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As a fencer who has looked a little bit into the history of swordsmanship, I have to set the record straight on one point (no pun intended). Certainly since the 16 C., if not much sooner, it was recognized that the thrust is the most lethal attack with a sword.That is to say that the edge can maim and cut, but the point is the most reliable to kill. So the rapier, while it had an edge, would have been more lethal than the broad sword in a matched combat. That they never really met in combat indicates that the sword had decidedly evolved into the lighter and more lethal form. There was much variation of length, where a longer weapon (surprisingly) is less effective because your opponent can get "inside", and suddenly you're defenseless.
Sabers, cutlasses, and the like are useful for crowd control and melees where the goal is to push through a mob. Think of them as lighter and more effective clubs. The foil and epee, which are finer than the rapier, and *only* a point on the end of a triangular "blade" (I used to have one until it got stolen) arose as an answer to better and better armor. That tiny point could find a chink in the armor and pass through chainmail.
Heidelberg notwithstanding, epee became a preferred mode of dueling (when a duel was actually more than an ambush, murder, or brawl), ironically because the goal of the duel was to draw first blood, hence satisfaction. While the point is indeed most lethal, the light and balanced epee is also easier to control than a slashing instrument, and so both parties have a chance to exit with honor, small loss of blood, and no tragedy. Of course, this was never certain. A particularly chilling recounting of a duel is told by Aldo Nadi, one of the super-stars of fencing back in a time when such a sport was considered worth watching. When the attending doctors sterilize the points, you know they mean business.
I for one prefer epee as a sport because it's the most like actual battle. You have no rules of right-of-way... the first contact scores. At a lower level it can be brutish, but at higher levels it's really quite refined, where you have to combine defense and attack in the same gestures. The lack of a true point means people are more energetic than they would be in a real situation, but hey... it's a sport. If anything, TV usually shows you the last three points of the saber finals for the Olympics. What a drag. Saber is too fast to watch, and both combatants *always* think they won the point... That's how hard it is to follow.
There was no hard and fast structure to a duel. Abraham Lincoln accepted a challenge once, and as the one challenged he got to set the conditions. He chose cutlasses, and declared the field of battle would be two rectangles marked off by logs, with a distance between them that was advantageous to old Abe. Abe was very tall, and his opponent very short (I forget the opponent's name). As I recall, the whole thing was called off in a way that gave both men the honor they required.
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