A Short Study of the Smallsword
The small sword (or court sword, l’épée courte) is a weapon that began to spread across Europe as early as the 1630s. This weapon, effective in both attack and defense and designed for the thrust reached the height of its popularity in the late 17th-early 18th century; particularly in England and France. Due to the small sword’s practicality, lithe & lethality, it became the weapon used to dissolve disputes*. Because the small sword required fencing kill to handle, and due to its piercing nature, the small sword duel was deemed “more civilized” than weapons concentrated on slashing and hacking.
The rapier, a popular image of today due to its use in movies (Zorro, The Princess Bride, The Three Muskateers, etc) became less and less popular in the late 17th century. There were many reasons for this, one being the rapier’s bulkiness/ un-suitability in confined quarters, and changes in men’s fashion. Richard Cohen, author of By The Sword wrote,
In 1663 the “suit”- the first piece of menswear to fasten in the front – made its appearance. The rapier, easy enough to carry and draw in the days of the doublet and hose, did not sit well with the brocaded jackets, breeches, and silk stockings. So popular in the 1640s and 1650s, it had become antisocial, “an infernal nuisance to passers-by.”
Almost essentially a thrusting weapon; although records exist of its occasionally being “sharpened as a razor” for dueling, the major French small sword instruction treatises focus solely on the thrust. The sword is easily recognized by its shorter blade (29-35in.), Pas d’ane, quillon and knuckle bow.
*The picture to the left is of a small sword trainer made by Triplette Competitive Arms (Elkin, NC)
The small sword gave rise to a new school of fencing, “escrime francaise.” Author Cohen writes:
In 1653 a book by Charles Besnard of Rennes, a leading master showed conclusively that the French had finally improved on the Italians, whose masters had never allowed for purely defensive movements -every parry had also to be a thrust. Besnard (alleged to be the first to use the word “fleuret,” the French word for “foil) saw that always trying to do two things at once was a mistake and separated attack from defense… Besnard also introduced the formal salute, a symbol of courtesy and good form.
Are all swords equal? No. Each of the various weapons of the past and present were/are constructed for specific purposes. What remains true (like all martial arts) is that skill (in this case, wielding the sword) is paramount. The evolution of weaponry has always been based on the necessities of battle (in other words, what tool is need to overcome a foe(s)), it’s intended use and trial and error. Fashion and practicality aside, the small sword was designed for the thrust – which as always been the most lethal of blows. It’s shorter length, gave the fighter more agility and control over the blade. Even though a dagger was often needed for close-quarters, the small sword carried on strong until the Napoleonic Age.
The Beginning of the end
In 1799 a coup d’état brought General Napoleon Bonaparte to power in France. A formidable fencer by the time he reached military school, Bonaparte relished fencing, but despised the duel. His thoughts were that “A good duelist made a bad soldier.” By the time he had seized power, although there were still no laws banning dueling, Bonaparte had seen too many great fencers die or become disabled due to this reckless pastime. Being a superb weapon in the battlefield, especially on horseback, the thrust-centric small sword was not. Through Napoleon’s battles across Europe and into Russia, the only bladed weapon was the cut-centric saber/sabre – which he used to great effect in his heavy calvary charges. (more on sabre’s in another article!)
NOTE TO READER (via Michael McQuown)
The ‘dueling sword’ and the smallsword are not the same weapon. The dueling sword consisted of a simple cup or bell guard, a handle, pommel, and a blade, with no quillons. It was never meant to be worn and was often made in pairs and carried in a case solely for the purpose of dueling. It is the direct ancestor of the modern epee and was often called the ‘epee du combat.’
Small Sword vs. Basket-Hilted Backsword
This is one of my favorite choreographed sword fights of all-time [movie fight review: click here]
One of the most realistic scenes involving the small sword can be seen in the first fight in the movie, The Duellists.
For small sword and bladed weapon enthusiasts everywhere, you’ll be happy to hear that the CombativeCorner will be conducting an interview with Jeannette Acosta-Martinez, possibly the foremost expert of the Small Sword and the French School of small sword combat living today. She is one of the main instructors at the Martinez Academy in New York. Read our interview with her husband and fencing maestro Ramon Martinez.
OTHER FENCING LINKS
Coach Michael Joyce teaches classical foil fencing in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Mr. Joyce got his training at both the St. Louis University (1998, 1999) and University of NC-Greensboro (1999-2002) Fencing Clubs. He has been teaching (fencing) professionally since 2005 and enjoys fencing with the French Smallsword, the Chinese Jian (straight sword) and Shaolin Rope Dart the most.