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Author Topic: Ancient and medieval fighting and weapons  (Read 13968 times)

Offline Yora

Ancient and medieval fighting and weapons
« on: November 20, 2014, 05:32:40 PM »
While I would not go so far to call myself an expert on these things, I have a great interest in understanding how the devices and methods seen in fantasy and also sci-fi actually work and how realistically they are shown. Unfortunately, the answer to the second one is "usually really bad", and what we usually get to see often has almost nothing to do with the way people in the past actually fought. In another RPG forum I frequently post, we have threads about this topic going for years with tens of thousands of posts, and since I think this is a subject that many writers and also readers of fantasy books care about as well, I want to see if we can get something similar going here.
I haven't studied any of this at an academic level, but have had a great interest in the real history of weapons and armor for many years, and even as a pure hobbyist you can pick up quite a lot that most people don't have any idea about. And I am probably not the only one around here. That being said, this is of course purely armchair history, but writing fight scenes that are full of mistakes is still a lot better than ones that are complete nonsense. So if you have any questions regarding weapons, armor, fighting, and strategies that inspired fantasy, fell free to ask them at any time, even if it's not the current topic of discussion.

The thing I am currently struggling with is learning about the use of axes in actual battle. There is a huge amount of information about swords (though they were among the rarest types of weapons), and a good amount about spears and bows, but for axes there is very little. Is anyone familiar with axes used for fighting and has any information about them to share?
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Offline ScarletBea

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Re: Ancient and medieval fighting and weapons
« Reply #1 on: April 12, 2015, 11:43:30 AM »
I can't believe no one replied to this question!

I am going to piggyback on it (hoping someone answers Yora in the meantime) and ask about swords in general.
Yesterday during a conversation I realised that even my limited knowledge was potentially wrong (ok, I knew a rapier was to stab, but apparently it's not exactly as I imagined), and even the time spent in the Leeds Royal Armouries wasn't enough (reminder to return and study some more).
So, what types of sword are most commonly used (in fantasy books), and what do they look like/are their main purposes? When you know, battles look much better in my brain...

(maybe we should actually move this thread to the 'Fantasy discussion' section? Or the Writers' one?)
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Offline Yora

Re: Ancient and medieval fighting and weapons
« Reply #2 on: April 12, 2015, 01:44:21 PM »
There's a huge number of weapons that fall under the category of "sword". Perhaps even more than all other premodern weapons combined. A complicating factor is that swords always evolved. Some people tried out making swords with somewhat longer blades or narrower blades, actually liked how it sat in the hand and moved, and recommended it to others. But there never was a perfect sword, because swordsmiths always had to take the availability and prices for raw materials into consideration, and more sophisticated constructions would take a lot longer, making the sword more expensive for the buyer. And always there were other people trying to improve armor against the types of weapons they were commonly facing against. As a result, it all blurs together into a very broad range of "swords", which is really anything with a long blade on a short handle.
Of course in practice there were some forms of swords that worked really well and lots of people used them, while others just never caught on. So there are many different types of swords. But it never was an exact science and there was no standardization, so the distinctions between types are often quite blurry. Like literature genres, you have certain archetypes, but the personal preferences of the smiths and users don't conveniently stay within those lines. Modern historians like to pretend there are such clear lines, but many of the categories used today are modern inventions.

That being said, the names used for swords in fantasy are almost always completely wrong. Mixing up an African leopard with a South American Jaguar is not a big deal, they are extremely similar. But calling either of those a Siberian Tiger is just plain wrong.

Generally speaking, there are two types of swords: Bronze swords and steel swords. I am almost certain that you will never see a copper sword or an iron sword anywhere. Copper and iron are both too soft for large blades (though I think there are some copper knives) and you have to mix them with other elements into an alloy that has much better property. Copper alloys are usually called bronzes (brass is a modern term for a specific type of alloy that was lumped together with other bronzes in ancient times) and iron alloys are called steels, regardless of what those other elements are.
You can make steel that is superior to bronze, but this is very advanced metalurgy that has been invented only in recent centuries. Ancient and medieval steel is not superior to bronze! The reason bronze fell out of favor for weapons and armor around 3,000 years ago is that tin, which was most commonly mixed with copper to make bronze, became fantastically expensive and almost unaffordable. This forced metalworkers to find some way to make a good alloy based on iron. Those early types of steel were inferior in quality to bronze, but still could do the job decently enough and were many times cheaper. Over time the quality of steel improved, but it really is the much cheaper price of steel that made it the primary metal of choice throughout late antiquity and the middle ages. When you have one guy with a bronze sword and one guy with a steel sword, it really doesn't make any difference. When you have five guys with bronze swords and twenty guys with steel swords, it makes a huge difference.
Copper and bronze didn't really play a big role in ancient Central and Southern Africa, and they started with steel. (Though much later did develop bronze technology for art.) In America, they didn't even have that (only gold and silver, which doesn't work for weapons), but the Aztecs did have a weapon called macuahuitl that has a size and shape similar to sword and is also used in a very similar way, so it's sometimes called an obsidian sword. It's constructed more like a wooden club with a row of obsidian shards set into it as an edge. Completely different construction, but works almost the same way, so whether you want to call it a sword or not is probably personal preference. If it looks like a sword, handles like a sword, and cuts like a sword...

Okay, now we are getting to the kinds of swords you usually see in fantasy:
Keep in mind that the "Middle Ages" refer to a period of 1,000 years and an area that includes all of Europe and extends into Northern Africa and Asia. There are lots of differences between specific places and times, so everything here is a very gross simplification. Scientifically very inaccurate, but I think for the purpose of fantasy weapons entirely sufficient. Unless you want to have a fantasy story set in real world France in the year 1241 and want to have it as historically accurate as possible. The most common one-handed sword that every halfway decent knight runs around with would have probably called by him a "sword". It wasn't like the swordsmith had a wide range of different models on a rack. You picked your length and weight that best suited your height and strength, but that was mostly it. When people are talking about knights now, it's usually called an arming sword and looks like this.
Spoiler for Hiden:

Which looks very similar to a viking sword, which lloks like this.
Spoiler for Hiden:
The only real difference is a much smaller crossguard between the blade and the hilt. Not really sure why. The term Arming Sword is used mostly for swords that are later than the viking period so it might be possible that the crossguard was a new invention that came up around 1000 AD, but as I said those developments are always fluid evoultions that reach different places and different times and might not be adopted everywhere.
This sword was not only used in Scandinavia, but I think throughout all of northern and central Europe.

It is almost the same weapon as the earlier Roman spatha.
Spoiler for Hiden:
Again, the handle is a bit different, but the blade is mostly the same. A straight steel blade about as long as an arm and two fingers wide.

Even in China, at the opposite end of the Old World, you get the jian, which again is really pretty much the same thing.
Spoiler for Hiden:
Why? Because it works! It's good. It's weight and proportions are a very good match for a human swordsman and it's a great alrounder that combines speed, accuracy, and versatility, while also being easy to carry around with you all day on your belt.

Big downside: It's really expensive. Which is why most people who went to war didn't have one. Not only does the blade of a sword need five or six times as much metal as a spear blade, it also needs to be forged at a much higher quality because longer blades are at greater risk of bending or snapping. That's basic mechanical physics. Imagine taking a pencil and snapping it in two. That's easy. Now take one of those halves and snap it again. Which is a lot more difficult. And good luck snapping one of those quarters with your bare hands. And it's not because you have a bad grip on a small piece. Long things bend and snap easier than short things in relation to the thickness. Which is also why you get to see small blades very early, but really big and long swords only very late. You need a lot of metalurgical tricks to make steel that can take the stresses of such a large blade.
Most people who went to war had spears or axes, which have much smaller blades and are therefore a lot cheaper. In most languages other than English, the word "knight" means "rider", because they were a small elite of people who were wealthy enough to own a horse bred and trained for battle. These people also tended to be rich enough to own a sword. Which is why knights are usually very much associated with them. A sword was nice to have on your belt when you visit the village or run around in the castle, but for really serious fighting, there were better alternatives:
When you fight a guy with really heavy armor, you want a weapon with a lot of punch, because your sword blade can't cut through it. When you do a cavalry charge, you don't want to get into the reach of your enemies spears to be able to hit them, so you also use a spear (a "lance" really is just a spear used while on a horse for most of history). Or a bow. The sword is wonderful when you don't have anything else. It's a great alrounder that will be useful in almost any situation. But when possible, you want a specialist weapon for your specific task. When you went into battle with one, it was your backup weapon, like a pistol. Even the samurai didn't make a big deal about their swordfighting skills, because that implied you somewhat regularly got into situations where you lost your bow and spear. Then why do modern Japanese people make such a huge deal about their swords? Because contrary to common belief, exotic foreigners are just as stupid as Europeans and Americans and love cool stuff they see in movies or read in unrealistic fantasy books.
The lack of reach of a sword compared to a spear is a real problem in battle. Sparring is of course not the same thing as battle to the death, but people who are decent with swords and spears made the experience that if you have one person with a spear against one person with a sword, the swordsman needs to be extremely good to win.

The only case I am aware of where regular soldiers were all using swords were the Roman legionaries. And that was because the legions used a very specific type of formation combat that relied on getting everyone squezed together so tightly that spears couldn't be really used and then stabbing swords were extremely effective. But that is really the only case I know of large numbers of soldiers using swords instead of spears.

Speaking of the Roman sword: I mentioned the spatha earlier, but the standard roman sword was the gladius. Which also really just means "sword".
Spoiler for Hiden:
The gladius is shorter than the spatha, but not really by much and calling it a "short sword" is quite misleading. They are still pretty big. I mentioned before that large blades require advanced metalurgy and forging techniques, and therefore most bronze swords tend to fall into this category.
In the same way daggers can be really big too. Much larger than a small pocket knife. The roman pugio looks like a big knife (though technically a knife has a single edge, while a dagger has two), but some types are large enough that some people might think of them as small swords.

The other type of sword that is super popular around the sword are sabers. There is a huge variety of sabres, both in blades and handles, but they all share the same trait of having a single edge and being curved.
Spoiler for Hiden:
Sabers have some advantages and disadvantages compared to straight swords. The disadvantage is that they are generally not as good at chopping, but instead work much better at slicing. Which is why soldiers on horses generally tend to favor sabres over straight swords because when you ride by someone on the ground quickly, it's easier to just slice your blade over him than trying to get a good chop from an akward position. But when you hit armor, a sabre has less of an impact and doesn't hurt as much. Neither sabres nor straight swords can cut through metal armor, but any heavy impact still hurts and can push you over.

Then you have a couple of "hybrids" like the German messer ("knife") and the Japanese katana ("sword").
Spoiler for Hiden:

While they do have a single edge and a slight curve, the curve is quite subtle and the blade pretty heavy. You see katanas everywhere, but I don't remember seeing a messer anywhere in fantasy, even though there's no reason why it shouldn't.

Going back to antiquity, there is also a kind of chopping sword that looks really quite weird at first. Again, there are many names, but the most generic is kopis.
Spoiler for Hiden:
And the title for weirdest looking sword probably goes to the Egyptian khopesh.
Spoiler for Hiden:
Swords like these are almost a kind of hybrid between sword and axe and saber. You can't do any fancy fencing with them as you see in a three musketeer movie, but you can both chop and stab with them. And you really just have to look at them to see how extremely good these are at chopping.
While they look very exotic, this was one of they ypes of swords used by the Greeks for quite a long time. But they went out of fashion during Aniquity, and I don't really know why. I would suspect that a straight sword is simply easier to forge, though.

You also might know the Asian kukri, which really is just the local adaptation of the kopis introduced by Alexander the Great when he was in the region. Most kukris you see are small and knife sized, but they can get to the size of big two-handed swords.
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Offline JMack

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Re: Ancient and medieval fighting and weapons
« Reply #3 on: April 12, 2015, 01:56:09 PM »
And as usual, an incredible post from @Yora
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Offline ScarletBea

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Re: Ancient and medieval fighting and weapons
« Reply #4 on: April 12, 2015, 01:59:34 PM »
Wow, just wow.
Thanks so much Yora!

And just a side note: a 'catana' (which I assume comes from the 'katana' you mention), is a big broad 'sword' used to cut vegetation in the wild woods. What the discoverers used when arriving in Brazil or to get through the African jungles.
Or at least that's the word used in portuguese - so I think that the japanese word must have come from the portuguese, when the discoverers arrived over there in the 16th century. Or vice-versa, word brought over to the portuguese language from their trips to Japan...
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Offline JMack

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Re: Ancient and medieval fighting and weapons
« Reply #5 on: April 12, 2015, 02:06:04 PM »
Wow, just wow.
Thanks so much Yora!

And just a side note: a 'catana' (which I assume comes from the 'katana' you mention), is a big broad 'sword' used to cut vegetation in the wild woods. What the discoverers used when arriving in Brazil or to get through the African jungles.
Or at least that's the word used in portuguese - so I think that the japanese word must have come from the portuguese, when the discoverers arrived over there in the 16th century. Or vice-versa, word brought over to the portuguese language from their trips to Japan...
I'd be fascinated to know more about the cross-cultural effects for Japan and Portugal. The "opening" of Japn (at cannon-point) in the 1800s led to a fever fir all things Japanese in US and Europe, and of course all the Meiji adoption of Eiropean technology and fashions in Japan. We also had a huge cross-impact between Japanese art and European Impressionism, then cubism, etc. on Japanrse art.

SB, any thoughts on the much earlier interaction for Portugal? Yes, I know we're way off swords, but it's really all your fault.  ;)
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Offline Yora

Re: Ancient and medieval fighting and weapons
« Reply #6 on: April 12, 2015, 02:09:11 PM »
I looked it up. "Catana" was picked up by the Portugese in Japan. Which isn't too surprising, as katana just means any kind of sword, regardless of shape and construction.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans who visited Asia in the 15th century and Japan in the mid-1500s. There was a lot of trade and exchange with Europe for almost a hundred years, and even after that there were only travel restrictions, but trade still continued on at a significant scale.
« Last Edit: April 12, 2015, 02:13:45 PM by Yora »
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Offline ScarletBea

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Re: Ancient and medieval fighting and weapons
« Reply #7 on: April 12, 2015, 03:22:53 PM »
SB, any thoughts on the much earlier interaction for Portugal? Yes, I know we're way off swords, but it's really all your fault.  ;)
I'll leave that question for @Saraband, he's the resident portuguese historian. Not me, I'm afraid, I just know the basics.
And please, my post had sword references ;)

Yora, thanks for clarifying (I could have looked up myself, but I'm living through a lazy fog today...)
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Offline JMack

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Re: Ancient and medieval fighting and weapons
« Reply #8 on: April 12, 2015, 03:38:07 PM »
SB, any thoughts on the much earlier interaction for Portugal? Yes, I know we're way off swords, but it's really all your fault.  ;)
I'll leave that question for @Saraband, he's the resident portuguese historian. Not me, I'm afraid, I just know the basics.
And please, my post had sword references ;)

Yora, thanks for clarifying (I could have looked up myself, but I'm living through a lazy fog today...)
Oh, yes, the OP.
@Saraband, please include in any response numerous references to Portuguese and Japanses cross-cultural influences in regards to everything swords.  ;D

Speaking of swords and Japanisme, plus a shot of Anglophilia, the great Gilbert &Sullivan operetta The Mikado was inspired by a Japnese sword falling from it's decorative position in British home onto Gilbert's head. Much like the proverbial apple and gravity, but leading to something much funnier and with less, er, gravitas.  ;)
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Offline Rostum

Re: Ancient and medieval fighting and weapons
« Reply #9 on: April 12, 2015, 03:41:27 PM »
OK I will bite: Eek this has all moved on since I started typing

I had been considering starting a thread on these lines since joining the boards only a little while ago, but didn't want to just barge in. I get passionate over this stuff. As any who suffered me talking history and re-enactment Saturday will testify, but where do you begin. I am happy to give opinion on pretty much anything medieval as well as fight scenes and have reference works I am happy to browse looking for answers.

I have some practical knowledge of using rebated steel weapons in competitive combat. Single combats through to battles of several hundred a side covering a time period between between 800ad to 1600ad. Recreated War of the Roses hoop and stave cannon and was lucky enough to crew the Mary Rose replica gun at Fort Nelson. I have made tents as well as carpentry items and some done some limited smithing, Built a Perrier and worked for the company that made the siege engines on display at Caerphilly Castle. Burnt charcoal and built bread ovens and I fletch and shoot my own arrows when time and space allow.
Yes I know how big headed this makes me sound but hopefully I can share some of this and maybe help someone with their writing on the mechanics of this stuff.

I have a lot of book learning, a little from primary source most from modern experts in the field. I would like to think this gives me some insight. All I can say is I may have an idea of how things were done for much of what I did it's guess work and you recreate a tool, be it butter churn or Viking sword and find how it is practical to use it. For later European sword work there are surviving manuals. George Silver is a good read.

http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/paradoxes.html

Summary don't mince around and hit them in the head. Stay away from those Italians and their effete rapiers.
He was onto a loser but there are some nuggets in there.

A slightly earlier work by Talhoffer, a German is very useful for War of the Roses period combat.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/33637817/Fight-Earnestly-Talhoffer-s-1459-Fight-Manual

Neither of these are exclusively sword manuals but are geared to impart military knowledge or in the latter half of Talhoffers work describe judicial combats, often between husband and wife which just gets weird.

Before I get too caught up

Quote
The thing I am currently struggling with is learning about the use of axes in actual battle. There is a huge amount of information about swords (though they were among the rarest types of weapons), and a good amount about spears and bows, but for axes there is very little. Is anyone familiar with axes used for fighting and has any information about them to share?

Bit like your swords reply there are a lot of variations in axes across the millennia. For simplicity and to hide my lack of a clue I will stick to the European/Scandinavian stuff a bit over 1000 years ago as that’s what I have actually fought with. I would split those down into the two handed Dane axe type and all the one handed stuff.
For the big stuff anything with a straight edge is going to be ceremonial or for executions fighting axes tend to have a curved blade. The haft is long enough to leave the top point of the blade below your shoulder height. You are not going to hit the ground now and hopefully you have enough control not to smack your own knees or shins.
Harold’s busy getting killed using one on the Bayeux Tapestry. Like pretty much any weapon the stance is side on to your opponent(s) and you keep the blade moving its real advantage is intimidation. It's big and heavy but hits hard and will cause massive trauma even against armoured targets. You keep it moving in a slow figure of 8 and change that rhythm before you strike. Defensively you can block with the haft diagonally and with the head pushed forwards or to the side. Breaking horses and shields (and getting the user stuck with spears) seems to be the best use for them. You can use it as a hook and catch an opponents shield with the back point the punch it forward so the front point meets their face or neck. Or just drag them out of their shield wall so your mates can finish them.
To use it effectively you need people to support you. A lone spear-man should beat a lone axeman every time.

With the single handed axes a shield in the other hand is a great idea. In fact for fighting in a shield wall the axe is a far more useful weapon than the sword as the movement you have is all up and down and you can only stab not slash with a sword in a wall.
In single combat and with shield half the aggressive moves are at the edges of your adversaries shield or shield boss. If you can knock their own shield rim into their teeth you can distract then for the half second needed to try and land the real blow. You can use their shield boss to push their shield down and then as they react slide it up the face of the shield. Even the blunt side of and axe can hurt.
In a wall you can reach over shields with them and tangle them up in the sleeves of a mail brynie, baldrics or shield straps and pull your opponent to your shieldwall for someone else to deal with.
There are disarming moves to catch the blades of other weapons and lock them on the head and the (haft or the head and the tail of the head on a Viking skeggox) where you catch their blade and twist to try and disarm or to break their weapon. If you can get inside the reach of a swordsman and stay nose to nose with him you can still chop chunks out of him but he has problems swinging a sword.

HTH feel free to ask any specifics if this isn't what you were looking for.

BTW there is something called the Fransisca which is worth looking up and they can be thrown from horseback.


« Last Edit: April 12, 2015, 03:52:31 PM by Rostum »

Offline ScarletBea

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Re: Ancient and medieval fighting and weapons
« Reply #10 on: April 12, 2015, 03:46:28 PM »
Eeeek, it seems I didn't talk enough with you Rostum, sorry! I missed all the re-enactement conversations, sounds really interesting... I must have been talking plots and characters with Adrian, James and Geoff at that time.

Summary don't mince around and hit them in the head. Stay away from those Italians and their effete rapiers.
Love this ;D
« Last Edit: April 12, 2015, 03:48:04 PM by ScarletBea »
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Offline Rostum

Re: Ancient and medieval fighting and weapons
« Reply #11 on: April 12, 2015, 04:40:07 PM »
Quote
Eeeek, it seems I didn't talk enough with you Rostum, sorry! I missed all the re-enactement conversations, sounds really interesting

I think conversation may be the wrong term. I talked at length and my victims eyes slowly glazed over.

Offline Yora

Re: Ancient and medieval fighting and weapons
« Reply #12 on: April 12, 2015, 05:18:31 PM »
Rapiers are the consequence of armed people walking around town in an environment where you can be pretty sure not to get into a fight with someone wearing armor. Once armor penetration ceases to be a factor, people want to get as much speed and agility out of their sword as possible. And when the fight is a duel, you can expect to get a lot of room to move and nobody falling on your back, so you want to also maximize your reach with a long blade.
In those conditions, a rapier is really pretty good. But you wouldn't go to war with it. Then you want something heavier that can still be used to hack instead of just pierce. Fighting with a rapier against someone with plate armor would be pretty pointless, I think. You could injure him if he holds still and you can wriggle your blade between the plates, but if he fights back or just tries to avoid getting stabbed, it's probably close to impossible.

Don't remember if any books or movies ever did that, but someone going to war with a rapier before muskets dominate the battlefield (and making armor quite pointless) just doesn't make any sense.
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Offline Rostum

Re: Ancient and medieval fighting and weapons
« Reply #13 on: April 12, 2015, 05:52:58 PM »
From memory Rapier means sword of the road. There are Italian manuscripts showing how you fight someone in armour, which are eluding me at the moment one may well be called the flawless defense dating to 1650ish.
I think the got popular in England as it has never been legal to murder anyone here but varying levels of self defence have been allowed. If you are accosted on the road and poke a hole in someone you can probably deliver them up to the local law alive, at least for the time being. They were also usful for duelling where you wish to win but not kill.

There is a really odd fighting style using a rondel dagger (A spike with two round discs making up the beginning and end of the handle) and a mace where you wriggle the pointy dagger into the chinks of your opponents armour then drive it home with the mace. The Rondel is pretty much the last 8" of a rapier.

New Model Army English civil war armour was proofed against ball. This involves shooting it with a musket with twice the powder charge it should have at a measured distance after the piece of armour was finished and planished. surviving pieces often have a crease where the lead ball failed to penetrate and skids off.


Offline Yora

Re: Ancient and medieval fighting and weapons
« Reply #14 on: April 12, 2015, 06:25:54 PM »
There is one example of a breastplate that got hit by a canon ball. But not sure if it's actual battle damage or the result of artilley gunners goofing around with surplus armor on the training range. But it very clearly did not stop the canonball at all.   ;D

Putting two disks on the ends of the handle of a dagger made to get through armor probably is to get maximum grip. You don't want it to slip it from your hand even when pushing down or pulling on it with a lot of strength.
That being said, rapiers can be very deadly. Even a pretty grisly cut can be patched up with a bandage and a surgeon has easy access to fix any damaged muscle or sinews. Being impaled even with just a pretty thin blade is much more difficult to treat. If nothing vital got hit, it's a relatively small wound. But if you hit an artery or organ, there isn't much surgeons at the time could do.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor