Path of the Smallsword

There is then four qualifications indelibly required in every man who desires to become a swordsman; firstly, a vigorous strength, secondly, agility of body, thirdly, a quick and discerning eye, and fourth, judgement.

I do not mention Courage because that is a qualification without which a man can never pretend to be a true swordsman.

He may be indeed a great artist, and may also be a great coward, and so can be no great swordsman, because he wants for its chief concomitant: Courage.

A man may be truly a swordsman, whether he be a gentleman or not, because he naturally fights truly and courageously, [even] without any art; for that although he be a common fellow, yet since he fights truly and handles his weapon boldly and courageously, yet may truly be a swordsman for all of the reasons above mentioned.

Sir William Hope, prominent English small-sword fencing master, ‘A Vindication of the True Art of Self-Defence’, 1724

Allowing for fast reactions, and with a long reach, the rapier was well suited to civilian combat in the 16th–17th centuries. As military-style cutting and thrusting swords continued to evolve to meet needs on the battlefield, so did the rapier continue to evolve to meet the needs of civilian combat and decorum, eventually becoming lighter, shorter and less cumbersome to wear. This is when the rapier began to give way to the colichemarde itself being later superseded by the small sword which was later superseded by the épée of modern sport fencing. Noticeably, there were some “war rapiers” that feature a relatively wide blade mounted on a typical rapier hilt during this era. These hybrid swords were used in the military or even in battlefield. A Gustav II Adolf’s carried sword he used in the Thirty Years’ War is a typical example of “war rapier”.

By the year 1715 the rapier had been largely replaced by the lighter smallsword throughout most of Europe, although the former continued to be used, as evidenced by the treatises of Donald McBane (1728), P. J. F. Girard (1736) and Domenico Angelo (1787).

For purposes of simplicity this page will have some overlap of information with the rapier page, as a smallsword descends directly from the rapier, and there are smallsword treatises which treat the usage of a smallsword and rapier as being one and the same.

The colichemarde blade configuration first appeared about 1680 around the same time that the foil emerged in the French courts as a practice weapon for rapier fencing. As foils were shorter than actual rapiers and less decorative there develop variations in rapier fencing focused around excelling at foil fencing. Out of a desire to use these foil styles with a real weapon for deadly dueling came the development of the colichemarde.

The colichemarde was popular during the next 40 years at the royal European courts. It was especially popular with the officers of the French and Indian War period. George Washington was even presented with one during his inauguration. 

Ironically small-sword fencing is one of the less popular kinds of weapons to study within HEMA community despite that it is the only weapon that has living traditions — direct transmission of knowledge from master to discipline through the generations — that still exists today, and is commonly taught as ‘classical fencing’. The Martinez Academy of Arms in New York is an example of one of these classical fencing institutions.

French Smallsword

By 1670 the foil was a prominent part of French fencing practices and it was heavily sportified as a popular amusement in the French royal court. A manual written by Philibert, Sr. de la Touche entitled Les vrays principes de l’espée seule (The True Principles of the Single Sword) clearly shows a shorter weapon than a standard rapier that is most certainly behaving as a foil.

After this the ‘court sword’, or smallsword, largely replaced the usage of rapiers until the smallsword itself was replaced by military sabres, and smallsword fencing with the foil became a social past time of European aristocrats. In the 18th century the Angelo family of fencers would continue to gamify the fencing styles until the 1880s when French fencing master Camille Prévost, Walter H. Pollock, and F.C. Grove created the basic conventions by which modern sport fencing utilizes in their book Fencing, with a complete bibliography of the art by Egerton Castle, M.A., F.S.A., which was published in London in 1889 as part of the Badminton Library. Lastly, Louis Rondelle would publish Foil and Sabre a Grammar of Fencing in detailed lessons for professor and pupil in 1892 which popularized the modern rules, too.

These rules were incorporated into the Fencing events that were a featured part of the Olympic Games in the summer of 1896, which had three separate fencing events; foil, masters foil and saber. Several fencing associations would then sprout up in countries around the world, until by 1909 there were many associations for participation in the Olympic games.

Spanish Smallsword

Spanish smallsword is properly rooted in the Destreza rapier tradition, although it is more commonly that it is is taught as ‘Classical fencing’ today alongside other French and Italian smallsword traditions.

Popular masters studied on the Spanish smallsword tradition include Manuel Antonio de Brea (Destreza del Espadin) from 1805; Simon de Frias (Tratado Elemental de la Destreza del Sable) from 1809; and Jaime Merelo y Casademunt (Esgrima del Sable Español) from 1862.

English Smallsword

Finally in 1687 Sir William Hope published the first of his many treatises, The Scots Fencing Master, which detailed the French method of smallsword fencing which he had learned. He would then write The Sword Man’s Vade Mecum in 1692 where he expressed some dissatisfaction with the system he had learned and sought to improve upon it.

In 1711 Zachary Wylde published The English Master of Defence, which is popularly studied today by English smallsword fencers.

In 1707 Hope published ‘A New Short and Easy Method of Fencing‘ where he discussed the use of the small-sword and the spadroon broadsword that was replacing the small-sword. A 2nd revised edition of The New Method would be produced in 1714. Hope would then write two more treatises; A Few Observations Upon the Fighting for Prizes in the Bear-Gardens in 1707 and ‘A Vindication of the True Art of Self-Defence‘ in 1724, which is largely an essay on the morality of dueling which he argued was immoral.

If you’d like to learn more information about historical fencing practices please check out our Learn HEMA page for a guide to learning about the historical weapon that interests you. You can also find more guides we’ve written about other topics at our Helpful Guides page.

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