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The small sword or smallsword (also court sword, fr: épée de cour or dress sword) is a light one-handed sword designed for thrusting. The small sword evolved out of the longer and heavier rapier of the late Renaissance. The height of the small sword’s popularity was between mid 17th and late 18th century. It is thought to have appeared in France and spread quickly across the rest of Europe. The comparative lightness of the small sword and the resulting ease of manipulation led to the development of the sophisticated handwork and the linear footwork of modern fencing, and it can be considered as the immediate predecessor of the modern foil and épée.
The small sword could, in the right hands, be a highly effective duelling weapon, but as with the rapier its function was often reduced to that of jewellery. Many surviving examples carry elaborate baroque, rococo, or occasionally neoclassical decorations. The fashion for wearing swords with civilian dress rapidly declined at the end of the 18th century, and the civilian use of the small sword was subsequently restricted to certain ceremonial occasions.
Militarily, small swords continued to be used as a standard sidearm for infantry officers. In some branches with strong traditions, this practice continues to the modern day, albeit for ceremonial and formal dress only. The carrying of swords by officers in combat conditions was frequent in World War I and still saw some practice in World War II. The 1913 U.S. Army Manual of Bayonet Drill includes instructions for how to fight a man on foot with a small sword. Small sword are still featured on parade uniforms of some corps.
As a rule, the blade of a small sword is comparatively short at around 0.6 to 0.85 metres (24 to 33 in), though some reach over 0.9 metres (35 in). It usually tapers to a sharp point but may lack a cutting edge. It is typically triangular in cross-section, although some of the early examples still have the rhombic and spindle-shaped cross-sections inherited from older weapons, like the rapier. This triangular cross-section may be hollow ground for additional lightness. Many small swords of the period between the 17th and 18th centuries were found with colichemarde blades.
The small sword guard is typically of the “shell” type, with two lobes that were decorated as clam shells. In some cases, the shells folded over to make the weapon more comfortable when slung at the hip. The shells were often replaced with a simple curved oval disk, which was still referred to as the coquille (shell). In later foils, the lobed type evolved into the “lunette” or figure-8 guard, and the disk became the modern foil “bell” guard, but the guards were still referred to as coquilles. Small swords with this type of guard normally included other features of the older rapier hilt, including quillons, ricasso, knuckle-bow, and a pas d’âne, although these were often atrophied beyond the point of usefulness, serving mainly as a decorative element. However, they were maintained in a usable state on some weapons, including the Italian foil, into the 20th century.
In the 19th century, simple cross-hilt small swords were also produced, largely as ceremonial weapons that were evocative of more ancient types of weapons. An example is the Model 1840 Army Noncommissioned Officers’ Sword, which is still used by the United States Army on ceremonial occasions. As the wearing of swords fell out of fashion and the small sword evolved into the duelling sword (forerunner of the modern épée), the older decorative hilts gave way to more utilitarian grips such as the French grip and Italian grip.