Basic Rapier Fighting Styles
By Tivar Moondragon
There are five basic styles of rapier fighting used in the SCA: single rapier, rapier and dagger, rapier and cloak, rapier and buckler and case of rapiers (i.e. a rapier in each hand, sometimes called florentine.) These are based on the weapons combinations found in various period rapier manuals, such as Giacomo Di Grassi’s True Art of Defence first published in Italian in 1570, and published in English in 1595, or Lovino’s Traite d’Escrime, published in 1580.
Most fighters will start by learning single rapier, then adding other styles as they progress, although there is a school of thought that says it’s better to start with rapier and dagger, so the student learns to attack and defend with both hands from the beginning.
In some kingdoms each fighting style requires a separate authorization. In other kingdoms, authorizations are broken down by single blade, rapier and defensive secondary (cloak or buckler) and rapier and offensive secondary (dagger or case.) And in some kingdoms there’s a “one size fits all authorization,” where an authorized fighter is expected to be safe and at least somewhat familiar with all the styles. Check with your local rapier marshal to find out how things are done in your kingdom.
All rapier fighting is done in the round, not on a strip as in modern fencing. As on the armored field, rapier fighters are expected to call their blows as if the blade was real. Any blow that strikes with sufficient force to have penetrated the skin is assumed to have done significant injury to the fighter. A hit to an arm or leg will disable that arm or leg, a hit to the torso, neck or head is assumed to be fatal. There are two common mindsets in rapier fighting: The first is that these are actual life-and-death duels, and your opponent is really trying to kill you. The other is that these are sporting bouts with bated blades, done for exercise and the entertainment of our ladies. (Neither mindset is right although the latter makes it easier to explain how you can go off to the tavern and have a few drinks with your opponent afterwards.)
How they work
Single rapier In single rapier, the rapier is used for both offense and defense. Unlike modern fencing, the fighter may also use his off hand to parry blows. As a generalization, doing such an open-hand parry is not considered to cause injury to the hand. It is also acceptable to do an open-hand parry against the opponent’s wrist, and under some circumstances a fighter may even grasp his opponent’s blade momentarily. (Again, check with your local marshal to see what the rules and customs are for blade grabbing in your kingdom.)
Rapier and dagger This is the most versatile style of rapier combat. It allows the fighter to attack or defend with either hand, and allows the possibility of both distance combat and close-in work.
Rapier and cloak This style is based on the assumption that you’ve ended up in a combat situation with little or no warning, and are using what you have readily available for defense; in this case, your cloak. But there is evidence that rapier and cloak became a more formalized style as well--there are records of a rapier and cloak exhibition bout fought before King Edward VI by one of the London Masters of Defence, for example. In the SCA, fighting cloaks are typically the shorter waist-length cloaks that were popular in the Renaissance, although the cloaks Di Grassi describes were actually full-length, wrapped once or twice around the fighters hand and forearm for additional protection.
Cloaks are primarily used to sweep the opponents blade aside during a thrust, although they can also be used for distraction and as a way to hide your own movements. A cloak can also be tossed onto an opponent’s sword or sword arm to hinder his movement as part of an attack.
Rapier and buckler A buckler is a type of small shield. In the Renaissance, a small round buckler (twelve inch diameter or so) such as is shown in the DiGrassi image below, would frequently be worn in conjunction with a sword or rapier as part of everyday dress. Some historic rapier manuals also describe larger round or rectangular bucklers (sometimes called targets) that could also be used.
In the early days of SCA rapier, most bucklers were round, with a maximum diameter of twenty inches, and usually not more than fifteen inches. With the growing popularity of rapier war points, however, those rules have been relaxed and larger bucklers are frequently seen on the melee field. There’s also a subset of bucklers called "rigid parry items." These are most commonly scabbards or canes that can be used for parrying, but not for striking the opponent.
Case of rapiers This is a fighting style using two long blades. Historically, a case of rapiers would be two rapiers where the grips and guards would be specially built so they’d fit comfortably in a single sheath. Although it’s possible to buy such rapiers from SCA vendors today, case usually just means fighting with two rapiers.
Cut and Thrust
Cut and Thrust is a fairly new development in SCA rapier. It uses slightly heavier blades, and allows controlled-force cuts as well as thrusts. C&T is based on the transitional period between medieval broadswords and the rapiers of the later 1500s. Fighters using this style will generally use techniques from one of the period masters, rather than generic SCA rapier fighting. Since it requires quite a bit of control and knowledge, the authorization process is significantly stricter than for regular SCA rapier combat. In addition to the five traditional fighting styles described above, some C&T fighters are experimenting with steel longswords, based on some of the German sword manuals.