The sidesword was one of the most popular swords of the 16th century, especially in Mediterranean countries. What were its characteristics?
What’s In A Name?
The term "sidesword" is a modern invention of historical fencers, used to describe a double-edged straight-bladed sword of moderate length designed to be worn and used with one hand. Often, sideswords have moderately complex hilts. Their blade lengths are typically 31-38", and they tend to weigh approximately 2 to 2.5 pounds.
Historically, sideswords were generally referred to as "swords" - the same term that was usually applied to longswords. Modern people often find this surprising, but in both cases, the point was that the weapon was small and light enough to be worn. The Italian term used to specify this type of sword, spada di lato ("side sword;" i.e., a sword you could keep at your side) reflects this, as does the Spanish espada ropera ("dress sword;" i.e., a sword you could wear).
Because they tend to have complex hilts, sideswords are often confused with rapiers, and indeed are often referred to as such by art collectors and museum curators. That usage is not unhistorical: German fencing master Joachim Meyer, for instance, refers to his sidesword as a rappier. "Sword rapier" and "military rapier" are also sometimes used. As fencers, however, we often need to differentiate among swords by more than their hilts.
Cut and Thrust
From a fencer's standpoint, sideswords are differentiated from rapiers by their cutting capacity. They tend to have slightly broader blades than what historical fencers tend to refer to as "true" rapiers. The sidesword can be thought of as a transitional phase between earlier medieval one-handed swords and later rapiers. There is some truth to this, but it can be overstated. Sideswords appeared prior to rapiers, true - but they did not disappear with the advent of the "true" rapier. They continued to be popular in a military context, as well as among fencers who wanted a shorter but beefier blade, through the 17th and into the 18th centuries.
Systems, not Weapons
At the same time, it's important to recognize that even "true" rapiers can deliver effective cuts, and no rapier masters exclusively advocate thrusts. In this sense, all rapiers can be thought of as sideswords.
Indeed, rather than differentiating swords as sideswords or rapiers, it's more accurate to refer to fencing systems as being sidesword or rapier systems. Roughly, the difference is this: a rapier system prefers to thrust, and only cuts when thrusts are impossible; a sidesword system is equally happy or cut or thrust. Either type of system can be used with shorter and wider, or longer and thinner swords, though each type of sword lends itself to one or the other type of system.
Physical Characteristics and Variations
When the term "sidesword" is used to refer to a weapon, the principal variations among sideswos are guard complexity and blade length. Some sideswords have blade widths and lengths that would not be out of place in the Middle Ages; these are essentially medieval arming swords with more complex hilts.
Other sideswords have thinner blades, barely wider than an inch, but have longsword-length blades. It is worth noting that the sidesword is, on average, a very light blade: sideswords with broad blades tend to be short, while sideswords with long blades tend to be thin. Their hilts are also generally simple enough to keep the overall weight of the sword down. This is another contrast with rapiers, whose hilt complexity often makes them quite heavy.
A common sidesword hilt feature is the finger ring, a loop of metal designed to protect the index finger when hooked over the crossguard. Gripping a sword in this manner increases control of the point in thrusts, and brings the hand slightly closer to the sword's point of balance. Artwork depicts fencers holding their swords this way as far back as the Middle Ages; finger rings add a modicum of safety to the practice.
Finger rings seem never to have been as popular in Germany as they were with Mediterranean fencers. Given that they are essentially a thrusting aid, it should be no surprise that the "true" rapier emerges in the Mediterranean first.
The Versatile Sidesword
Soideswords are sometimes thought of as military weapons (recall that "military rapier" is one of the names by which they are sometimes known), but historical treatises belie this simple characterization. In truth, the sidesword was used on the battlefield as well as in civilian self-defense and formal duels, against armored opponents and unarmored opponents alike. Its balance of characteristics also made it a popular weapon with which to teach new fencers the fundamentals of combat with all manner of weapons.