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George Silver’s Short Sword Had a 37-40in Blade


George Silver’s 1599 Paradoxes of Defense remains a controversial text, particularly the claim that he “short sword” has the advantage over the “long rapier” in a duel. Sparring results vary; fencers who don’t practice Silver’s system frequently believe the rapier has a notable advantage over the basket-hilt sword and all other shorter swords in a single combat.

In this context, it’s important to remember that Silver specified a 37-40in blades: “The best length for perfect teaching of the true fight to be used and continued in fence schools, to accord with the true statures of all men, are these. The blade to be a yard and an inch for men of mean stature, and for men of tall statures, a yard and three or four inches, and no more.” Silver additionally provided instructions for how to find one’s perfect length. It’s trivial to make this consistent with the 37-40in range. Personally, I’m 5′ 10″ and I can manage a 37-38in blade even under a restrictive interpretation of Silver’s measuring position.

While most basket-hilt swords from the British Isles and elsewhere have shorter blades, some extant basket-hilt swords fall exactly into Silver’s specifications. A 36-37in blade was a common standard for military swords in Silver’s day, and civilian swords could be significantly longer, up to 48 inches of blade. Thus it makes sense to a call sword with a 37-40in blade a “short sword.” Humphrey Barwick used that term for a sword with a 36in blade.

Various skilled fencers practice Silver’s style with somewhat shorter swords. Some of them argue that Silver’s 37-40in range meant the sword’s overall length. While this better conforms to the average size of basket-hilt swords, it’s is patently ridiculous as textual analysis. First, there’s no reason to think Silver meant “overall length” when he wrote “blade” instead. Second, overall length isn’t relevant for one’s ability to uncross and so on. Grip and pommel length can differ, so it’s a fuzzy number. I don’t know of any sixteenth-century text that refers to a sword’s overall length.

As further evidence supporting longer blade lengths for Silver, he wrote that it was better to have a weapon above perfect length than below it: “And if two shall fight with staves or swords, or what weapons soever, the one of them having his weapon longer than the perfect length, and the other shorter than the perfect length, he that has the longer has the vantage, because the shorter can make no true cross in true time.”

George Silver still may have been wrong that the short swords has the advantage against the long rapier, but you can’t test that without using swords as long he instructed and employing the techniques he described.

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Posted by on February 13, 2017 in Advantages, Single Combat


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