Darkwood Armory Transitional Flambard Rapier
A hands-on review by Bill Grandy
As the 17th century neared its end civilian swordplay underwent a change. Fencers more and more were gravitating towards the shorter and lighter methods of the smallsword. Many modern practitioners often erroneously assume, though, that as soon as the 18th century appeared the rapier vanished and the smallsword suddenly appeared out of nowhere to replace it. The smallsword was first seen in the 17th century and its older cousin, the rapier, lasted well into the 18th century and was even in use as late as the 19th century. As one might expect, there was a great deal of overlap in these weapons in terms of visual style and function.
Modern scholars use the term "transitional rapier" to describe the weapons that fill the gap between the "true" smallsword and rapier. Weapons of this type are difficult to define as there is so much variation in their blades and hilts. Regardless, such swords generally have medium-length blades and are lighter than earlier period rapiers. Some still maintain a sharp edge, though many are only sharp at the tip.
Transitional rapiers existed into the 19th century. These weapons are essentially short rapiers with simpler dish-shaped hilts (indeed, they are sometimes referred to as "dish hilt" rapiers) that are very similar to classical Italian foil grips. Earlier Italian rapier masters such as Capo Ferro and Salvator Fabris relied primarily on single time defenses, meaning to attack at the same time as defending. This was primarily because of the longer reach of the sword. The shorter smallsword relies more on two-time defenses, meaning to parry first and attack afterward. It goes without saying, then, that the transitional rapier blends these two philosophies to make use of both types of defenses.
Darkwood Armory is run by Scott and Leslie Wilson in Panama City, Florida. Darkwood Armory is most commonly known for making affordable rapiers intended for fencing, though they do produce higher-end products should the buyer want them.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Darkwood Armory of Florida.
If one is used to handling accurate 16th and 17th century rapier reproductions, picking this sword up will be quite a surprise. It is very lightweight, and feels more like a long modern épeé, which in some respects, it is. In fact, an épeé fencing colleague of mine, who ordinarily dislikes the rapier due to the fact that it feels so foreign to what he is used to handling, picked this sword up and immediately responded, "Now THIS is a sword I can use to fence!"
One of the classic principles of Italian Renaissance rapier fencing is the use of stesso tempo (literally, "same time") counterattacks, known today as single time counterattacks. This concept means that when one is attacked, the defense should also be simultaneously an offensive action. While this method was not forgotten in the later styles, it was used less and less with shorter weapons. This particular rapier is long enough that counterattacks in single time are still quite manageable, but its weight allows for speedy dui tempi, or "two-time" actions, specifically the parry-riposte (defending with the sword, then immediately attacking afterwards). This became more and more common in the later Italian rapier fencing traditions.
The balance of this sword is superb. Tip control is excellent: I literally taped a marker to the tip of the sword wrote my name on a piece of paper on the wall with very little effort. This is an old sport fencer's trick to build tip control. While this is not at all difficult with most well-balanced swords and a little practice, it was the effortlessness with which I could do this, in comparison to heavier weapons, that stood out to me.
This particular sword, however, originally had a standard straight rapier blade. I purchased this sword in person at Darkwood's booth at the 2005 Western Martial Arts Workshop, and saw that Scott Wilson had created a flambard prototype blade, which was attached to a more typical Renaissance swept hilt. I was very intrigued with this blade, as I had never seen a reproduction that was made specifically for fencing before, and had always wanted one. Scott swapped the blade with this transitional hilt to show me how it felt, and I immediately fell in love with both the handling and the aesthetics.
I have heard a number of people suggest that flambard blades were created to cause vibrations to an opponent's blade when it slid against it, which may unsettle someone who was not used to it. I was curious about this, and tried this out with a few fencers. The consensus is that, while it is possible to catch someone off guard with this if they are startled very easily, it really has almost no noticeable effect to someone determined to strike you. It is possible that a function of this type of blade, aside from aesthetics, would be to create a wider wound in the opponent, but this is just speculation on my part.
The blade is very flexible. While it is stiff enough that I don't feel any ill effects on my technique, it is definitely more flexible than the standard Darkwood Armory practice blade. Personally, I don't find fault in this, as many period rapier blades exhibit quite a large amount of flex and "whippiness". Many people, though, might prefer a stiffer blade, and this should be kept in mind before making a purchase.
The one minor flaw is that the finger rings are a little large for this style of weapon. What I see here is an attempt to keep the hilt consistent with the other standard Darkwood Armory hilts. This ensures that if parts need to be replaced that it is easy to do so. I have no major complaint about this, but it is definitely something that should be noted.
Fit and Finish
It should be noted that this sword was created to be first and foremost a fencing weapon. High polish and perfect details were not the main intent. With that in mind, it is still a very attractive sword. The wavy blade, which required a lot of hand work in creating, is very even and polished to a satin finish. The blade is probably the main factor that pushed me into purchasing the sword, as I have always wanted a fencing version of one of these. I was highly pleased to see that Darkwood is now producing them.
The bars of the hilt are also finished the way the dish is, with the marks of a polishing wheel visible. They exhibit the basic form of period originals, but are clearly left rough for the sake of cost. Still, there are some nice subtle details, such as the swelling at the center of the knuckle-bow, and the bars are rounded at the corners. The fluted pommel is very nice. In fact, the pommel looks almost too nice when compared to the basic bars of the hilt. It certainly compliments the elaborate piercing of the dish guard.
The wire wrap is over a spiral carved wooden grip. It is very comfortable and provides a strong grip. The ends are finished off with Turk's head knots. The wrap is not the work of a high-end custom piece, but is still good looking nonetheless. Once again, a fancier wire wrap would cost more. It is a very functional grip, and after a few months of use has shown no sign of loosening.
This sword, in its configuration as reviewed, cost roughly $425 US. For the quality-to-price ratio, I would go so far as to say I ended up with a good value. I have a wonderful handling and attractive rapier that allowed for some customization, and having owned used several Darkwood rapiers for years, I expect from experience that it will be quite durable as well. Darkwood Armory has long been my primary choice for practice rapiers. With these new aesthetic options and attractive prices, Darkwood also proves to be a viable choice for collectors who want custom pieces.
About the Author
Bill Grandy is an instructor of Historical European Swordsmanship and sport fencing at the Virginia Academy of Fencing. He has held a strong passion (obsession?) for swords and swordsmanship for as long as he can remember. He admits that this passion comes from a youth spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, but he'll only admit that if there are no girls around.
Photographer: Bill Grandy