The Renaissance was a fascinating time for swordplay. This is in part because of the fact that so many fencing manuals survive from this era, but also because in the late 16th century we see the first truly civilian swords. Prior to this time duels were fought only with consent of local rulers and therefore the grievances were primarily of a legal nature. Due to this fact, the weapons used were generally the same that would be used in battle, complete with full armour. Since these Trials by Combat were set up well in advance, it was alright that plenty of gear was required before fighting could commence. Once people began to use the duel as a method of settling personal disagreements it became impractical to carry so much equipment and the swords changed to reflect this. Thus the rapier became the preferred weapon of the civilian classes.
Not everyone was happy about this development, however. In England in the year 1599 one Mister George Silver wrote a book calling out the rapier as being imperfect and fit only as a children’s toy. The term “frog sticker” may have been applied. I imagine back in the day this Paradoxes of Defence very probably caused something of a stir. England at the time was deeply fascinated with Italian culture and thus swordplay. We can clearly see this in the works of William Shakespeare. Silver’s books was a counterpoint and he argued passionately for the “true art” of English swordsmanship.
Most modern practitioners of swordplay start their training with the very Italianated rapier systems that Silver was so against. Those that have heard of George Silver tend to dismiss him as a stodgy Italianophobe who clearly didn’t know what he was talking about. I may have also done the same in the past. Now that I have read his books my opinion has changed somewhat. Turns out that I have always agreed with Mr. Silver in some areas without even knowing it.
Most modern reproduction rapiers are actually quite short. The standard blade is about 42″ long. Even this feels too long for me as I prefer one that is around 38″ long. For the Italians of the 17th Century even 42″ would have been considered to be overly short. The proper length of an Italian rapier is from armpit to ground, pommel to tip. With me that means the blade should be about 48″ long. I don’t personally know any practitioners of Italian rapier who use the “proper” length of sword, unfortunately. George silver repeatedly states that this is too long. A proper sword length, according to Silver should, when standing with your dominant leg back, should be able to pass comfortably behind a dagger held vertically in the extended left hand.
Although conventional wisdom holds that a longer sword gives the wielder an advantage, there comes a point where the length becomes a hindrance. For myself I always liked a shorter blade because it means I can get “inside” my opponent’s tip and thus attack them at a range where they can’t properly threaten me. Shorter blades are “quicker,” which also gives an edge in fighting. The blade should be suitable for both the cut and the thrust, which long rapiers don’t do well, being almost entirely thrusting weapons.
My own rapier matches Silver’s qualities quite well, although an inch or two off the overall length would fit with his ideal a little closer. The hand protection is good too, which Sliver would like and the blade is heavy enough to deliver strong cuts. There are a few other differences between my sword and what Silver pushes for, not least of which is the fact that it’s a rapier, but I’m finding that it works very well for his system. As I work with it I feel more and more that I have found just what I have been looking for to improve my rapier game. If nothing else, I’m having a whole lot of fun playing with it.