THE HISTORY OF THE SCA RAPIER

by Don Heffe de Montoya el Guacamole

In the beginning there was rattan . . . and Tivar.  Since then, we’ve come a long way, but it’s always a good idea to look back over your shoulder and remember where you came from, if for no other reason than so you don’t head off in a circle and find yourself right back where you started, something that’s much more likely if you’re looking over your shoulder instead of where you’re going, unless you are going backward in which case you don’t need to read this article any further.  But I digress.[1]

So where was I?  Oh, yeah . . . In the beginning there was rattan, and it was good.  For sword and board fighting, that is. For rapier, it sucked, and the cry went out[2] for something to replace it with.  The first replacement chosen was PVC pipe, the use of which was championed by a sympathetic Monarch, King Lloyd the Plumber.  The use of PVC pipe did not last much beyond Lloyd’s reign as several unscrupulous fighters were found using lead pipe instead.[3]  Some other material needed to be found, something less dangerous, something less likely to cause permanent injury.  Something like . . . steel.

Real live steel, except without sharp edges (unless you bought those Russian blades).  And no real sharp points (except for those Italian blades); and also a lot less hefty than real blades so you couldn’t accidentally break your opponents’ hand, or arm, or leg (except for maybe with schlagers).  So, basically, a real rapier, only lighter, less sharp, and less pointy (‘cause we’re looking for realism).  After an exhaustive search (some of us exhaust more easily than others) it was decided that modern fencing weapons possessed the necessary qualities of complete, absolute authenticity, while, at the same time, being nothing like real rapiers.  Thus began the era of the first true SCA rapier — the foil.

THE FOIL

Thin, lean and mean, the foil emerged as the SCA weapon of choice after it was determined that no other weapon made such a cool sound when whipped through the air,[4] or when slapped against an opponent’s limb.[5]  The ability of the foil blade to accurately re-create the motion of a true rapier (flexing through the air so that you could finish a thrust while the tip was still behind your back) was highly prized by early SCAdian swordsmen, to the chagrin of their opponents, and horror of nearby marshals and observers.

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     [1]I do that a lot in this piece.

     [2]That cry was, “YEAAAHH! DAMN, THAT HURT!”

     [3]Also, Lloyd would no longer sell PVC at a discount.

     [4]“ZZWWISSHHHH”

     [5]“SSMMAACCKKK” followed closely by, “EEEAAAUUUGGHH!!”

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But there were some problems associated with the use of a blade that moved like a steel whip.  For one thing, there was the tendency of the blade to break at the tip, leaving a rough point capable of piercing plate steel.[6] Of far greater importance, however, was the un-period way the blade bent whenever someone landed a thrust, a tendency which lead to an early title, “wire-weenie”.  In true SCAdian fashion, however, the problem was met head-on and turned into an advantage.  The bend would become the basis for the official definition of a valid thrust.  This new standard — “a thrust of sufficient force to cause a two-inch bend in a foil” — replaced the old standard — “a thrust of sufficient force to cause brain damage.”  It was met with universal acclaim and indifference.  Merchants everywhere began to market Two-Inch Bend Rulers[7]; marshals in all Kingdoms were required to carry one onto the list.[8]

In the fullness of time[9], dissatisfaction arose over the foil, primarily from those who couldn’t figure out how to keep from getting hit by their own tips, and from spectators struck by flying bits of broken blades.  Despite urging from those who wished to stay with the foil[10], a better, more efficacious blade was sought.  The second SCA rapier, the epee, was born.

THE EPEE

In the epee, all the failings of the foil were corrected: where the foil whipped through the air like an arrow, the epee flew like a brick.[11]  Where the tip of a broken foil would, occasionally, lightly skewer someone, the broken epee only penetrated the armor and some of the tough, resilient skin underneath.  It was heavier, slower, stouter, more expensive; in short, a perfect replacement for the foil.

While the change from foil to epee occurred throughout the Society at the same time, some Kingdoms were slow to give up the old, traditional ways[12].  This resistance proved futile, as demonstrated in one melee battle between warring Kingdoms.  An evenly matched bout[13] was fought with one side armed with the new epees and the other side clinging, lifelessly it turned out, to foils.

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     [6]This tendency resulted in some dead Olympic fencers that had to be explained away.

     [7]which ranged from 1 & 1/2 to 6 inches in length.

     [8]For reasons never fully understood or explained, they were also required to carry gum, spare typewriter ribbons, and condoms.

     [9]SCA time — about seven weeks.

     [10]mostly fencers, chiurgeons and blade merchants

     [11]It also hit like one.

     [12]traditions going back in some cases, months.

     [13]47 to 25

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The result was not pretty, but at least it was short: Six minutes from “Lay on” to the last grisly death.  Final score: epees, 25; foils, 3.  Many commentators have remarked that this battle is an unfair comparison since most of the epee army fought Florentine, while the foils were all single weapon.[14]  Others consider this a clear case of Social Darwinism.  Whatever.  The epee had won its place.

Immediately, the epee changed.  It grew wider[15], and longer.  It took on pretensions and developed delusions of grandeur.[16]  Most seriously, it believed that the Two Inch Bend Rule still applied to it, and it somehow managed to convince the fighters of this.  The epee achieved in a relatively short time great notoriety and was bestowed with the epithet “inherently dangerous blade.”[17]  Women fainted, and grown men squealed at the very sight of one.  In one instance, a Don, found in the tent of a nubile student, was exonerated of any wrongdoing after claiming to have been bewitched by an epee.  Many innocent epee blades were burnt at the stake, some after receiving little or no due process.[18]

Eventually, cooler heads prevailed.[19]  Stricter blow-calling rules were implemented, a standardized blade was mandated, and fighters were schooled in the fact that an epee blade is an inanimate object with no power to cloud men’s minds.[20]  The epee, now considered acceptable in polite SCA company,[21] became the blade of choice.  With the epee enjoying a renaissance in popularity, total acceptance by the marshalate, and high favor among all fighters, it was clearly time to find a new blade to replace it.  Enter the next SCA rapier — the schlager.[22]

THE SCHLAGER

The schlager represents the epitome of SCA weaponry.  Imagine, a blade that has the same shape, size, weight, color, and religion of a period blade; that behaves like a true rapier: swift, accurate, deadly, known to imbibe a little too much at parties.

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     [14]This was reportedly due to economics: the foil army came from an area with a lower per capita gross income; the epee army had the blade supplier located in its Kingdom.

     [15]giving the term “double wide” a new, but still derogatory meaning

     [16]“Musketeer” blade, indeed.

     [17]not to be confused with the less-serious label “bad blade; no biscuit”.

     [18] see, for example, Rex v One #5 Inherently Dangerous Epee Blade, 258 BOD 1794 (AS XIII)

     [19]not to be confused with “cooler-heads”.

     [20]The list of jokes that could be used here is so great that I am unable to choose one.  No doubt the ladies would have no such difficulty.

     [21]whatever the hell that means

     [22]not to be confused with “lager” (see note #19)

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Best of all, absolutely, totally, 100% non-dangerous; virtually indestructible, incapable of breaking and stabbing an opponent.[23]  Surely, this was the High Renaissance of Rapiers, the Shangri-La of Swashbucklers, the Disney World of . . . but, no, it was not meant to be.  Even this Weapon of the Gods had its detractors[24], and their lamentations found receptive ears.

The first problem was that no one could define exactly what a schlager was.  There were oval schlagers, diamond schlagers, rectangular schlagers, caffeine-free diet schlagers.  Nobody knew what was going to show up on the field in a schlager fight.  This problem was compounded by the development of new blades called schlagers that ranged in length from three to five feet. Justified by their makers as authentic copies of real blades, these giant weapons began appearing on lists, where those wielding them could be heard chanting, “Less wieldy, more period” over and over, until they were taken to area hospitals suffering from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.[25]  Since no commercial blade makers had any good reason to make these mutant blades, they had to be turned out by backyard craftsmen, some of whom had been forging blades for weeks or even months.

Similar to the experience with the epee, the problem was resolved when a group of cooler-heads[26] got together and decided the hell with it.  After it was pointed out[27] that a more definitive answer was needed, the group decreed that only a particular, select group[28] would be allowed to use schlagers.  The schlager took its place in the SCA rapier hierarchy as a special blade to be used only by special fighters (who often rode to events on special buses).

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Several other blade types were used experimentally in various kingdoms.  Most were found to be too unsafe, too expensive, or too stupid to be considered for the Society as a whole.  Some of the more interesting ones were:

SABRES — A distant, silly cousin kept in the attic of Olympic fencing, the sabre was used briefly in SCA rapier combat. Where permitted, it was a weapon used exclusively by Companions of the Order of the White Scarf (COWS), who, in an attempt to accurately re-create cavalry combat, used the sabre while riding on the backs of a subordinate order, the Honorable Order of the Silver ScarvES (HOSSES).

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     [23]more about its chest crushing tendencies later

     [24]some of whom were in de traction

     [25]the fighters, not the hospitals

     [26]this time, real “cooler-heads”

     [27]by the designated adult

     [28]called “knights”

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These bouts, begun with a hearty “Hi-o, Silver!”[29] were short lived, at least for the HOSSES, who were traditionally chosen for their stamina, rather than their fighting ability.  The entire sordid mess was ultimately put to a quick end by a special  emergency ad hoc committee of the Marshalate created by the Society Board of Directors, the Association of Serious Swashbucklers Hoping to Outlaw Ludicrous ExtremeS.

FIBERGLASS — Apparently, someone, somewhere, got a hold of a fishing pole and decided that it would make a dandy rapier blade.[30]  Sensing that certain anally-retentive persons[31] would object to a fishing pole as not being very period, these individuals decided instead to replace fishing poles with bicycle flag poles.  After all, they don’t break, they’re cheap, they’re available in period 4-foot lengths, and the day-glo orange makes them easier to see on the field.  How could they miss?  Fortunately, they did.

REBAR — The less said about this alcohol-inspired episode, the better.[32]

THE FUTURE

The future of the SCA Rapier is yet to be written.  But we can extrapolate from the past, and know that the cheesy, the ludicrous, the inane, will all find their way onto the list fields, where we will suffer them in the name of honor, national health care, and good, clean fun[33].  Will aluminum alloy blades do for SCA rapier what they did for[34] Hollywood?  Will new developments in electronic armor allow bouts complete with simulated pain and suffering[35]?  Will we ultimately have “virtual tournaments” where combatants never have to leave the comfort of their homes to compete?[36]  Whatever happens, you’ll hear about it here first, in The History of the SCA Rapier, Part II.  Until then, keep your tips flat, your curves gentle, and in the words of the Immortal Bard, “No pooftahs on the lists!”[37]

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     [29]sorry, couldn’t resist

     [30]see note #19

     [31]Laurels

     [32]For a detailed description, read Duke Sir Don D’Artanian ap MacOwain’s article, “Jesus Christ, What The Fuck Did You Hit Me With?”(TI vol. iix, Mid-Summer).

[³³]More on sidesword later

     [34]make that “to”

     [35]not to be confused with the pain and suffering currently experienced by the spectators

     [36]Pelicans (no, it doesn’t make any sense, but they’re the only peerage I haven’t offended yet).

     [37]Henry X, Act 2, Scene 67

 

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