Under feudal systems, lords would generally make war rather than duel and their subordinates would not duel but would submit to their lords for judgment. As the middle classes gained power they took as one of their prerogatives the right to redress slights, not by war but by the duel. Since duels were generally 'on the spot' affairs, those who would claim the privilege of the duel must always be armed; and since these were civilians dwelling in cities they had no need for heavy armor and preferred lighter weaponry. The drive to be armed with lighter weaponry than required by a professional soldier gave rise to specialized weaponry, the European dueling sword.

The dueling era began in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries and lasted well into the nineteenth century. Firearms displaced swords as the preferred weapons of duelists in the late eighteenth century.

The evolution of the European dueling sword--from arming sword (often termed broadsword, though sensu stricto this refers to basket and cage hilted weapons from the late 17th through 19th ceturies) through three stages of rapier to the smallsword--reflected the evolution from a cutting style of swordplay to a thrusting style ('foining' or 'fencing') coupled with the advantage achieved by wielding a slightly lighter and therefore faster weapon. The smallsword and the last stage of the rapier were made possible only by metallurgical advances in the seventeenth century.

Table of contents
1 Off-hand weapons
2 Single Time versus Double Time
3 Cutting versus Thrusting
4 Evolution of blades
5 Regional variations

Off-hand weapons

During the arming sword and rapier periods, a weapon or object was generally held in the other hand from the sword for use in parrying attacks. The most common 'off-hand' weapons were the buckler, the dagger, and the cape. In general the buckler was more effective against cutting weapons, the dagger was more effective against thrusting weapons, and the cape was better than nothing.

An edged off-hand weapon could also be used to strike. Especially in the era of longer rapiers, it was common for the weapons to become entangled. Many duels were ended by a timely strike with an off-hand dagger. They were also popular in areas where brawls were common.

Some duellists fought with two rapiers, called a 'case' of rapiers. It is assumed that the longer off-hand weapon was more useful for parrying attacks and less useful should the opponents be brought to close quarters, although Giacomo DiGrassi taught that a man who used two rapiers must be able to use either, indifferently, for offense or defense or he would betray himself in combat.

Single Time versus Double Time

The arming sword and the rapier were heavy enough that if used to parry they could not easily be used to mount an offense. Swordplay was usually thought of as occurring in beats or tempos, and during a single tempo the heavy swords could only perform a single action, thus only capable of an act in single time. If an attack could be intercepted with the off-hand weapon, this meant that the main weapon could be used in that tempo for a counterattack. Likewise, a swordsman could control timing and distance to simultaneously parry and counterattack or avoid the attack and counterattack, although these required much more skill.

Only with the development of the smallsword were weapons fast enough to allow the riposte, where a parry is followed smoothly by an offensive action without delay. This is called double time, because a combatant attacks and defends in two beats. After swords were obsolete, metallurgical advances allowed the development of the épée and the foil used in modern fencing. Modern fencing--and most sword fighting shown in movies--is done in double time.

Cutting versus Thrusting

Cutting -- striking with the edge, which causes percussive damage as well a possibly making a cut in the target, and thrusting -- striking with the point to puncture -- have been shown to be essentially balanced modes of combat. However civilian dueling styles leaned more and more to the thrust over time. The reason for this progression is not known, though common arguments are discussed below. It is perhaps as simple as that the thrusting style allowed for lighter weapons.

It is possible that the single most important advantage of thrusting weapons was that in combat against a cutting weapon of a similar weight, the thrusting weapon -- especially with the lunge -- was useful from a greater range. The wielder of a cutting weapon must step in to strike, a predictable motion which would make him vulnerable to a time hit while his major weapon was necessarily out of line for defense. However the Victorian Captain A. Hutton repeatedly demonstrated that the cavalry sabre could hold its own against the smallsword or the épée of a similar length. His success can be attributed to his ability to use the thrusting swordsman's arm as a target, and that the lighter thrusting weapon is inadequate to parry the heavier sabre.

It is often said that the thrust is more dangerous than the cut because the vital organs may be struck at directly, and in fact many duels were ended by a single lunge. However there are also many recorded instances of both contestants being run through several times while the duel continued. Due to the limitations of medicine in that era, it often happened that a duelist would die of infections or internal bleeding from such a thrust long after the duel had concluded.

It is also alleged that thrusting weapons had various advantages in terms of speed of defense: because they were kept in line with the opponent while preparing to strike they were more available to defend. However it should be remembered that through most of the dueling era -- until the last stage of the rapier and the smallsword were developed -- an off hand weapon was used for defense.

Evolution of blades

The first swords carried by civilians for use in duels were generally arming swords. A military weapon turned to civilian use, they were generally less than 90 centimetres in length, relatively heavy (2000 grams), and two-edged with a short point. The cross-section was basically that of a narrow diamond or flattened hexagon.

Starting around 1500 CE, the arming sword began to be replaced by the rapier. 'Rapier' is the british term for the sword, but they were used all across Europe where they were called simply 'dress swords', 'side swords', or just 'swords'. The rapier was more slender than the arming sword, and longer. Rapiers ranged from 90 centimetres to 130 centimetres, averaging about 107 centimetres. They weighed on average 1250 grams. Early rapiers retained their cutting edges, are at times called 'cut and thrust rapiers' by modern enthusiasts, and were diamond in cross-section, though less of a flattened diamond than the arming sword. They generally had simple cross hilts similar to arming swords. By the middle of the 16th century edges were often discarded in favor of purely thrusting rapiers and the cross-section was very often triangular. Many other cross-sections were tried in the attempt to minimize weight while maintaining strength. Since a popular grip involved wrapping the finger over the quillon, a finger guard was added to prevent injury when the rapier was parried.

The final period of the rapier is called the 'transitional' period, which lasted from about 1650 to 1680. This marked the shift into fighting in double time. Rapiers became shorter and lighter; the off hand weapon was abandoned in favor of the parry-riposte; and the cup-hilt became common. Also present during the transitional period is the Colichemarde, a sword with a heavier blade up to the mid-point and then a light blade up to the point.

The rapier was replaced by the smallsword, a very light weapon designed for fast double time fighting. Smallswords might be around 78 centimetres in length and weigh 500 grams, considerably lighter and shorter than the rapier. While any sword of that size was called a smallsword, there was a form specific to the smallsword: a blade that had a triangular cross-section, although some still had a diamond cross-section well into the 18th century.

Regional variations

In Scotland heavier cutting swords (broadswords) remained popular into the nineteenth century.

In southern Italy the off-hand dagger remained in use into the nineteenth century. Many Italian fencers also used a heavier version of the smallsword and continued to fight in single time.