The word "rapier" generally refers to a relatively long-bladed sword characterized by a protective hilt which is constructed to provide protection for the hand wielding the sword. Some historical rapier samples also feature a broad blade mounted on a typical rapier hilt. The term rapier can be confusing because this hybrid weapon can be categorized as a type of broadsword. While the rapier blade might be broad enough to cut to some degree (but nowhere near that of the wider swords in use around the Middle Ages such as the longsword), it is designed to perform quick and nimble thrusting attacks. The blade might be sharpened along its entire length or sharpened only from the center to the tip (as described by Capoferro). Pallavicini, a rapier master in 1670, strongly advocated using a weapon with two cutting edges. A typical example would weigh 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) and have a relatively long and slender blade of 2.5 centimetres (0.98 in) or less in width, 104 centimetres (41 in) or more in length and ending in a sharply pointed tip. The blade length of quite a few historical examples, particularly the Italian rapiers in the early 17th century, is well over 45 inches and can even reach 50 inches.
The term rapier generally refers to a thrusting sword with a blade longer and thinner than that of the so-called side-sword but much heavier than the small sword, a lighter weapon that would follow in the 18th century and later, but the exact form of the blade and hilt often depends on who is writing and when. It can refer to earlier Spada da lato and the similar espada ropera, through the high rapier period of the 17th century through the small sword and duelling swords, thus context is important in understanding what is meant by the word. (The term side-sword, used among some modern historical martial arts reconstructionists, is a translation from the Italian spada da lato—a term coined long after the fact by Italian museum curators—and does not refer to the slender, long rapier, but only to the early 16th-century Italian sword with a broader and shorter blade that is considered both its ancestor and contemporary.)
The word "rapier" is a German word to describe what was considered to be a foreign weapon. The word rapier was not used by Italian, Spanish, and French masters during the apogee of this weapon, the terms spada, espada, and épée (or espée) being instead the norm (generic words for "sword"). Because of this, as well as the great variation of late-16th and 17th century swords, some like Tom Leoni simply describe the rapier as a straight-bladed, two-edged, single-handed sword of that period which is sufficient in terms of both offense and defence, not requiring a companion weapon. To avoid the confusion of lumping all swords together, some categorize such swords by their function and use. For example, John Clements categorizes thrusting swords with poor cutting abilities as rapiers, and swords with both good thrusting and cutting abilities as cut and thrust swords. Some, however, look at the rapier in its entire time-line and see that it never truly fits into any single definition. Across Europe, the weapon changed based on culture and the fighting style that was prescribed; be it Italian, Spanish, or some other instruction on the weapon's use, so that lengths, widths, hilt designs and even the lack or placement of an edge or edges differed at the same time. One might wear a rapier with a swept hilt and edges on the same day as another might wear one with a cup hilt and an edgeless blade.
Rapiers often have complex, sweeping hilts designed to protect the hand wielding the sword. Rings extend forward from the crosspiece. In some later samples, rings are covered with metal plates, eventually evolving into the cup hilts of many later rapiers. There were hardly any sample that features plates covering the rings prior to the 1600s. Many hilts include a knuckle bow extending down from the crosspiece protecting the grip, which was usually wood wrapped with cord, leather or wire. A fat pommel (often decorated) secures the grip to the weapon and provides some weight to balance the long blade.
Various rapier masters divided the blade into two, three, four, five or even nine parts. The forte, strong, is that part of the blade closest to the hilt; in cases where a master divides the blade into an even number of parts, this is the first half of the blade. The debole, weak, is the part of the blade which includes the point and is the second half of the blade when the sword is divided into an even number of parts. However, some rapier masters divided the blade into three parts (or even a multiple of three), in which case the central third of the blade, between the forte and the debole, was often called the medio, mezzo or the terzo. Others used four divisions (Fabris) or even 12 (Thibault).
The Ricasso is the rear portion of the blade, usually unsharpened. It extends forward from the crosspiece or quillion and then gradually integrates into the thinner and sharper portion of the blade.
While there is room for debate as to how long a rapier should be, a common recommendation in historical treatises is to choose one such that the quillion (cross bars) is level with the navel (belly button) when standing naturally with the point resting on the ground. Another frame of reference is the length at which your arm can extend to unsheathe the rapier.
Rapiers are single-handed weapons and they were often employed with off-hand bucklers, daggers, cloaks and even second swords to assist with defense. A buckler is a small round shield that was used with other blades as well, such as the arming-sword. In Capo Ferro's Gran Simulacro, the treatise depicts how to use the weapon with the rotella, which is a significantly bigger shield compared with the buckler. Nevertheless, using rapier with its parrying dagger is the most common practice, and it has been arguably considered as the most suited and effective accompanying weapon for the rapier. Even though the slender blade of rapier enables the user to launch quick attack at a fairly long and advantaged distance between the user and the opponent and the protective hilt can deflect the opponent's blade when he or she uses rapier as well, the thrust-oriented weapon is weakened by its bated cutting power and relatively low maneuverability at a closer distance, where the opponent has safely passed the reach of the rapier's deadly point. Because of such insufficient cutting power and maneuverability at this situation when the opponent passes the deadly point, this scenario leaves opening for the opponent to attack the user. Therefore, some close-range protection for the user needs to be ensured if the user intends to use the rapier in an optimal way, especially when the opponent uses some slash-oriented sword like a sabre or a broadsword. A parrying dagger not only enables the users to defend in this scenario in which the rapier is not very good at protecting the user, but also enables them to attack in such close distance.
The rapier was first developed around 1500 as the Spanish espada ropera, or "dress sword". The espada ropera was a cut-and-thrust civilian weapon for self-defense and the duel, while earlier weapons were equally at home on the battlefield. Throughout the 16th century, a variety of new, single-handed civilian weapons were being developed. In 1570 the Italian swordmaster Signior Rocco Bonetti first settled in England advocating the use of the rapier for thrusting as opposed to cutting or slashing when engaged in a duel. Nevertheless, the English word "rapier" generally refers to a primarily thrusting weapon, developed by the year 1600 as a result of the geometrical theories of such masters as Camillo Agrippa, Ridolfo Capoferro and Vincentio Saviolo.
The rapier became extremely fashionable throughout Europe with the wealthier classes, but was not without its detractors. Some people, such as George Silver, disapproved of its technical potential and the dueling use to which it was put.
The etymology of the word rapier is uncertain. Charles du Fresne, sieur du Cange, in his Glossarium mediae et infimae Latinitatis, cites a form Rapperia in from a Latin text from 1511. He mentions an etymology deriving the word from the Greek ραπίζειν "to strike." However, Walter William Skeat suggested that "rapiér" may derive from raspiére, a poker, and that this may be a contemptuous term developed by older cut-and-thrust fencers for the new weapon. The most probable root of this term, however, appear to be from the Spanish ropera that comes from ropa, or elegant dress, thus a "dress sword".
Allowing for fast reactions, and with a long reach, the rapier was well suited to civilian combat in the 16th–17th centuries. As military-style cutting and thrusting swords continued to evolve to meet needs on the battlefield, so did the rapier continue to evolve to meet the needs of civilian combat and decorum, eventually becoming lighter, shorter and less cumbersome to wear. This is when the rapier began to give way to the colichemarde itself being later superseded by the small sword which was later superseded by the épée. Noticeably, there were some "war rapiers" that feature a relatively wide blade mounted on a typical rapier hilt during this era. These hybrid swords were used in the military or even in battlefield. A Gustav II Adolf's carried sword that was used in the Thirty Years' War is a typical example of "war rapier".
By the year 1715, the rapier had been largely replaced by the lighter small sword throughout most of Europe, although the former continued to be used, as evidenced by the treatises of Donald McBane (1728), P. J. F. Girard (1736) and Domenico Angelo (1787). The rapier is still used today by officers of the Swiss Guard of the pope.Antonio Manciolino, Opera Nova per Imparare a Combattere, & Schermire d'ogni sorte Armi – 1531
Achille Marozzo, Opera Nova Chiamata Duello, O Vero Fiore dell'Armi de Singulari Abattimenti Offensivi, & Diffensivi – 1536
Anonimo Bolognese, L'Arte della Spada (M-345/M-346 Manuscripts) – (early or mid 16th century) date it to "about 1550"
Camillo Agrippa, Trattato di Scientia d'Arme con un Dialogo di Filosofia – 1553
Giacomo di Grassi, Ragion di Adoprar Sicuramente l'Arme si da Offesa, come da Difesa – 1570
Giovanni dall'Agocchie, Dell'Arte di Scrimia – 1572
Angelo Viggiani dal Montone, Trattato dello Schermo – 1575
Marco Docciolini, Trattato in Materia di Scherma – 1601
Salvator Fabris, De lo Schermo ovvero Scienza d'Armi – 1606
Nicoletto Giganti, Scola overo Teatro – 1606
Ridolfo Capo Ferro, Gran Simulacro dell'Arte e dell'Uso della Scherma – 1610
Francesco Alfieri, La Scherma di Francesco Alfieri – 1640
Giuseppe Morsicato Pallavicini, La Scherma Illustrata – 1670
Francesco Antonio Marcelli, Regole della Scherma – 1686
Bondi di Mazo, La Spada Maestra – 1696
Jerónimo Sánchez de Carranza, De la Filosofía de las Armas (1569)
Luis Pacheco de Narváez, Libro de las Grandezas de la Espada (1599)
Girard Thibault, Academie de l'Espee, ou se demonstrant par Reigles mathematiques, sur le fondement Cercle Mysterieux (1630)
André Desbordes, Discours de la théorie et de la pratique de l'excellence des armes (1610)
François Dancie, Discours des armes et methode pour bien tirer de l'espée et poignard (c.1610) and L'Espee de combat (1623)
Charles Besnard, Le maistre d'arme liberal (1653)
Vincentio Saviolo, His Practise 1595
Joseph Swetnam, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence (1617)
The Pallas Armata (1639)
Paulus Hector Mair, Opus Amplissimum de Arte Athletica (1542)
Joachim Meyer, Thorough Descriptions of the free Knightly and Noble Art of Fencing (1570)
Jakob Sutor, Künstliches Fechtbuch (1612)
Johannes Georgius Bruchius (1671)
Classical fencing schools claim to have inherited aspects of rapier forms in their systems. In 1885, fencing scholar Egerton Castle wrote "there is little doubt that the French system of fencing can be traced, at its origin, to the ancient Italian swordsmanship; the modern Italian school being of course derived in an uninterrupted manner from the same source." Castle went on to note that "the Italians have preserved the rapier form, with cup, pas d'ane, and quillons, but with a slender quadrangular blade."Despite the rapier's common usage in the 16th–17th centuries, many films set in these periods (many starring Errol Flynn) have the swordsmen using épées or foils. Actual rapier combat was hardly the lightning thrust and parry depicted. Director Richard Lester and fight choreographer William Hobbs attempted to more closely match traditional rapier technique in Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers. Since then, many newer movies, like The Princess Bride and La Reine Margot have used rapiers rather than later weapons, although the fight choreography has not always accurately portrayed historical fencing techniques. Rapiers are also often featured in various video games, in particular Role-playing games set in the medieval and Renaissance periods.
The television series Queen of Swords features the use of the rapier in the mysterious circle, Destreza style favoured by the first swordmaster of the series Anthony De Longis who studied the Spanish sword fighting technique and wanted a unique style for the heroine. He had previously used it in the episode, "Duende", of the Highlander TV series. The hilt of the rapier was made by blade maker Dave Baker as was other swords used in the show.
Asuna in the Sword Art Online anime series wields a rapier.
Weiss Schnee in RWBY uses a special rapier called Myrtenaster.
In the video game franchise Fire Emblem, the Rapier is a special weapon that is exclusively bound to the Lord class.
In the Dark Souls franchise, alongside standard rapiers there is a special rapier known as 'Ricard's Rapier'. This weapon allows the user to hit their enemy in rapid succession.
"Silver Chariot", Jean Pierre Polnareff's Stand in Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, wields one of these.
In Revolutionary Girl Utena, the main character takes part in fencing duels where they attempt to strike a rose from their opponents' chests using rapiers.
Kirby, Jared (2004). Italian Rapier Combat: Ridolfo Capo Ferro. Greenhill Books. ISBN 978-1-85367-580-5.
Leoni, Tom. The Art of Dueling: 17th Century Rapier as Taught by Salvatore Fabris. Highland Village, TX: The Chivalry Bookshelf, 2005. ISBN 978-1-891448-23-2
Leoni, Tom (2010). Venetian Rapier: The School, or Salle. Nicoletto Giganti's 1606 Rapier Fencing Curriculum. Freelance Academy Press. ISBN 978-0-9825911-2-3.
Wilson, William E (2002). Arte of Defence: An Introduction to the Use of the Rapier. Highland Village, TX: The Chivalry Bookshelf. ISBN 978-1-891448-18-8.
Windsor, Guy (2006). Duellists Companion: A Training Manual for 17th Century Italian Rapier. Highland Village, TX: The Chivalry Bookshelf. ISBN 978-1-891448-32-4.