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RAPIER SWORD

The term 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 sword" travelled to territories such as France, where it is translated as rapière or England under the name rapier.

Rapier sword has its origins in fifteenth century in Spain

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.

Musketeers used to use the rapier sword 

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 set. 

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.

Rapier duel

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.

 

Daggers used to accompany the rapier sword 

Rapier, accompanied by matching dagger.

Although 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.

Rapier sword parts and types of fittings

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.

Rapier of cup

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 garnished with clamshell

Rapier sword with shell hand guard.

All this together gave the sword a morphological appearance of elegance and unique 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 edges. 

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.

Rapier garnished with loop

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 our country's material heritage were destroyed 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.

Former Spanish Rapier 

There are very few specimens today of antique Rapier swords.

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