Preparing to Fight Rapier in the SCA
By Tivar Moondragon
Rapier fighting in the SCA requires a certain amount of training. Although superficially similar to modern Olympic-style fencing, there are enough differences that it is not necessary to be familiar with modern fencing before starting rapier, and a modern fencer will need to un-learn a number of things to be able to adapt to SCA rapier. Some of these differences include: fighting in the round, instead of on a strip, using both hands (either for open hand parries or with a secondary weapon) and an honor system where blows are called by the fighter who receive them, instead of by a judge or electronic scoring system.
At a minimum, as a new rapier fighter you will need to know enough footwork so you won’t be tripping over yourself on the field and enough bladework that you can successfully attack your opponent, and defend yourself from your opponent’s attacks. You will also need to have sufficient control over your footwork, attacks and defense that you’re not a hazard to yourself, your opponents or the marshals. Ideally, new fighters should also be familiar with their kingdom’s rapier rules and have the stamina to last through more than one or two bouts.
Usually these things are learned and developed at fighter practice, possibly augmented with private sessions with a more experienced fighter. Once you’ve achieved a degree of competence on the field, you can be authorized to compete in tournaments and melees. Rules for what constitutes a valid authorization vary from kingdom to kingdom--some require separate authorizations in each fighting style; some authorize by single blade, defensive secondaries (cloak & buckler) and offensive secondaries (dagger and second rapier) and some have a "one size fits all" authorization, where the fighter is expected to know at least the basics of all five styles. Authorizations are also separated between "light" rapier (using foil or epee blades) "heavy" rapier (using purpose-built blades that simulate period rapiers) and Cut and Thrust (using heavier blades from the transitional era between broadswords and rapiers.)
To be a rapier fighter in the SCA, you will also need some basic equipment. When you first start out, it’s probably best to borrow gear from a friend or the local marshal. This allows you to get a feel for the available weapons as well as rapier fighting in general, before investing a lot of money in it. Equipment can be divided into two broad categories: armor or protective gear and weapons. As of this writing, SCA rapier rules require the following protective gear:
Head A fencing mask covering the front and sides of the head, and “puncture resistant” material for any part of the head not covered by the mask. Alternatively, some rapier fighters use a “fencing helm”--a metal helm designed specifically for rapier combat. When buying a fencing mask, if you buy a new mask from a reputable dealer, it will meet SCA requirements. But be very cautious if buying a used mask, especially if it is listed as "vintage" or “my dad used this in college” or somesuch. In the late 1980s, as a result of a fatal injury at the World Championships, the modern fencing community upgraded their requirements for mask strength, and the SCA followed suit a few years later. Older masks may not be built to the current standard and would not be legal for SCA use. You will commonly see two ratings associated with fencing masks. The first is “twelve kilo” which does not refer to the weight of the mask, but rather to its ability to withstand a test from a device that applies twelve kilos of pressure to the mask grillwork (all new masks will meet this standard.) The second is the Newton rating, which refers to the puncture resistance of the fabric bib. Anything above 550 Newtons is sufficient for SCA use.
In Cut & Thrust combat, the back of the head must also be covered with rigid material.
Torso To quote the rules, “The entire torso (the chest, back, abdomen, groin, and sides up to and including the armpits) must be covered with puncture-resistant material.” This protection must also extend out from the armpits for at least 1/3 the distance to the fighter’s elbow. Puncture resistant material is defined as “any fabric or combination of fabrics that will predictably withstand puncture. Examples include, but are not limited to: four-ounce (2 mm) leather, four layers of heavy poplin cloth, ballistic nylon rated to at least 550 Newtons or commercial fencing clothing rated to at least 550 Newtons.” If your puncture resistant material is a modern fencing jacket, it should be covered by an attempt at pre-seventeenth century clothing.
Male fighters must also wear rigid groin protection. Some female fighters prefer to wear padded groin protection or some form of rigid breast protection, but it is not required.
Neck Different protection is required, depending on the types of weapons being used. For the lighter blades (foils or epees) the neck must be completely covered with “puncture resistant” material.
This coverage is usually accomplished by wearing a hood that goes under the mask or helm and is tucked under the torso armor, or else by wearing a high collar on the torso armor in conjunction with a fencing helm or a fabric drape attached to the back of the mask.
When fighting with the heavier blades (schlagers, Del Tins and similar or Cut & Thrust weapons) rigid protection that covers the entire throat and cervical vertebrae is required in addition to the puncture resistant material. Typically this is achieved by the use of a metal or hardened leather gorget.
Arms and Legs “Abrasion resistant” material is required for the arms and legs. This is defined as sturdy fabric that won’t tear under normal combat stresses, such as being snagged by a blade or subjected to a draw cut. Most fabrics will be acceptable; things to avoid would be light cotton gauze shirts or lightweight nylon tights or hose.
There is an SCA Urban Myth that the inside of the upper thigh over the femoral artery also requires puncture resistant material (similar to that required at the armpit) but neither the Corporate rules nor any kingdom's rapier rules actually require such protection.
In Cut & Thrust combat the elbows must also be protected with athletic pads. (Note that some kingdoms may have armor requirements--such as rigid elbow or hand protection--that go beyond the SCA minimums. Check with your local marshal to see what is required in your kingdom.)
Hands and Feet The minimum protection required for hands and feet is abrasion resistant material. Most fighters, however, prefer to wear shoes or boots and leather gloves.
A reasonably accurate (but not "official") diagram of what armor is required for various parts of the body in SCA rapier combat.
There are a variety of weapons allowed in SCA rapier. Note that different kingdoms will have different rules on which weapons may be used, so check with your local marshal to find out what is, and isn’t, allowed in your kingdom.
Foil The foil is a modern fencing weapon, one of the two “light” blades allowed. It has a rectangular cross-section and is very light and flexible. With very few exceptions, foils are 35 inches long. They are comparatively rare in SCA rapier these days, since most folks who fight with light blades prefer epees.
Epee The epee is also a modern fencing weapon, and is the other type of light blade allowed. It has a hollow triangular cross-section, and is somewhat stiffer than a foil. Most are 35 inches long, although there are some 40-inch epees, too. There’s also a sub-class of “double-wide” or “Musketeer” epees, these blades tend to be somewhat wider at the base than regular epees.
While these two blades are comparatively inexpensive, they are too short and too light to realistically simulate period rapier blades and many kingdoms do not allow them for that reason. (Around AS 10 when SCA rapier was first getting started modern fencing blades were pretty much all that was available, thus they are traditional in several of the older kingdoms.)
Schlager Schlager blades are heavier and quite a bit stiffer than either foils or epees. Most schlagers have an oval cross-section; some have a flattened diamond cross-section. Schlagers are most commonly 35 inches long, but some have been made up to 45 inches long. Schlagers were originally introduced to SCA combat by the folks in Atenveldt and have since spread across the Known World. Although they're a bit shorter than most period rapiers, and don’t balance as well, they look much more like a proper sword than either foils or epees. But being stiffer, their users will need more training to prevent over-hard hits.
Del Tin The Del Tin is a blade that was developed by Italian swordmaker Fulvio Del Tin specifically for the SCA and other re-creationist/re-enactor groups. It has a diamond cross-section, and is generally heavier but not quite as stiff as a schlager. The standard length is 42 inches, but some folks have them cut to shorter lengths. Del Tins are the best simulation of period rapiers that we have at the moment.
A number of other sword manufacturers, including Darkwood, Hanwei and Zen Warrior, now make blades that are essentially copies of the Del Tin rapier blade. These all tend to be classified under the generic name of “Del Tin.”
Fiberglass Fiberglass rapiers built of glued-together sections of quarter-inch fiberglass rod are used in Lochac. Fiberglass rapiers were originally developed in An Tir, due to a concern about steel blades breaking and people being injured or killed. (It’s true that steel blades sometimes break, and in modern fencing about ten people in the past century have been killed by broken fencing blades. But in the SCA the worst injury from a broken blade was an in-and-out puncture of a fighter’s pectoral muscle.)
Sabers SCA rules say that any legal heavy rapier blade may also be used in a curved configuration to simulate eastern-style blades such as sabers, scimitars or katanas. Modern fencing sabers, however, may not be used.
Cut & Thrust Cut & Thrust is a style that simulates the transitional era between broadswords and traditional rapiers. Some heavy rapier blades may also be used for Cut & Thrust, and there are several blades that may only be used for C&T. Check with your local marshal to see what is allowed in your kingdom.
A variety of secondary weapons may be used in conjunction with the rapier. These are based on information from period rapier manuals such as Camillo Agrippa’s Trattato di Scientia d’Arme or Giacomo DiGrassi’s True Art of Defence.
Daggers There are a number of dagger types used in SCA rapier. Although rattan was used for daggers in the early days, now all daggers are made of metal, except in Lochac (where fiberglass is still an option.) One popular style is the “flexi-dagger” which has a rectangular cross-section, similar to a foil blade. Most of the others have a wide, flat blade similar to an actual dagger, but with blunt edges and point, and sufficient flex that they won’t injure someone.
Cloak In SCA rapier, cloaks are typically the waist-length Renaissance style although there are no "official" rules on cloak size. Some fighters will use a full-length cloak for fighting, which is a more historically accurate technique. The only restriction on cloaks is that they shouldn’t behave like a whip of flail.
Bucklers Bucklers are typically small round shields about fifteen inches in diameter (although other shapes are permitted.) They are usually made of lightweight plywood, metal or leather. Other rigid parrying devices such as scabbards or canes are sometimes seen on the SCA rapier field as well.