The Small Sword: Self Defense and the Georgian Gentleman

It is easy to imagine, from reading Georgette Heyer, for example, that all Georgian men walked about, sword on hip, ready to fight for their honor in a duel at a moment’s notice. This ‘spoiling for a fight’ attitude might be a bit over stated, but the sword was, at least during the early Georgian era, a perfectly acceptable, and even expected accessory for the well dressed man. By Jane Austen’s day, however, swords had been replaced by pistols as a means of personal defense (not that all men walked about armed!) and the sword had been relegated to a lovely, if practical accessory of the military man. As the sister of naval officers, Jane was, no doubt, familar with the small sword as a sidearm.

Horation Hornblower, small sword in hand.

Horation Hornblower, small sword in hand.

The small sword or smallsword (also court sword, fr: épée de cour or dress sword) is a light one-handed sword designed for thrusting which evolved out of the longer and heavier rapier of the late Renaissance. The height of the small sword’s popularity was between mid 17th and late 18th century. It is thought to have appeared in France and spread quickly across the rest of Europe. The small sword was the immediate predecessor of the French duelling sword (from which the épée developed) and its method of use—as typified in the works of such authors as Sieur de Liancour, Domenico Angelo, Monsieur J. Olivier, and Monsieur L’Abbat—developed into the techniques of the French classical school of fencing. Small swords were also used as status symbols and fashion accessories; for most of the 18th century anyone, civilian or military, with pretensions to gentlemanly status would have worn a small sword on a daily basis.

Typical small sword of the 1740s.

Typical small sword of the 1740s.

The small sword could be a highly effective duelling weapon, and some systems for the use of the bayonet were developed using the method of the smallsword as their foundation, (including perhaps most notably, that of Alfred Hutton).

Militarily, small swords continued to be used as a standard sidearm for infantry officers. In some branches with strong traditions, this practice continues to the modern day, albeit for ceremonial and formal dress only. The carrying of swords by officers in combat conditions was frequent in World War I and still saw some practice in World War II. The 1913 U.S. Army Manual of Bayonet Drillincludes instructions for how to fight a man on foot with a small sword. Small swords are still featured on parade uniforms of some corps.

As a rule, the blade of a small sword is comparatively short at around 0.6 to 0.85 metres (24 to 33 in), though some reach over 0.9 metres (35 in). It usually tapers to a sharp point but may lack a cutting edge. It is typically triangular in cross-section, although some of the early examples still have the rhombic and spindle-shaped cross-sections inherited from older weapons, like the rapier. This triangular cross-section may be hollow ground for additional lightness. Many small swords of the period between the 17th and 18th centuries were found with colichemarde blades.

French officer small sword, c. 1815

French officer small sword, c. 1815

The small sword guard is typically of the “shell” type, sometimes with two lobes that were decorated as clam shells. The shells were often replaced with a simple curved oval disk, which was still referred to as the coquille (shell). In later foils, the lobed type evolved into the “lunette” or figure-8 guard, and the disk became the modern foil “bell” guard, but the guards were still referred to as coquilles. Small swords with this type of guard normally included other features of the older rapier hilt, including quillons, ricasso, knuckle-bow, and a pas d’âne, although these were often atrophied beyond the point of usefulness, serving mainly as a decorative element. However, they were maintained in a usable state on some weapons, including the Italian foil, into the 20th century.

In the 19th century, simple cross-hilt small swords were also produced, largely as ceremonial weapons that were evocative of more ancient types of weapons. An example is the Model 1840 Army Noncommissioned Officers’ Sword, which is still used by the United States Army on ceremonial occasions. As the wearing of swords fell out of fashion and the small sword evolved into the duelling sword (forerunner of the modern épée), the older hilts gave way to simpler grips such as the French grip and Italian grip.

Hilt of the sword worn by students of the École Polytechnique in dress uniform

Hilt of the sword worn by students of the École Polytechnique in dress uniform

Small swords were used both by the military (where they served more as a sign of a certain rank rather than a real weapon for close combat) and as a dueling weapon. The very height of the small sword’s widespread popularity was (as mentioned above) between the middle of the 17th and the late 18th century, when it was considerd fashionable by aristocrats (“no gentleman was dressed without his sword” – contemporary idiom of the middle of the 18th century), but it was still used as a dueling weapon until the middle of the 20th century.


Historical information and photographs from Wikpedia.com.

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