The Bronze Age Rapier

Barry Molloy

Rapier type 3
Class 3 Rapier

"The history of the sword is the history of mankind", a bold statement by Richard Burton in the late nineteenth century, yet one that holds a ring of truth to it. This proud possession has its ancestry millenia before recorded history in these islands, many centuries before the legendary Achilles and Hector are said to have fought before the walls of Troy.

Rapier type
Mycenaean Rapier

The first incarnations of these weapons created by the smiths of the early Later Bronze Age of Britain and Ireland were fine weapons of war. Archaeological literature refers to these as 'dirks' and 'rapiers', but despite the inherent inferences these names make with regard to use, they should truly be regarded as swords, and the progenitors of the lineage which continued through the many ages of man which were to follow.

There are 5 main types of these weapons, differentiated by hilt form and cross-section, described by Burgess and Gerloff as class 1 to 4 (this latter has a distinct division into early and late forms). The earliest of the rapiers had a complex cross-section consisting of ribs and grooves, with clear ancestry in the dagger series which had begun in the Early Bronze Age. A date for this development sometime in the later 17th early 16th century BC appears most likely, but there is no clear dividing line between daggers, dirks and rapiers. These designations are modern in origin, and while the longer examples are clearly rapiers, and shorter ones are clearly dirks (bearing in mind the inherent problems with these terms)– there are many which fall into an ambiguous length between the two calling into question the usefulness of the terminology at all. It is uncertain whether they evolved first in Britain or Ireland, but the accident of survival / differential archaeological preservation makes it too difficult to be in any way dogmatic about the point of origin. Indeed dating evidence can be rather difficult with regard to the four classes as one of each class has been found in association with each of the other classes in the hoards of Britain. In general though, it seems that Class 1 was the earliest, and that Class 2 evolved alongside this and were in contemporary use. The Class 2 weapon has a simpler cross-section, typically with a slight central ridge marking its lozenge shaped cross-section. The edges are bevelled, and it seems most probable that they underwent cycles of cold-working and annealing to increase their hardness and durability. This bevelling of the edge and slight central rib gave a slight impression of three ‘ribs’, and in the Class 3 rapier, these are exaggerated into a triple rib / arris. The longest and thinnest of these weapons fall into a sub-group called Type Lissane, an although these fine weapons are often used to exemplify the weapon type, they are much less robust than the majority of weapons. Class 4 are the most numerous and probably longest-living class. They have a flattened or slightly rounded broad midrib, and rapidly tapering edges / bevels. The hilting arrangement of latest in this class begins to have similarities with the earliest of the leaf-shaped swords of the following Late Bronze Age, known as Ballintober swords. The ensuing development of the full tang swords during this period of change began to displace the rapiers, as they could be made more robustly and thus deliver more powerful blows than the rapier.

Class 1 Rapier

Some stone moulds survive for the casting of rapiers, and it is most probable that ceramic moulds were also widely used in their manufacture. Moulds of stone or clay would be encased in a thick layer of coarse clay to aid in heat retention so that the mould did not cool too quickly, as the thermal shock can cause internal flaws in the weapon, if not macro-damage in the form of fractures. The weapons themselves are typically quite light, but comparatively robust pieces, and were most often wedged into an organic handle (horn being the most common surviving material), further secured by means of rivets which gripped the hilt tight around the base of the blade and also limited movement.

Rapier with bronze handle from Sussex

Frequent references to these first Bronze Age swords highlight their insubstantial hilting arrangement, and the relative flimsiness of their blades, and conclude that they were not serviceable weapons. However, in contrast to this belief, the majority of the surviving pieces in regions that have been studied (Ireland and the River Thames) were clearly used in combat, and have the scars to prove it. We must not consider these early swords in comparison to later, more robust types. When these were the weapon of choice of the warriors whose lives depended on them, they were only likely to face another weapon of similar strength on the field of battle. As any experienced re-enactor or martial artist would agree, when one becomes intimate with the mechanics of a bladed weapon, the manner in which it is used most effectively recommends itself.

These swords had light blades, with two cutting edges and a sharp point. They were not intended to cleave limb from body, or cause gross injury through force alone - they were weapons of more finesse. The edges could be used to lacerate flesh and muscle, potentially disabling limbs, but as the blades were relatively light, they would not make use of percussive force, and hence not jar the hilt too much when cutting. For the thrust, they could certainly deliver a lethal wound.

Rapier with bronze handle from Hungary

The context of their use is of course of great interest to a student of the past, but one that is often only an ephemeral vision today. They were used alongside spears and javelins, pole-arms similar to medieval partisans, shields (and possibly armour) of leather and maybe wood, and possibly slings, bows and arrows or organic weapons such as war clubs or staff weapons. It is uncertain where these swords fit into this panoply, or how they were viewed by warriors of the time. One of the bronze handled pieces from Ireland has such a small handle as to indicate suggest the intriguing possibility that some were belonging to female warriors. In some regards there is an impasse in searching for where they were used, but there is considerable importance in how they could be used, and the great quality of the surviving artefacts and accurate replicas can make help us to better understand this.


Thank you to Peterborough Museum for permission to photograph and use image of rapier.

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