March 16, 2020
By Ryan F. Sullivan
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Here at Rock Island Auction Company we see all manner of antique weapons aside from firearms. Swords in particular are always an item of interest, with the antique rapier virtually qualifying as a genre onto itself. Taken alone, the multi-national, multi-generational nature of the rapier results in a broad array of variations, as the needs of the swordsman changed over the ages. Representing the transition point between the heavier martial swords of the European battlefields and the lightweight foils and court swords of later years, the rapier represents an interesting balance between speed and power, giving reach and piercing force while maintaining agility and a light weight.
from Les Caprices Series B by Jacques Callot
When inspecting an antique rapier, whether for consideration for purchase or consignment, there are a number of things to be mindful of, including possible hazards to the item, nearby people, and yourself.
Before taking an antique rapier out of a scabbard, first inspect the scabbard for any damage or loose parts. This is both for the safety of the sheath (a damaged sheath that no longer has a blade inside to support it can potentially rip or crack under its own weight) and the safety of your hand (drawn carelessly, a sword can punch through the sides of a sheath and injure the holder or bystanders). Any rips, tears, or splits should be noted, as well as any excessive play in the fittings, and taken into account before trying to draw the sword. For maximum safety, ensure no one is standing close by when you draw, as a sudden loss of friction during the draw may result in a sudden swing of your arm.
With sword in hand and unsheathed, the next step is to inspect the blade. Visually check each side for obvious blemishes like spotting, pitting, or cracks in the metal. Then (again, checking that you have a clear bubble of personal space before proceeding) extend your arm and the blade towards a nearby light source, like a lamp or ceiling light. By looking down the blade, it is easier to detect bends or warping in the metal that would be difficult to perceive with the sword flat on a table. Due to their relatively light weight, antique rapiers often suffer this sort of damage, and one should keep a particular eye out for it.
From this position you can also further check the cutting edges, by orienting the blade edge-up and moving it about to catch the light; a sudden bright spot on the edge suggests a small chip, ding, or divot that is reflecting light differently than the rest of the edge. NEVER CHECK THE EDGE OF AN ANTIQUE RAPIER OR OTHER SWORD BY RUNNING A THUMB OR FINGER ALONG IT. Best case scenario: you will look silly and get finger oils on the blade. Worst case scenario: you will bleed, the blood will harm the finish of the sword, and everyone will laugh at you, possibly directly to your face. Unless you practice a martial art that includes cutting drills, refrain from testing the edge by cutting something with it as this may place unneeded wear on the edge or strain on the blade or fittings.
Next comes the fittings of the hilt, the guard, grip, and pommel. Wrapping a soft cloth around the blade at the forte (the lowest, thickest part of the blade, just above where the blade meets the guard) will allow a firm, safe grip while freeing the fittings for inspection. Ideally, every rigid component mounted directly to the blade and tang should have a rock solid fit. When wielded, the entire sword should move as a single, unified whole and failure to do so is evidence of wear and damage. The fastest preliminary check is to grip the blade (using the cloth) and give the sword a light shake. Unless the sword is fitted with a chain guard or other loose parts, there should be no audible rattling. Any rattling that can be heard in an antique rapier suggests that something is wrong: either a part has worn down with use or age, been replaced with an undersized component, or has been damaged.
Following that preliminary check, proceed to visually check the individual components. In addition to oxidization or general wear, be on the lookout for any breaks in the joints of any fancy metal work on the guard, evidence of shrinkage/cracking of the grip material (many antique rapier grips use a hardwood base covered with some other material), and any battering of the pommel. Of particular note in the pommel region, some sword designs have the tang (the part of the sword blade metal that continues below the guard and into the hilt) pass through the bottom of the pommel during assembly, which is then ground and tacked down to secure all the fittings. Excessive wear or tool marks in this area can be evidence that the blade or fittings were altered.
For the most part, any remedy applied to an antique rapier in terms of damage or wear must be considered very carefully, with a bias towards not doing anything. When in doubt, don’t. Don’t polish the blade or try to sharpen out a nick. Don’t try to hammer down a tang or weld a guard. Without specialist equipment and experience, work should be limited to gentle cleaning with a soft, lint-free cloth and a light oil. The use of a toothbrush to remove grease or debris from tight crevices and a hand-tightening of the fittings is acceptable in almost every scenario. With any antique weapon, there is a real and present danger of any cure turning out to be worse than the disease. Whenever possible, bias in favor of caution. Pitting may be unsightly, but at the end of the day so are file marks.
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