A Brief Introduction to the Smallsword
Today’s article is by MEversbergII, and is a reposted version of his original article on Imgur. He has given his kind permission for the article to be reposted here for posterity. Editor’s Note: I have taken the liberty of correcting two or three small spelling mistakes, such as replacing “braodsword” with “broadsword”, but no substantial edits have been made to the piece to change the meaning of the article in any way.
I’ve mentioned in a few comments about being a student of the sword, and a few people were interested in knowing more. In that vein, I have created this album to spread a bit of knowledge out there for any other interested folk. Let us begin! Years ago, I started to get into something called Historical European Martial Arts – HEMA. HEMA is the study of various martial arts, both armed and unarmed, from pre-modern Europe. I have experience with severral forms of it – unarmed wrestling, dagger/knife combat, sword and buckler, quarterstaff, longsword, and messer. Recently, however, I began to study the smallsword, and that will be the focus of our album here today.
What is a “smallsword”?
The smallsword is a short, light-weight weapon that diverged from the rapier in the late 1600’s. It is, by and large, a thrust-only weapon with a shorter blade, simpler hilt, and lighter overall weight than it’s rapier predecessor.
Because it was light and easy to carry, it became the preferred daily-wear weapon of the gentry in Europe, most especially England and France. It was used to show off social rank, personal wealth, and settle disputes via the duel. It was said in various ways that “no man was properly dressed without his sword”, and for those that could afford they became quite elaborately decorated.
The smallsword varied in shape and size, but they tended to have many features in common. Hilts are typified by vestegial finger-rings, a simple knucklebow, and a small, bilobate, shell guard. It is a minimalistic form of protection, which is one of the weapon’s downsides that we’ll get to later. This is where you get to see a lot of elaborate decorations – lacquered grips, pierced or engraved silver shells, gold plating, and the like. Pommels were usually large, and very often hollow (so as to not be too heavy).
There are exceptions: Some did without crossguards, others deleted the finger-rings, shells took different shapes, so on.
Blades came in many lengths, starting at around 3 feet (91.5cm) early on, and transitioning towards shorter and shorter blades as time went on. Some late period examples had blades around 28″ (7.1mm) long. Width changed as well, with some early examples being closer to 2″ (5cm) but latter ones being under 1/2″ (13mm). Types called “Colichemarde” tended to be the broadest examples; these had an extra wide base of the blade nominally to improve their ability to defend against heavier backswords and sabres.
Cross sections varied, and included lenticular, diamond, hexagonal, and triangular forms. As time went on, the hollow-ground triangular cross-section won out, as it provides a very stiff, light-weight blade.
Together, the hilt and blade tended to create a weapon with a light weight – less than 2 pounds (.9kg) early on, and eventually getting down under one pound (.45kg). Point of balance was usually in and around the shells. This lends towards fine point control and swift actions.
Examples of Decoration
I mentioned that they could be quite well decorated, and I meant it. Not all were, of course – I’ve seen many very plain originals, and some that are intentionally subdued. This particular one belonged to Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.
I can’t help but wonder how much he paid for this in his day.
The Use of the Smallsword Part I
First thing’s first: Context. All weapons have a context. A smallsword can not do as much physical violence as a halberd, much like a 9mm pistol pales in comparison to a Javelin missile. The context of the smallsword is a light-weight (read: easy to carry) sword for daily wear that one can use to settle confrontations – be they formal duels, spur-of-the-moment-brawls, or muggings on the street.
Realistically, a smallsword-wearing man would spend an insignificant amount of time using his weapon, if he ever needed to deploy it at all, so ease of carry and ability to display are more important than raw damage potential.
These weapons were primarily intended for duels – not always to the death. Battlefield use was limited, as this was the era in which Officers (gentlemen) were no longer expected to lead from the front. Battlefield smallswordsmanship existed, of course, which gave rise to another weapon we’ll discuss later: the spadroon. Thus, as they weren’t primary weapons of war, they had many compromises they could make.
Think of those who carry decorated firearms, or even most sidearms, today. Light, easy to carry, quick to deploy.
The Use of the Smallsword Part II
The smallsword branched off from the rapier, and took a different approach to combat. The essence of combat with a smallsword is that of two-tempo fencing, relying on a parry-reposte on the defense, and a feint-thrust or a disengage-thrust on the offense. The rapierist of the time was, ideally, a single-time fencer, where defense and offence were the same action.
Generally, a smallswordsman is expected to take a back-weighted stance (to allow a quicker, less telegraphic, lunge), with the sword well extended before you and the enemy’s blade engaged. Lead foot should be the same as your weapon arm, and you should keep your body fairly in profile – this keeps you on point for a rapid assault, and presents as small a target to your enemy as you can manage.
By keeping blade-to-blade contact, you can feel their change in pressure through their blade, allowing you to predict their assault. Further, keeping engaged allows you to more easily close off the line of their attack, effecting a parry.
On the assault, one generally should use a lunge. Depending on what master, which era, and what school you’re dealing with, this lunge could be as simple as a step forward without a follow-up, or a full out floor lunge that leaves you extended pretty far out.
This is not to say that single-tempo fencing – like what we see with the rapier or longsword – is impossible. Rather, the thinking of the time was that fencing in single time was too risky for what it awarded you, and that training for parry-repost allowed for a more sure defense, and thus a safer time fighting.
Your offense is a thrust only: Even when the edges on some smallswords are sharpened, their geometry, mass, and general characteristics make them a very, very poor cutting weapon. This is related to another sort of disadvantage that I will discuss later.
The Use of the Smallsword Part III
The French codified their school of swordsmanship pretty strongly, so it stayed fairly constant for a long time, being based on the writings of a man named Liancour. This French System is the form of smallsword play that syndicated across most of Europe, and even into the United States. It formed the basis for military smallswordsmanship (and to teach the fundamentals of melee combat for other weapons), and was even used as the basis for some 19th century bayonet methods. A part of exists today in modern sport fencing.
While early authors kept grapples, vaults (see picture, guy in purple), passing footwork, single-time attacks, and off-hand parries as part of their (usually advanced) teaching, as time went on these maneuvers fell away, and the sword alone become one’s means of both offense and defense. It became, in essence, a pure swordsmanship style.
If you’d like to know more about the basic use of the smallsword, check out this link here: http://www.salvatorfabris.org/UnderstandingSmallsword.shtml
Those of you with a background in Olympic or Classical Fencing will recognize some things. There’s also loads of books on the matter, especially now that HEMA groups have become more interested. I don’t want to link them here, though, because that probably violates some part of the Imgur ToS somewhere.
The Use of the Smallsword Part IV
Not everyone followed the French method, though it was popular in many countries. The Italians had their own approach, adopting the smallsword at a later date than most other European nations (they had a reputation based on the rapier to uphold, and sabre duels entrenched there earlier than most other nations).
The two authors that bucked the trend that I know of are Donald McBane and Sir William Hope – both Scotsmen.
I don’t know much about McBane’s teachings per se, but I do know he advocated a very rough approach, keeping grapples and dirty fighting as part of his curriculum throughout. Situational awareness was a big part, as he mentions keeping an eye out for things to throw at your opponent, such as mugs of beer or loose sand. He was a soldier, so this probably has something to do with it. Also, for a while, he was a literal pimp. McBane, being a Scott, wrote more to my knowledge on his native broadsword than the foreign smallsword.
Sir William Hope is probably better studied than McBane. Hope spent most of his life as a fencer/duellist utilizing the French method, but as time went on he began to make changes to his approach to combat. He wrote several books on the matter, most famous being his New Method. There, he cast off the French teachings (for the most part), advocated a completely different guard position, and set his context to dealing with a much wider variety of weapons – most especially swung broadswords and backswords, which he felt the common training of his day was weak in.
Oh, quick note about those “finger rings”. By and large they were vestigial, and only served a decorative function. In my opinion, they also give you a bit better purchase for your grip, but that’s just me. Most authors advocated keeping your fingers out of them if they even fit at all, since anyone attempting to wrestle or disarm you may break your fingers in the process. Some German offshoots of the style actually reverse this, and explicitly state that a broken finger or two is intrinsically superior to being fully disarmed.
Decline of the Smallsword
Over time, smallsword training began to be thought of more as a means of developing grace and health, rather than settling issues with blood. Combative applications taught by some schools declined, focusing more on “salle play” or duels than rough-and-tumble combat. These “salle” methods look good, but rely on adherence to some rules (allowable targets, right of way, etc), and both parties being in on basically showing off a bit.
This trend is part of what prompted McBane and Hope, above, to write their treaties on the subject, though they weren’t the only ones and the trend wasn’t absolutely universal.
Definitely by the time of Dominico Angelo’s teaching in England (mid 18th century), and certainly by his influence, the sporting mindset began to win out in civilian life. Duels were largely falling out of fashion, though they still existed and gentlemen did have a need to learn swordsmanship for war. Salle play looked nice, wasn’t too messy or strenuous, and did at least teach you a few things about fencing.
By the 19th century, we have the birth of what we call “classical fencing”, itself the direct predecessor to the modern Olympic style of foil.
At this time, one studied the foil to learn principals of combat such as line, time, and distance, within some rules that took some of the edge off combative application. It was expected that a swordsman would go on to study broadsword or sabre, as these were the edged sidearms in use in European and American armies.
Smallsword training with a foil was by some, taken as a game in itself, with the focus being playing for points. Those wanting to learn how to duel (as they did still occur, though mostly to first blood), studied epee d’combat, building off of the foil’s principals. This becomes modern sport epee after a while.
The military was still writing manuals on and (theoretically) teaching smallsword combat with the foil, but their main focus was basic melee principals and how to deploy a weapon on the thrust (and defend against it). By then, the sabre and infantry sword had become the principal sidearm of cold-steel – nobody deployed smallswords on the battlefield, anymore.
Late 19th Century and Beyond
By the end of the 19th century, foil had become almost absolutely a sport weapon, and even military manuals of America and Europe had combined smallsword and broadsword training into a unified, simplified system.
Foil would, as before, become modern sport foil fencing. It retained a lot of the old “salle play” rules, where face thrusts were forbidden (no masks in the salle until quite late in the smallsword period), leg thrusts forbidden (not great smallsword targets), and an emphasis on enforcing parry-repost combat with the “right of way” rules.
Combative duelling sword training – the epee d’combat – would stay on as epee, having already split from foil in the mid 19th century and developed it’s own peculiarities. The whole body was a valid target in a duel, since by the time of the epee d’combat, you really just needed to draw blood to win.
Swords themselves would fade away in the wake of the First World War, as the class of men and boys that was closely associated with their study and use was essentially snuffed out. By then, swords had long been relegated as a backup weapon for when things needed to get man-to-man (like the bayonet), but the smallsword itself was long gone. Curiously the US 1913 Infantry Hand-to-Hand manual advises an infantryman on how to defend himself against a smallsword with his fixed bayonet.
The Advantages of the Smallsword
While the smallsword isn’t the most brutal of close combat weapons, or even the most practical, it does have its niceness. Again, as above, it’s all about context. Some of the advantages enjoyed by those who carry a smallsword are as such:
1) Light Weight – the smallsword is often 1/2 to 1/3 the weight of a rapier, or similar era’d sword. Light weight is fantastic when you must carry a weapon constantly; we see this in modern weapons today.
2) Compact form – the hilt of a smallsword is far less complex and bulky than that of a rapier. This makes it lighter (see above) and less likely to snag and catch on things. The simpler hilt allows better handling with a smaller blade, which again reduces overall weight. The rapier needed a complex hilt as it was still, at heart, a more battlefield weapon (in theory) and therefore needed much hand protection. The smallsword really only needed to fight other thrusting swords in a duel, so a simple shell was enough.
3) Two-tempo fencing – A rapier is often quite long – 40+ inches in the blade, easily. This means that once blades are crossed, you need to move a long bit of steel around in order to disengage. This lends itself towards single-time fencing, where attack and defense are performed in the same action. This is risker, and requires more and better training. The shorter blade of a smallsword allows the weapon to clear an opposing one much quicker, allowing one to make use of disengages far more easily. This opens up two time fencing, which plays to most people’s instincts better, and generally makes for safer fencing, if it opens up more opportunities for opponents to defend. Note that training methods would have to enforce this, and some masters did teach “time thrusts”, or single time fencing.
4) Extremely stiff – while blade forms varied and changed over time, most smallswords were incredibly stiff. This allows a fencer to deliver their thrust deeply, even through things like heavy coats.
The Disadvantages of the Smallsword
No weapon is all pros with no cons. Such a thing would actually be magic. Anyways, the smallsword traded off a lot of things from the rapier in order to make its evolution, and this opened up problems.
1) Dainty – Earlier blades were more robust, but by the high water mark they were quite thin. While this makes for a light blade, said blade can be more easily battered off line by more massive weapons, and the blades more easily damaged. In a duel against another smallsword this isn’t an issue – on a military campaign, you might not have anyone to make you a spare blade, or it may fail cataclysmically in combat.
2) Thrust only – while deep puncture wounds are, by and large, more difficult to treat, they have some drawbacks. Firstly, they don’t deliver a lot of crushing energy into your target, meaning it’s unlikely it will shake them up a lot on the strike. Consider getting punched vs getting stuck with a nail. Thrusts aren’t always immediately debilitating, either, even to the heart. History and even recent medical documentation has references to people being stabbed through the heart and fighting on for minutes or more; in the case of one 17th century gentlemen, he lived for another 40 odd years. A cut can remove a hand at the wrist, break an elbow joint, or any number of things a thrust can’t. Further, you limit your tactical options when you can only thrust. When defended, you cannot redirect a thrust to try a strike instead. Your opponent knows it’s point, point, and point.
3) Unedged – related to it being a thrust only weapon, later smallswords tended to be unedged. While even sharp ones were poor cutters, having an edge allowed a thrust to cut tissue on the way in. The ultra stiff, mega-point oriented triangular cross section popular in many if not most smallswords actually encouraged tissue to roll, slide, or slip out of the way, rather than get cut. This means less vein or artery damage, unless you hit it with the (needle fine) point.
4) Narrow wound channel – the wider the wound channel, the better the hit. Note bullet caliber. Smallswords don’t typically have wide blades, especially at the end, so unless you run someone to the hilt, you may have issues getting them to drop now. This is related to all of the above: A sucking chest wound fatal in 5 minutes or less is peanuts compared to something that ends the fight *now*, dead or not.
5) Hand protection – the simple shells and simple knuckle-bow of the smallsword look great and are fantastic for staying out of the way, but don’t actually protect your hand. Firstly, they’re quite small, and anything swung at you is going to find fingers somewhere. Second, they tended to be rather flimsy, even such that an incoming thrust could pierce right through the shell and into your hand anyways. This is part of the reason why “figure 8” guards were popular on training foils: You get a guard to keep your hand in place and to work against their weapon, but it still lets through thrusts if you parry sloppy. Keeps you ready for the real thing.
Footnote about the Spadroon
I mentioned above the “spadroon” having emerged out of a need for gentlemen to carry a smallsword into battle.
The spadroon or “epee anglaise”, was partially born of this need. Sometime in the late 18th century, gentlemen stopped taking their smallswords into combat, and instead ordered custom pieces that married a broadsword blade to a smallsword style hilt.
The idea was simple: Create something that can cut like a broadsword, but fence and give point like a smallsword. Make sure it’s tough enough to handle battlefield use, and not overbuilt so it’s not a pain to carry. Essentially, the ultimate combat sword. The idea was popular enough that the British Army codified the thing as the go-to design for their Infantry Officers, creating the “Pattern 1796 Infantry Officer’s Sword”.
It was basically a disaster, near as we can tell. It was too back-weighted for cutting (so that you kept good point control and smallsword like handling), so cuts did minimal damage, especially against anyone wearing uniform coats of the time. The blade was also too flexible to thrust with (to keep it from breaking from use and to aide cutting), which meant it had a hard time delivering the energy of the thrust, especially against uniform coats of the time.
Also, to be clever and easy to wear, many of the earlier production officer’s swords had a hinge on the left guard-shell, so that it rests against your hip more comfortably. Yeah, that’ll break on the first parry.
Now, none of that is necessarily a fault of the form itself, but rather how the blades were manufactured. The general form was basically the longest serving military sword type; the United States even adopted it for NCO’s under the M1840 designation.
Sir Hope was a fan of it, calling it the “shearing sword”, and noted that it opened up tactical options.
Nothing to See Here!
Just posting this one because it looks cool. This is from Angelo’s writing on the subject; something about odd pairings from The Continent.
Why I Chose the Smallsword
I mentioned that I had exposure to other HEMA range of weapons: Longsword, sword and buckler, quarterstaff, messer, daggers, wrestling. I’ve taken to the smallsword for two very important reasons: Money and Risk.
When I was messing around with, say, sword and buckler, the weapons alone would be a $200 investment at a minimum. $150 for the sword, $50 for the buckler. Prices have changed a bit, but it still roughly stands. Maybe $75 if you wanted wood wasters instead of steel blunts. For those weapons you’ll need a mask $60+, over $100 easily if you want flaps protecting the side and back of the head more and gloves (back then LAX gloves), $50 easily. More now, since LAX gloves aren’t really “kosher” anymore. That was dead minimum too, so you should probably go and get torso, leg, and improved collar protection too.
These days, a full get-up of tournament grade HEMA equipment can drop you a grand ($1000) in defenses alone. More for the weapon, even with more people going to synthetics.
Smallsword does not need much of that. Really, you just need a mask and a jacket. You can get those, together, for about $150. A simple modern non-electric Olympic jacket will do just fine. This is just to resist snapped blades, anyways. Weapons can be had for as little as $50, if you cobble one together from sport fencing equipment: a child’s guard, ambidextrous grip, #2 blade, pommel. If you want something nicer, the ones I first bought were about $60 or $70 all said; they were modeled after some late 19th century classical foils. More expensive (and fancy) options do exist, though. Classical fencing overlaps heavily with smallsword, and there are still classical fencing suppliers out there, even if electric scoring all but killed that sport off.
They’re relatively inexpensive enough that I now have four of the things ready for use, having used the relatively low cost as a means to explore a couple producers/retailers. I have another two on their way from the Czech Republic; a nicer, semi-custom job. I’ve others I’m eyeing, too.
Further, if anything breaks on these classical foils, it’ll be the blade – replacements which can be screwed in place in moments, and cost all of about $15. Break a federschwert, and it’s not going to be anywhere near that cheap.
Risk: Smallsword is generally light on grapples, has basically no high-energy cutting actions, and basically opens you up to getting hurt less. A lot of cutting weapons can break bone (especially the collar bones and your hands). Even daggers and wresting often rely on throws and joint manipulation. These things are difficult to do in unrestricted freeplay, which MMA (etc) has taught us to be the best way to pressure test combat styles. Most you need to worry about, really, is a rough disarm, and you’re still well within period advice.
Beyond these, I think the weapon is interesting and it is a stimulating athletic pursuit, that doesn’t go full on into some of the things I dislike about modern sport fencing. I get to be one of the “HEMA geeks”, but on the cheap.
In April of 2015 I attended a gathering of smallswordsmen on the East Coast of the United States. It was a great gathering, and I was lucky to see the collection of one of the attendees.
Displayed here was one of the tables that had originals – that is to say, antiques. I only had my cell on me at the time, so I unfortunately didn’t get much in the way of quality photos.
On the left, we have a diplomat’s sword – functional, if unedged. The hilt is a single-piece construction that basically mimics a old style court sword. To the right of that is a dress smallsword, rather dour black. Called a mourning sword, it was basically a very late period smallsword; I loved it. Third in is a late 18th or early 19th century training foil; quite a nice guard on it. Note how a point can still get through. Fourth in is what I believe to be an Italian style foil. Fifth is an interesting spadroon-like smallsword, with fingerrings and no knuckle bow. I liked it, wish I could have spent more time with it. Sixth and Seventh is a matched pair of duelling swords. It was the norm to have them come in pairs, so that they’re equal. Interesting these are not; the blade is an inch longer on one. The last two are very good examples of typical smallswords. Note the difference in blade length.
Furthest back is a sharp duelling sword. Closer is a foil with an obvious button. Closer still is what appears to have been a foil with the button simply snapped off. Closest (and coolest) is a late period duelling sword; note the bell guard that’s taken over, and the similarities to modern foils and epee’s.
Here’s a video of one of those in action, in a duel in France during the late 1960’s: https://youtu.be/e68nuAcSuWQ
Yes, Nineteen Sixties. As in, THOSE 60’s.
Closeup of that interesting spadroon-like sword. All brass. Probably a military weapon. I wonder if it’s related to the french “epee du soldat”.
Hilts of two other originals from that well-weaponed table, before. Note the differences in literally everything, yet the same general theme going on.
Yet More Closeups!
This was that mourning sword’s hilt. I loved this sword – light, handy, worth more than was in my bank account at the time. I may have to scrounge one of these up someday.
Dat Needle-fine Point
Careful, you’ll put your eye out…
That’s All, Folks!
I hope you’ve enjoyed the post, or at least I hope you’ve made it this far. This isn’t a subject that has the mass appeal of anime or movie lists, but I figure it’ll appeal to someone, if only the three or four people who’ve encouraged me to move this from the languishing draft phase.
This isn’t the most scholastic resource for smallsword information, and I may in fact have my details fudged up here or there. What this is is an attempt to get people Googling, and to raise a little bit of awareness for this particular weapon, and those that study it. If nothing else, it’s a bunch of pretty pictures.