Dressing up the Rapier

History of the Rapier

The Rapier has been known by many names and has many different shapes, blade widths, and styles throughout history. A rapier is defined as a sharp, narrow, double-edged blade used for thrusting, cutting, and slashing. There are many sub categories and specialties for Rapiers that have different uses and styles. Side sword, Epee, Spadroon, Backsword, Bilbo, Swept Hilt, Papenheimer, Schianova, and Espada Ropera are different types of Rapier. This last one in fact, the Espada Ropera, in Spanish means “clothing Sword.” Rapiers were worn as both fashion statements and as self protection.

The most common definition for a Rapier defines the blade. But ironically it is the Hilt, the part of the sword that protects the hand, that is the most distinct and unique portion of the sword. Rapier hilts are usually split up into three different types. I tend to default into the Spanish or Italian definitions. These types are; Espada Ropera de Lazo, or Ring Hilt; Espada Ropera de Conchas, or Shell Hilt; and Espada Ropera de Taza, or Cup Hilt.

Parts of the Sword

In order to begin in Rapier Fencing you must have or have access to not only a sword, but also all of the protective gear required for the sport. This can be very expensive to start from scratch. Often we lose potential rapier fighters for this very reason. The sword is truly the most expensive and highly detailed tool that you must have to get started. The blades were easy to purchase by themselves but rapier hilts were anywhere from one hundred to four hundred dollars! But I wondered if it was possible to make this less expensive? I was not terribly pleased with my first rapier I had purchased. it was very heavy and not well balanced. it had a sabre guard and nowhere to loop my finger over a quillon or ricasso for more control. I decided to try to make my own sword hilt. I enlisted a friend with a forge to help me make a quillon and found a silver bowl to use for hand protection. It was a sorry sight, but it did the job. Soon I became tired of that hilt and began to cold bend metal bars and turned to our local makers space to learn how to weld these into a hilt. I found others who make sword hilts and asked way too many questions. I began to research different styles and types of sword hilts. I purchased my own forge and welding torch and with each new rapier hilt I learned new skills and processes. I’m still learning and I love the challenge of figuring out each new skill.

Sword Hilt 1:

Finished Piece

This sword dates around 1600 made in France.

This hilt is a type 69 from the AVB Norman pages 141. The overall design is both compact and effective. The S curve quillons create a knuckle guard and there is adequate hand protection from the diagonal ring and front side ring. The rings have a single lozenge carved into each of the side rings and a triangular quillon block. The inner guard is a simple forward loop. This does not provide much protection for the fingers, so the user must be on guard for attacks to the inner guard.

Source Sword

16th Century French Rapier

Why I chose this sword

I really liked the simplicity of this hilt. I prefer light weight and versatile guards which allow for movement and changing grip for different attacks or defense. This hilt offered a challenge of shaping the lozenges in the side rings and the triangular quillon block. I had limited time to make this hilt, so having a simple design was a bonus.

The final weight of the hilt was 8.7 oz.

Construction

I always begin creating a sword hilt by drawing what I want it to look like. I draw each piece and work out the dimension and scale. Next I cut the basic parts from stock metal and begin to shape each piece in the forge. The block, quillons, forward arms, and knuckle guard are the first parts that come together. All other pieces will build off of these. These all vary with each individual rapier hilt but are basically similar in design. The main difference is the block itself. I had not built a triangular block at this point. I drifted the hole for the tang to insure the perfect fit. Previously, I would form the block by drilling out from a single quillon or welding the quillons to a flat bar with a rectangular hole drilled in it. this Triangular block is much more appealing to the eye and closer to how it was done in period. The rings were shaped and tapered in the forge and carved with a dremel for the lozenges. there were some shaping adventures once everything was welded and lots of filing and grinding to remove excess material from the welds.

The Good

This was a relatively easy build. everything came together well and I was able to built this hilt quickly and over all I am very happy with it.

The Bad

I had planned to put a brass finish on the hilt to give it a more polished look but I have not figured out how to succesfully create this process at this time.

What I learned

correcting and aligning everything after it is all assembled is very difficult process. If you move the Arms the front ring moves off kilter. to fix, that the forward arms move ofline. It is a painstaking process of small alterations that takes time and experience…

Sword Hilt 2:

Finished Piece

This is a double ring hilt with the forward ring closed type 43 from the A.V.B. Norman page 111. It dates about 1550 to 1630. The quillons are twisted to give it some added flare with coined finials. the inner guard is crossed for excellent hand protection and allows the fencer to adjust their grip to add the thumb to the inner guard for more controlled back cuts. The grip is lathed to shape and grooved to fit the fingers for the index finger over the riccasso.

The final weight of the hilt was 13.7 oz.

Source Sword

The Sword of Grandmaster Jean De Valette

Why I chose this sword

This sword is a Commission piece for a local fencer and designed to his specifications. Once I had his list of wants, I realized it was very similar to the Italian Grandmaster Jean de Valette’s rapier. This sword is a modified version of that sword.

Construction

As always, I began with a drawing of what I wanted this sword to look like and basic dimensions.

The Good

This sword brought many of the skills I have been working on together to make an amazing hilt. It is probably my best work so far.

The Bad

Trying to weld the forward ring port was a lesson in patience that I was not prepared for. Time management was also an issue. it took me a lot of hours to get everything symmetrical but it was worth it in the end.

What I learned

When building for someone other than yourself, you have to let go of your own preferences, (even if they are WRONG!) and go with what they ask for as long as it is safe to do so and within the rules. When you are building for someone else you must listen to what they want…

Sword Hilt 3:

Finished Piece

This rapier is a type 52 hilt from A.V.B Norman pages 122 with a swept inner guard. It has a rear quillion and knuckle guard supporting forward arms with a side ring outside the hand. the end of the rear arm is linked the the knuckle guard by a long loop guard. the inner guard is swept with three eighth inch bars which connect high to the knuckle guard. The forward arms are kept wide to allow for one or two fingers over the ricasso for added strenght and control.

The final weight of this hilt was 11.2 oz.

Source Sword

This hilt is based directly from the drawing in the A.V.B. norman book of the rapier

Why I chose this sword

This is my own personal sword with my preferences in mind. I prefer a very light rapier with both style and grace. I fight Verada Destreza and this hilt is easy to hold horizontal for long periods of time. It has excellent balance and the grip is made of Padoak lathed to the shape of my hand. I prefer a longer handle to allow me to change my grip for offence or defense.

Construction

This is the first hilt formed and shaped in my forge.The rear quillon and knuckle guard are forged from one piece and the tang hole was drifted on the anvil and each piece was shaped and welded in place while still hot from the forge. Welding hot allowed for much easier cleanup once everything was assembled. the downside was it had to be timed well and was much more difficult to maneuver. The final touch was to chemical blue the entire hilt. This will help to prevent rust and gives a wonderful black finish to the sword.

The Good

This rapier is one that I am very proud of! Being able to forge and shape each piece and assemble them exactly as I had planned was an awesome experience.

The Bad

Welding the hilt while hot from the forge was a suggestion from one of the other sword hilt makers to reduce flux and get better welds without using a gas accelerant. While it did help with cleaner welds, it also was much more difficult to work with as I could not directly touch the hilt with my hands.

What I learned

Planning and timing is key when working with hot metal! whether I am forging or welding, time and heat management is a must!

Citations

16 Replies to “Dressing up the Rapier”

  1. I am proud of you and am very appreciative of what I am learning from you about sword hilts. Thank you.

  2. I’m curious from your experiences building hilts if this has in any informed your fencing skills on the field?

    Meaning instead of buying off the shelf and having to work with whatever you get, has this process better refined for yourself what you like and prefer in your sword and personal style?

    Additionally I’m curious if now notice in your opponent “they have this style of hilt, therefore they’ll fight/respond this way”?

    Thank you for sharing your research!

    1. Hello Herr Basilius,

      Excellent Questions!
      Absolutely this has indeed helped me on the field. Understanding how the weight and ballance of how rapiers work makes a huge impact on how the fighter will react to different attacks and reposts. If one person has a hilt with very little hand protection, they will be more aware of attacks to the hand. If you have a smaller slightly built fighter with a heavy hilt it may slow their reaction time and would have to exert more effort, causing them to over commit. also if you have a very light hilt they will be much faster in reaction time and use less effort, allowing them to change tactics very quickly.
      By creating these rapier hilts it has helped me to understand the advantages and disadvantages of many different styles of fighting. Some fighters like heavier rapiers which are ballanced forward for cuts and pushing ability. Others prefer a lighter rapier weighted toward the hilt for more control and speed. There are many combinations of weight,shape, ballance, quillian style and hand protection. Also scale makes a difference too. the size of the hilt should be in preportion to the wielders hand. So many different things to think about when you are making a rapier hilt!
      When I am starting a commission I ask alot of questions about how they stand, hold the blade, their technique, and measure their hand for the grip. I like to hand them a bit of clay on a stick with quillon and get and shape to thier grip in this manner when available. If you pay attention there are so many things you can learn about your apponent just by observing them. details about thier weapon, judging thier reach, take a guess on how long they have been playing, and how well they care for their equiptment. These assumptions are not always correct, but details usually show us the truth.

    2. Hello Herr Basilius,

      Excellent Questions!
      Absolutely this has indeed helped me on the field. Understanding how the weight and balance of how rapiers work makes a huge impact on how the fighter will react to different attacks and reposts. If one person has a hilt with very little hand protection, they will be more aware of attacks to the hand. If you have a smaller slightly built fighter with a heavy hilt it may slow their reaction time and would have to exert more effort, causing them to over commit. also, if you have a very light hilt they will be much faster in reaction time and use less effort, allowing them to change tactics very quickly.
      By creating these rapier hilts, it has helped me to understand the advantages and disadvantages of many different styles of fighting. Some fighters like heavier rapiers which are ballanced forward for cuts and pushing ability. Others prefer a lighter rapier weighted toward the hilt for more control and speed. There are many combinations of weight,shape, ballance, quillian style and hand protection. Also, scale makes a difference too. the size of the hilt should be in preportion to the wielders hand. So many different things to think about when you are making a rapier hilt!
      When I am starting a commission, I ask a lot of questions about how they stand, hold the blade, their technique, and measure their hand for the grip. I like to hand them a bit of clay on a stick with quillon and get and shape to their grip in this manner when available. If you pay attention there are so many things you can learn about your opponent just by observing them. details about their weapon, judging their reach, take a guess on how long they have been playing, and how well they care for their equipment. These assumptions are not always correct, but details usually show us the truth.

  3. Hi there! While I do not make sword hilts, I love that you are delving into this!

    For your question on pommels and not having a lathe… you do not need one at all. Casting pommels is very well within reach if you are willing to use brass or bronze. Also, since you do have a forge, roughly shaping a chunk of thick bar stock with a hammer, then using a good belt sander to shape. Fine files and sandpaper to fine tune and polish.

    Depending on how in depth you want to get to being accurate to an original, studying the subtle lines of the originals helps. Looking at the examples you provided, I have noticed some common themes. For instance, most parts have subtle (and also not so subtle) taper. Not only in profile, but thickness as well. Sometimes tracing a part from a photo of an original can help train the eye to see the shapes and where they are at. Deconstruct the original hilt into various line tracings can open doors to what has not been seen yet.

    Please keep up the great work, I am very much looking forward to seeing what is coming in the future from you!

    1. Corey Thompson
      I had not really considered casting a pommel. That is a great idea. I will have to see if there is anyone in the Inlands region who would be interested in teaching how to cast brass or bronze or perhaps if there are mundane places to learn. I have also planned to make a hilt as you described above with bar stock.
      I like the idea of tracing the lines of the indivicual pieces. I had not considered that. I usually draw a concept idea and go from there taking each piece separate is a good way to isolate how to proceed in shaping. The first hilt in the presentation will have much more detail added to it the subtle shapes in the rings and guard are in the drawings but not yet on the hilt itself… it is still a work in progress.

  4. Basically Vrin ( Sigismund) covered most of it.. I almost didn’t add my comments- my only input comes from an artistic/visual point of view from having handled and seen extant pieces first hand. Getting the eye and that “feel” of the real thing “only”comes from experiencing the real thing- you can read all the books on Rome, look at all the pictures and documentaries but until you step on the stones, smell the city and feel of the heat – it’s not the same. But you’ll *know* … the eye knows.
    That’s the tough part but also a joyous thing to replicate once you have.

    I love where you’re going, there’s little things like proportionate thickness of bars ( they didn’t have industrially made imperial measured bar stock) One g thing I love is drawing out or upsetting the metal a little and faking forgewelds those things are just spiffy to get the hang of. Again only matters in the grand scheme of things if that’s the level of realism you want.

    Thank you for this presentation, I look forward to seeing more from you’s

    1. Hello Master Ugo!
      I envy you the chance to actually get hands on exposure to some “original Sword pieces, I agree that first hand experience is better than all of the research and examining of photos, but being able to feel the weight, the texture and the personality of each sword would be a huge advantage to making a rapier. Or for just about anything recreated really.
      I begin with regular bar stock but draw out each piece for the rings, sweeps, and quillons. the forward arms I do not do this with, but most of the pieces are hammered to shapes well apart from what they begin as. I have not tried to fak a forgeweld. I would love to get more informatioin on how to aproximate the look…
      Of the extent pieces you mentioned, which pieces stand out most to you, and where were you able to get access to them?

  5. Well done! Thoroughly enjoyed your thought process and learning curve with lessons learned shown for all to read. I believe your work will only improve with practice as you seem to have a very good start. If you haven’t already, perhaps some practical discussions with general armorers or smiths might gain you some practical advice on design and technique. With additional experience your work will blossom

    I hope to see your work in the future.

    Aryana Silknfyre, Laurel, AnTir

    1. Hello Aryana and thank you for your kind words. I have only been making swords since October of 2018. I began dabbling with Hiltsmithing as a way to fix the issues I had with my own hilt. since then I have made over 25 different sword hilts and I have learned something new with each new hilt. I started with repurposing a candlestick, and then began to cold bend 1/4 inch mild steel. Things really started to pick up once I purchased my own forge this March and I have continued my journey from there. Part of the reason I decided to do the Road to Athenaeum is to have the opportunity to talk with those with much more experience than myself.
      Thanks for the comments!

  6. Those hilts are very nice and i can definitely see the progress or refinement in your skills and techniques from the first project to the latest project. I am not personally a creator of these, although I have been known to handle a few of these with some success.

    As you say much of these hilts and their use is wrapped up in preference and style of use. I was gratified to see that there was a knuckle bow on them, one thing I felt was missing though was discussion of the material used and dimensions, particularly thickness/hardness. Many of the rapier I have owned and used have have thinner/smaller material and then have gotten quite beat up and bent either in combat or in transport. It would be interesting to hear more on that as some of the components look quite delicate. Another component that I look at is the handle itself. I find that when using a round handle many times the orientation of the blade is lost amidst combat and hand shifting. With a shaped handle that is rectangular or oblong, it is easier to determine orientation by feel and to more easily manipulate that orientation with your fingertips.

    1. Hello Master Talon!
      Thank you for taking the time to look at my work. I usually work with mild steel and will use flat stock in 1/2 inch, 5/8 inch and 1 inch bars. I also use round stock, square stock in 1/4 and 1/2 inch, and also will use whatever I can find. I have made hilts with rebar, railroad spikes, and was even challenged to make a rapier hilt entirely out of nails! The 3rd sword with was blackened does use 1/8th inch round bar. It is shaped to reinforce structure and has only been bent once on the inner guard. This is my main fighting sword.and it can take a lot of abuse. I wanted this rapier to look delicate, but still be very durable.
      I make many different styles of grips. The two complete swords have turned handles but the first grip is an oval. I cut the basic shape, drill out the hole for the tang, and rounded the sides on a router. Then given the final shaping on the belt sander. Once I am happy with the overall shape, I hand sand with 120, 180, 240, and finally 320 grit sandpaper. The final step is to give the grip a nice finish by coalting it with sword/wood butter. it is our own mixture of mineral and beeswax. I use it to protect both the blade, hilt, and back

  7. Thank you so much for delving into this niche of metalwork im enormously thankful to have people exploring this discipline. Sword furniture as im sure you are gathering is an essay in the personal preferences of fighters and makers through the ages, to that end have fun with the “wrong” in these things, they are the playful places that stretch us personally and technical development happens. I loved seeing your production photos. I would encourage you to PLEASE continue to do this process documentation for everything you make, and maybe expand this into an on the field review of your work, if they are being used. The community does appreciate this craft and seeing it builds the love of art in their weapons and gear.

    Things I would like to see next time: I know its minutiae but weight and points of balance in the final articles if you have them are always nice, all the subtle pommel manipulation or decisions to get that “just-right-in-the-hand” feel are also fun to see. Also as im currently deeply geeking out on pommels and pommel design lately, get into the elaboration of your choices weights etc. I also really liked your Paduk handle, would love to see what you see in other historic handle styles and geometries.

    Thank you again for sharing your work and participation in our group. It is instrumental to developing our collective understanding and enjoyment. Thank you for this submission it was very nice to see all of it.. I look forward to hilts 4, 5, 6…

    1. Thank you so much for your eloquent comment. I’m so glad you got my playful jibe about other people’s preferences. I chose to focus solely on hilt for this presentation and thought weight and balance would be misleading as most dimensions are for compete swords with blades. I would be happy to talk details with you about them. Only two of these hilts have blades. I usually create short “dummy” blades to the dimensions of the tang for the sword I am creating. I prefer Castille blades or the 2255 Hanwei blade. It is much improved from the old Hanwei fishing rod. As for pommels, I would love to hear how you make them. As of yet I purchase them from Zen warrior,Castille, and Darkwood armories.. I would love to attempt to make one of my own. One set back is the lack of a metal lathe but that can be overcome. I Will have to research how these were made in period. To fit each sword,hilt and pommel, I will have several to choose from for them to try the weight and feel. Some fighters prefer more weight toward the blade for more power and better cuts, while others more near the hilt for faster movement and control. But all of these must balance to the users preferences and be pleasing to the eye to create a a great sword. I like to specialize in very light well balanced blades that offer control as well as speed and hand protection.I make many types of wooden grips for my hilts. Anything from rectangular coffin grips to lathed round of oval grips to octagonal grips. I have recently delved into adding wire to these and also carving spiral grooves. I am building a jig to make wire wrapped grips I found on the FaceBook hiltsmith page. If you are interested in creating sword hilts this is a great source for information on how to. The second sword is the heaviest I have created at 2.4 lbs the pommel and 37 inch 2255 blade add weight to an already beefy hilt.the balance point is approximately .5 inch from the front ring or 3 inches from the shoulders. My own sword (number 3) is much lighter at 1.9 lbs. it has a 38 inch Castille blade with a 6 inch tang. The balance point is just at the front of the hilt itself.A little over 2 inches from the shoulders. Thank you for looking at my work and the kindness toward my craft and interest.I look forward to talking more with you!

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