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Saber vs Rapier: Design, History, and Combat Style

Written By: David Mickov
Published On: January 11, 2024
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

The saber and rapier are European Renaissance and modern swords that are historically significant. As highly popular, they are often debated as to which is the better dueling sword. As we delve into these popular HEMA (historical European martial arts) training blades, we explore their unique characteristics, differences, combat attributes apart, historical significance, and which is the better dueling sword.

KEY TAKEAWAYS
The rapier has a straight double-edged blade while the saber has a curved single-edged blade.
Having evolved from the sidesword, the rapier was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries while the saber was inspired by Eastern cultures. 
In a duel with rules, the rapier would emerge victorious due to its agile design while the saber would win in a duel to the death.
Saber Comparison
Saber
Rapier Comparison 1
Rapier
Origin
Saber
Eastern Europe – 16/17th century
Rapier
Spain/Italy – 16th century
Use
Saber
Slashing, Horseback, Versatility
Rapier
Dueling, Thrusting
Average Length
Saber
30 to 43 inches (76 to 110 cm)
Rapier
43 to 55 inches (110 to 140)
Weight
Saber
1.55 to 2.64 lbs (0.7 to 1.2 kg)
Rapier
2.2 to 2.9 lbs (1 to 1.3 kg)
Blade Type
Saber
Curved / Single-Edge
Rapier
Straight / Double-Edge
Construction
Saber
High-Carbon Steel
Rapier
High-Carbon Steel
Price
Saber
$110 – $450
Rapier
$90 – $380

Terms, Characteristics, and Dimension Differences

Saber and Rapier Characteristics
The different characteristics of Saber and Rapier

The rapier is a large one-handed blade that draws its name from the Spanish term “espada ropera”, meaning dress sword. It refers to the Renaissance gentleman’s companion blade that serves as a defense weapon among civilians while representing one’s status.

The term “saber” refers to European sabers influenced by the Eastern Asian curved blades. Although available in various shapes and designs, it generally represents the slim or slightly broad single-edged curved blades used on horseback.

Blade

Main Practical Rapier 37 Inch Blade by Paul Chen Hanwei
A “practical rapier” with an unsharpened blade

Both the saber and the rapier are forged from high-carbon steel. The composition of the steel is different compared to earlier European blades as they need to be more flexible. 

While some European sabers can have straight single-edged blades, most have an upward curve near the tip. The added feature of a fuller or groove on the blade helps to decrease its overall weight. A saber’s blade usually ranges between 23 to 31 inches (60 to 80 cm).

In comparison, the rapier has a straight double-edged blade with varying widths, depending on when it was constructed. It can also feature a fuller in its central line and an unsharpened ricasso near its handguard. For the rapier, its blade can even reach 41-inches (105 cm), depending on the user’s height.

Longer blades have issues such as being difficult to carry and especially when unsheathing. Hence, a balance was struck with popular examples such as the European saber and Japanese katana.

Hilt

Main Windlass British 1796 Pattern Light Cavalry Saber 2
British 1796 Light Cavalry Saber” with a fairly broad blade and knuckle guard

The saber and rapier are both one-handed swords with handles designed for a firm grip. Lengthwise, the handles are similar, measuring around 6 inches (15 cm).

The saber’s hilt varies in terms of design based on when it was constructed, often featuring a knuckle D-guard, a half or full basket hilt, or even an early swept-hilt style. Although the handle can be straight, it is usually narrow or slightly curved towards the blade, allowing for better leverage when slashing. The small pommel turns down to form a pistol grip and has a backstrap.

For the rapier, its hilt is elegant and sophisticated, made to complement the attire of its wielder while offering hand protection. Its fairly large pommel acts as a backstopper. The most popular guard is a swept hilt, but the presence of features like ring fingers, loops, cruciform quillons, baskets, and ear lobes can vary.

Scabbard

Scabbard of Rapier and Saber
The rapier’s long blade can cause issues when carrying it – Credits: theDOC30427

The saber’s curved scabbard is typically attached to the user’s waist with belt rings. This ensures that it would not touch the ground or hinder one’s movements on horseback. 

The rapier’s scabbard is straight and very thin to fit the rapier’s blade. Due to the blade’s length, its end would scrape on the ground, requiring its wielder to push the pommel down.

Historically, leather sheaths were popular as they were light. However, wood was preferred for protection against rust and damage. A combination of both was ideal.

Size and Weight

Size and Weight of a Rapier or Saber
An antique rapier sword that weighed 3.07 lbs (1397 grams) – Credits: Arms and Armor

The rapier is often to be a light weapon, but is often heavier than the saber. On average, a rapier weighs around 2.2 to 2.9 lbs (1 to 1.3 kg) while the saber ranges from 1.55 to 2.64 lbs (0.7 to 1.2 kg).

In terms of length, the average European cavalry saber measures 30 to 43 inches (76 to 110 cm) while the rapier is around 43 to 55 inches (110 to 140), with some exceptions.

The rapiers design features more steel, as can be seen in the pommel, hilt, and very long blade. As a result, its weight is often more than that of the sabre.

Historical Significance and Training

History of Saber and Rapier
The use of cavalry sabers in World Wars in Europe – Credits: Keystone View Company

Having evolved from the short sword or “side sword”, the rapier was widely used during the 16th and 17th centuries as a self-defense weapon and as a status symbol. It eventually replaced the longsword as it was an excellent dueling weapon with a huge reach advantage. 

Its popularity led to the emergence of different fencing styles such as French and Italian. However, due to its cumbersome length, it was gradually replaced by the thrusting small sword. 

First introduced in Europe during the Middle Ages, the saber was inspired by the success of the eastern 15th century Ottoman troops and Middle Eastern Scimitar curved single-edged sword from the Eastern European steppes and Asia. Beginning as Hungarian and Polish light cavalry sabers, these rare swords became popular, especially among musketeers. 

They were predominant in Europe after the 18th century and were widely used as cavalry swords as seen in the Napoleonic wars (1799-1815). Today, the sabers function only as ceremonial pieces.

Currently, both the rapier and saber are among HEMA’s (Historical European Martial Arts) most popular and beloved swords for training.

Throughout history, there are many different types of rapiers and sabers that are simply referred to as “swords”. Some of the most popular European sabers are the cutlass, shashka, szabala, backsword, Scottish broadsword, and various cavalry sabers.
Summary
The rapier and European saber are single and double-edged blades used during the late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Modern Era. The rapier is a longer dueling sword that evolved from the sidesword and was replaced by the shorter smallsword. The saber was influenced by Eastern cultures, spreading to Western troops through Hungary and Poland. Its popularity resulted in it replacing the rapier after the 18th century. 

Combat Preference

Saber vs Rapier Combat Preference
An 18th century duel between two individuals wielding a saber and rapier – Credits: umich.edu

The rapier and European sabre are one-handed weapons that offer hand protection. They come in varying designs, shapes, and sizes. 

The biggest advantage of a rapier would be its extended reach and light weight, allowing for agile cuts and serving as a deadly thrusting weapon, able to penetrate deeply and inflict lethal wounds. Its elegant 17th-century design relied on unarmored duels with rules of honor. Offering extreme point control, it could be combined with a buckler for defense or a dagger such as the main gauche.

The saber is a simpler weapon designed to inflict gashes by excelling in slashing, slicing, and some thrusting. This shorter slashing sword offered balanced practicality and functionality without the discomfort of a large blade. While it worked well on foot in most spaces, the saber excelled on horseback. In the 19th century, its combination with a pistol proved to be deadly.

Based on the statistics of duels throughout history, the rapier or smallsword resulted in more lethal wounds than that of a saber’s.
Saber vs Rapier (Duel Winner)
The rapier and European saber are both excellent dueling weapons due to their design emphasizing on speed and dexterity. While the saber was a reliable weapon in war and duels due to its simpler edge alignment, the rapier was designed specifically for duels. Due to the rapier’s reach advantage and stronger thrusting abilities, an experienced rapierist would be the victor in a duel with rules, especially if combined with a buckler or dagger. However, in a duel to the death with minimal armor, the saber would win the fight.
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