The rapier is a long, slim, single-handed sword that make its first appearance as a side weapon during the late 14th century, although it was much more popular in later periods. The rapier kept its popularity up until 16th century, when the widespread diffusion of firearms made this elegant sword obsolete. The rapier was a civilian sword at its core, and it was mostly used as a self-defense sword, although it was by far the most popular weapons for dueling, keeping its role as a “quarrel solver” even when flintlock pistols started dominating the scene.
Rapiers were almost always high-quality swords forged with the best materials available, as they weren’t conceived as weapons for everyday combat or melee battles, but a true status-symbol and fashionable object for nobles and rich merchants. Many famous blacksmiths, especially Spanish and Italian ones, built masterwork rapiers with incredibly elaborate hilts and damascus steel funneled blades, which were often shown as precious items by wealthy people because of their priced craftsmanship.
A rapier overall length was usually 50 inches (125 centimeters) or even more, but they were very light weapons due to the relatively thin blade. For this reason they were usually built only with the best metals, in order to keep the steel elastic enough not to break after a thrust. Melee rapiers used in field or siege battles were usually longer and heavier that civilian ones. The blade was comprised of three parts, the ricasso, a short, unsharpened section usually covered by the hilt; the forte close to the hilt and usually not very sharp; the mezzo and the debole, which were the middle and ending part of the blade culminating with the point, and that were usually really sharp. The most famous portion that characterizes this sword however, was the quilt, which was usually especially elaborate, and provided several sections to provide a sturdy defense to the user’s hand and sometimes even the forearm. Earlier hilt designs used a series of metal rings to protect the hand while keeping the sword as light as possible, but they eventually evolved into solid plates or cups as thrusting techniques become more common. The hilt also included a large, robust pommel which was used to balance the blade and to subdue enemies without harming them.
The rapier is an incredibly agile weapon, whose main strength relies on its superior maneuverability and powerful thrust. As armors evolved to became nearly-impenetrable, weapons changed their shapes accordingly. During melees soldiers used heavy maces and war picks to pierce through the heavier, thickest plates, but a well-aimed, pin-pointing thrust was still able to precisely strike those areas which weren’t covered by armor, making this kind of weapon very effective in close combat. Due to the inherently powerful piercing thrust of this type of sword (which can be considered a somewhat smaller, one-handed version of an estoc), this weapon sported the unique ability to deliver deadly blows at a great distance while still being classified as a light weapon (as opposed to a pike or halberd). For this reason it became a favorite in civilian duels, as a competent swordsman was still able to recover from a missed blow by delivering a series of quick strikes that only the most experienced warrior could parry or deflect. Still it was a really sharp weapon, and as many other swords, it was more than able to deal terrible cutting blows to unarmored opponents. Somewhat, although the rapier evolved as a variant of the sword and the estoc, due to the way it is used, it could be considered as a quirky, giant dagger rather than a sword.
Many different sword schools taught the proper use of the rapier, giving birth to the all the maneuvers and techniques that we still practice in fencing sports. As it evolved to the peak of its popularity, the rapier became a little shorter, its hilt became more protective, and it was usually coupled with a side weapon whose role was to parry blows, while the rapier techniques focused entirely on offense. The off-hand could be a small dagger, like a main gauche or stiletto with twin, upturned quillons used to catch, trap, and eventually break the enemy’s blade. Alternatively, popular off-hand weapons included small buckler (with or without pointed edges to punch and maim opponents), armored gauntlets (to grab and break other blades and people noses), reinforced cloaks (the famous “sword and cloak” technique), or even another smaller sword.