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The Rapier and the Smallsword, 1460-1820 by A.V.B. Norman

Review by Tom Leoni

Hardbound: 464 pages
ISBN: 0405130899
Out of print

When I received this book as a gift, I knew that it would become one of my all-time favorites. This large, 464-page, heavily-illustrated tome takes the reader on a historical tour of the swords we know as rapiers and smallswords from the late 15th Century to the end of the Napoleonic era.

After an interesting introductory section, Norman classifies most hilt types following a general chronological order, from the simple cruciform guard through the complex rapier shapes to the simplified smallsword hilts. In all, he identifies and illustrates over one hundred hilt types, describing them crisply and accurately with a nomenclature that has become standard among rapier enthusiasts.

The hilts he analyzes are from museum collections and from period paintings, and for each type Norman gives a stylized drawing, a description and an exhaustive list of museum and pictorial sources. The book also features a fair number of black and white photographs of actual pieces or of period artwork.

The author then conducts a similar (but more succint) analysis of inner guards and pommels, after which he touches upon other related subjects such as daggers, sword-belts, scabbards, sheaths, sword-knots and decorating techniques. A plethora of period sources from many nations are quoted, making this book a precious resource for all serious students of the sword.

The one thing I wish Norman had done is give us an equally complete analysis of rapier blades, although that may have required another few hundred pages. Still, even without a thorough investigation of blades, this book is and remains the standard against which all other books on rapier hilts are measured.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book - which seems to be reprinted occasionally in limited-edition runs. The best place to find it would be on the Internet, by visiting used and rare-book databases such as www.abebooks.com. Although prices can vary depending on condition and publishing date (an original edition in good condition can fetch up to $400 as of the time of this writing), this book is well worth it and will give the enthusiast a lifetime of reading enjoyment.

Last Updated: 28-Oct-11