The 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 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 Olympic 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 Backsword


A backsword is a heavy-bladed weapon intended primarily for the cut rather than the thrust. It was very much a battlefield weapon, and is arguably the best one-handed sword weapon ever created. Most backswords have a complex basket hilt to protect the hand and by definition they have a single cutting edge. A very similar weapon, popular in Scotland, has two cutting edges and is nowadays referred to as a basket-hilted broadsword.

The backsword system we teach is drawn from relatively late in the weapon’s long service history, at a time when it was used largely by the heavy cavalry and referred to (perhaps confusingly) as the ‘regimental broadsword’. Our backsword style emphasises military/battlefield use of the weapon, or a ‘sword fight’ as opposed to a formal duel. We draw heavily on the work of Lonergan and McBane as our sources.

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 primarily from the work of Taylor and Rowarth, 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.

The Cutlass


The cutlass is essentially any fairly short, heavy-bladed cutting weapon used at sea. Specialist cutlasses were produced, but often a sailor’s cutlass was a tool that could be pressed into service as a weapon. Cutlass fighting is up close and personal, often with extensive use of the unarmed hand. We teach both formal navy cutlass from the work of Henry Angelo and close-quarters brawling in which the cutlass is sometimes used as a grappling tool.

Join Us


Our classes are usually are every Wednesday, from 7:30 pm to 9:30 pm but currently, we are closed due to the COVID-19 situation. If you would like to know when we’re back, please contact us.

You can find us at the Penshaw Community Association, in Penshaw, just off the A19.