Realistic Blow Calling
The Science and History of Rapier Wounds and Deaths
by Iolo FitzOwen and Christian Richard Dupre
In rapier combat of the Society for Creative Anachronism, we try to recreate that was done in Europe between 1450 and 1600. Most of the foundation for our fighting style is modern fencing, with some modifications for use of secondary weapons, draw cuts, and fighting in the round. It has always been obvious that we have hit and parried in a harder manner than in modern fencing. Trying to decide just how hard we had to be hit to simulate a real blow with a real weapon has been a recurring problem.
Many false assumptions have been made on how difficult or easy it is to puncture the human body. Assumptions on which parts of the body punctured easier, and on how a person’s build affected the seriousness of a blow were also made. Unfortunately most discussions on these topics ended in deadlock due to differing opinions which could not be supported with facts.
What we hope to achieve in this paper is a discussion of the physiology, physics, and history of inflicting wounds with the rapier. This slightly gory topic may help us to deliver and call blows with our bated blades more appropriately, consistently, and realistically. We would like to stress that we are going to deal with facts that can be proven or have been proven and which leave little room for argument. Some of the information uncovered in our research differ with the long-standing opinions of Don Iolo and myself. In light of the facts, however, we are more than willing to change our opinions to be consistent with reality. I hope you will accept these findings with an open mind.
We will look at the "two inch blow" rule, how speed and the sharpness of the weapon affects a blow, how difficult the human body is to penetrate, and how people in real period fights were affected by different types of wounds.
First we will discuss the human body. For years people have said that we needed to have some real weapons tests performed on a medium that would simulate the body, but none were ever done. In preparing this paper we were going to perform such tests, but in our research we discovered that good tests had already been done with reliable results. Dr. Bernard Knight published a paper on stab wounds entitled Some Medicolegal Aspects of Stab Wounds in Legal Medicine Annual, 1976. He is a medical examiner and was able to perform his tests on human cadavers. These tests are excellent for our purpose, and it would be difficult to make any better ones. The results are both enlightening and surprising.
In his paper Dr. Knight states that *With a very sharp knife, the amount of pressure necessary to penetrate the skin of the torso varied from one half to three kilograms (about one to six and a half pounds). He also states that the sharpness of the blade was the single most important factor. A blade point sharpened to the maximum degree would penetrate with about half a kilogram of pressure (slightly more than one pound). When even slightly blunted, the pressure required rose rapidly to between three and five kilograms. If very blunt, it would not penetrate the skin at all with the pressure delivered by one hand. In our tests, the pressure required to obtain a two inch bend in a number five(5) foil was about four and a half (4 1/2) pounds. This is well within the range required for a real weapon. We found this to be a pleasant surprise.
We must point out that the pressure in this phase of the experiment was being applied very slowly, so speed of thrust was not a factor for these results. When Dr. Knight introduced speed as a factor he found that when a more realistic reenactment of the stabbing situation was simulated with a rapid lunge at the skin surface, a dramatic alteration of the result was seen. With the knife traveling at several feet per second, penetration occurred so readily that no reading was recorded upon the scale of the instrument. This was attributed to the inertia of the spring system, so that the knife did not begin to move relative to the handle of the apparatus before deep penetration was achieved. Once again this result changed with the dullness of the blade, however the speed that the blade travels profoundly affects the ease of penetration. Therefore, if a rapier penetrates easily at high speed, it would do so before it had time to bend, or the skin had time to subside much. That is with a real blade, not our bated ones. In considering the relative ease of penetrating different parts of the body, Dr. Knight had this to say:
It appeared that the resistance depended more upon the underlying tissues than upon the skin itself. For instance, the intercostal spaces between the ribs could be penetrated much more easily than the upper abdomen because the tissues were stretched tightly across the ribs and skin did not subside before penetration, as the upper abdomen. Similarly, the force required to penetrate the abdominal wall was reduced to at least half, when the skin was put under tension before stabbing. The skin of large muscular areas such as the thigh was also more easily penetrated due to the firm resistance beneath.
It is important to remember that Dr. Knight was performing his tests on cadavers, and not people poised with muscles taught to lunge or retreat. The stomach and other soft areas would be under tension similar to that over the rib cage, and be penetrated equally easily. The space between ribs is equal to or larger than the ribs themselves. The oval cross section of the ribs will tend to direct a blade between them. For the purpose of a fighting standard, it would not be unreasonable to assume all blows to the ribs pass through. Disregarding blows because of one’s anatomical peculiarities makes great reading in Marvel Comics, but is not fair or realistic in rapier combat.
In considering the depth of wounds, the article says "Once the knife penetrated the skin, no further force needed to be applied to cause rapid penetration of the tissues beneath the skin." This means that no matter how skinny or obese the fighter, once the threshold of the skin is overcome, the blows are equally deadly to both Laurel and Hardy alike. This fact is further supported in the article by "the passing of the threshold point caused the knife to suddenly penetrate deeply into the body, even though the operator attempted to remove the pressure as soon as a loss of resistance was felt." Picture the skin as the surface of a trampoline; when you attempt to puncture it with a knife the surface dimples downward until the point breaks through, then the surface jumps up driving itself far up the blade. In other words if you hit hard enough to penetrate the skin, you hit hard enough to wound or kill your opponent.
All people are equally easy to puncture, regardless of size or hit location, with the possible exception of the cranium. This is supported by experiment and not simply for game play. We believe it is important that we try to do things in as realistic a manner as possible so we are not simply playing another kind of game, but portraying a fighting style with a bit of substance. If you find these conclusions hard to accept we encourage you to carry out your own research and experiment, and present hard facts in support of your viewpoint.
There are a few historical accounts of duels which may throw a little light on our attempts at analyses of wounding with rapiers or daggers.
The Frenchman Brantome has an account of a duel with rapier and dagger in 151O, in which a Captain St. Croix received a wound in the thigh (a cut?) which pierced to the bone. Captain St. Croix fell to the ground and prepared to defend himself from there. He became faint with loss of blood, his second offered St. Croix’s surrender, and the fight was stopped.
A similar fight between lightly armored opponents using sword and dagger in Rome, in 1559, got one fighter a serious wound in the leg. The wounded man did not fall, but retaliated with a hard thrust and two quick cuts, with no success. His opponent played a defensive fight until the wounded man was about to collapse from loss of blood, and asked that the duel end.
Two sons of Gianno de Medici fought a duel with sword and cloak. One of them received a "scratchy on the forehead and was forced to repeatedly wipe blood from his eyes until his brother stopped the fight and bound up the wound." Eventually both were severely wounded but both survived.
On March 31, 1579, a duel took place on the isle of Louviers, on the Seine, between M. de Sourdiac, the young Lord of Chateauneuf, and the elderly M. de La Chasnaye-Lalier. Sourdiac had precipitated the duel, but tried to settle the question peacefully al the site of the duel. Chasnaye insisted that they had gone to the trouble of setting up the duel, and they were going to do it. They stripped to their shirts, but Sourdiac planted a shot on Chasnaye that he thought should have done serious damage, without effect. Sourdiac accused his opponent of being secretly armored and began making attacks at Chasnaye’s head and neck. Chasnaye received a thrust in the neck, which narrowly missed cutting his throat, but persevered and succeeded in running Sourdiac through and killing him. Was Chasnaye Lalier really wearing armor? At this point nobody knows.
In the reign of Emperor Charles V, there was a duel between a pair of Italians and a pair of Spaniards in the presence of the Emperor and his court. One of the Italians was wounded early in the fight, and his companion moved to his aid. Seeing their advantage. the Spaniards redoubled their attack. In a final flurry, the unwounded Italian ran one Spaniard through the body and nearly cut the other one’s head off with a sudden reversal. We interpret this move as a thrust through one opponent, followed by a violent draw cut or slash through the throat of the other, probably a cut through the tissue of the neck down to the spine. We have probably seen draw cuts of comparable force on our list fields disregarded.
The point of these stories is that, though we have no way of judging how hard these fighters were hit, we do have numerous examples of people being defeated by a substantial leg wound and subsequent loss of blood. This occurrence is something we seldom do in our play. We have a case in which a fighter is seriously hampered by a small cut on the forehead, and on the other side, an account of a duellist receiving a dangerous, but not fatal wounds to the neck and continues to fight, and wins.
Based on Dr. Knight’s information, Don lolo and I conducted some of our own experiments. We used split rawhide bends that had been soaking in water for many hours, and a ten pond (l0 pound) scale modified for the purpose. We found that the soaked rawhide was penetrated at about the same pressure threshold as the skin. This is not precise to the ounce, but certainly to the pound, which should be adequate for our purposes.
Using a very sharp, light rapier (1/2 inch x 3/16 inch cross section), we were able to penetrate at about 8 pounds in the slow push, and about 1 l/2 pounds in a fast thrust. Using a wide, less sharp rapier (1 1/2 inch x 3/16 inch cross section) we found that penetration took 5 1/2 pounds on a slow push, and 5 pounds with a fast thrust. This further supports the need for a very sharp point. Remember, a #5 foil only requires 4 l/2 pounds for a 2 inch bend. To have consistent blow calling in rapier combat, it is necessary to assume all combatants use similar rapiers of similar sharpness. The 2 inch rule is a good standard. Be aware that speed aids blow calling just as it aids penetration in a real blade.
It was not difficult to draw cut the soaked rawhide stretched over a curved surface The amount of pressure required could not be objectively measured, but it seemed to be about 4 or 5 pounds for a 5 inch draw cut. This would be quite sufficient to lay a limb or torso open with a nasty wound. We also discovered if the point was not thrust squarely, but laid on, it would not puncture the rawhide, even with 3 very large bend of 6 to 8 inches with the light rapier. Dragging the laid-on point across the rawhide did not cut it deeply, but only scratched it.
Note: 1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds
Blade #5 foil practice = electric foil Italian epee
|Pressure required for 2 inch bend
|Practice electric foil
|Pressure for slow penetration
Note: It does not require 10 pounds to deliver a good blow with an epee, it simply does not bend as much in delivering a killing blow. The bend of the #5 foil is simply a way to measure the pressure behind the blade. Our experiments have given us hard evidence in support of the two inch bend rule. They have also supported recent efforts to reduce drastically the force necessary for effective draw cuts- we hope these experiments will help to foster a new sense of body awareness in rapier combat.
Our research reminded us that the nature of the human body is such that it is often unnecessary to deliver what we assume is a killing blow to vanquish opponents. Contrarily, we have examples of people who received blows we might have considered incapacitating and continued to fight. Our rules attempt to fall with the median of these two extremes. In conclusion we must admit that our system of counting blows is and must remain rather arbitrary and sometimes unrealistic. We can and should strive to count blows much more easily. We may also strive to give support to those who are chivalrous enough to consider loss of bloods blinding, and other effects of wounding that are not precisely mandated by the rules. In order to do this, we must emphasize some important elements of fairness, chivalry, and theater over the need to win within the strict confines of the rules.
- Aylward, J. D. The English Master of Arms.
- Bryson, Frederick. The 16th Century Italian Duel. 1950.
- Castle, Egerton. Schools and Masters of Fence. 1892.
- Hutton, Alfrid. The Sword and the Centuries. Charles Tuttle & Co., Rutland, VT. 1901/1973.
- Jackson, James L. (ed). Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals. Scholars, Facsimiles A Reprints, Delmar, N. Y. 1972.
- Knight, Bernard. "Some Medicolegal Aspects of Stab Wounds", Legal Medical Annual, 1976, Appleton Crofts, New York, N. Y.
- Powell, George H. Duelling Stories of the Sixteenth Century. 1904.
- Grimm, Carl A. A Complete Bibliography of Fencing and Duelling. 1908.