The Rapier began its life in the 1500s. This sword was a cut and thrust weapon that was made for civilians. A thing of beauty as well as a a functional weapon, the rapier is a one handed weapon with a very ornate hilt (usually) that is designed to guard the hand. The blade can cut but the main purpose of the blade is to thrust. Due to this design, the fighting style used with a rapier is very different then pre-Renaissance weapons.
The Rapier was designed by the Spanish. They brought the thicker bladed Rapier into the forefront but the French really developed this sword as a dueling weapon. And while the rapier is no match the much heavier swords wielded in the Middle Ages, it was certainly faster and more adaptable then those heavier swords in a one-on-one duel. The ability to thrust and parry with lightning quick speed made the Rapier a gentleman’s weapon: fast, elegant and deadly.
The hilt is the easiest way to identify a rapier:
- Swept Hilt – This is the most well known style of hilt. The ornate beauty of the swept hilt Rapier does not take away from the protection that the guard gives the hand wielding the sword.
- Clam Shell – The guard is no less ornate but in a different way. A solid piece of metal curves down over the side of the sword hand providing complete protection to the outside of the hand.
- Pappen Heimer – This is a German innovation. Think if you combined a swept hilt with a clam shell – you come out with a Pappen Heimer.
- Cup Hilt – The cup hilt protects the entire hand. The cup covers both the inside and the outside of the hand, thus providing protection from an inside attack as well. This is by far the most protective of the hilt styles, and it most reflects the fencing style of hilt seen on weapons such as the foil or epee.
Due to the unique design of the weapon, the fighting styles changed a little with the rapier becoming the civilian weapon of choice. Seeing as it was almost impossible to use the Rapier with both hands, it was common to pair the sword with another weapon, commonly a dagger of some sort. Having one had free also allowed the ability to slap the opponents blade, which was a very common technique used during a duel. Most movies depict Rapier fights incorrectly and try to employ fencing techniques with the Rapier. And though fencing certainly can cast back to the Rapier for part of its history, the same techniques are not used all the time. Look to a documentary called Reclaiming the Blade if you would like to see some of the differences.