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Beginners welcome (over 16 years)

The Formal classes are:

MONDAY
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8.00 start

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Highland Broadsword
Rapier
7.30 start

 

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SMALLSWORD

Small Sword Workshop

Classes: Monday 8.00pm (one hour) Venue.

The small sword classes are in the form of a study group, supervised by Free Scholar Robert Hugh Wrightson, with additional supervision by Senior Instructor Duncan Fatz.

 

A DISSERTATION ON THE HISTORY OF THE EUROPEAN SMALLSWORD

by ©Robert Hugh Wrightson 2011

SmallSword photo1
A c1730 French russet and gilt hilted
smallsword from the authors collection

Early development

The smallsword first made an appearance in mid 17th century France evolving from the overly long and aging rapier which had more or less dominated civilian sidearms for the previous 75 odd years. It answered the need for a lighter, more efficient weapon for self defence primarily, during dangerous times for gentlemen of any wealth or status. This new weapon was a major step change in the development of personal sidearms and was used or at least worn almost universally by European men and some women in the period 1650 to 1790. It continued in some form after that date in the military and in fencing salle’s but we are concerned more with civilian use in this article. The early types of transitional smallswords which first appeared in France were basically rapiers and continued to be called such for a while with their shorter 34” to 27” blades, they then lost more weight with lighter silver, steel or brass hilts with bilobated shell guards, pommels and slender knuckle bows gradually becoming the prototype of what we now know as the smallsword. By the 1650’s this basic design had more or less been settled on in France the home of a weapon that spread around the world. It was found that in experienced hands the smallsword had an advantage over the longer and heavier rapier which will be elaborated on later. Its innovative style and relatively easy manufacture were also appealing to a potential buyer due to advancements in metallurgy and manufacturing developments in the 17th century.

A new fashion

French officer taking snuff 1675
French officer
taking snuff 1675

When the court of the ‘merry monarch’ Charles Stuart II returned to England in 1660 from exile on the continent he brought with him amongst other things, the elegant smallsword. As well as being a fearsomely efficient weapon in the right hands the smallsword became a serious fashion accoutrement in an age where men were unafraid to stand out in the court if not always in the street. Gentlemen’s fashion, for the monied classes was by our modest standards extremely flamboyant. Lace, ribbons, silks and finely cut material were indispensable to a man of any standing, ambition or who took pride in his appearance and the smallsword was the coup de grace for the male outfit. The hilts were often deco¬rated with coloured silk ribbons to suit the occasion, pink for courting, black for a funeral &c. These were referred to as the sword ‘knot’ which led to some historians confusing the term with the cavalry wrist knot.

La Maupin

Few ladies of the time took up the smallsword, it was considered strictly a male preserve however one lady of note was not concerned with such morals this was Julie d’Aubigny daughter of a government official Gaston who taught his daughter fencing and by the age of 16 she could best most of the men her age at her father’s salle. She became an opera singer in Marseilles and enjoyed high social ambitions whilst increasing her reputation as a formidable duelist. On one occasion at a masked ball given by the bisexual Duc d’Orleans at the Palais Royal, dressed as a man ‘La Maupin’ agreed to meet three rival suitors for the honour of a young noble woman and met them in a moon lit street where she des¬patched all three! She avoided prosecution but wisely left Paris and after many more amorous and violent adventures died in a convent c1706 at the age of 37.

Blades

smallsword c1730
c1730 engraved silver ss
with rare scabbard

Development in blade technology in the late 16th century in the Westphalian city of Solingen in particular, significantly led to the success of the smallsword. The forging techniques were a closely guarded secret that for a long time remained elusive to any other than the tightly knit Solingen sword makers guild. Some bladesmiths were tempted to come to Eng¬land by Charles II and set up factories but the bulk of blades still had to be imported and were of surprisingly good and consistent quality for the era especially considering they were hand ground.

A major turning point was the development of the hollow ground triangular section blade which was lighter and would not snap as easily as the oval section blade due to fine tempering and resulting superior flexibility. Some museum pieces have been capable of being bent com¬pletely back to the hilt and from engravings and texts from the time this was not unusual!

3 examples of smallsword blades
A selection of 18th century
tri-angular section blades

The only disadvantage of any kind was it did not have a cutting edge of any significance so was purely a thrusting weapon and was taught as such in all the major schools or salles of the era, but in civilian use this was not such a bad thing. Its main purpose after all was as a deterrent to footpads and ruffians and certainly achieved this purpose as most owners would never have had to even draw the weapon in anger let alone use it.

A well schooled and practiced swordsman, during early development of the smallsword was capable of defeating a good rapierist it was found with the shorter, lighter and quicker reacting blades. The technique simplified is once you had par¬ried the rapier thrust and were able to pass inside the point of the heavier and slower rapier, the main danger was over¬come and the wound could be given. The speed of disengaging from the opponents rapier blade with the shorter blade was also a distinct advantage.

The smallsword was popular with military men as well as civilians but for combat use the light triangular blade would have been replaced with a more sturdy type like a back edged or oval double edged. The colichemarde was a particu¬larly popular duelists blade and indeed has become known as that, but more on the colichemarde later.

 

Design and decoration

smallsword c1730
Elaborate French engraving

The components of the hilts changed with current fashion throughout the era of the smallsword and for the antique weapons collector and historian nowadays, give a very convenient method of dating the pieces. The most significant of these parts known mistakenly to modern collectors as the pas d’ans which were the remains of the rapier quillons which by the end of the era, along with the riccasso gradually atrophied eventually to none. Sir William Hope called them ‘the arms of the hilt’ and Philibert de la Touche referred in 1676 to the pas d’ans as the two lobes of a flat shell. The style of cup or shell guard also varied with the decades from single to bilobated shells, pierced or plain and in the 1760’s became a boat shaped design. Pommels could also dictate the decade for a collector and came in wildly differing shapes such as scent stopper, sphere, olive and facetted.

The baroque age gave the silver smiths and engravers of Paris and London a chance to show their skills to the full on the hilts and blades with elaborate hand carving of the silver, steel or brass with a multitude of subjects to suit the owners taste, from hunting scenes to military emblems to erotic imagery and good luck motto’s. This was done on the individual components before the hilt and blade were assembled. Various elaborate styles of wire wrapping was done on the han¬dles using silver and sometimes gold wire and copper or silver ribbon with ‘turks heads’ at both ends.

From JD Aylwards ‘The Smallsword in England’
From JD Aylwards ‘The Smallsword in England’

They were also embellished with russeting, gilding, silver and gold inlay on the parts to opulent standards the limit of which was the depth of the buyers purse and some had very deep purses indeed. It must be remembered that in their age a good sword was as powerful a symbol of affluence and masculinity as a horse or suit of armour was in previous ages or a top sports car and trilby is today! In London as well as Paris many of the long cutlers or furbishers were highly skilled in matching the fine Solingen blades with the hilt components and had skilled artisans hand engrave and decorate the individual parts to a very high quality that is admirable even by our standards today and it is to these cutlers and artisans we owe the fact that so many of their fine pieces have survived.

The cost of protection

Good quality swords were very expensive for the common working man and only higher earners could afford them but it was, for men, one of those must have items that we can identify well with nowadays! Therefore many gentlemen would put themselves in debt just to secure a decent weapon, it was almost unthinkable not to have one. Samuel Pepys payed 23 shillings (£1.15p) for a ‘little sword with a gilt handle’ in 1662 and he was a well paid civil servant and in 1669 generously bought one for his man Tom for 12 shillings (60p). But a gentleman could pay as much as £50 for a very fine example and swords were made for Royalty that ran to hundreds of pounds. Swords were often mislaid understandably whilst carousing the gambling houses and brothels of London or Paris and we know a bit about their value from adverts placed in contemporary newspapers offering rewards of a guinea or two (£1.5p) for their return which was likely less than what the silver alone would have been worth! One wonders how many grieving owners were reunited with their precious sidearms! You can empathize somewhat with their loss though when handling one of the gorgeous pieces today.

The Masters

Many teachers of smallsword came from Europe to set up salles in London during the period, it was good business for them as many young men wished to learn the art without traveling to Paris. France was the main supplier of them after the Restoration when Charles II opened the doors of the previously puritan country to artists, writers, scientists and skilled artisans and with the persecution of French Huguenots at home, it suited many. If they didn’t come themselves their treatises and manuscripts did, which were translated, printed and bought enthusiastically by culture starved young men. Such alumni as Faubert, Domenico Angelo, Teillagory Jnr, and Olivier set up successful salles in London, the House of Angelo lasted for almost 150 years! Treatises by the likes of L’Abbatt, Valdin and de Liancour became available to study and British enthusiasts such as Hope, who was the first, McBane, Godfrey, Lonergan and later MacArthur took up the challenge and published their own versions on how to use the weapon.

Photo: "The Fencing Student" 1725
Dendrono (Johann Georg Puschner, Nürnberg) -
"The Fencing Student" 1725, copper engraving

 

Note the large ‘buttons’ on the tips. The style was from the start taught in these schools as a gentleman’s way of fighting, the weapon required a certain deft¬ness and a delicate touch for it to function efficiently which the French knew as ‘sentiment de fer’. Strict rules were ap¬ plied in the salles depending in severity of the Master, at times there were no cuts allowed, retreating, hits to the head, arms or below the waist and certainly no ungentlemanly conduct, decorum and good manners were to be observed at all times. It is worth noting that for most of this period no masks were being used in classes so hits to the head were very dangerous even though the tips were buttoned there were still quite a few one eyed Masters around! There were excep¬tions to the rules on etiquette such as at the schools of Sir William Hope and Donald McBane who both taught more ro¬bust (typically Scottish) styles which included grappling and other somewhat ungentlemanly techniques but which were most suitable for prize and street fighting, and in McBane’s case for army life.

Many schools were not only for swordsmanship, it was considered only a part of a young mans physical education which included horsemanship, dancing, shooting, general fitness as well as training in other sword forms. Domenico Angelo for example was first and foremost an equestrian teacher to the court of King George II before he specialized in the sword.

Duelling

The period of the smallsword era was prolific in documented private civilian combat using the smallsword and thou¬sands were fought in Europe, North America and particularly France over the years despite the fact they were illegal and the consequences posed almost equal dangers to the victor of the encounter as to the unfortunate loser! To kill someone in a duel was tantamount to murder in the eyes of the law which carried the death penalty. Therefore the matter would have to be settled discreetly on safe ground away from prying eyes when few honest citizens would be abroad. Although many gentlemen were brought to account for killing or wounding their opponents, the death penalty was unlikely to be implemented if the gentleman was of sufficient ‘quality’! It is to be remembered that the court officials were also pro¬spective duelists! For all the smallsword skills taught in the salles to gentlemen it is no strange fact that during a duel according to wit¬nesses most formal fencing training was discarded and survival instincts took over which meant a deterioration to com¬mon brawling! One particularly savage encounter took place at Tyburn, London in 1712 between Lord Mohun (an invet¬erate duelist) and the Duke of Hamilton. Both men died as a result and as at the time ‘seconds’ were also expected to fight, one of them was badly wounded which led to an outcry against dueling. On the other hand some duels after much secret planning and ceremony just didn’t get started due to various reasons not least of which was the lessening of the effects of the previous nights sack and brandy, not to mention the stark threat of the needle sharp weapon facing them! John Wilmot 2nd Earl of Rochester’s alcoholism compromised his dueling ability and consequently ruined his reputation somewhat although his poetry made up for it!

Photo: Duke of Hamilton and Lord Mohun duelling
Duke of Hamilton and Lord Mohun duelling in what is now Hyde Park, London.
This fight did not stay as formal for long

Another major hazard of duelling was the possibility that your opponent was no gentleman and there were several cases when an ambush was set, with compatriots whose aim was to simply murder the opponent before he even got to the dueling ground! This was where the ‘second’ came in to his own, his job was vital and his main duty was to persuade the gentlemen to desist, apologise and retire to the nearest coffee house. If he did this he was doing his utmost duty to his friend, if not he was to ensure fair play, secrecy, the attendance of a discreet Doctor and of course getting away from the scene post haste. There was in fact a treatise written on the duties of the second so if you were of a pugilistic nature it was advisable to make sure your close friends had read it!

It is worth knowing also that in most duels the drawing of even a small amount of blood was usually enough to satisfy honour which with the smallsword was easy to do with its needle sharp tip as against other weapons that needed more pressure to cut or pierce. This perversely made it sometimes a safer weapon to duel with than say the military sabre!

In the court of Louis XIV there was a group of favourite’s of the King’s called ‘mignons’, a preening, posing group of bewigged and powdered macaronis who would purposely goad any new comers to the court who when unwittingly provoked to issue a challenge to a member of the group, was usually despatched forthwith as the mignons, for all their foppish appearance were lethal and merciless swordsmen who were to be trifled with at peril! They became so trouble¬some that the King was forced to banish them from court.

A Doctor once stripped naked before a duel on Brighton beach for the good reason clothes harboured germs and if hit you were far more likely to die of infection than any other cause. A wise man but his opponent and seconds left in disgust!

The colichemarde

Two 18th century examples of colichemarde blades
Two 18th century examples of colichemarde blades

In the latter part of the 17th century a smallsword blade emerged that became the most popular amongst serious swordsmen and duelists till almost the end of the 18th century. Legend says it was developed by a Swedish swordsman Count Philip von Konigsmark who was for a while a favourite at the court of King Louis XIV and later in 1661 appeared in London in an unknown capacity. Colichemarde was said to be a French corruption of his name but it has not been possible to trace use of it in French or English literature of the time.

The unusual element of the colichemarde was the broadness of the blade from the hilt along the forte where approxi¬mately one third up the blade it narrowed abruptly down from the broad triangular section to the standard hollow ground section and thereon to the tip. This was arguably said to add strength to the parry and weight to the thrust but to date the author has not read any convincing historical or modern reports of the proof of this advantage and is looking forward to carrying out some practical tests of this when a suitable modern blade is manufactured. If any reader knows otherwise on the subject we would be glad to hear from you. It has in fact been suggested that the additional weight at the forte was a disadvantage although a lot of the pieces the author has handled have been of excellent balance!

However there must have been some weight to the theory considering the longevity and popularity of the blade, the demise of which coincided with the end of the fashion of wearing swords anyway notwithstanding the preference for duelling with pistols. During the French Revolution in 1779, the smallsword became a symbol of the decadent ruling classes and was vehemently discarded and destroyed to be replaced and sported for a while by the proletariat with a weapon at the other end of the spectrum, the long heavy cavalry sabre!

Smallswords in the movies

Not many historical movies have featured smallswords being used, the weapon is not regarded as spectacular enough for Hollywood I would guess, preferring twirling arming swords or claidheamh mòr. However the ones it does play a major part in are very good. Ridley Scott’s awesome ‘The Duelists’ features two smallsword duels and ‘Dangerous

 Le Bossu (The Hunchback)
Le Bossu (The Hunchback) 1997

Liaisons’ has one fought in the snow. ‘Rob Roy’ has Cunningham using a heavy bladed smallsword coming off worse against MacGregor’s highland broad sword in an entertaining fight non the less. And the excellent French adaptation of Paul Feval’s 1857 novel ‘Le Bossu’ features several fights using early intermediate rapier/smallswords. There are also numerous films of the period such as ‘Barry Lyndon’ and ‘Restoration’ where smallswords are worn but do not come in to play but you have to be quick to spot them! The 1980‘s romp ‘Princess Bride’ features smallswords as do ‘Last of the Mohicans’, The Patriot’, Master and Commander’ and the modern ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ series amongst the hangers and cutlasses. And not to be omitted of course there is Arturo Perez Reverte’s Spanish classic ‘The Fencing Master’.

The smallsword today

Smallsword fencing was revived in the late 20th century by historic swordsmanship practitioners and is studied and taught in quite a few modern salles around Europe and the USA today, the techniques gleaned from old Masters treatises and mainly using reproduction weapons. The modern sport fencing double wide epee is a historically accurate, safe and functional blade for fitting to a smalls-word hilt. There are very good smallsword hilts made in the USA, Italy and France today but ideally, as they did in an¬tiquity, if you can afford it, have one made for you.

 Le Bossu (The Hunchback)
A 21st century demonstration of smallsword fencing

Summary

The smallsword was then, the epitome and literally the pointed end of sword technology in the 18th century. It lasted in popularity as a civilian sidearm for around 130 years and the innovative weapon would never be surpassed in time for the very simple reason that no civilian wanted a sword anymore.

But as with many swords in history it was not just a weapon but a status symbol, a work of art, a symbol of affluence, an investment, a sex symbol, as well as a trip hazard. People would stare admiringly at a gentleman’s piece as he swaggered past in the dung filled street and gasps would arise if he had to draw its full length into the light of day! The real meaning to the original owners of most of them has been lost in time but luckily we can guess and still get some feeling for how prized they once were by seeing and feeling their beauty today.

For more information

Web:

emerylee.wordpress.com

martinez-destreza.com

ovguide.com

Books:

the small sword_in England The House of Angelo cover English Masters at Arms Cover
     
so idle a rogue cover The Diary of Samuel Pepys By The Sword

 

 

The smallsword in England Aylward (rarely available in secondhand bookshops)

The House of Angelo Aylward (abebooks.co.uk)

English Masters of Arms Aylward (Amazon.co.uk)

So Idle a Rogue: The Life and Death of Lord Rochester Jeremy Lamb (Amazon)

The Diary of Samuel Pepys Samuel Pepys (Kindle - Amazon)

By the Sword Roger Cohen (Kindle - Amazon)


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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