hilt fittings: loop, shell and cup.
The fitting loop is the oldest, its origin is in the late fifteenth century
and consisted of a long, narrow crosspiece (the part that makes up the cross
of the sword) interlocking arcs of several rings thus forming the hand guard
that had to protect the hand of who wielded the rapier sword. However, this
hilt was not completely effective as the tip of the adversary's blade could
penetrate the hand guard and wound the swordsman's hand, in spite of the
fact that many swordsman would wear leather gloves. This forced the
introduction of new elements to hinder the risk of injury for the swordsman.
Bowl or cup rapier swords.
Thus was born the shell hand guard, composed of small
iron plates assembled on the crossguard of the rapier sword. The
contemporising of the shell hand guard gave it the "cup" or bowl like
appearance which aimed to strengthen the protection of the hand guard. Thus,
a semi-circular piece of iron or steel, similar to a cup was situated on the
hilt for protection, as can be seen in the image. The bowl could have
decorative elements such as drafts or drawings.
Rapier sword with shell hand guard.
together gave the sword a morphological appearance of elegance and
refinement. The rapier was also configured as an effective weapon for the
typical fencing duels between gentlemen of the Renaissance period.
The rapier sword was made by means of a very difficult
forging technique. The swords consisted in two different types of metal. The
first being steel, also known as "sweet iron" which made up the core or the
internal part of the blade. The other metal was another steel but one with a
very high carbon content which surrounded the inner core. The union of both
metals is made through hammering that starts at the tip towards the handle;
starting the hammering from the centre of the blade and moving out to the
Then gradually the design of the sword is styled;
significant parts such as the tip and edges. Then comes the hardening phase,
the temperature and the speed at which the annealing must be done was an art
whose secret was jealously guarded by the swordsmiths. The final result was
a sword with an elastic and malleable core while the exterior had an
exceptional strength and resistance. Lastly the decorative features were
added, the sword was polished and they would usually sign the handle end.
This end consisted of the tang covered in wood. In turn, the timber was
surrounded by iron or copper wires in most regular models, although some
higher quality Rapier swords could show a handle covered in wires of silver,
gold or even silk. The objective of these elements were to facilitate the
grip and make the sword more asthetically pleasing. The handles could also
be carved or decorated.
The tang of Rapier swords were coated with a
handle adorned with strings of different materials.
Unfortunately, genuine antique rapier swords that are still in good
condition are very scarce.
There could be
rapier swords in private collections or in museum basements, however access
to these models is not easily obtained for those who wish to study them. In
addition, in the Modern Age, swords were often reused, and their
characteristics were adapted to later times. Also, during the numerous wars
over the years the mainland
has been ravaged,
and many important pieces of
material heritage were
in its path, which had they existed, could have helped us to rebuild and
learn a bit more about the history in the Spanish Golden Age.
very few specimens today of antique Rapier swords.
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