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Evolution of rapier blades
I have long been interested in the evolution of the rapier as a collector of antique rapiers and wanted to get people’s views on the types of rapier blade and their uses at the end of the 16th century and the 17th century. There is a lot of information, Norman being the main one, on hilt types for rapiers but less on blade types and increasingly I find the blade type much more of a differentiator in typology/use than the hilt as there is a huge variance in blade type in the 17th century which goes way beyond stylistic or regional variations.. As I see it there are 5 main blade types in this period with sub-types within each. This list is not meant to be exhaustive and there are many variants:

1. Hexagonal section with short and relatively shallow fuller – late 16th and early 17th century. These blades are often substantial and, whilst tapering, do not taper acutely and have a distinct edge and can be used for cutting or thrusting. The rapiers with these blades tend to be a bit blade heavy. Bottom 3 photos.

2. Similar to above but the blade narrows and has a deep I-beam fuller – late 16th and throughout 17th century. These blades I see as an evolution of type 1. Above. The blade is hexagonal section in the last third toward the hilt with the blade thickening greatly in this section and at the ricasso. The remainder of the blade may be hexagonal or lenticular in cross section and tapers more acutely than type 1. It may have an edge in the last third of the blade but it is clearly more of a thrusting blade. The I-beam type fuller gives strength and flexibility to the narrower blade. This type remains in use particularly on Spanish and Italian cup hilts into the later 17th century. Swept hilt and cup hilt photos.

3. Flat diamond section of varying width – early 17th century throughout 17th century. These blades are flat diamond section throughout and have an edge on the wider (flatter diamond section) examples. As a result of their flatter cross section and lack of thick forte and deep fuller they have considerable flexibility. The rapiers I have seen or owned with this blade type tend to be a bit shorter (37-39 inches from the guard) than other rapiers and generally light hilted Northern European. English rapier with black hilt..

4. As type 3 but narrower – 17th century. These are also diamond section throughout with no fuller but are narrower and stiffer blades but still with flexibility. Often light in weight.. Petal shaped guard English rapier and earlier military rapier (last photo)

5. The steel bar - early 17th century throughout 17th century. These are pure thrusting rapiers evolved from 4 most probably. They are thick diamond section, almost square section in some cases towards the hilt. They have no edge save for a possible strammazone tip for the last 6 inches as shown in the Spanish cup hilt in the photos below. English swept hilt and Spanish boat cup hilt photos.

What is of interest to me and which those who practice historical fencing can assist with maybe is that all these blade types co-existed in the first half of the 17th century. There is such a difference in weight, design, dynamics and potentially method of use between the needle bladed English swept hilt below, the light-weight flexible flat diamond black rapier which has a keen cutting edge for the whole length of the blade, the much heavier, long and stiff bladed ring hilt and the chiselled Spanish cup hilt with the I-beam fuller and very long 45 inch blade. But they were all made within about 20-30 years of each other, 1620-1650 (a bit later for the cup-hilt maybe). And there seems no clear linear evolution from one type to another; they co-existed. To me the reason for that must be either: different uses; different fencing schools; or different regions. But I don’t see any clear evidence for a definite regional differentiation although certain countries did tend toward certain types of blade to a degree. So I think it is down to use or fencing method. We often discuss what is a rapier. A sword of a certain period and broad type with a long, narrow blade is often categorised as such. But I increasingly find them very different, particularly in the first half of the 17th century (16th century is more consistent I find).

The ring hilts are interesting. I own one and have handled several more at fairs, auctions and people's collections though they are not that common to find. I find generally (I know there are variants) that they tend to be long, substantial, stiff bladed and heavy with more of a blade heavy balance than most rapiers. I have discussed this with one of the collectors on myArmoury who is of the view this type may have been used from horseback. I must say I can see this viewpoint. The ones I have handled have very different weight and characteristics to most rapiers I have come across from that period and I can see them being used as a straight cavalry sword rather than a purely civilian duelling weapon. It just interests me - the variance in design, weight, cutting vs thrusting etc. in such a short period and at the same time, I wanted to post more photos of more examples but there is a size limit to uploads. I may have to add photos on a second post.

I would be interested in people's views.


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A couple of photos that didn't fit in the last post. The flat diamond section English rapier with cutting edge and earlier diamond section narrow bladed military rapier circa 1600.

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I should note the type 1 blades per the post are the top 3-4 photos not the bottom ones.
A couple more examples:

Continuation of type 1 but in lenticular cross section on what is probably an 18th century Spanish cup hilt.

And a type 4 narrow diamond section blade, mid-late 17th century from a probably Spanish cup hilt with Caino and Toledo marks (Caino being a much copied 17th mark as noted in Wallace collection catalogue).

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And finally showing the longevity of the type 2 blade on a late 17th century transitional rapier/smallsword. Blade perfectly rapier in form and of a type used from late 16th century through to late 17th but in smallsword dimensions being 32 inches long.

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Well I really don't know much about rapiers, but I'm learning a bit of the major hilt types. This is a really interesting thread, since I didn't know the blades had much variation. So I hope you keep sharing and that other people chime in.

And this looks like a really nice collection!
I second the above. Seeing the photos and hearing the differences and handling broken down, coupled with the time period ranges, really helps me get an idea for what these swords might have felt like, and when they would have been in any given form. Thank you for starting this!
Thanks for your replies.

I guess what I am trying to say here is that there is a broad concept of transition from the 16th century rapier to the smallsword, let's say broadly 1570 to 1700. From long to short, from heavier to lighter and from blade heavy to more hilt weighted (and a major change in fencing technique). And that is true if you look at the whole period start to finish.

But what interests me is the late 16th century to late 17th century has such a variety of types which do not conform to a straight linear development from point A to point B. There is such a variety in that century in weight and balance and length and it is not one type clearly following another in a nice, neat typology. It is types co-existing. It's a bit messy. And the differentiator, to me, seems largely to do with blade type not specifically date or hilt type, hence my questions about usage.

I will try and show this in reference to weight and dimensions in a few posts (you cant do multiple good photos in one post).
Example type 1 and periods:

Pic 1 - swept hilt c1590 (acquired from fellow myArmoury collector) - w 1.23kg blade heavy
Pic 2 swept hilt c 1610 - 1.25 kg blade heavy
Pic 3 - ring hilt c 1630 - 1.4 kg blade heavy

Similar blade type, similar weight, blade length between 42-44 inches from guard.

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Type 2

Pic 1 - swept hilt c 1590 - healthy debate ongoing with fellow collector on authenticity of hilt but blade 100% authentic and balance, weight overall as original. w 1.1kg

Pic 2 - Probably Italian cuphilt c1650-1660 - w. 1.11kg

Pic 3 - Spanish cuphilt c1660-1670 - w.1.04kg

All slightly blade heavy but not as much as type 1, yet they overlap in time period. Blades from guard 41-45 inches.

I have seen many more examples in friends' collections and museums or swords I previously owned to illustrate these types but am limited to my own current pieces to illustrate this.

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Type 3/4

Pic 1 - military rapier c1600 - w 1kg

Pic 2 English dish hilt c 1630 - w. 0.9kg

Pic 3 English/Northern Europe rapier c 1640 - w 0,7kg

Lighter and balance very much more towards hilt and blades all between 36 and 38 inches from guard but spanning a 40-50 year period and overlapping with the types above in period. I have seen many more examples of this type which conform to these dimensions but which span the same long period.

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Type 5

I don't have many of these now to show but owned a few others before. The ones I have handled at fairs and in other peoples' collections have similar characteristics to these.

Pic 1 English swept hilt needle bladed rapier c 1620-1630 w 0.9kg

Pic 2 - Spanish boat cuphilt rapier c 1650 - 1670 w. 0.88 kg

Both very much hilt weighted - you hardly feel the blade weight.

Both have blade length approx 39 inches from the guard. There is a book featuring the English one here and the Type 4 black hilt English/Northern European rapier on the previous email which describes them as having very long blades, but they dont; they have blades on the medium-short side.

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So in a nutshell all I am trying to say in this thread (in a long winded way) is that rapier to smallsword is not a simple linear transition and the 17th century was frankly a sock drawer in terms of types.

My favourite point in this period is about 1640-1650 where you can produce examples of all the types I mentioned with differing weights, balances, lengths and edge vs point plus a few more. Yes there is an overall pattern and transition over 100 years but a heck of a ven-diagram in between. Therefore interested in people's thoughts as I read a lot about hilt types and I see a lot reproduction rapiers with diamond section blades but I am not sure that is the whole story.

Was rapier fencing in 1580 the same as in 1620 and the same as in 1650 ? I don't know.
You have an impeccably curated collection Daniel.

Would you be willing to include full length shots of each of the blades? I think this would help readers have a better overall sense of the swords and how they might perform.
Sure. That makes sense. I will add them tomorrow when I am at home.
Per previous email, some blade close ups of the types. Size restriction means not sure how clear they will be.

Top two: Late 16th Century type 1 - note the relatively wide blade, lack of acute taper, and distinct edge (several I have handled including this one are still relatively sharp).

Bottom two - Late 16th century type 2 - note narrower blade, deeper and longer fuller and more tapering point.

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Later type 2 - blade narrows, fuller deep and point narrows.

c1660 Spanish cuphilt

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Type 3

Diamond section throughout. Has an edge and is flexible. c1630/40

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Type 4

Same as type 3 but diamond is thicker and blade is narrower. This means no real edge for the first half of the blade and point is very fine. Also means it's a lot less flexible than 3. 1630/40 but plenty of earlier examples going back to 1600 and earlier.

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