Sword (and rapier) length — does it matter?
Some fencers obsess over the “correct” length of their chosen weapon. In this essay I’ll attempt to discuss relative lengths of Short Sword and Long Rapier from the Elizabethan era (and later).
The Proper Length
In the 1562 Statues of Apparel Queen Elizabeth I put a stop to excessive sword length:
her Majesty’s pleasure is that no man shall, after ten days next following this proclamation, wear any sword, rapier, or any weapon in their stead passing the length of one yard and half a quarter of blade at the uttermost, neither any dagger above the length of twelve inches in blade, neither any buckler with a sharp point or with any point above two inches in length, upon pain of forfeiting the sword or dagger passing the said length
The restriction was more likely to do with fashion than anything else — the Queen was probably fed up with her courtiers tripping each other up with trailing blades. Ruff sizes were out of control too:
ruffs shall not be worn otherwise than single, and the singleness to be used in a due and mean sort, as was orderly and comely used before the coming in of the outrageous double ruffs which now of late are crept in
(“mean” as in average or typical; q.v. Silver’s “man of mean stature”)
Anyway… a yard and half a quarter is just over 40 inches, and that’s not unusual for a period weapon, but there were longer examples, too. I don’t know how much this restriction affected rapier practice; blades seem to range between 40 and 45 inches long, and despite quite a few online sources there are few articles that actually pin down the length. This article considers 40-42 inches common for Fabris.
There’s also this 1650 example in the NY Met collection with a 45 inch blade:
That’s not quite a fair comparison, though. The Elizabethan rapier of 1562 probably overlapped a fair bit with the spada da lato and the espada ropera for civilian defence in the early part of the 1500s; quite different from the mid-17th century weapon that later morphed into the smallsword.
Long Rapiers and Short Swords
Let’s consider two contemporary sources, then. Joseph Swetnam’s Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence of 1617 recommends:
Let thy rapier be of a reasonable length, rather too long then too short, foure foote at the least
If that’s four feet for the whole weapon it would be around 40 inches, or 1 1/8 yards. A 48 inch blade… that’s crazy, but then Swetnam’s illustrations show some very long blades indeed:
Now let’s consider what Silver has to say about “perfect lengths”. In Paradox 19 he says you should
Stand with your sword and dagger drawn as you see in this picture, keeping out straight your dagger arm, drawing back your sword as far as you conveniently can, not opening the elbow joint of your sword arm
If I do as Silver says I get a length not far from the length of my synthetic waster. That’s around 34 inches in the blade, and I’m tall (6’1”) by modern and Elizabethan standards. Alex Bourdas has a different interpretation, though, reckoning around 39 inches of blade; that’s easy to achieve if you open your elbow even slightly, which is what the illustration appears to be doing:
It doesn’t help that Silver further muddies the waters in Paradox 15:
The blade to be a yard and an inch for men of mean statures, and for men of tall statures, a yard and three or four inches, and no more.
That would be… 40 inches. Really? Really? A “long rapier” and a “short sword” are exactly the same length?
If true that means the technical objections Silver raises, and the advantages Swetnam cites in considering long rapier against short sword have nothing to do with relative length, and more to do with other technical concerns — namely the execution of Guardant Fight against Variable, etc.
And certainly those considerations of technique are far more important than mere length; but on the other hand — since we’ve taken historical examples of the rapier — there seems to be a general consensus that the blade is around 31 to 34 inches, and this is common in modern reproductions (which I assume were based on originals). Perhaps Silver meant blade to be the whole weapon — 31 inches blade + 6 for the hilt makes a yard and an inch, job done. Who knows?
Silver vs Swetnam: Technical Discussion
Reading Silver and Swetnam it’s likely that there were differences in lengths, as both men base technical arguments on relative lengths and distance. Silver notes the advantage of the shorter weapon in its ability to cross and uncross faster than the longer — here he’s referring to a two-handed sword against the like:
These weapons are to be used in fight as the short staf, yf both play upon dubble & syngle hand, at the two hand sword, the long sword hath the advantage if the weight thereof be not too heavy for his strength that has it, but if both play only upon dubble hand, then his blade which is of convenient length agreeing with his stature that hath it, which is according with the length of the measure of his single swordblade, hath the advantage of the sword that is too long for the stature of the contrary party, because he can cross & uncross, strike & thrust, close & grip in shorter time than the other can.
But there are a couple of caveats as always — Silver here is talking about a very specific sort of play where both parties are using a double-handed stance only; furthermore the inference is that this is some kind of close fight.
Swetnam: A Critique of the Short Sword’s Distance
Speaking of the close fight, this is Swetnam’s reasoning for preferring one weapon over the other:
my reason is the distance is so narrow that a man can hardly observe it, except thy have been both practioners a long time before hand, for if a man practice continually long sword or long Rapier, yet upon such a Challenge goeth into the field with a short sword, then the daunger is greatest of all
Swetnam seems to argue that the correct play of the backsword is so near to the opponent that it’s difficult to maintain without (in Silver’s terms) giving the opponent the place, i.e. coming so close that one can be struck in the time of the hand.
The Four Fights
I think Swetnam is characterising the whole of Silver’s play as the close fight only — at least for the Short Sword against the like. If so that’s a fairly superficial reading of Silver who is fairly explicit (if cryptic) about the four fights in his “military riddle”:
- Gardant fight stayeth, putteth back or beateth gardant fight
- Open fight stayeth, putteth back or beateth open fight
- Variable fight answereth variable fight in the first distance and not otherwise, except it be with the perfect length against the imperfect
- Close fight is beaten by gardant fight
- Variable close and gardant fight, beateth gardant fight, open fight, close fight, and variable fight
- Gardant fight in the imperfection of the Agent or Patient winneth the half sword, and preventeth the close, and whosoever first ventureth the close looseth it, and is in great danger of death, and not possible to escape or get out again without great hurt.
All very confusing, but Silver helps us out in Brief Instructions.
Open fight is to Carry your hand & hilt aloft above your head, either with point upright, or point backwards which is best, yet use that which you shall find most apt, to strike, thrust, or ward.
i.e. stand with your sword up high and use downright blows. It’s a battlefield stance that Terry Brown contends should be used only when “fighting double” with a shield (English Martial Arts, p100).
Guardant fight in general is of 2 sorts, the first is true guardant fight, which is either perfect or Imperfect. The perfect is to carry your hand & hilt above your head with your point down towards your left knee, with your sword blade somewhat near your body…
Silver goes into detail about Perfect and Imperfect hanging guards — basically it’s perfect if you’re upright, and imperfect if you’re inclined forward (because you can’t ward a blow on the left side or thrust on the right in time), or if the point is far out or advanced (because it can be knocked aside). He also mentions “bastard gardant” where the hand is lower than the head, but that’s not for a general fighting position, just for transient motions, crossing blades and attempting grips, etc.
Close fight is when you Cros at the half sword either above at forehand ward that is with point high, & hand & hilt low, or at true or bastard guardant ward with both your points down. Close is all manner of fights wherein you have made a true Crose at the half sword with your space very narrow & not Crost, is also close fight.
Basically this is fighting at a distance where the opponents’ swords cross at half their length, either up (a “forehand ward”) or down as the gardant. In the latter case this sounds like Hope’s hanging guard, and so in Silver’s own terms this is “imperfect” — but it works assuming both parties are engaging “with their space narrow”.
This is “all other manner of lying not here before spoken of, where of these 4 that follow are the chiefest of them”. Silver goes on to talk about various guards used by the rapier etc; Cyril Matthey contends that Silver has misconstrued much of the terminology used by the Italian masters, but the intent is clear: the rapier fight is “variable”.
Gardant vs Variable
Looking at Silver’s Military Riddle the fight of the Short Sword against the Long Rapier can be characterised as Gardant against Variable.
The Riddle gives a clue at to exactly how Gardant Fight answers Variable:
- A fight that is Gardant, Close and Variable may be used to overcome Variable fight, and
- Gardant will win the close in the imperfection of patient or agent, and
- Variable only answers variable in the first distance.
The strategy presents thus: the short sword in gardant will attempt to cross the long rapier in variable, at which point the shorter length of the short sword will be at an advantage to uncross faster within distance than the long rapier is able to be repositioned in defence; the short sword has “won the place” where it can be used to offend in the time of the hand only, whereas the rapier to defend must use a slower time involving the feet.
Swetnam is clearly aware of this strategy, and refutes it thus:
those which weare short swords, depend onely upon the taking of the enemies point, which is not to bee done if they meete with with one that is skilfull: I have heard many say in talking familiarly concerning this weapon, if I take the point of your long Rapier, then you are gone, but that is not to be done if thou meete with one that is skilfull except thou canst take thy enemies point in thy teeth, otherwise thou canst never make seasure upon his point, if hee bee skilfull as aforesaid
In other words Swetnam is saying “yes, you could do that, but if you are able to do so, you clearly haven’t met a skillful fencer”.
Silver makes mention many times of “the number of his feet being too many”, for example Of the Imperfection and Insufficiency of Rapiers in general…. The length of rapiers contributes to their inability to answer each other in anything but the first (longest?) distance — in other words, they’re fine with two fencers circling and jabbing, but once it comes to passing within distance it’s easy for both sides to fall within the length of the other’s blade — so neither weapon is able to offend or defend, and both combatants end up at grappling distance — or if they have poiniards, close enough to stab one another in the time of the hand.
I saw exactly this happening in a rapier class years ago. Two fencers went at one another and ended up at grappling distance. The instructor was pretty cross, stating that “if this happens, you have already lost”. Which is true to an extent — the rapier is wholly reliant for its play on maintaining this first distance, and becomes useless otherwise.
Observations on Small Sword against Rapier (and Epee)
At this stage the debate rapidly becomes biased in favour of one fencer’s preferences — Swetnam for longer distance, Silver for shorter. And clearly Silver acknowledges that variable fight can answer variable fight, as long as the rapier-man can keep the distance of the fight he prefers.
This raises a very important point — if the fencer with the backsword allows her opponent with the rapier to fence at the distance he prefers, she will find it difficult to gain the place.
Hope notes that there are three “measures” one may fight at. The chief problem with the third “measure” (note — Hope’s terminology is different from Silver’s) is that when the fencer is too far from their adversary they are disordered by stepping within distance.
Therefore if you fence between rapier (a 40 inch blade) and smallsword (perhaps 32 inches), the one with the rapier will naturally prefer a longer distance; and if the smallsword fencer allows the play to happen at this distance, they will forever be at a disadvantage to offend the one with the rapier.
The flip-side of this story is that when rapier meets small-sword the former will tend to make very long lunges from a longer distance, and assuming the small-sword fencer can cross these thrusts she will then be at a great advantage to uncross and answer with a riposte, or even better a command and a kick in the coddes. This is also true of fencers with a sport background who typically fight at a greater distance. This is not to say the smallsword has an inherent advantage, but more that it lends itself to the same gardant, close and variable fight that may be used to overcome the solely variable fight of the rapier.
Acknowledgements and Further Reading
I’d like to acknowledge the following sources: