The Weapons

The length and style of Swetnam’s rapier are matters of some dispute.  His text states “Let thy Rapier or Sword be foure foote at the least…”.  If we take this length to be of the blade rather than the whole weapon, Swetnam’s rapier would be quite long but not unheard of.  Historical rapiers with blades of four feet or more do exist, and English rapiers were generally thought to be somewhat longer than those used elsewhere inEurope.  Swetnam’s style is very linear and avoids cuts, both of which mean the system would lend itself to longer blades.

If we take this measurement to describe the entire weapon, Swetnam’s sword becomes more reasonable.  A rapier four feet overall would have a blade approximately 40 inches long.  This minimum length is very much in accord with the surviving rapiers of his time period, as well as modern rapier simulators.  Ridolfo Capo Ferro, whose Gran Simulacro was published a few years before Swetnam, says that the rapier should reach from the floor to the wielder’s armpit, a height that would works out to approximately four feet on someone 5’ 5” tall.

Likewise, Swetnam says a dagger should be “two foot” long.  If this is taken to describe the blade alone it would be very long, but still within the known lengths for specialized fighting daggers.  If it is taken to mean the entire weapon, the blade then drops to about 18 inches, a much more reasonable length and one that can be found in most modern dagger simulators.

Swetnam does not give any description of the rapier itself beyond the length.  He does not specify the length of quillions or the type of guard to be used, unlike contemporaries such as Thibault.[1]  The images in the manual show a minimal guard, consisting of a knucklebow and two simple rings to protect the hand.  This should be taken with a grain of salt, because that sort of guard would be considered many decades out of fashion at the time the manual was published.  This simple guard may be a deliberate pedagogical tool, used to make the hand position clearer, or may be an inaccuracy introduced by the engraver.  Given the difficulties of the pictures in other regards, they cannot be taken as a true indication of the rapiers Swetnam would have used.

The daggers shown in the images are also exceedingly plain, without even the small ring commonly used to guard the back of the hand. [Figure 2]  Swetnam continually refers to using a “close hilted dagger”, a phrasing which appears in no other historical source that I know of.  This probably indicates a dagger with some sort of additional hand protection beyond the typical single ring of the time.  The highly protective triangular “main gauche” dagger guard would fit the description, but is generally dated at least 20 years after the publication of Swetnam’s manual.


Figure 2. The atypical dagger guard shown in Swetnam.  Note the lack of a ring to protect the back of the hand.

[1] Girard, Thibault, Academie de l’Espee, 1628