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The Small Sword: Self Defense and the Georgian Gentleman

hornblowerIt 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 By Jane Austen’s day, however, swords had been replaced by pistols as a means of personal defense (not that all men walked about armed!)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.

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