Vladimir Cervenka Flambard Rapier
A hands-on review by Bill Grandy
Renaissance weaponry is often characterized by an increased attention to the weapon's aesthetics. Museum displays often are covered with swords demonstrating ornate and elaborate designs sometimes decorated all the way from pommel to point. Rapiers in particular are often decorated with engravings, complex welds and fancy grips. Some swords were purely ornamental, yet other works of art were still fully functional as deadly weapons of combat.
One of the more outstanding and notable aesthetic designs is a wavy-blade style that is generally referred to as a "flambard", or flame blade. These blades are complicated to make, but are beautiful to behold, and could be found on a number of types of swords. The design is not unique to European blades, as other cultures sometimes made similar blades. The style, however, does not seem to have been common in Europe until the 16th century at the earliest, with any existing examples from before that time being extremely rare if existing at all. After the 17th century the style becomes very rare again, though it was sometimes seen on daggers.
This flambard rapier was a custom piece created by Vladimir Cervenka and commissioned by long-time myArmoury.com member Kirk Spencer. Kirk had utilized records of several recorded measurements of period rapiers and specified that he wanted this rapier to be based on an average of those measurements.
The purpose of the flambard-style blade is often debated by scholars and enthusiasts. There is no hard evidence as to whether it was done purely for aesthetics or if it had a functional purpose. Many debate whether or not the edges were designed to make the sword more efficient at slicing and cutting. When Kirk loaned this sword to me to review, he specifically asked for me to do comparison test cuts with it to see if there were any functional differences between it and other straight-edged rapiers. I performed several test cutting experiments with it and five other rapiers that had straight edges, which will be elaborated on below. The tests were not measured under hard scientific rules, and as such should not be taken as gospel. Even still, they do convey certain general ideas about the cutting ability of this particular sword verses others.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Vladimir Cervenka of the Czech Republic.
I have handled a number of antique rapiers that have a very wide range of differences in feel. I can't say there is one "typical" type of feel to a rapier, but I can say that this piece definitely falls within the range period originals in terms of handling. It is easy to use and even the wire-wrapped grip, which is very secure in hand, is easy to hold and not harsh on bare skin.
One of the most common ways to grip a rapier is to wrap the forefinger around the ricasso to aid in tip control. Most rapier-styled hilts therefore have bars to protect the finger, and this one is no exception. However, an interesting aspect about this particular sword is that it also has a thumb-ring: a bar for the thumb to slip over when gripped to aid in control for cutting actions. This is not out of the question to see on a period piece, though it is more common on hilts that are married to wider, more cut-oriented blades.
I find that when I wrap my finger around the ricasso in the typical Italian grip, the thumb-ring is superfluous. In fact, the thumb-ring is large enough that my thumb does not even contact it when held in this grip. However, if I chose, I could forego fingering the ricasso and take a square grip. In this method, the thumb-ring becomes more functional when performing cuts. That said, the method of fingering the ricasso gives a much better feel with this particular sword, Ultimately I find the thumb-ring in this case to be more decorative than anything else.
If one reads the teachings of the classical rapier masters of the Renaissance, it is obvious that the thrust is the preferred method of attacking. At the same time, though, the cut still plays a large role in offensive actions and counterattacks. In evaluating this sword, I performed several drills with each action, and also practiced some test cutting. As mentioned above, I compared this sword against five other rapiers, all of which had straight edges and were high quality, historically accurate weapons. The first cutting medium was a number of cantaloupes. I like to use these because they have a very tough, hard husk, but are soft on the inside. I performed the some of the draw-cutting tests on raw steak as well (which was later used as food). I prefer the cantaloupe as a medium because meat tends to become much denser after the animal has died, and therefore is not as accurate in testing wound pathology as one might expect it to be. Nonetheless, the results of the cutting on meat strongly mirrored the same results as the tests on the cantaloupe.
I began with thrusting actions. I performed several lunges initially, the attacks with passing steps, sometimes combined with off-hand maneuvers. All of the swords performed essentially the same: the blades penetrated with barely any resistance. This was not surprising, as they are all narrow, sharpened thrusting weapons. The only difference was that the wider swords left wider punctures, which is to be expected. In this respect, it is feasible that one of the purposes of having the flambard blade is to make thrusts create larger wounds despite using a narrower (and therefore lighter) blade. This is purely speculation on my part, and whether it really was a reason to design these blades or not, it does not seem to make a remarkable difference when one takes into consideration the amount of time and skill it takes to create such a blade.
To take it a step further, I attempted cuts against water filled milk jugs and cartons. All of the swords bisected these with ease as well, with no difference between the flambard-bladed sword and the straight-edged ones.
Since the results so far did not show the wavy blade to be any more or less effective in the cut, I decided to attempt draw-cutting actions. It is often speculated that such blades are more effective in draw cuts, and it is further speculated that this would be a common method of attack with rapiers. However, having studied a variety of Renaissance fencing treatises, and having trained with others who have studied many treatises that I have not studied myself, I am unaware of a single instance where a period fencing manual ever advises to make a draw cut. These treatises are often incredibly detailed in what to do and what not to do, so I find it unlikely that such a technique would be advisable when it doesn't seem to have been recorded. Cuts need to have a certain amount of percussive force to make them effective; otherwise your adrenaline-pumped opponent will likely ignore the wound until the fight is over. The only similar techniques would be with the longsword, where slices to the bare hands might be used because the hands are far more vulnerable to this type of attack.
Nonetheless, I did try some experiments to see the draw-cutting ability of this sword compared to the others. The waviness is somewhat akin to a bread knife's serrations, so I did expect it to outperform the straight edged swords. I first tried laying the edge against the hard husk of the cantaloupe and, without using any pressure aside from the weight of the blade, pulled the sword along the skin for several inches of the blade. There was very little difference between the blades, though the flambard rapier did very slightly cut a little bit deeper. The waviness does have more surface area when being drawn along the target, so this makes sense. Since there was no pressure, though, none of the swords cut past the husk into the meat. When performing the same test with pressure, all of the swords cut into the target somewhat, but there seemed to be little difference between any of the swords.
I next tried this against cloth, since it is often speculated that this style of blade was designed to be use with draw-cuts against civilian clothing. While I would like to point out again that I have never seen such an action described in a period fencing treatise, I did want to test this out for sake of covering all of the bases. I placed an old towel over the target and tried to cut through. Draw cuts with all of the swords did not penetrate the cloth at all. I then tried something very unrealistic: I held the target in place as I rapidly "sawed" at the cloth with each of the swords. To my surprise, the sword that cut the best with this "method" was one of the straight edged swords, not the flambard blade. The rest of the swords lightly damaged the cloth, but did not penetrate. The one that did cut through had a much thinner cross-section and a finer edge than the rest of the swords.
The results of the draw-cutting experiments say to me that the waviness of this flambard is really far more aesthetic than functional. What is more important to functionality is the acuteness of the edge, the balance, the mass distribution and the dynamic feel of the sword.
There is one aspect of the sword's properties I did not test, as I did not want to damage this remarkable weapon which was only on loan to me. It is often speculated that the wavy blade may surprise and throw off an opponent when their blade runs along it. Using this sword to parry another sword would certainly have left marks on it at the very least. But I do own a practice rapier that has a similar flambard blade, and have fenced with it a number of times. I have found that while this idea is not completely out of the question, it ultimately is not a very practical reason: Any skilled fencer would not be unsettled by this, especially considering that most actions in rapier involve striking the opponent at the same time as defending, giving very little time for anyone to notice. The threat of being run through is probably far more disconcerting than the feel of the blade during the parry.
All of these tests aside, this sword performed very well on all accounts. It has excellent tip control, it feels solid in the cut, and it has no trouble when using these actions against reasonable targets. It is clear that Cervenka truly understands how to make a functioning historical weapon.
Fit and Finish
The wire wrap is simply fantastic. It begins with alternating twisted steel wire around a spirally-grooved grip. In the grooves is a thicker twisted brass wire to contrast against the steel, and that is further emphasized by being outlined with twisted copper wire. The only negative I can say about this grip is that the copper turk's head knots, which top off the ends, appear to be soldered closed. This is either due to not being able to hide the ends of the wires, or else they are faux turk's head knots: copper bands that are cast to look like woven wire. I am not sure which the case is. Ultimately, this is difficult to notice, and not of much importance unless if one wants to be very nitpicky. The engraving on the sword is expertly done. It is both ornate yet tasteful, and does not overpower the rest of the piece.
One noticeable aspect of the sword is the finish. I often times don't care for swords that have been "antiqued" so as to look old, as they often just look like mistreated weapons that haven't been cared for. This one, however, has a very refined look to it, giving the feel of an antique that has been restored. It appears to have been taken to a high level of finish, then antiqued, then polished again. This leaves some minor pitting in the surface that look authentic as marks of age, but the overall appearance is of a weapon that is still ready to use.
I am incredibly impressed with the workmanship of this piece. It has both the looks and the feel of an original 17th century rapier. Furthermore, it captures the beauty, grace and form of some of the highest quality antiques. There is very little that one can complain about with this sword. It is a remarkable weapon when used with period rapier fencing techniques, and it is gorgeous to look at. My hat is definitely off to Vladimir Cervenka, who is clearly a weaponsmith of enormous talent.
About the Author
Bill Grandy is an instructor of Historical European Swordsmanship and sport fencing at the Virginia Academy of Fencing. He has held a strong passion (obsession?) for swords and swordsmanship for as long as he can remember. He admits that this passion comes from a youth spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, but he'll only admit that if there are no girls around.
Photographer: Bill Grandy