The Rapier Was the Blade of Choice
The old original war sword was so massive it sometimes required both hands. It had been designed—and worked splendidly if you were strong enough—for knocking an armored knight off his horse, but it was useless at close quarters except as a bludgeon. The duel of honor refined it.
From the mid-sixteenth century [C.E.] through the seventeenth, the rapier was the blade of choice. It was sharp-edged but used primarily for thrusting, not cutting, and it was a formidable piece, often nearly four feet long, topped by an elaborate hand guard, and weighed two and a half pounds. Wearing it advertised how tall as well as how brave you were: Four feet of steel hanging from your waist, and you swaggering around with it, made a statement.
Elizabethan London passed an ordinance against strolling the streets with more than a three-foot blade; if you came into the city with something longer, the gatekeepers were under orders to break off the extra inches. Even so, that’s a lot of blade, and it was often used in combination with a dagger for close work.
In 1599 [C.E.], a gentleman named George Silver published an attack on this newfangled monster, developed, he says, as a purely civilian weapon with no distinguished military history. It was, in effect, a costume accessory, ineffective for serious fighting. Once your opponent is past your point, he complained, it is too difficult to clear your weapon and bring the point to bear again; the length of the blade drags in the hand, and it tends to favor the thrust, which can be turned aside easily, over the cut that takes manly strength to avoid.
Not everyone agreed. Long after the rapier had evolved into lighter, shorter versions, some still swore by it. Late in the nineteenth century, Captain Sir Richard Burton, in The Sentiment of the Sword, wrote of it with passion:
Amongst all weapons the rapier alone has its inner meanings, its arcana, its mysteries. See how it interprets a man’s ideas. and obeys every turn of his thoughts! At once the blade that threatens and the shield that guards, it is now agile, supple, and intelligent; then slow, sturdy, and persevering; here, light and airy, prudent and supple; there, blind and unreflecting, angry and vindictive; I am almost tempted to call it, after sailor fashion, ‘she.’
— Gentlemen’s Blood, pp. 59-60