The Weapons and Fencing Systems

One of the most fascinating aspects of historical fencing is the range of combat systems available. Our group teaches several, but there are some areas that we barely touch upon. Even within our own remit (Early Renaissance to the end of the 19th Century) there are many weapons and numerous systems for using each one. Different historical masters had their own ideas about how best to go about fighting with a sword, so one rapier style, for example, might be quite different to another.

We seek to preserve historical authenticity. This means, among other things, that we fence as if the weapons were sharp. It is not necessary (nor desirable) to hit hard but cuts and thrusts must be made as if the blade were sharp. An attack that would not have caused an injury that would change the course of a fight is dismissed as an ‘honourable mention’ and not scored.

Conversely, we know that it was rare for any sword cut or thrust to instantly ‘stop’ the opponent. A hit that lands a microsecond ahead of the opponent’s blow is no use in a real fight – the art of fencing is the art of defence for a reason. Living just long enough to see your opponent fall down is a poor victory. We thus seek to hit without being hit, as you would do in a real sword fight.

This, along with the characteristics of the weapons we use, means that even to someone who knows nothing about swords, a fencing bout in our class actually looks like a sword fight. Not a Hollywood choreographed routine with people spinning around everywhere, but a fight with swords between people who don’t want to get killed. Similarly, we do not compromise ‘real’ swordplay in favour of tricks to get points in tournaments – indeed, in a lot of tournaments such behaviour would be grounds for disqualification.

For those who do know about swordplay, the characteristics of the different weapons are obvious from the way we fight with them. Indeed, we have had visitors and tournament observers correctly tell us which historical masters our teachings are based upon. This is part of what makes historical fencing interesting. Rather than a generic sabre fight between two people trained in the same system, we may see an English military sabreur going up against one trained in the Polish style, or even a bout between a fencer armed with a rapier and dagger against one using  a backsword and shield.

Our chapter is primarily concerned with three weapons – the rapier, the smallsword and the military sabre. We do, however, study and teach other weapons.

The Rapier and the Sidesword

The rapier emerged during the Renaissance as a sidearm for civilian use – i.e. it was not a battlefield weapon though it saw use in battle from time to time. There is much debate as to whether the sidesword should be considered a different weapon or a heavier member of the rapier family; some use the term ‘military rapier’ for such weapons.

Both were very similar in basic form, though many different designs emerged over time. Both were long-bladed, straight swords designed for both cutting and thrusting, with quillions and fairly extensive hand protection. The sidesword generally had less elaborate hand protection; that of the rapier became ever more complex until a complete cup of metal replaced the bars and rings of the earlier swept hilt.

Most rapier systems emphasised the thrust over the cut, though cutting actions remained significant in most systems. Blade lengths varied, but generally the rapier was a long-bladed weapon designed to keep opponents at a respectful distance. This makes it somewhat heavy, requiring specialised body mechanics to counterbalance the weight of the blade.

SSS Durham teaches from the Italian School of rapier play, emphasising the thrust but making use of the cut as necessary. We teach single rapier, rapier and dagger, rapier and cloak, rapier and buckler and even case of rapiers – one in each hand. Our instructors have won tournament medals for rapier fencing.

The Smallsword

The smallsword supplanted the rapier as a civilian sidearm from the mid 1600s onwards, and remained in use until swords were no longer carried as weapons. Modern sport-fencing weapons and technique grew mainly out of smallsword play.

Shorter and lighter (thus easier to carry) than a rapier, the smallsword was almost always a purely thrusting weapon, with no cutting edge. It could inflict lethal injuries, but a single thrust was not guaranteed to disable an opponent and prevent retaliation. Smallsword play is thus often very subtle, with each fencer trying to obtain an advantage that will allow a clean and ‘safe’ thrust that can be delivered without fear of a counterblow.

The smallsword was the standard duelling weapon for many decades, though pistols were also popular. Displaying skill at neat and intricate ‘salle play’ was essential for winning acceptance in society, whilst a life-or-death brawl in the street made use of a slightly different skill set. A formal duel lay somewhere in between, depending on the customs in force at the time.

SSS Durham teaches primarily from the work of Domenico Angelo, and is heavily influenced by the Franco-Scottish school of smallswordsmanship. Our instructors have won medals in tournament against similar and very different smallsword styles.

The Military Sabre

The sabre is normally considered to be a cavalry weapon, but from the late 1700s onwards officers of light infantry and rifle regiments began using sabres rather than their smallswords, and a specialist infantry sabre emerged. This weapon was slightly shorter and lighter than the cavalry version, capable of fencing against lighter swords, but remained a fearsome cutting implement.

The sabre is primarily a battlefield weapon designed to disable the opponent quickly using cuts, with the thrust as a secondary option. Sabre fencing looks more violent than some other systems (though sticking a sword of any kind in someone constitutes a pretty high level of violence) but many actions are in fact quite subtle.

SSS Durham teaches English military sabre technique as codified by Captain Alfred Hutton, but heavily influenced by other sabre systems including the Polish school, and by the body of Backsword technique that informs much of English military sabre. Our instructors have had tournament success in sabre, winning medals in sabre and sabre-vs-smallsword events.

Other Weapons

We are interested in all styles of historical European swordplay and related arts. This includes but is not restricted to:

  • Backsword and Broadsword
  • Classical Foil
  • Singlestick
  • Greatstick
  • Spadroon
  • Duelling Sabre

We can accommodate most interests, but there are some things that we do not do. We do not study medieval weapons such as the Messer, Longsword, Rondel Dagger and so forth. There are other groups in the area that do, and we sometimes visit them or have instructors come to us, but we do not ordinarily train with such weapons in our class. Likewise, Oriental weapons such as the Katana or various martial arts weapons fall outside our ‘European Swordsmanship’ remit.

2 Responses to The Weapons and Fencing Systems

  1. steven says:

    Is the Durham chapter still training I am looking to join but have had no reply to my email as of yet.thanks

    • MJD says:

      Yes, we’re running.

      Not sure why there’s been no reply – shoot me a mail direct at

      martin-j.dougherty AT (@ for AT, obviously)

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