The smallsword is one of the popular historical weapons being taught nowadays, and is arguably my favorite weapon (although really, all the fencing weapons are my favorite). To learn to fence with a smallsword properly, as with anything, requires proper equipment, starting with an appropriate, quality weapon. Unfortunately, many folks out there are using blades that are improperly proportioned for them, so it is worthwhile to look at what, historically, was recommended and how to apply these recommendations when choosing a training weapon today.
Guillaume Danet in 1766 and Nicolas Demeuse in 1778 both instruct that the smallsword’s length should be 30 pouces (French “inches”), aka 2.5 pieds (French “feet” = 12 pouces/pied). Although the pouce was a somewhat variable measurement, most modern sources convert the baroque-era pouce as equivalent to approximately 1.066 modern inches. This converts the recommended blade length to just under 32 modern inches, or 81.2 cm.
Most folks interested in smallsword I think take this recommendation literally, although many of them are trusting teachers and fencing vendors who may or may not be familiar with the sources themselves – it is almost received wisdom now that smallswords “are about 32 inches long.” So when we look at the suggestion of le Sieur de Liancour in 1692, there’s cause to scratch one’s head. He says to choose a blade of 2.5 pieds (matching Danet and Demeuse), but then goes on to say that the maximum length should be 3 pieds = 36 pouces = around 38 inches = around 97 cm. That’s a big range.
The issue here, as I see it, is that renaissance and baroque fencing masters often stated that sword length needed to be proportionate to the height of the fencer. We see this in Capo Ferro and Thibault, for example. Even into the classical and modern era, French masters advocated blades proportionate to height – this is the source of the size 0,1,2,3,4, and 5 vintage French foil and epee blades one can find on ebay and the occasional 0 and 2 size blades that modern sport fencing vendors sell for kids. And while any fencer should be able to develop their skill such that they can make use of any length weapon (within reason), this one-size-fits-all approach for one’s go-to training weapon (and in theory, one’s own sword they wear as a side-arm) is problematic.
I think the issue with the smallsword length recommendations of Danet and Demeuse is that they are implicitly assuming that the reader is of more or less average height – they are giving a recommendation based on most of the individuals they dealt with and taught on a day-to-day basis. But that’s a baroque average height, and according to a survey of the Napoleonic era army of France, the average Frenchman in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s stood around 164 centimeters tall (I have seen estimates ranging from 163.6-165.9, see Komlos et al. 2003 for the French army data), or around 5 feet 4-5 inches. Napoleon, as it turns out, was actually of average height for his day. However, average heights differ across countries and time periods. A 32-inch smallsword for a 5’4″ person is about 49% of their height. So, if we want to keep our weapons proportionate, for me at 5’10”, I should ideally be using a smallsword blade that is approximately 34 inches long, or about 86.3 cm.
Ok, that is all fine and good, but Danet and Demeuse give a hard and fast number. How can I justify overruling that? Well, on top of the range that Liancour gives, Le Sieur Labbat, in his 1696 smallsword treatise (admittedly somewhat earlier), states that the ideal smallsword, measured from point to pommel with the point on the floor, should reach to the navel (unlike some Spanish rapier masters who said the blade should extend all the way to the navel, with the hilt above it). Here, the weapon is proportionate to the height of the swordsman. And at my height, if I take an average hilt that is appropriately sized for my hand and authentic from the period (cast from original parts, thank you Jacob’s Armoury!), it takes a 34-inch blade to get the pommel at my navel with the point resting on the floor. I don’t think that number is a coincidence. And lest we worry that the reason Danet and Demeuse didn’t say anything about proportions is because that was a late 17th century trend that faded away as the 18th century moved on, Balthazar, in 1750, also says that the length of the weapon should be proportional to the height of the fencer. He indicates that the shortest weapons from point to pommel should reach to the belt (as measured from the floor, understanding that in the 18th century men wore their belt worn a bit higher than today), the longest to the navel. So basically, the end of the pommel should sit somewhere between the top of your hipbones and your navel.
So the consensus of period masters seems to recommend choosing your smallsword blade length to be about 48-49% of your height, rather than lock in on that magic 32-inch number. A less nitpicky way of saying that is to take L’Abbat’s and Balthazar’s advice and read between the lines of the Danet and Demeuse – have the sword come to your navel, or almost so, but no lower than the top of your hipbones when measured from the floor. If you’re Napoleon-height this means 32 inches of steel, but if you’re more than 6 feet tall (182 cm, more of a George Washington), it means you should be using a 35-inch blade, like a #5 epee blade. It is good to try shorter blades as well, as it really helps one learn how to work into distance safely, but that should not be one’s primary training tool.