Capoferro weapon length

There is a budding controversy these days about the weapon length recommended by Ridolfo Capoferro in his Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell’Uso della Scherma. Jonathan Allen (a.k.a. Grauenwolf) criticized Guy Windsor’s video on this respect in particular, and now the latter has responded to the criticism.

Guy’s answer is stressing the ambiguity in the original citation and illustration.

The original text reads:

Therefore, the sword should be twice as long as the arm, or as long as the extended step. This length is also the same as that between the sole of my foot and just under the armpit.
Ridolfo Capoferro, trans. Tom Leoni

It is true that this text is somewhat ambiguous, as it does not specify everything: length of blade or overall length, how deep the lunge is, where you measure the arm form, or even in which position does the weapon come up to the armpit. I would argue the illustration clarifies this, but it is always touchy to make assumptions on the quality of illustrations. I will come back to it later.

Regardless of the image, there is context to Capoferro’s work. That discussion of length is actually cross-referenced in contemporary or later texts. For example, this bit in Thibault clearly refers to the instruction of Capoferro:

It is astonishing, that among those who have professed the Arms during their whole life, and published their writings accross the World, so few discuss this subject […] Some did speak about it, and even determined the length of the sword, but more according to the taste of some cowards, who like to have very long weapons, so as to remain always at a distance, than to any demonstration of Science. And such is the opinion of those who want that the blades be equal to two full arms, such that setting the point on the ground beside the man, the pommel comes to his armpit; which is rather the length of an Espadon than that of a Sword: besides, it will necessarily be unsightly and inconvenient, as much to carry at one’s side, as to draw out of the scabbard, and also dangerous and unwieldly to use.
Girard Thibault, Académie de l’Espée, trans. mine

Note how this criticism is actually a lot more precise than the original advice!

Later on, Alfieri also gives a similar measurement (Part II, chapter 1):

First of all the length of the sword should be proportional to the stature of its bearer, nonetheless it is always suitable when it arrives comfortably under the arm.
Francesco Alfieri, La Scherma, trans. Caroline Stewart, Phil Marshall & Piermarco Terminiello

From these texts, two things become pretty clear:

  • The whole length of the weapon is considered, pommel to tip
  • The reference for the armpit measurement is a standing position, as that is what Thibault uses. It would make no sense for him to use another position just here

Now does this fit the illustration?

Here is a touched up image of Capoferro’s famous lunge plate. Note that the image I used, from William E. Wilson’s scans, has a slight camera distortion which bends the sword. This has no significance on the precision of measurements though. I have drawn four lines of the same length as the sword pommel to tip. I have also duplicated one of the extended arms of the figure.

Annotated Capoferro image

Showing up the various measurements pointed out in Capoferro’s text.

See how everything lines up quite well! The sword would indeed fit under the armpit if the figure was standing erect, as evidenced by the line following the left leg and torso, which are very nearly aligned here. The sword has the length of the extended step, heel of the left foot to toes of the right foot. The sword is two arms length, the length of the arm being measured from armpit to the knuckles by my best guess. It is the measurement which is hardest to check.

What is this weapon length for me? My height is 183cm. A sword of 140cm fits comfortably under my armpit. I can certainly lunge 140cm, even though this does feel extended! My arm, armpit to knuckles, is indeed 70cm. All of this is of course give or take a couple of centimeters, but it certainly works. Assuming 15cm of hilt, quillons to pommel end, this leaves a 125cm blade (or 49in).

This is certainly big. I do not have a big enough sample of rapier measurements to judge how common it really was, but certainly this seems to be the top of the range. There is at least one such weapon in the Wallace Collection, and there was data once on the Internet about examples of similar length, sadly I cannot link to it anymore. Shorter people would find a shorter length, and therefore more historical examples.


To conclude, I do not find Capoferro’s advice to be ambiguous, once the context is taken into account. The text actually fits the image about perfectly. Although such long rapiers might have been less common, there are original examples of this size. It is possible to argue that this proportion is impractical for tall people, and how critical to Capoferro’s form that exact length was is up for debate as well. That said if faithfulness to the text is the goal, fairly long blades should be used, sticking to the author’s word.

4 thoughts on “Capoferro weapon length

    • Hi Sean!

      Thanks for your comment! I have read (and will probably reread 😉 ) your post with interest.

      About canonical proportions, you might want to look at Table II in Thibault too. He compares his circle to another canonical man from Dürer. I have not yet checked, maybe this gives slightly different proportions…

      Of the three measurements, the one I consider the most trustable is floor to armpit. An arm length is poorly defined on both ends; you don’t know where to begin and where to end. Lunge length is similarly inaccurate, you could lunge longer than that and of course shorter. While on Capoferro’s figure all three are consistent with the sword depicted, in practice one is a stronger constraint than the others.

      Regards,

  1. Dear Vincent,

    I agree. Even if “the length of the arm” includes the hand, one can change its length by extending or closing the fingers, and even in an idealized plate 5 lunge one can include the length of the front foot or not in “the length of my passo straordinario.” But under the armpit sounds like holding the sword upright at one’s side to me, and Thibault understood it that way. Didn’t Sydney Anglo print a drawing from an Italian manual of a fencer wearing such a long rapier? My copy of “The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe” is back in Canada.

    My French is very rusty, and I do not have a print copy of Thibault, but I will try to find that table in my PDF. I agree that Dürer would be better than the fifteenth-century sources which I know. Usually the closest I get to Capo Ferro is Dall’Agocchie’s way of strolling in the guards.

    What software did you use to reproduce that line four times?

    • Absolutely, if I remember correctly Sydney Anglo included a plate from Ghisliero showing the rapier at the side of a standing man, and it might have been a long one. I cannot find it online and I do not have my copy here with me!

      I did the image with the open source editor Inkscape. Makes it really simple to change the position and orientation.

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