The rapier is perhaps one of the most easily identified swords in the world. These weapons have a long, slender blade meant for thrusting, they're meant to be wielded in one hand, and they have thick, tapering cross sections. These swords have been wielded by everyone from the 3 Musketeers to Errol Flynn, and they can be used with blinding speed by a skilled master. How they came to be is an interesting story though, especially when you consider that the rapier is the last gasp of the sword as a genuine means of self-defense.
An associated bit of history that goes along with rapiers is the origin of the word swashbuckler. You might be surprised what it really means!
In With A Bang!
The birth of the rapier was heralded by the deployment of artillery. While knights on heavy horses had been a dangerous force on the medieval battlefield they were rendered significantly less effective by long-range weapons like longbows and crossbows. When cannons and the widespread use of matchlock and wheel lock firearms came it was the end of the heavily armored warrior. Because armor was now a liability heavier protections were tossed aside in favor of maneuverability. Since swords no longer had to smash through layers of steel and chain armor swords became lighter as well.
The earliest rapiers became popular in the 1400s, though there's an argument as to whether the weapons (and even the actual word "rapier") were first adopted by Spain or France. However these swords were found in Spain, France, Germany, Italy, and in numerous other locations all throughout continental Europe.
Refining The Rapier
The first rapiers looked like more traditional long swords that hadn't hit their growth spurts yet. They had fairly wide blades with thrusting points as well as sharpened edges that could cut, which is why they were often called cut-and-thrust weapons. These weapons were straightforward and simple, but they hadn't finished maturing yet.
Over time the guards on rapiers began to change and grow more diverse. A simple ring guard was added first, which was particularly welcome for fighters who would put their index fingers over their cross guards for additional control of their swords. As the weapons grew more common wire cages and even clam shell-style plates were often added to the weapons to protect the wielder's hand against attack. The blades narrowed and the thrusting point became the complete focus of the weapon. The goal was to eschew more traditional cutting for deep thrusts that would piece internal organs and kill one's opponent quickly, and rapiers grew into a weapon ideally suited for that task.
Who Carried Rapiers?
Another thing that made rapiers different from knightly swords was that they were carried by huge swaths of the population. While they were worn and wielded by soldiers and the nobility (who did in fact use them for duels to avenge insults both real and imagined), they were also carried by more average citizens. Since there was more wealth more readily available during the Renaissance than there was during the Middle Ages (and since rapiers were less expensive than the bigger, heavier swords of the early period) more people could afford to carry swords.
Not everyone, obviously, but it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that more people carried rapiers than had ever slung a long sword at their hips.
Out With A Bang...
The rapier was a part of European society for hundreds of years. It was used in urban warfare and self-defense, and there were dozens of masters from just as many countries who developed their own schools and manuals on how to become the best fencer possible.
But by the year 1715 rapiers had become passe.
Why? Well they were still just as good at what they'd been made to do, but the problem was that technology had kept right on marching. It had taken a lifetime to train an armored knight, months to train longbowmen, weeks to train crossbowmen, and hours to train soldiers to use a musket. Guns were more advanced than ever before, and while some people still carried small swords and other blades for protection the culture-wide embrace of the sword was in its death throes. While fencing was still practiced, and some people even carried concealed blades like the infamous sword cane, even the finest steel couldn't keep up with the march of lead.