The Anatomy of the Rapier. And stuff.

AnatomyOfSwordLogolast week, we took our first tentative steps into the guts and bones of swords. Now that we have taken a few steps into the pool, it’s time to dive right into one of the most complex swords in history—the almost-really-badly-named rapier.

Now, when I say rapier, I’m not simply talking about the espada ropera, or the spada de lato, or the small-sword. I’m not just talking about the estoc or the dueling swords or any of the other cut-and-thrust swords out there. I’m talking about all of the mostly-for-jabbing-people swords, and there are lots. This classification of swords is mind-blowingly large, so we must tread carefully here. In this pool. This pool of cold steel. Is the metaphor getting old yet? I will generalize a bit, which is always an invitation for comments like, “Yeah, but what about…” or “Hey, dumb-ass, all generalizations are wrong!”

SweptHiltSo, these are all stabbing-ish swords. But what else do they have in common? Let’s generalize!

  1. Compound hilt. No, ,this doesn’t mean your opponent can come pound you with it. It means that the wielder’s hand is protected by guards that are more complicated than just two quillons. (Quilons being straight metal bars that jut to either side of the grip, as seen on most arming swords). Compound hilts are like fountains of metal that swirl delicately around your hand, bringing you protection, happiness and fortune. And, if an enemy has one, he or she can come pound you with it
  2. Narrow blade. The width of these types of swords is generally about an inch, sometimes a little wider, sometimes a little narrower. (Feel free to insert your own vulgar joke here, you perverts). Side-swords, for example, can be an inch-and-a-half or wider, but usually taper toward the point. Small-swords, by contrast, are rarely wider than an inch, and often narrower.
  3. Under-sharpened edges. Swords in this class often have dull edges (as do I after a few shots of vodka…). If they are sharpened, it is usually only the top third of the blade. Why only sharpen the top third? Because people who owned these swords were typically cheap, and looked for any way they could save money. Wait. No, I’m thinking of my old landlord. Here’s the real reason: Because when you fight with a dull sword, it is easy for an opponent to grab hold of the blade. And the part of the blade they are most likely to grab is the foible, which, as we learned last week (we learned this, right? Right?), is the thinner, more flexible part of a sword blade. Sharpened top edges also allowed for some slashing with these swords, particularly near the tip.
  4. Ricasso: Most swords in this class have a small, unsharpened (and often slightly thicker) section of blade next to the grip. A wielder can put his index finger on this little strip of metal, allowing for better control of the blade, vis-a-vis the whole laws of leverage thing. Is there a Law of Leverage? If not, I claim it. Roberto’s Universal Law of Making Yourself Stronger.

Rapiers and their ilk were typically used for thrusting (read:stabbing). Some, like the obviously named cut-and-thrust sword, could do both. But the brunt of these weapons were created at a time when gunpowder was rendering armor useless. No longer did warriors need heavy-bladed swords that could crush an opponent’s helmet. Or swords that you needed three people to swing properly. Swordplay became a thing of subtlety and grace. The true rapier was the father to swords that allowed double-time fencing. What is double-time fencing? Well, let’s say you usually practice fencing with your girlfriend. But one day you go to another girl’s house and fence with her. That’s double time fencing. Um. I may be mixed up here. No… wait… double-time fencing, also called dui tempo, describes the pace of fast-speed fencing, where parrying and counterattacking can come quickly, one after the other. It’s the sort of fencing that is shown in the Zorro movies, or pretty much anything with Errol Flynn in it.

You got all that? Should we move on? (Hint: it doesn’t matter how you answer the question. I’m moving on). Let’s have a look at the parts of a thrusting sword.


Anatomy_RapierFull_Labeled500WDTHThe guards

As I mentioned, discussions of these types of swords requires some generalization and selective exclusion. I will try to cover the guards of the most common of these weapons.


Swept Hilt

Among the most glamorized of all swords is the swept-hilt rapier. These are the bling-guards–half sculpture, half armor. Swept hilts varied enormously, but most had a few basic similarities:

  1. Knuckle Guard/Knuckle Bow: The knuckle bow is a curved, slender strip of metal that curls elegantly around the user’s fingers. It got its name from early swordsmen, who tried attaching cords to this curved piece of metal and firing arrows from  it. Unfortunately, the arrows could only be about three inches long and… um… I’m kidding of course. You can’t fire arrows from a knuckle bow. You can only fire knuckles from it.
  2. Quillons: If you’ve been paying attention, you know what these are already. But if you missed it (and didn’t know it before reading this post), quillons are the metal rods that jut out from the top of a sword grip. They’re the doorman to your hand, keeping enemy swords from using your blade as a slip-and-slide straight to your fingers.
  3. Quillon Block: We talked in our last post about chappes, which had absolutely nothing to do with crotchless leather cowboy pants. And here, in rapier-class swords, we find the evolution of chappes. That’s right, as Mew evolves into Mew Too, and Pikachu evolves to Raichu, the chappe evolves into quillon-blocku! That’s right, this is the final form of the small, embarrassingly flimsy flap that dangled down at the junction of blade and hilt on arming swords. The quillon block is steel and serves more of a reinforcing function than any scabbardly duties. The quillon block is also known as the ecusson, which is French for Charizard. Mega ecusson is French for the evolved form of Charizard.
  4. Langets: The langets are a group of women who are very serious about grammar. They derived their name from sword langets, which are loops of metal on either side of a blade’s ricasso. (Hint: I talked about ricasso’s up there a bit —-^). These loops protect your index finger if you are using Roberto’s Universal Law of Making Yourself Stronger. They also grip the throat of the sheath, providing a nice resistance so that you don’t accidentally draw your sword. Like I did. My lawyer proved without doubt that the death of that man was an accident. Because I didn’t have langets. See how useful those things are?
  5. Finger gaurds: Finger guards are the parent name for the curling guards that loop backward, away from the blade, and protect your precious little piggies. Swept hilts often have various styles of finger guards. The knuckle bow is considered a finger guard. So are langets. Pretty much everything that’s not grip can be a finger guard. Except the pommel. And sweat. And shadows on the hilt. Shadows cannot protect fingers.

There are other pats to a swept hilt. Detailed parts. Complicated, French-sounding parts. But this post is already dictionary length, so I will stop at the most common ones and move on to a few different types of guards seen with rapier class swords.

Clamshell-guards: These sorts of guards are often seen on rapier-class swords, and are the guard-of-choice for mermaids the world over. They are also known simply as shell guards. One or two metal disks hangs down from the base of the ricasso, protecting the wielder’s hand. Sometimes these disks are actually carved to look like clamshells. Seriously. Shell guards can sometimes be used in conjunction with looped finger guards—like knuckle bows—and quillons.

Bell Guards: Bell guards, sometimes known as cup guards, are domed pieces of metal that a wielder’s hand fits inside of. The metal cup offers excellent hand protection (and a handy drinking vessel for those fencing-bar-crawls). A good example of cup guards can be seen on modern epees in sport fencing.

And that about covers the rapier/cut-and-thrust class of swords. Keep swimming until next post, when we talk about Settlers of Katanas and other Japanese sword games!

Did I miss something? Do you want to tell me that all generalizations are wrong? Would you like to fawn and tell me how this article completely changed your life and made you prosperous and two inches taller? Comment below! Or on our Facebook page!