Power of the Rapier.....how strong is it?

Discussion in 'The European Art of Fencing' started by Cobra, May 8, 2004.

  1. thardey

    thardey Master Black Belt

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    The original foil style was based on smallsword technique, not rapier, so it's apples and oranges to compare it to rapier.

    Also keep in mind that there were many different styles of "rapier" most were actually schlagger blades, which were heavier, straight, tapered blades descended from the cut and thrust blades of the knights. There were rapiers that measured from the ground to the armpit (obviously not for cutting) there were some that were very much like a straight saber (fantastic for cutting) some flexed a lot (in order to slide past the ribcage -- not for extra speed ast was mentioned above) some had a triangle cross-section with a ridge cut into it (like a modern epee) to keep the blade from fencing at all.

    What you really have to ask is what styles were "strong". Each "master" developed his own theory based on his own culture, his previous training, the materials at hand, and often his religion. Then he developed a sword specifically recommended for that purpose, often down to what kind of a hilt should be used.

    For instance, there was a guy named Saviolo (who I study) who advocated a medium-length rapier of medium weight. He focused primarily on thrusts to the ribcage (turn the "guard" aka quillions, horizontal to the ground to slide past the ribs) and just above the hip. You only cut if your tip was forced off line, and it was a well-trained cut to the throat, the arm, or the arteries between your legs. His swords could easily penetrate the body and reach out the back.

    There's another guy named Marozzo, (who I also study) who is from an earlier school, who uses a rapier that's almost comparable to a one-handed sword. It's short (around 34 inch blade) and (relatively) heavy. This sword was often used with a buckler (a small, round shield). It's primary purpose was cutting, with both the strong and weak sides (that's part of the reason it was straight). It was weighted forward for maximum stopping power, but was still considered a rapier.

    The third guy I study is named Thibault. He uses a medium-long sword (barely short enough to be able to draw from a waist scabbard), which is very sturdy, and weighted a little forward. He almost exclusively used thrusts delivered with the power of the full body behind it. (Called "finishing with rigour"). He believed firmly that his swords could fully penetrate a skull, and many of his training pictures show drawings of a sword embedded to the hilt in some poor guy's face. The only cuts that he taught were by laying the sword tip against a throat and pushing the length of the sword against it with pressure. A very deep cut indeed, but certainly no decapitation.

    Later guys migrated to more of a smallsword, which many people think of as a rapier. (for instance "Pirates of the Carribean" was pretty much exclusively smallsword fighting -- not rapier!) Those were very light, very quick, and very flimsy. Think of trying to defend your life with a sharpened, modern epee.

    Early rapier strategy relied not on what we would consider "speed" but on economy of motion, which gave the illusion of speed. Cut out any superfluous motion, and you can get past his defenses faster. That's how the sword would be in your throat before you realized your opponent was even in range.

    Hope this helps.
     
  2. Langenschwert

    Langenschwert Master Black Belt

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    There is no "deadliest" style of sword combat. Foil combat is fast because the foil isn't a weapon. It is a training tool designed to enforce certain behaviour. That being said, a good sport fencer can tap you between the eyes really fast, and that's a great skill to have. And a good longswordman can sever your hand (or at least severly maim) with a flick of the wrists. Or he could close to grappling range, throw you with his off hand, and hit you with his blade as you fall. A trained rapierist can do the same. The failings of some later forms of sword combat is that it became popular to believe that a good swordsman should never have to resort to grappling or using the off hand in any way. Needless to say, that is patently false. Just like the fallacy of the cut versus the thrust. Both are important... you use whatever is the best at the moment. At least in a life and death encounter. In a sporting event or a formalized duel with some seconds standing by to enforce any rules with lethal force, things are different.

    Best regards,

    -Mark
     
  3. Langenschwert

    Langenschwert Master Black Belt

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    I can see that. However, some longswords such as my Albion Agincourt (Type XVa) are balanced quite close to the hands, and I could certainly do rapier drills with some of them. Others have done a fair amount of freeplay with knightly style arming swords using rapier technique and find it works passably well. I believe the "classic" rapier developed to take better advantage of techniques people were already using with earlier designs.

    Best regards,

    -Mark
     
  4. kaizasosei

    kaizasosei Master Black Belt

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    when i was 13 i got my first katana.. it was a very good blade.
    whatever the case, when i first showed it to my grandfather, he kept telling me it was a rapier- in german säbel.
    would you agree? what else could be called rapier? just how flexible is this term?

    j
     
  5. Blindside

    Blindside Senior Master

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    Not THAT flexible. :D

    Actually I think the translation of sabel is saber/sabre, which makes sense, giving the curved appearance of the katana.

    Lamont
     
  6. Sukerkin

    Sukerkin Have the courage to speak softly

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    First, please realise that I'm not speaking from a position of knowledge on this subject but only passing on snippets that I have read and heard from those more educated in the ways of Western Swordsmanship than myself.

    I have heard that the 'true' rapier (as in the weapon rather than what has passed down the years into the sport) was actually slower in use than the longsword, because of the difference in mass distribution previously mentioned. Can someone shed any further light on this bald statement?

    I can add my opinion to Langen's that the cut is generally held superior to the thrust in combat for achieving the stunning effect you need to make the killing blow (which may well have been the thrust, hence the pasing into legend of 'the point defeats the edge' cliche's). I'm a student of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu iaido and nearly all of our attacks are slices and, because of the shape of the katana and the mode of use, even our thrusts are slices, designed to open huge wounds in the soft tissues of the belly (in general).
     
  7. kaizasosei

    kaizasosei Master Black Belt

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    As we can see manstopingpower to be so important for Gunfighting, i can see the same for swords. i'd rather get spanked by a foil rather than bludgeoned by a sabre(forget the edge even).
    why should the sword be used only for stabing or cutting. it could be used for anything from stroking, holding to rubbing even for flying.

    j
     
  8. Steel Tiger

    Steel Tiger Senior Master

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    There are a number of documented cases of people taking a number (the most I have encountered was 6) of passes through the body with a rapier or smallsword and surviving at least to the next day. It also happens to a number of character's in Dumas' novels, especially The Three Musketeers. Dumas was writting in the 1830s and 1840s and was a student of fencing, so he probably had some good information on swords and sword injuries.
     
  9. Sukerkin

    Sukerkin Have the courage to speak softly

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    Thanks, ST :tup:. I recall (now that you've said :eek:) reading before that Dumas very likely knew what he was talking about in his fiction.

    I just wish I recalled where I'd come upon the thread discussing the lethality of thrusting wounds but their inconclusivity in 'duels' ... it may have been SFI or it may have been MAP ... of course, it may well have been here too {it was long ago before I became a member :blush:}. I'm sensing a need to go a-searching :D.
     
  10. Steel Tiger

    Steel Tiger Senior Master

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    Just as I was reading through your post I noticed again that you are in Staffordshire (close to where my father's family originated) and that made think of Shakespeare. There are a few written accounts of him being seen about town with a vastly long rapier (5 or 6 feet). Long enough that he had to carry it upon his back. There seems to have been a bit of a British craze for very long, improbable rapiers in the sixteenth century as there are other accounts of men carrying their companion's rapiers which were drawn by the other over the shoulder of the man doing the carrying.
     
  11. jks9199

    jks9199 Administrator Staff Member

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    I believe you're describing the various kopis style blades, like the kukri today. The design of the blade and it's weight makes it an incredibly powerful cutting weapon; it can also be used to thrust. Here's one link about the kukri specifically: http://www.nepalesekhukuri.com/khukuri.html. If you put "kopis" into a search engine, you'll find lots of information easily about this style of blade.
     
  12. thardey

    thardey Master Black Belt

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    Everybody who taught rapier taught that theirs was the "True Rapier". (La Destrieza Veridad, is what the Spanish called their art. Roughly, "The True Art")

    If you were to use a rapier like a longsword, then yes, it is much slower. If you were to use a longsword like a rapier, then the situation is reversed. It is always quicker to thrust than to cut. (Shortest distance, and all that.)

    But that being said, rapiers were very slow to cut for most of their history. The rapier itself moved very little, while the strategy and speed of the fencer came from the very intricate footwork. In fact, the rapier was so relatively slow that for a long time the strategy was not at all what you see in modern fencing, which is a two-beat defence:
    1st Beat: Parry or Block
    2nd Beat: Riposte or Counter-thrust

    With a heavier sword (classic rapier) this was not a good strategy. If you did block, it was only by moving the hilt as little as possible, while the tip stayed in place, pointing at your opponent. A few successful masters taught a one-beat (or single-time) defence.

    1. Avoid attack while counterattacking from a covered position.

    This involves gaining control of your opponent's sword (usually sliding it until you have a leverage advantage), while moving to a more favorable position (again, to gain leverage, usually), and thrusting from that "safe" position, all in one "beat" of time.

    By the time most people realized that they were in a bad position, it was too late, and you could do nothing to avoid getting hit. At that point the most you can do (and often happened) was to desperately try to hit your opponent as well, so at least both of you were wounded. The reason the rapier got a reputation of being so quick, is that it was actually slow, but VERY, VERY subtle.

    Example: Last month my fencing instructor and I were practicing a partner duel from Saviolo (see description above). Anthony Delongis (The saber fighter from Fearless) was there and he said:
    "I know about what you're doing, and even I don't know what you're doing!"

    The moment of going from "safe" to "unsafe" happens very quick, but once that happens, there's actually a lot of time to realize your mistake, but no time left to do anything about it. But you're right, most historical rapiers were not fast.

    The trick is fast footwork, and a subtle sword.
     
  13. Steel Tiger

    Steel Tiger Senior Master

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    There is also a Middle Eastern and North African blade called a yataghan which is of the same configuration, but designed more for use by horsemen.
     
  14. Sukerkin

    Sukerkin Have the courage to speak softly

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    One historical factlet (possibly apocraphal) that I can add to this discourse is that such overlong rapiers were the origin of the phrase "Cut him down to size!" as a law was passed to limit the length of blade. The 'overly' lengthy swords were supposedly attributed to 'foreign' influences - it makes me wonder if Silver had anything to do with this (now that I've heard of him and read some of his work)?
     
  15. Sukerkin

    Sukerkin Have the courage to speak softly

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    Thanks for your illuminating post, Thardey.

    The only thing that I don't immediately see is the physical reasons why one sword type should be quicker in the thrust than another?

    I 'know' that the longswords centre of mass is nearer the hilt than the rapiers but I don't see why that would make it thrust slower - can you help the scales of ignorance fall from my eyes?

    What complicates matters is that I recently bought my first European blade (my much revered 'bastard sword') and I can report that it is quicker into cuts and recovery than my katana - wonderfully light in the hands, probably because of the pommel weight. I suspect that because of that it would actually cut less 'well' but, in duelling style, unarmoured, combat, first blood counts a great deal towards who eventually wins out.
     
  16. Langenschwert

    Langenschwert Master Black Belt

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    Historically, the term Rapier was more flexible than modern usage. Interestingly enough, the Italians, who were credited (or blamed) for the invention of the rapier, merely called it a spada (sword). What we would call Cut & Thrust swords or sideswords today might have been called rapiers in their day. For modern usage, a rapier is a single handed sword optimized for thrusting, having a cage or cup-style hand protection. Thus a Schianova is not a rapier, nor is a smallsword, not is a foil.

    Thus a katana is not a rapier. It is a saber. The Germans might have called it a grosse messer, langenmesser, or a kriegsmesser, had they seen one.

    And rapiers not flexible. At least, no more flexible than other swords. Some are very rigid with no cutting edge at all.

    Best regards,

    -Mark
     
  17. Langenschwert

    Langenschwert Master Black Belt

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    There is one nifty thrust that has a lot of stopping power, and that's the thrust to the face. In German Longsword, thrusts from the bind often target the face. This sets you up for a cut or slice if you miss the thrust, and generates a flinch response in the opponent which you can further exploit. :) Nonetheless, a good cut will end a fight quicker than a good thrust, unless the thrust hits something really juicy.

    Best regards,

    -Mark
     
  18. thardey

    thardey Master Black Belt

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    I can only take a stab at it (no pun intended), and I'm sure there are others who can dive into the physics of it if they are so inclined, but I've built a couple of Rapiers for practice (that is, I've bought safety blades, then built the hilt, handle, and pommel to fit.) And I've made some live steel swords (built the blade, handle, guard, pommel, etc): Longsword, Gladius, Cutlass, and a Wakizashi. But there are actually two points on a sword that you have to consider when building it: the center of balance (usually about 3-4 inches in front of the crossguard, on either a rapier or longsword) or, what people are probably referring to as "weight" on this topic, the "sweet spot" on the blade.

    The center of Balance is easy to find -- put your finger on the blade and move it until the sword stays balanced.

    The "Sweet Spot" is more elusive, and is what separates a Swordsmith from some guy like me who plays around in his shop. On a Longsword, or a katana, the sweet spot is where you can deliver a cut with the least amount of "vibration" coming back to your hand. Or put in a more "physics" conscious way, all of the energy is directed to that spot, to cause the most efficient transfer of energy. (If you connect before the sweet spot, your blade feels like it's trying "wrap around" the resisting object. If you hit way past the sweet spot, you sometimes get a shock vibration the length of the blade).

    It's usually safe to say that that "sweet spot" is roughly 2/3 of the way down the blade. That sweet spot has a tendency to want to stay in one place, with the sword pivoting around it on an axis point. The closer the sweet spot is to the balance point, the easier it is to move the sweet spot around. Thus, on a cutting sword, the sweet spot is relatively close to the balance point, so it uses very little energy to swing it, but almost all of that energy is transfered to delivering the blow.

    One of the variables you can experiment with in adjusting the sweet spot is the relationship of the weight of the pommel, versus the "arm" (physics term!) or distance from the center of balance. On a longsword, that arm is much longer to give room for the famous "half a hand" optional grip. It moves the "sweet spot" in.

    A lighter pommel with a longer "arm" translates to the same balance point as a heavier pommel with a shorter "arm". Yet it ends up with an incredibly different feel for the sword.

    On a typical rapier, that "sweet spot" is about 3-5 inches from the tip. It's a long ways from the balance point, so it's slower to swing, but that's a good thing for a rapier, because it helps to keep your tip between you and your opponent. Your tip "wants" to stay pointed at your enemy, which is ultimately, the goal of fencing. (If your tip is online, and your opponent's is not, you advance and hit him!) However, you can image that a cutting blow from that sweet spot will have almost no weight behind it, but will result in more of a whipping action, that will slice deep into soft tissue, but have very little momentum to carry it through resistance.

    Think for a moment about the various different construction for swords. And let's say that all have about the same center of balance from the place where you grip the handle. (This of course doesn't count for blades like a khukri, which get heavier towards the tip).

    A longsword has a simple, medium-weight crossguard, medium weight tang, and medium weight pommel spread out across a long arm. = short sweet spot

    A one-handed cut and thrust sword has a light guard, a medium tang, and a heavy pommel on a short arm = medium sweet spot with a handle-heavy balance.

    A saber has a heavier guard, a heavier tang, but almost no pommel on a short arm. = medium length sweet spot with a blade-heavy balance. (does "old wristbreaker" ring a bell?)

    A Rapier has a heavy guard, a light tang, and a heavy/medum pommel on a meduim/short arm. = long sweet spot

    A Katana has a very light guard, a heavy tang, and no pommel on a long arm = well, to be honest I've never touched a well-made katana, so I don't know.

    Add to the equation the cross-section of the blade, the type of taper (thickness, width, or both) and the length of overall blade, and you have a infinite variety of types of swords, all with a similar balance point. Each sword type is useful in different applications. I would never fight on horseback with a rapier, but I would never take a saber to a duel, if I had a choice.

    Hope this helps, and If somebody can correct this, go for it, I'm just a "laysmith" with some theories.
     
  19. thardey

    thardey Master Black Belt

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    Exactly! Don't underestimate the stopping power of 6 inches of steel through your eye or throat.

    Also, just to add fuel to the fire -- how many cuts can actually penetrate the ribcage and cut the organs beneath? How many thrusts?

    As far as the flexibility issues, maybe we should clarify. A rapier has the flexibility almost bend double before it breaks, so yes, in that sense it is way more flexible than a katana or a saber.

    But don't be misled: Langenschwert is right in that a rapier is not flimsy. It takes a LOT of resistance to bend that rapier, and that resistance increases as the cross-section of the blade gets thicker towards the handle. A well-made rapier will only flex in the last 1/3 of the blade, and that's with a lot of weight leaning into it.

    My instructor saw this happen in a accident, but it demonstrates how the small flexibility of the rapier was an asset to penetration.

    During a bout, somehow an accident caused one of the fencers to be impaled through the thigh with a rapier. The sword entered aiming straight at the fibula (with the guard perpendicular to the ground), then encountered the resistance of the bone, flexed sideways until it "found" its way past the bone, and exited the back of his thigh at an angle to the original entry wound. (He was okay, it didn't hit anything too important.) And this was with a dull rapier.

    If you thrust into the chest cavity, you thrust horizontally (guard parallel with the ground), the blade probably meets resistance from the ribcage, then it flexes until it works its way to a soft spot, and punches through. If you hit anywhere but the sternum you're likely to penetrate. If you hit the sternum with that much force (remember the proper way to thrust is to place the tip on your opponent, then push with all of your body weight behind it -- it's not a delicate thing.) It would definitely hurt, or bruise your heart. I've been hit there with a blunted blade, and it definitely takes the fight out of you!

    Part of the reason you have stories in Dumas and Shakespeare about getting poked multiple times with no immediate effect is that in England, France, and Italy during that time, gentlemen did not thrust to the face. If was forbidden in practice (no fencing masks available) and if they didn't practice it, they didn't do it when it counted.

    The Spanish, on the other hand, threw out the notions of a "gentlemanly" fight, and trained to hit the face and throat. Most of their opponents died during the duel. Sounds like the Germans had the same idea.

    Also, most masters taught to get in, thrust, and get out, leaving multiple superficial wounds. Thibault, under the Spanish influence taught getting in, thrusting (to the face or body), then following through with such commitment that your hilt would hit your opponent so hard (after the blade was in them) that they would be knocked off their feet, and you could get your blade free with no other effort on your part. As far as I know, he never fought in a duel (he stuck with tournaments), but his students were greatly feared.
     
  20. thardey

    thardey Master Black Belt

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    Whoops! In re-reading your post I realized I didn't answer your question, but glanced off of it.

    Let me try again.

    It's not that the rapier was really quicker in the thrust. (Once you have any straight sword aimed at your target, you push, and that's it.) But it's that the rapier is much easier to keep on target in the first place. (Because of the location of the sweet spot mentioned above.) It's pretty easy to get a cutting sword's tip out of the way, but a rapier tip just sort of bounces back to where it needs to be.

    When I'm playing with someone with more of a cutting sword, I usually throw a bunch of thrusts at them and their sword naturally comes off-line when they parry. The sword "wants" to circle around into a cut. Before they can thrust they have to aim, then attack. A well-made rapier will naturally stay on target, if there's no physical resistance from an opponent's blade. All you have to do is attack. (Not counting for strategies and tactics, etc.)

    Also, even though a longsword and a rapier are the same length overall, the rapier has a longer blade and a shorter handle, which translates to a more efficient reach using only one hand. That means you can gain leverage advantage with less movement. (Sometimes even just by raising your body up a couple of inches, with your arm extended.)
     

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