Most SCA Rapier participants tend to think of George Silver as ‘that mad Englishman who had a huge hate on for long-bladed rapiers.’ Not that this description is all that inaccurate considering Silvers describes these swords as an “…imperfect weapon, which serves to kill our friends in peace, but cannot much hurt our foes in war.” After doing some research for another project, however, I have found that not only was he not alone in his opinion but that he wasn’t even the first to complain in writing about the inadequacies of long-bladed rapiers.
Published in 1590, Sir John Smythe’s Certain Discourses Military, was the first English military treatise. Discourses was an appeal to the English nobility to cease the adoption of the caliver, among other Continental ways of waging war, and to go back to the ancient, and in Smythe’s opinion infinitely better, weapon the English longbow.
In Discourses Smythe writes:
… our such men of war, contrary to the ancient order and use military, do nowadays prefer and allow that armed men pikers should rather wear rapiers of a yard and a quarter long the blades or more than strong, short, arming swords… a squadron of armed men in the field, being ready to encounter with another squadron, their enemies…being in their ranks so close one to another by flanks, cannot draw their swords if the blades of them be above the length of three quarters of a yard or little more (i.e. approximately 32-34″). Besides that, swords being so long do work in a manner no effect, neither with blows nor thrusts, where the press is so great as in such actions it is. And rapier blades, being so narrow and of so small substance, and made of a very hard temper to fight in private frays, in lighting with any blow upon armour do presently break and so become unprofitable.
This sentiment is echoed in the epistle to Paradoxes where Silver states:
…when the battles are joined, and come to the charge, there is no room for them to draw their bird-spits, and when they have them, what can they do with them? Can they pierce his corselet with the point? Can they unlace his helmet, unbuckle his armour, hew asunder their pikes with a stocata, a riversa, a dritta, a stramason, or other such tempestuous terms? No, these toys are fit for children, not for men, for stragling boys of the camp, to murder poultry, not for men of honour to try battle with their foes.
Of course, if it were only these two gentlemen deriding the rapier one could dismiss their opinions as a couple old codgers complaining about the decline of their great nation in the hands of younger men. However, they were not alone. At least not in so far as the length of weapons to be used on the battlefield.
In his treatise of 1591, which in itself was a direct rebuttal of Smythe’s Discourses, Humfrey Barwick recommends ‘…a good sword of a yarde in blade, and no hilts but crosse onely, a dagger of ten or twelve inches in the blade and the like crosse hilt.‘ Smythe too recommends a short dagger of only nine to ten inches. At least these two could agree on one thing even if they were polar opposites in regards to the longbow vs. musket debate.
Smythe and Barwick’s recommended blade length would appear to agree with Silver’s perfect length of a yard and an inch for the average person. Or rather I should say that Silver agrees with them as his Paradoxes of Defense was not published until 1599. Silver would probably have been familiar with both of these books as Smythe’s book sold very well and the back and forth between Smythe and Humfrey was akin to an Elizabethan flame war.
Still, is this just a few Englishmen tending to be a tad protectionist with their weapons? I had thought so until I came across a reference in an article by Tom Leoni entitled “The Rapier Revisited” (which by the way is an excellent read). In it he mentions that according to Bonaventura Pistofilo the ideal military sword was “…three Roman feet or just over 36 inches measured from the hilt.” So it wasn’t just Englishmen who felt that long-bladed swords had no place on the battle field.
Of course neither Barwick nor I’m sure Pistofilo ranted about rapiers in the same manner as Silver and Smythe but they were all roughly in agreement when it came to the length of blade that was serviceable in the press of men on the battlefield. In the end, however, the point I would like to make to you dear reader isn’t that the English basket-hilted sword is better than a long-bladed rapier but rather that if George Silver is a crackpot for his views on this subject at least he is no longer the lone crackpot screaming into the wind. Or am I just another pro-Silver crackpot looking for excuses? Post a comment below and let me know.