Being a longsworder myself, you’ll probably scream bias here and maybe that’s true. I’m looking at this primarily from the longsworder’s perspective but I hope, as with all things, to give a balanced opinion by the end. Enough about me though, let’s get into it.
What are the key differences between the weapons? We’ll let’s start with the length of them. Both swords varied greatly in length and that will have a great impact on how this plays out. If you’re pitting a relatively short Spanish rapier against a full-blown longsword that needs two hands to be used at all, then the longsworder has a much greater reach advantage and hence advantage overall. Conversely if you’re pitting an incredibly long Italian rapier against a much more modest Bastard sword (i.e. a longsword which can be used effectively with one or two hands), it probably goes the other way. If we consider weapons of similar relative length within their own classification, things are fairly even overall. We’re going to ignore the Montante/Spadone/Zweihander here as it’s closer to a spear or poleaxe in size and length, and not really a fair comparison.
But there are other differences to consider as well. A key one would be the longsword takes two hands but the rapier takes one. This has its pros and cons. It means the longsworder is necessarily more square on to their opponent, presenting more of a target and hence being easier to hit. Having a rapier, or any sword in one hand really, means you can stand quite flat relative to your opponent so most of your body is quite hard to hit. The longsworder does gain a few things from using two hands though. Firstly, they have a great degree of control over the blade from having a second pivot point with the other hand, making the sword almost as nimble as a rapier. They also can generate lots of force very quickly from the pull-push motion of the hands or even the potential energy of many of the guards, either way, making for powerful strikes. At the bind having two hands (as well as a heavier sword) gives them much greater leverage so they can generally control what happens at a bind quite well. I’ll end quickly by discussing the different levels of protection. To a comparison between the longsword’s crossguard to the rapier’s complex hilt, I’d simply say, yes the rapier has more hand protection but both are generally sufficient for their respective styles.
Anyway, let’s get into it. How does this all play out? Well, you both have long, pointy weapons with great point control so it can often become a counter thrusting game of out-thinking the other one then thrusting at the right time. This is almost a fair fight but, I’d argue, not quite. See, if the longsworder has the sword really far forwards in Long Point, they have reduced their manoeuvrability a lot. They actually need to keep the hilt quite close to their body to have a nimble tip. A rapier on the other hand can be held quite far out and still be very nimble. This means that even if the longsword is technically longer, how you have to hold it to do this kind of fight inevitably reduces your reach. Just keeping it out in Long Point looks quite defensive but all it takes is a quick side-step and the rapierist can stab you safely in the arm or hand. If you keep it close to your body though, remember, more of your body is exposed than them so you have to work harder to cover yourself and out-think them. Also, don’t forget they’re probably slightly more nimble as well. Basically, if you’ve got a much longer sword and/or you’re much more skilled, you’ll probably be fine but equal skill and similar lengthed blades would, at a pinch, make this kind of fight one the rapierist is likely to win.
What are your alternatives though? In fencing, as in life, play to your strengths. The longsworder’s key strengths here are that they have greater control at the bind and they can cut really well. Now, I’m not advocating a point back guard like Posta di Donna or Vom Tag—a rapier’s lunge will probably get you before you can strike. However, a tip forward guard that’s threatening them and ready to displace their thrust with either a counter-cut or transitioning to another guard to cover the line, that will work. Basically, cover a line to reduce their options, wait for them to lunge or bait them into it then displace their lunge and riposte. This is the safest thing you can do. Now I say do this on their lunge because that’s when they are most committed to the attack and, hence, it’s much harder for them to move their sword nimbly out of the way. If you try and beat or rebat a rapier blade that hasn’t committed yet, you’ll be chasing it forever. Your key chance is to bind them when they strike. And, though I doubt this needs to be said, once you’ve bound them, you can riposte with a cut or thrust much quicker than they can; so long as you’ve gotten yourself past their tip, you’re not in much danger.
There’s just one problem with this though. That’s the ideal situation. Any competent rapierist isn’t just going to let you bind their blade as you see fit. They only commit to a lunge when they think they’ve found an opening. Think on that for a second. Until they’ve committed, it’s very dangerous for you to close in on them, but they get to decide when they commit to an attack. Unless you’re more skilled or can out-think them, they still have a great degree of control over the fight. There’s no simple solution for the longsworder; no simple path to follow that will ensure victory. Indeed, they need to use all their wits to keep themselves safe long enough to find or create an opening of their own.
Verdict then? I’m actually going with the rapier. I love longswords. Nothing is more beautiful to fight with in the complexity of the options available to you. However, there’s a reason historically they made way before the rapier in one-on-one duels: the rapier was better for it. Now, I enjoy sparring against a rapier, but I think that’s a part of my tendency to like being at a disadvantage and still come out on top, rather than rigging the deck and feeling a somewhat hollow victory from success…
(To the smartasses out there who tell me I have a great sword and a transitional rapier/arming sword in the picture at the top, yes I’m well aware. You can thank Marozzo)