Q&A: The Diversity of The Sword (and the Road to the Rapier)

im confused so did the rapier superseded the lo longsword (or what we call a longsword)?

Sort of, but saying, “yes,” would be a little misleading.

You can draw a direct evolutionary line from the 11th century arming swords (also sometimes called the, “knightly sword”) (which, you might identify as a longsword) to the Spanish sideswords, to the rapier. This can get confusing, because you could be forgiven for mistaking a sidesword for a longsword. It’s a specific blade, intended for use as a sidearm, but, “it’s a sword,” and long enough that you could easily call it, “a longsword.”

By the same logic, you would not be (completely) wrong for identifying a rapier as a “long sword.” This is why things can be difficult to parse, especially if you think of a longsword as a specific weapon.

Modern historians break medieval straight swords down into, roughly, 12 categories, named after the late Ewart Oakeshott. (Technically, is, I think the total is 27, because some types have multiple variants.)

So, the the Oakeshott Type X evolved into the Oakeshott Type XIII sometime during The Crusades, which in turn would evolve into the Spanish Sideswords (which, as far as I know, don’t have a Oakeshott Type associated with them, though the XVIIId and Type XIX aren’t far off, and are from the right era.)

The issue is, an Oakeshott Type X, and a Type XVIIId are both swords. However, those swords were manufactured based on the technology and materials available, the skill of the smith, and the intended function.

The sidesword was intended to be used as both a cutting and thrusting blade. It was intended to be light, and easy to carry, as it was a backup weapon. The rapier accentuated those traits. A lightweight blade is desirable, it’s easier to carry. The thinner blade may be aesthetically appealing, but if you have the technology to make it, the result is lethal.

So, looping back to the beginning, the real mistake is thinking that the longsword is a standardized weapon. The Oakeshott Typology allows us to categorize them into different groups, and it’s useful for tracking the changes in the designs over time, however, it’s important to remember that Oakeshott’s work was retroactively categorizing these weapons into groups. There’s no single moment that a smith sat down, stopped making Type X blades, and started making Type XIIIs. That transition happened over time. (They also would have been completely unfamiliar with the terminology, as Oakeshott was publishing in the 20th century.)

It’s probably, slightly, more accurate to think of the rapier as the result of people tinkering with, refining, and improving the longsword over the course of 600 years. (Or, longer if we include first millennia swords, in which case, you’re looking at more like 800 years of European sword design.) The rapier did not supersede the longsword; the longsword became the rapier.

If there was a weapon which superseded the longsword in Europe, it was the saber. For an extremely abbreviated history, the saber first entered Europe sometime in the first millennia, and found a home among cavalry in Eastern Europe. They started gaining popularity in the 17th century (both the sabers and the Polish Hussars who wielded them), which would eventually lead to the saber becoming the dominant military blade in Europe. You can actually see a replication of some of the transformation which lead to the rapier in how Western European saber deigns favored thinner blades. Smiths (and by this point militaries) took a design they liked, and modified it to better suit their goals. Now, the other thing which changed was the transition to gunpowder infantry. Sabers still saw battlefield use (partially among cavalry) into the 19th century, but the combat role of a sword on the battlefield was rapidly coming to a close.

So, the short version is, no, the European longsword became the rapier, and then was eventually replaced by changing fashions.

-Starke

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One thought on “Q&A: The Diversity of The Sword (and the Road to the Rapier)”

  1. As someone who has played a lot of D&D 5e, I have some experiences that may inform this discussion.

    There *is* a tabletop RPG system that abstracts violence and wounds quickly and, based on everything I have read from both this blog and medical textbooks (which I have seen on an incidental basis), accurately. The system is called Silhouette; it is developed by Dream Pod 9 and used, in various iterations, for games like Heavy Gear, Jovian Chronicles, and Tribe 8.

    For the sake of clarity, I’m going to explain how Silhouette works, and then give my opinion.

    When making a weapon attack, two attackers roll d6s (if you throw multiple d6s, you take the highest result; if you are unskilled, you throw 2d6 and take the LOWEST result), add modifiers (0 is average, +3 is peak human), and compare the results. If the attacker’s total is greater than the defender’s, subtract the defender’s total from the attacker’s; this is the margin of success of the attack. Now multiply the margin of success by the damage multiplier for whatever weapon you are using. For an unarmed attacker of average build, this is x3, x5 or x6 for a trained, fit attacker; for a sword, it’s x28 or so.

    Now compare the product to the defender’s wound thresholds. If the product exceeds their flesh wound threshold (around 12, on average), they get a flesh wound. If the product exceeds their deep wound threshold (around 25, on average), they get a deep wound; and if it exceeds their instant death threshold (around 50, on average), they, well, die. But that’s not all! Every time you receive a wound, you have a chance to pass out. Additionally: for each flesh wound incurred, all subsequent actions suffer a -1 penalty; for each deep wound, all subsequent actions suffer a -2 penalty (for a game based entirely around d6s, that is a big deal), and a character cannot take a greater number of cumulative wound penalties than their system shock rating (5, on average) without going into shock. If a character manages to survive combat, flesh wounds take a week to heal (3 days with constant medical care); deep wounds take a month to heal (two weeks with constant medical care), and there is a daily or hourly chance of a wound degrading (tracked as generating a new wound) during that time (this can lead to shock and death) if wounds are not stabilized. Any rigorous activity can destabilize a flesh wound; anything more than eating and bed rest can destabilize a deep wound.

    As you can imagine, it is very, very easy to die using the Silhouette system. Take the example with the sword, above: the attacker rolls a 5; the defender rolls a 3. 5-3 is 2; 2×28 is 56, which is higher than an average character’s instant death threshold, and even a margin of success of 1 would result in a deep wound — likely fatal in a low fantasy setting.

    Here’s the thing: I have played both Silhouette and D&D, and on the whole, I found Silhouette to be less *adventurous* than D&D, even though Silhouette is fast, easy, and effective at abstracting combat. Combat in Silhouette is so lethal, and the consequences are so severe even when the outcome is non-lethal, that it is not an attractive option (though there can be edge cases in which a fight drags on, typically when the damage multiplier is low and both the attacker and the defender consistently roll similar totals; these fights usually end when one character goes into shock). Consequently, players tend to avoid combat, play very cautiously, and enter combat only with a plan and a sizable advantage (or, in much the same way as purposeful violence is described in this very blog: attempting to harm someone else as efficiently as possible, without giving them any time to react — an assassination, not an honorable contest).

    By contrast, the hit point system of D&D encourages risk-taking, adventure, and swashbuckling, because it is very low-stakes: even if you get into combat, hit points reduce the risk of dying, and various spells and class features reduce that risk even further. Likewise, throwing dice of different weights yields different outcomes than throwing d6s.

    In other words: Silhouette does such a good job abstracting combat that it makes adventure unattractive, which isn’t something you want in your adventure game! It is hard to live vicariously as an adventurer when adventuring is discouraged.

    Of course, like all abstract systems, Silhouette can be exploited by metagaming, so it is by no means the “perfect simulation” to permit tabletop warriors to demonstrate their “martial potential,” nor is Silhouette necessarily the optimal tabletop gaming system for those who are familiar with violence and inclined to roll dice (there are too many instances in which Silhouette sacrifices accuracy and fidelity for speed and generalized abstraction).

    Say, rather, that Silhouette combat can skew very deadly very quickly if approached without caution, and wounds received in Silhouette are weighty and bitter.

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