Mapping rapier length and weight in the Wallace Collection

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Mapping rapier length and weight in the Wallace Collection

Postby Glyn » 14 Mar 2015 21:33

When I first started playing with swords I became fascinated with the idea that there should be a perfect length and weight for a rapier - or if not, then at least a typical size that was representative of the type as a whole.

For a time I was very frustrated at not being able to determine what this was as there didn't seem to be much useful information available. On close inspection what information was available was often the same data repeated in different forms in different locations, sometimes with data points added or removed, and sometimes appearing to be deliberately selected to conform to a very narrow definition of what a 'true' rapier would be - essentially self-selecting the answer.

Eventually I realised that it was a ridiculous pursuit in the first place - it was as if I was planning a walking trip along a mountain range and was researching the average height of the range, which would be useless when approaching an individual summit. The average of the dimensions of two swords is not a summary of the two, but a third new entity which tells us little about either original weapon.

With that in mind, and the Wallace Collection details in a handy electronic format, I recently set out to map the length and weight of the rapiers - the object being to be able to view the collection and locate the highs, lows and mid-points, but without blurring everything into a meaningless hash. The end result is attached as a chart. My apologies for the unusual spacing of the imperial units, I felt an awkward step value was preferable to using metric exclusively.

The selection and classification of the weapons ("Rapier" or "Cup-hilt Rapier") is as stated in the catalogue. With the exception of A645, which is lacking its overall length, all rapiers and cup-hilt rapiers are included. Overall length was chosen over blade length as it allowed for nearly three times as many swords to be included in the chart (120 compared to 44).


Click for a bigger version.

Obviously, given the number of expert and, indeed, revered eyes that have reviewed and revised the Wallace Collection Arms and Armour Catalogues over the years, any errors here are likely to be mine alone.



Old habits die hard.

With the information extracted it was almost too easy to produce some old fashioned averages. I have included them below - make what use of them you will. Be aware, however, that there is no reason to treat the Wallace Collection's rapiers - marvellous as they are - as being representative of historical rapiers as a whole, and it should also be noted that a number of them are known to be composites but have not been excluded from the calculations here. If you are looking for a 'feel' of what a typical - or exceptional - rapier is, then I believe the chart is a far more useful tool. As noted above, a sword is constructed from steel, not statistics.

It is particularly interesting to note that the 44 swords with a blade length listed give an average blade length of 106.6cm, compared to the average overall length across 120 swords of 114.1cm. Given the calculated average hilt length for the 43 swords that we have both overall length and blade length for is 17.55cm, this is a puzzling result.

Running the statistics again but looking at only the swords we have a blade length for gives an average overall length of 124.5cm - over 10cm longer than the average across the complete rapier collection. The average weight for these swords is 1.17kg, slightly below the 1.22 overall average where we would expect longer swords to be slightly heavier. This suggests that the swords listed with a measured blade length are not representative of the collection as a whole but have a tendency to come from the longer and slightly lighter swords.

I find myself wondering if there is a scientific reason for this bias (such as the measurements being made as part of a study of weapons from a particular period), or if it represents a personal bias of the cataloguer spending more time on their own favourite weapons - with longer and lighter being preferred by the curators as much as by fencers.

Code: Select all
Overall length - 120 swords
Mean overall length:    114.1cm 44.9inches
Median overall length:  113.5cm 44.7inches
Maximum overall length: 139.7cm 55.0inches      A668
Minimum overall length:  94.0cm 37.0inches      A538
Standard deviation:      10.5cm 4.1inches

Weight - 121 swords
Mean weight:            1.22kg  2.69lb
Median weight:          1.24kg  2.73lb
Maximum weight:         1.87kg  4.11lb          A574
Minimum weight:         0.62kg  1.36lb          A513
Standard deviation:     0.22kg  0.47lb

Blade length - 44 swords
Mean blade length:      106.6cm 42.0inches
Median blade length:    105.5cm 41.5inches
Maximum blade length:   123.0cm 48.4inches      A668
Minimum blade length:    84.1cm 33.1inches      A513
Standard deviation:       8.1cm  3.2inches

Blade width - 121 swords
Mean blade width:       2.4cm   0.9inches
Median blade width:     2.4cm   0.9inches
Maximum blade width:    3.3cm   1.3inches       A596
Minimum blade width:    1.4cm   0.6inches       A653
Standard deviation:     0.4cm   0.2inches

Hilt length - 43 swords
(calculated as the difference of overall length and blade length)
Mean hilt length:       17.55cm 6.9inches
Median hilt length:     17.10cm 6.7inches
Maximum hilt length:    24.12cm 9.5inches       A661
Minimum hilt length:    13.10cm 5.2inches       A654
Standard deviation:      2.40cm 0.9inches
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Re: Mapping rapier length and weight in the Wallace Collecti

Postby tea » 15 Mar 2015 10:26

Have you considered trying to see if there are any trends through time?

One interesting option for that could be to colour-code the rapiers by date, so that early ones are red and late ones are blue (or whatever). That should hopefully then illuminate potential patterns.

Similarly, another interesting option could be to colour them based on country of origin.
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Re: Mapping rapier length and weight in the Wallace Collecti

Postby Glyn » 15 Mar 2015 12:03

tea wrote:Have you considered trying to see if there are any trends through time?

Yes, that's definitely on the list of things to do. At present there's the simplistic view in the chart of "Rapier" compared to "Cup-hilt Rapier" which gives an idea of how things develop. To get more precise is a little complicated because the date information is often listed as a range of dates so one sword might be 1625, one might be 1620-1630 and one might be first half 17C. It's also common to find pommel, hilt and blade as being from different periods. This is a particularly interesting one to approach as it may indicate a composite weapon assembled in recent times or a re-use of components in period and it would be very useful to distinguish between them. I suspect I will need to accept my limitations and not squeeze so much in that it becomes unreadable though. Unfortunately separating out the data also requires reading the catalogue, which can be quite distracting...

Country information was often deliberately disguised in period times, and it was also common for hilt and blade to be made separately, so a hilt made in England may have been made according to German style and fitted to a blade which claims Italian origin but was in fact made in Spain (and sold to a Belgian who fenced in a French style for that matter!). Sorting all that out is, I suspect, a problem for another day :-)

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Re: Mapping rapier length and weight in the Wallace Collecti

Postby admin » 15 Mar 2015 22:55

Fascinating! Thanks for sharing this. 8)

I like swords more than you.
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Re: Mapping rapier length and weight in the Wallace Collecti

Postby Mink » 14 Jul 2015 22:54

Yes, thanks!
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