Historic Martial Arts Research


This is a weapons forms analysis that I wrote as a guide for what options exist, and what options should be used, in SCA rapier melee.

Melee Weapons Analysis

 by Signor Dante di Pietro

(mka Darren Di Battista)

I. Single Sword

A.     Single Rapier:

In Atlantia, a basic rapier authorization carries with it the ability to use any of the other weapons forms. As such, no one participating in a rapier melee should do so using only a single rapier and an open hand.

i.                    Blades of Lengths Greater Than Forty Inches

Many people use extra long swords to which they are not accustomed in melee. Using any weapon without adequate practice is inadvisable. Those who use blades of greater length should be aware that while their reach will increase, their ability to perform disengages and other subtle motions will be greatly diminished by the greater weight and different balance of the blade. It will also be easier for an opponent to push their blade off line. This will be true if you use a sword that is too big for you; certainly there are fencers for whom a 45 inch blade is appropriate to their height.

ii.                  Blades of Lengths Less Than Forty Inches

Blades substantially less than 40 inches long are going to be less useful, especially in line formations, because they lack the reach necessary to wound safely when facing multiple opponents. These shorter blades can be very useful in the hands of fast moving flanking units whose job is to strike aggressively, especially when  engaging opponents who have brought longer, unwieldy blades more geared toward sniping from a line.

B.     Nonrapier Weapons:

Some weapons require the use of two hands to be used effectively, such as katanas and longswords. These weapons, when knowledgeably used, can be very effective for those who engage primarily in highly mobile attacks as the leverage advantage two hands have over one means that parrying a strong attack is very difficult. These are, however, of less use in any type of line formation because of their generally reduced reach. This can be offset when the pommel is gripped by a single hand, or when used to beat or bind enemy blades. Single-handed curved blades are inadvisable choices because of their reduced range and limited thrusting ability.

II. Sword and Offensive Second

A.     Case of Rapiers:

The conventional wisdom on using two swords is that it is the best form to take into a melee. In practice, this is rarely the case, as very few individuals are capable of fighting with two swords effectively, typically resulting in the form of “sword and long metal stick” or “sword and forgotten, immobile arm”. This causes a person to have a weak side which can be attacked more easily by an opponent; one should avoid case unless skilled and practiced in the form. Case of rapiers is most useful in an open field and becomes less useful the more terrain is present, such as a woods battle.

i.                    Blades of Equal Length

Of those who fight case, some favor using two blades of equal length. This choice has several distinct advantages and disadvantages. The main benefits are that two longer blades afford greater reach in more directions, and their similarity means that no thought must be given to whether or not an opponent is in range for this blade but not that; the reach will be uniform. The disadvantage to this is that using two blades of equal length means that you will be very strong at a particular range, but equally weak at others.

ii.                  Blades of Unequal Length

A second option is to use two swords of different length; a popular choice for this is to use a rapier and a smallsword. This choice gives substantially better range in the off-hand than a dagger, but allows for faster defensive movements than would be possible with a rapier. This option also gives you two effective ranges. The drawback is that the smallsword is neither as useful on defense as a dagger nor as useful on offense as a rapier.

B.     Sword and Dagger:

Sword and dagger is typically the most common form that people use when participating in single combat, and this familiarity is a strong recommendation for its use in melee. The dagger hand will respond automatically to opponents’ movements, which means there will be no weak side to attack. While a dagger is not offensively useful in a line under most circumstances, it is a strong defensive tool and is of particular use when participating in a flanking maneuver or fighting in heavy terrain, such as a woods battle. Its limitations also mean that your attention will not be split between two ranges of attack at once, which will improve your defense and help your attacks be true.

III. Sword and Inoffensive Second:

A.     Sword and Rigid Parrying Device:

“Rigid parrying device” describes a wide range of objects, both in frequency and shape. For the purposes of this manual, we will only be examining the options that are common and providing information about the relative strengths and weaknesses of each.

i.                    Sword and Cane

Sword and cane functions, in many ways, like rapier and smallsword mentioned above, with two substantial differences: obviously, a cane cannot be used to wound an opponent, and a smallsword is not as effective a tool for interacting with the opponent’s blade in a disruptive manner. Canes are especially good at striking the opponent’s blades to give an ally in a line an opening in which to strike. They will also parry faster than a smallsword, as they can be gripped with a balance more conducive to sweeping motions. Canes afford little protection to the off hand, making it a prime target.

ii.                  Sword and Buckler

The chief advantage to a buckler is that it is effective defense even if it is used entirely passively; a buckler will block an attack without being moved, and without the defender necessarily even being aware of it. Because of this, sword and buckler can be an effective form even for people who have not practiced it much. Bucklers need to be large enough to cover a wide range of the body; a buckler that is too small may as well be a main-gauche and one that is too large will hamper movement and angle too much. Bucklers are most useful in line engagements, and are more useful the greater the number of people on a side use them. Bucklers are of particular value when missile weapons are in use.

iii.                Sword and Shield

 Large shields, such as kites and heaters, warrant discussion in a separate section from bucklers because they have their own unique characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages. Large shields offer maximum protection to a large part of the body, but are comparatively heavy and slow. While armored combatants do not need to worry about their shins and feet being valid targets, these are a concern in fencing and many stances appropriate for use with a larger shield leave those portions vulnerable. Large shields will also limit mobility and angles available because of their size and weight. They do possess the advantage of being very complete in their protection for those who can overcome their drawbacks, and are often particularly difficult for less experienced opponents to overcome. They also have the advantage of being an effective tool for psychological warfare, as the opponents across from a heater shield expect, however unwarranted, to be hit with greater force and behave more timidly than they otherwise might. Shields are of particular value when missile weapons are in use.

B.     Sword and Non-rigid Parrying Device:

Non-rigid parrying devices typically include things like half capes and whips, and cloaks. Other possibilities exist, but have characteristics that will make them similar enough to a common device to be considered as such for all practical purposes.

i.                    Sword and Half Cape or Whip

These options have many significant drawbacks and should be carefully considered before being used, if they are ever used at all. They lack the reach to effectively interact with an opponent’s blade, and even worse, an attempt to do so may well entangle the blade of the ally to your side. This is also a risk while attempting to parry. Lighter capes may be affected by wind as well. In most melee situations, these are not advisable choices.

ii.                  Sword and Cloak

A proper fighting cloak, used well, will be better at defending the lower body than a buckler while being equally good at defending the upper, and lighter and more maneuverable than a shield. The disadvantage of the cloak is that it provides no protection to the arm supporting it, and the risk of being wounded is much higher than with a buckler or shield.

Last updated: November, 2007

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