Swords through the ages

If you are thinking about starting historical fencing and can't decide which weapon to choose, or you are simply looking for some information about different types of swords, read below.
Below you can also find lists of primary and secondary sources that we recommend should you be looking for material for personal study.
Sources marked (P) are primary. While they comprise the core of the body of knowledge upon which our modern interpretation of historical fencing is built, they are not necessarily the best place to start your study, especially if they are not accompanied by commentary and you don't have any previous fencing experience.
Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Longsword

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Longsword represents an important stage of evolution of medieval swords and as is often the case, its appearance was driven by a technological changes.

Prior to the 13th century, the principal knightly sword was a straight, relatively broad-bladed, double edged weapon.

Advancements in metallurgical processes made production of higher quality steel plates cheaper and easier resulting in better armor being worn by men on the battlefield. This armor effectively rendered the previously used shields obsolete and freed the second arm of the warrior that could now be used for controlling his weapon.

At the same time, sword makers became able to produce longer and lighter swords that could be used as well for thrusting as for cutting. The thrusting use became increasingly important, since the medieval warrior clad in combination of mail and plate armor was rather impervious even to heavy sword cuts. As a result, the focus of sword use started shifting toward thrusting the sword into the opponent's vulnerable points, such as the gaps between different components of his armor. And thus was born the longsword.

As any other weapon, longsword has evolved over time. In the course of the 13th and 14th century it lost much of its width and the tip became more tapered, so that it was easier to penetrate the mail and the gaps in armor., The fuller (a long groove along the center of the blade designed to make the blade lighter while preserving its strength) was replaced with a riser, giving the sword a diamond-shaped cross-section, making it more rigid and thus better for thrusting.

The length of the longsword usually varied between 46 and 54 inches, depending on whether the sword was worn during travel and as a civilian weapon or whether it was meant specifically as a battlefield weapon.

As longsword is one of the earlier weapons that was used prior to the invention of the printing press, the original historical sources are less numerous compared to the other weapons. Each copy of the early longsword fencing manuscript was handwritten and hand illustrated (usually not by an author, but by a "professional" scribe) and was thus a unique item.

Below are our favorite study sources for the Italian longsword tradition:

Greg Mele

Arte Gladiatoria: 15th Century Swordsmanship of Master Filippo Vadi (P)

Guy Windsor

The Swordsman's Companion

Greg Mele & Tom Leoni

Flowers of Battle: The Complete Martial Works of Fiore dei Liberi, Volume III -- The Florius Manuscript

Greg Mele & Tom Leoni

Flowers of Battle: The Complete Martial Works of Fiore dei Liberi - Volume One: The Getty Manuscript and Historical Context

Robert Charette

Fiore dei Liberi’s Armizare

Fiore dei Liberi

The Flower of Battle (P)

Rapier

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Rapier emerged in Europe in the 16th century, during the Renaissance period. During this time Europe was undergoing a number of fundamental changes – not just military, but also social, cultural, and technological. The one social change that had significant impact on fencing, was that the carrying of weapons ceased to be the privilege of the aristocratic warrior class, as was the case in middle ages, and was more and more popular with the civilian population. This was reflected in rapier’s original Spanish name as “espada ropera” – “dress” or more accurately “wearing” sword - a sword that you carry with your civilian attire.

The term “Rapier” can refer to a wide variety of swords, but in general its design is characterized by a rather long (90-120cm) and narrow blade, at least in comparison to other swords of the era, such as the sidesword. Appearance of the rapier was facilitated by advances in technology, as metallurgical processes have improved sufficiently enough to produce longer, narrower and lighter blades, albeit these could come at a hefty price. The rapier’s length, as its most characteristic feature reflected a profoundly different approach to sword fighting compared to the previous types of weapons. While earlier types of swords were primarily cut-and-thrust weapons, use of the rapier was strongly favouring thrust as the primary mode of attack, with the cut as a secondary expedient.

Since thrusting was a much deadlier type of attack compared to cutting, rapier was often considered a dangerous weapon and the men carrying it were often viewed as ruffians. As a result, at different places, carrying of the rapier has been scowled upon, or the maximum blade length was outright limited by local laws.

Another distinction of the rapier was significantly more elaborate hand protection, which over time resulted in complex and intricately decorated hilt designs, though these were often a matter of aesthetics, rather than functionality.

Skill with a rapier was the hallmark of a gentleman – both of the old aristocratic type as well as the new socially ambitious one. Emergence of the latter gave rise to a new, large group of audiences for fencing masters. Teaching of fencing skills thus became a more common and highly competitive profession. A wider spread of fencing instruction was also made possible with the invention of the printing press, which made the fencing manuals (both the good and bad ones) produced in larger numbers.

The rapier fencing systems promoted by various masters and schools tended to have distinct regional styles, most notable of these were the Italian and Spanish schools (German and French schools of rapier fencing did exist but were not as influential). The English style was also heavily influenced by the Italian school, as there were a number of Italian fencing teachers in England, of these, the  most famous being Vincentio Saviolo.

At Signum Corvus we offer instruction in the Italian school of rapier, based on the methods described by influential masters such as Ridolfo Capoferro, Camillo Agrippa, Nicolo Giganti and Salvator Fabris.

There are a number of good materials covering Italian rapier school, the following are a few that we like most:

Devon Boorman

Introduction to the Italian Rapier

David Coblentz & Dori Coblentz

Fundamentals of Italian Rapier

Ken Mondschein

Fencing: A Renaissance Treatise by Camillo Agrippa (P)

Tom Leoni

Salvator Fabris - The art of the Italian rapier (P)

Tom Leoni

Venetian Rapier: Nicoletto Giganti's 1606 Rapier Fencing Curriculum (P)

Tom Leoni

Ridolfo Capoferro's the Art and Practice of Fencing: A Practical Translation for the Modern Swordsman (P)

 
 

Sabre

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So, what actually is a sabre? Well, depends on whom you ask. Generally, the sabre is described as a single-edge, curved, cutting sword. Except that there were also straight sabres, sabres that have a partial false edge and sabres that could also be used for thrusting. So much for the clarity.

​By origin the sabre is not a native European weapon. There are curved-blade cutting type of weapons recorded in the European medieval martial tradition - e.g. falchion and messer, but these cannot be considered to be the direct precursors of the early modern style of sabres. Rather the strongest influence on the sabre came from the lands east of Europe where sabre-like weapons have been used by mounted warriors of Mongol, Tartar and Persian (and many other) empires. From them, the sabre has been adopted by the central and eastern European nations - Hungarian, Polish, Lithuanian that often came into contact with these Eastern empires during centuries of conflict. The sabre had strong influence on the martial tradition of these European regions and resulted in emergence of a unique class of warrior - Hussars. Hungarian Hussars were originally light irregular cavalrymen mounted on small but nimble horses who were raised for service in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Due to their successes, especially during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa, Hussar formations were promptly adopted by other armies, which recruited Hungarian hussars as mercenaries for service throughout Europe. By contrast, in Poland and Lithuania, Hussars were a heavy cavalry units, often used as shock troops to destroy less maneuverable opponent's units.

Throughout the course of the 18th century, Hussars and similar cavalry units were an established component of most of the European armies and the sabre became a widespread and popular type of weapon.

The sabre's popularity was caused by its practicality in combat situations, especially in melee-type encounters, where its superior cutting ability was critical. This was in large part due to the sabre's design - the curve of the blade ensured that regardless of the exact point of contact, the momentum of the weapon caused the blade to slide along the target's surface, resulting in long, deep cuts. Unlike the weapons such as smallsword, the circular use of sabre resulted in a much wider defensive arc making it also much more suitable for personal defense.

Gradually, use of sabres also became popular among the officers of the infantry regiments. The typical infantry officer of the era was armed with a sword more suitable for dueling rather than the battlefield. In battle, these swords may have been sufficient for pointing out the targets at which the regiment should shoot but were less than adequate for actual combat situation. This might have been less of a concern for a line infantry officer, who was protected by his unit, but was critically important for Light infantry officers. Light infantry was often operating in dispersed formations, and an officer might find himself threatened by either an enemy private with a musket and bayonet, or even a cavalry trooper. For such situations, the sabre proved to be highly suitable weapon. As a result, many of the officers replaced their regulation swords with privately purchased sabres. One of the extremely popular patterns was the 1796 Pattern Light Cavalry Sabre designed by John Gaspar le Marchant, famous British cavalry general who died during the battle of Salamanca in 1812. This sabre was much more practical as a battlefield weapon but was still far from ideal. Cavalry sabres tended to be heavy and long, which was suited for its use on horseback - they offered longer reach and maximum effect before the opponent galloped away. But the infantry officer needed a weapon that was shorter, lighter, more nimble and could be used for a prolonged exchange of blows. This resulted in the appearance of infantry sabres, such as the 1803 Pattern Light Infantry Sabre, which were weighty enough to defend against heavier blows, but easier to control through repeated parries and blows.

In spite of the sabre's popularity, the British army did not have a codified mode of use of the sabre until the later years of the Napoleonic wars, when Charles Roworth and Henry Angelo Jr. (of the famous Angelo fencing dynasty) published their fencing treatises. These sources comprise the core of the curriculum for Sabre courses at Signum Corvus.

Henry Angelo

Infantry Sword Exercise (P)

Charles Roworth

The Art of Defence on Foot with the Broad Sword and Sabre (P)