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Size Matters: how long should your rapier be?

Image courtesy of Elisa Hyvärinen.
Image courtesy of Elisa Hyvärinen.

As you may know, I am in the process of videoing everything we do in the salle, and putting it up online for free. This project is called the “Syllabus Wiki“. One of the many benefits of this is that informed commentators can see what we are doing and make constructive criticisms, which leads to improvement in our interpretations and methods. Not all criticism is well-meant, or well-written, but I do my best to stick to the facts, and ignore any agenda the critic may have. The truth of the Art should outweigh any other factor.
We have been putting a lot of Capoferro rapier material up lately; we have recently uploaded the last of the plays of the sword alone, shown on Plate 20. Bear in mind that these videos are intended to show a co-operative, choreographical rendition of the contents of the plate; they do not go into hard and fast applications of the lessons of the plates, or show anything against a non-compliant opponent.
One anonymous blogger, who goes by “Grauenwolf”, has recently taken issue with quite a few of our videos, and in some cases he has a point. [There is actually quite a lot of interesting material on his blog, which has been going since 2008.] I would find the criticisms more useful if they were accompanied by video examples of Grauenwolf himself doing the same actions his way, but at least he is quoting from the sources, and seems to truly care about historical accuracy. One such critique is here, in which he states his opinion that we are using blades that are much too short. He doesn’t actually tell us how long our blades should be, but does quote from Capoferro’s passage (using Wilson and Swanger’s translation without attribution):

“Therefore the sword has to be twice as long as the arm, and as much as my extraordinary pace, which length corresponds equally to that which is from my armpit down to the sole of my foot.”

He includes this screenshot from our video (again without attribution, but at least in this case anyone who checks the video link will find out whose video it is), with lines added to indicate his point of disagreement (if only all disagreements were so clearly stated!).

Henry and Janne blade length

As you can see, Henry's sword is clearly shorter than the distance from his armpit to the floor. But the passage is not quite as straightforward as all that. The arm is presumably measured from the armpit; but to the wrist, or the fingertips? The “extraordinary pace” is measured from where to where? The only apparently simple measurement is from armpit to the sole of the foot, presumably while standing (and incidentally is the same length of sword that Vadi recommends). The problem is that it would make for a sword that is much longer than most surviving examples, and much longer than the ones that are apparently illustrated. I have addressed this problem in print twice before, in The Duellist’s Companion, and in Choosing a Sword. To quote from the latter:

In my opinion, Capoferro’s system works best with a sword that weighs between 1kg and 1.6kg (2.0—3.5 lb), with the point of balance between 6 and 15 cm (2.5—6 inches) in front of the crossguard, a complex hilt that allows you to put your forefinger over the crossguard safely, and a blade length from crossguard to point of at least 97 cm (38”) (for short people), up to a maximum of about 114 cm (45”).
Capoferro himself tells us, in Chapter III: The Division of Fencing That is Posed in the Knowledge of the Sword, section 36:
“Therefore the sword has to be twice as long as the arm, and as much as my extraordinary pace, which length corresponds equally to that which is from my armpit down to the sole of my foot.” (Translation by William Wilson and Jherek Swanger).
I have never met anyone for whom those three measurements were the same, and in my The Duellist's Companion I worked them out like so:
“My arm is 52 cm, shoulder to wrist; my lunge about 120 cm from heel to heel, and it is about 140 cm from my foot to my armpit when standing. When standing on guard, it is about 115cm from foot to armpit. When in the lunge, it is about 104 cm from foot to armpit. Also, it is not clear whether he refers to the length of the blade, or of the whole sword.
If we resort to the unreliable practice of measuring the illustrations, in the picture of the lunge, the sword blade is 73 mm, the arm from wrist to armpit 37 mm, and the line G (front heel to front armpit) 55 mm. The distance between the feet is 67 mm.
So, the measurement most consistent with the text would appear to be the length of the arm, from wrist to armpit, as it approximately correlates to half the length of the blade.
 Given this as a guide, my blade ought to be 104 cm or about 41” long from the guard to the point.”

Henry, the chap in the illustration, has the following measurements:

  • Arm from armpit to wrist: 49cm. From armpit to fingertip, 66cm.
  • In guard, armpit to sole of the foot: 122cm; standing, 150cm.
  • His lunge is 100cm heel to heel, and 130cm from the back heel to the front toes.
  • His sword has a blade length of 107cm (a touch over 42”), and a total length of 122cm.

For what it's worth, modern manufacturers of rapier blades tend to offer them between 40 and 45″ (102cm- 114cm); a 150cm rapier would have a blade of about 135cm, or 53″.
So, given these measurements, I would be very interested to hear how long Henry’s sword should be, based on Grauenwolf's interpretation. I would also like to know Grauenwolf’s measurements, and the length of his sword, and see how he has solved the knotty problem of reconciling three quite different measurements.
[“Grauenwolf” goes on to criticise the way we beat the sword, apparently completely oblivious to the fact that Janne is co-operating in a way that the combatants illustrated in Gran Simulacro are not, and also oblivious to the purpose of the video. But that’s a whole other story. At least our videos are doing what they are intended to do: making it easier for people to get to grips with the source material; in this case, providing the impetus for a whole list of blog posts. Sure, I’d rather they were a bit more constructive, but anything that gets the sources talked about has to be a good thing.]

I have a strict policy on the internet: I never link to bad things. In other words, if somebody has annoyed or disgusted me, I don't reward them with traffic. So you might wonder why I am sending traffic Grauenwolf's way. Simply, it's because

a) I'm not annoyed or disgusted; if nobody ever disagreed with me, I'd never learn anything;

b) his blog has a lot of good and interesting stuff on it;

c) while I obviously don't agree with him on this point, and think he could be better at attributing his sources, I think his critique is an attempt to serve the Art, not to advance a personal agenda, and

d) I really do want to know how he solves the problem of the three incompatible measurements.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

24 Responses

  1. Dear Guy,
    For simiIar reasons, I don’t usually engage in blogs, but given the level of detail you’ve gone into here, I was wondering if you could address the more important question of “How many angels can rest on the head of a pin?” Whilst I certainly appreciate and support the study of the sword in a historical perspective, I think we all know there are a lot of influences, prejudices, differential marketing of the author’s opinions, as well as the translation of same into modern language, that all provide for a myriad of interpretation. So, if you’ll pardon the expression, “What’s the Point”

    I think we often consider that the historical world was a perfect place with so many absolutes. Do we honestly believe that everyone had the perfect sword, the right shoes or if they really did fence naked like that? I think that then, just as now that, “opinions are like assholes…everybody’s got one.”

    For my part, bravo on the work that you are doing. It may in some respects not be perfectly accurrate, by anyone’s opinion, and the actions may not stand to contest on the piste, but you are providing value to a very wide audience and at a huge expense of your own time. Carry on! But…if you can spare a minute, I would like to hear from you on that Angel thing.

  2. > how he has solved the knotty problem of reconciling three quite different measurements.

    Looking at the discussion thread on reddit he hasn’t solved the issue. Instead he’s moved to L’Ange because he feels that the length of off the rack rapiers work better in his style.

    This topic was also discussed on The HEMA Alliance Facebook group where the author (who uses his real name) discusses the points again.

    > At least our videos are doing what they are intended to do: making it easier for people to get to grips with the source material

    One of the best things you do is create well authored and though out pieces of work. It makes them a compelling starting point for everybody in the hobby. I don’t think Grauenwolf is at all trying to discredit your work.

    > So you might wonder why I am sending traffic Grauenwolf’s way.

    Normally, I would assume that people do it because they are decent human beings who are involved in a discussion.

    > I’m not annoyed or disgusted; if nobody ever disagreed with me, I’d never learn anything;
    The way that this post reads feels that you’re a bit put out on the critique.

    > while I obviously don’t agree with him on this point

    You have a consistent problem in your videos where both the Agent and the Patient are out of measure until after the Agent attacks. It’s been bought up on the wma subreddit numerous times that the Agent even after completing his attack poses no direct threat to the Patient. Sometimes you are so wide the Patient has to step in to create threat on his counter. I think this is the underlying problem with the Capoferro videos.

    The evidence for this is on the subsequent blog article In the plate both the Agent and the Patient have the swords way past each others wrists and you guys are 3/4 of a sword blade away from each other. Even if we assume that plate 20 is rendered in motion and not a static start like your starting point, you still only move up half a blade length leaving you about half a sword length behind the image.
    > and think he could be better at attributing his sources
    In an academic journal I’d totally agree with you. However, it’s a blog site that, IIRC, was created both as a point of reflection on his thoughts and as a conversation starter for his group mates. As such, it kind of feels like an attack on the man – focus on the issues, not some side issue that doesn’t really impact the discussion.

    1. > Instead he’s moved to L’Ange because he feels that the length of off the rack rapiers work better in his style.

      That’s not actually true. I’m moving to L’Ange primarily because it has a better pedagogy. Capoferro reads like a dissertation followed by reference manual of techniques. You need to master more or less the whole book before you can understand enough to present it to others in a sensible order.

      L’Ange reads more like a class syllabus, with each chapter building on the one before it. Normally I write a study guide for my group that outlines what I want us to learn. With L’Ange (and Hutton), that wasn’t necessary.

      1. Jonathan “You need to master more or less the whole book before you can understand enough to present it to others in a sensible order.”
        Should that not be the case regardless?If I am am passing on information with less than a sense of having a workable understanding of the material, what am I passing on and have to reflect on what I am doing to help the others..

        1. Presenting and teaching aren’t always the same thing. Our L’Ange class is conducted in a study group format. I’ll present a chapter to start the discussion, but everyone is responsible for helping to interpret the instructions.

          And for that matter, even if the instructor thinks he knows the material, our club policy is that anyone is allowed to challenge his interpretation if they can make a coherent argument against it. (Having a better interpretation is optional. Sometimes you can know something is wrong without knowing how to fix it.)

  3. My real name is Jonathan Allen. At this stage I don’t have answers, just questions and annoyances.

    1. P.S. I cited the only source I had. You really should include links in your YouTube videos back to the associated wiki page. I’ve shared your videos on several forums without ever knowing that your wiki existed.

      1. Likewise.

        Since I have your attention, I would like to ask you a question about technique naming. My club is working on a website for indexing plays and their interpretations.

        Unfortunately, Fiore is proving to be a problem because the plays are numbered differently in each source or translation. Do you know of any unified way of referring to Fiore’s plays that is generally recognized?

        I’m considering using the verse numbers on Wiktenauer, but those are subject to change over time as new sources are found or translated.


        1. What I use is the Getty plays as the standard reference, and then eg Pisani Dossi third play of the master of the sword in one hand. You can also use the technique names where they exist (eg soprana tor di spada). Does that help?

    2. Jonathan, I do not think that that is an adequate response. In your post you say the fencers in Guy’s video are using rapiers which Capo Ferro would call too short (“That isn’t even remotely close to the correct length. Even though he is leaning, the sword is still quite far from reaching his armpit.”) So you clearly think that you know how long Capo Ferro wanted a sword to be. Guy’s point is that when he follows Capo Ferro’s instructions he gets five different ideal lengths, and that he prefers to go somewhere in the middle of these rather than choosing the longest.

      One place to start the search for a solution might be the idea of ideal human proportions. Those are old- like Old Kingdom Egypt old- but writers on art like Cennino and Leonardo talk about the fifteenth-century Italian version as descended from Vitruvius, de Architectura, 3. It might be that Capo Ferro knew his measures were equal in the same way that Cennino knew that men have one rib less than women.

      1. I prefer Le Chevalier’s sources, which include Alfieri confirming and Thibault complaining about armpit length swords.

  4. On the advice of Richard Marsden I have been looking at the proportion of head height to the length of the swords shown in the period manuals. Head height (bottom of the chin to crown of the head) is a standard measurement used by artists (myself included) to determine the overall height of the figure. Seven heads tall is a normal height while eight heads tall is for “heroic” proportions such as you see in idealized figures. However, the height of the head is the same in either case.

    In deriving the length of the blades depicted in Giganti, Capo Ferro & Alfieri I looked at three different body proportions: Head length from chin to crown, arm length as cloth was traditionally measured(centre of chest to wrist) & height to the armpit while standing.

    As the figures are in “heroic” proportions we need a correction factor of 7/8. Then, based on the ratio of blade to head heights taken from the figures in the manuals, multiplied by my head height & our correction factor, Fc, my blade length would be:

    figure blade length / figure head height X Fc X my head height = my blade length

    E.G. Capo Ferro – Fig. C, Plt. 15:

    figure blade length = 135mm (at this particular magnification)
    Note: there is some margin of error here as the figures have beards & sword lengths vary from plate to plate. On average, though, the blades are about 5.5 heads long.
    figure head height = 25mm (at this particular magnification)
    my head height = 254mm
    my blade Length = 135mm/25mm X 254mm X 7/8 = 1200mm = 120cm
    Adding 21cm for qullions, grip & pommel yields sword length = 141cm

    As per Capo Ferro text:
    My arm pit height while standing straight up is: 140cm -> My sword length = 140cm
    Arm length is: 71cm -> My sword length = 2 X 71cm = 142cm

    I am 177.5cm tall. According to these criteria my ideal rapier length is about eight tenths of my height. Quite long compared to my current rapier: 114cm.

    I would like to hear any feedback or criticism concerning my methods & results as I am interested in historical accuracy.

  5. So… I feel the need to join this discussion on the length of rapiers.

    About 15 years ago, one of my early introductions to HEMA rapier was with a group that focused their size requirements very heavily on this same statement from the Wilson and Swanger translation of Capoferro’s text. Unfortunately, it led to some very interesting practicality issues, which I honestly still cannot seem to meet that groups willingness to rationalize away.

    The rapier is often referred to as having three different qualities:

    1) It was intended for use in unarmored combat, and specifically optimized for combat against an evenly matched opponent (not for open warfare, essentially)

    2) A side-arm/self-defense weapon. This was something you wore under circumstances where you were aware that you might encounter dangerous men, and that there was a likelihood you might need to defend yourself with deadly force at a moment’s notice, or that you might find yourself offending another.

    3) It was a status symbol that you wore at your hip to identify yourself as a man of skill, wealth and influence.

    This leads me to where I take umbrage with this mentality towards weapon length.

    The original rapier I purchased has an overall (tip to pommel) length of 45 inches, my group continuously told me that the thing was a little short (believe it or not) based on the fact that, per either measure from the CapoFerro, I should actually have a 48 inch weapon.

    I’m not a particularly tall man (67 inches), and I would certainly not consider my pace length to be very prodigious, but this would be about 38 inches from rear heel to forward toetip, this is what they used to determine blade length, another way that they confirmed that this was the appropriate length.

    So here’s the issue: at 45 total inches, much lesss 48, I had no ability to quickly draw this weapon from a scabbard at my waist. It is simply too long, and the tip would get caught whenever I have attempted to demonstrate such.

    This would not be a weapon I would depend on to quickly come to hand in the event that someone might attack me, or where my life would be at stake. This length almost procludes any possibility of this weapon being used as a self-defense weapon at all. It would be foolish and I’d have better luck drawing a dagger and attempting to close the distance with my attacker.

    That being said, I can see good reason why, in a judicial style duel, a combatant would want to fight with the longest blade that he could reasonably control, as this keeps the opponent at bay, and concerns of drawing the weapon would be nullified by the ritual aspects of setting up the fight.

    What I deduced from this, was that perhaps context is at issue. I am of the belief, presently, that in the text CapoFerro was writing, he was expressly presenting this document to prepare young Federico della Rovere with the skills needed to succeed in a more ritualized, but still deadly, sort of combat.

    This makes some sense, in that Federico was the son of a Duke, whose safety would be of a very high priority. A youth of this status could look forward to a life of guards, whose job would be to ensure that no “unprepared combat” would ever be encountered by the young heir. The manual is written with an extreme focus on mezzo-tempo defence.

    Beyond this factor, even if Rovere wore such an unwieldy length weapon in public, and found that there was need to use it, he should have time to remove his belt to prepare himself, as his guards did their jobs. After all, continuing your life is worth more than a belt or scabbard no matter how ornate or precious. So this still holds up for the particular audience which this treatise was written for.

    From a less noble perspective, however, suddenly this blade length is not so ideal. In a self defense situation, you need the ability to defend yourself at a moment’s notice. Dropping your belt to draw a prodigious rapier from its scabbard would likely lead to a bar of steel in your gut, face, or some other soft squishy bit.

    Now, perhaps this is the rationale that gave rise to the transitional rapier and ultimately what we now deem the Smallsword, but I’d argue that any who would have seen need for a good self defence weapon would have gone to their swordsmith rather quickly to have the blade shortened, and they would have gone and done that the very first time they tried drawing the thing from their hip.

    After all, my future purchases were based on overall length based upon my pace length and I have found those to meet all of the above needs and, in fact, I’ve found that my ability to control such a weapon tends to supercede that of my colleagues with their far longer blades.

    1. Wow, that’s a very comprehensive comment 🙂
      We know from the record of existing examples from the period that many rapiers were indeed very long. You’re right that a shorter weapon draws faster, but I don’t think that the rapier was ever intended as a quick-draw sidearm (we have daggers for that) – it’s primarily a duelling sword, fitting your attributes 1 and 3.
      I also can’t find any evidence that Capoferro was trying to prepare Federico for anything specific. If he was, he’d probably have said so. Finding a rich person to dedicate your book to was standard practice, and doesn’t necessarily imply any teacher-student relationship.
      Also, the fact that you can’t draw a 48″ blade quickly doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be done. Much depends on the way your scabbard is rigged.

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