An Introduction to Fencing


An Incomplete History

The sport of fencing developed out of the formalized sword duel. The duel of honor, which first became prevalent in the early 16th century, may have had roots in both the single combats of the medieval tournament and in the notion of ‘trial by combat’, which dated to Norman times. The weapon most commonly associated with early dueling, the rapier, also originated in the 16th century. The rapier had a narrower blade than the medieval broadsword, and was optimized for thrusting attacks (although it could also be cut with). Contrary to popular conception, rapiers were not any lighter than broadswords, as they tended to be very long (sometimes 4 feet or more), and usually required the wielder to have some additional device (like a small shield or parrying dagger) in the off-hand to use for defence. With changes in technique and fashion-- the swords were essentially gentlemen’s sidearms, worn as much for style and status as for defence-- the rapier was gradually lightened and shortened into the smallsword of the 18th and 19th centuries. The smallsword was quick enough to be used for both attacking and parrying, eliminating the need for a separate parrying device. The fighting styles developed for the smallsword are the direct ancestors of modern fencing techniques.

Killing in a duel had long been outlawed by the beginning of the 1800’s, and by the 1820’s the wearing of swords had passed out of fashion-- fencing was moving into the realm of sport. Sport fencing was originally done only with the foil, the blunted practice sword used to teach the basics of swordsmanship. In the second half of the century, the lightweight dueling sabre gained acceptance as a sporting weapon. The practice of duelling continued to be found through the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, though by this time duels were rarely fought to the death. The thrusting sword often used in these duels was heavier and stiffer than a foil, and the nature of the weapon and the duel required a somewhat different set of techniques and tactics than used in bouts with the foil. This weapon eventually became standardized into the fencing epee. These are the three weapons used in modern fencing.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were two dominant schools of fencing, the French school and the Italian school, each using it’s own type of sword grip and emphasizing a different style of fighting: the French favoring deft deceptions of the blade, the Italians stronger, more forceful blade actions. Over the course of the last 60 years styles which merged aspects of the two schools (along with new techniques) have become dominant, although a few more tradition-minded masters continue to adhere to the classical schools. Fencing is one of the few sports to have been in every Olympics since the first games of the modern era in 1896.


The Weapons

Foil: The oldest of the three competitive weapons is the foil. The foil is a thrusting weapon, and touches may be scored with the point only. The blade is rectangular in cross-section and can be up to 90 cm (35") long. The weapon may weigh up to 500 grams (1.1 lbs). It has circular, curved handguard. The target area for foil fencing is the torso except for the back below the hipbones; only hits which arrive on the target area score. Hits which arrive off-target stop the action but don’t score a touch. A set of rules referred to as ‘right-of-way’ determine which fencer scores if both are hit. The basic principle of right of way is that when attacked, you need ensure that you are not hit before attempting to hit your opponent back. If neither fencer has right-of-way and both are hit, then no touch is scored.

Sabre: The sabre can score by hitting with the edge as well as the point. Target area for sabre is the body above the hips, including the arms and head. The blade of the sabre can be up to 88 cm long, and is usually lighter than a foil blade. The handguard is much larger than a foil’s, and curves back over the knuckles to end of the handle. As with foil, right-of-way rules determine who scores if both fencers are hit. Off target hits in sabre are ignored, and do not stop action.

Epee: The epee, like the foil, is a point-only weapon. Unlike foil and sabre, the entire body is target in epee, and there are no right-of-way rules. Whoever hits first scores; if both fencers hit at the same time, both score. The epee is the heavier than the foil or sabre, weighing up to 770 grams (1.7 lbs). The blade is the same length as the foil, but has a V-shaped cross-section. The handguard is circular, but larger and deeper than the foil guard, in order to more fully protect the hand.


The Equipment

The clothing worn when fencing is designed both to help absorb the force of hits and to provide protection in the event of a broken blade. The mask is made of heavy steel mesh and protects the face and head. The jacket is commonly made of heavy cotton, stretch nylon, or ballistic fabrics (as used in bulletproof clothing). A padded glove with a long cuff is worn on the sword hand. In competition knickers made of the same types of materials as jackets are required. Also required for competition is an underarm protector called a plastron, worn beneath the jacket.

An electrical scoring system is used to signal touches for competition. The basic system consists of a scoring machine (commonly called the ‘box’) with lights and a buzzer to signal hits, and a pair of spring loaded cable reels which the fencers hook up to. The fencers wear a body cord which is run down the sleeve of the sword arm and out under the back of the jacket. A special electrical weapon is used. The electric foil and epee have spring-loaded buttons at the point, while the electric sabre has the blade at a 12 volt potential. With foil and sabre, a conductive vest or jacket is worn over the uniform to differentiate the valid target. A conductive mask must also be worn for sabre. Ideally, fencing takes place on a grounded metal strip that will prevent hits to the floor from being signaled.

A variety of grips are available for foils and epees. The two traditional grips are the French grip and the Italian grip. The French grip is a basically straight handle with a slight curvature along the edge to match the shape of the hand. Most beginners start out with the French grip. The Italian grip is straight, but has a crossbar that is connected to the inside of the guard, forming a pair of loops which the fingers can wrap around, allowing a stronger hold on the weapon. Most fencers today use some form of orthopedic, or pistol, grip. These grips are shaped vaguely like the butt of a revolver, and have molded surfaces and projections that match the shape of the hand and fingers. They are available in a variety of sizes to fit different people’s hands. The choice of grip is a matter of personal preference; the only limitation is that there are a few types of orthopedic grips not permitted in competition. These grips are similar in form to the French grip, but have projections which allow them to be held back near the pommel without a loss of control, allowing the wielder to gain a length advantage.

How Bouts are Fenced

The field of play is a long strip, or piste. A scored encounter between fencers is called a bout. Bouts are fenced to either 5 or 15 touches: the first fencer to score the required number of touches wins. The bout is presided over by the referee (also called the director), who enforces rules, gives out penalties, and (most importantly) determines the right-of-way for foil and sabre. If a scoring machine is not used, there will also be four judges who watch for touches to occur. The fencers start out at the center of the strip. The referee will instruct the fencers to come on guard, ask if they are ready, and then give the command to begin fencing. The referee stops the action with the command "halt". The following situations stop the action:

> a touch occurring > a malfunction of the scoring equipment
> a fencer leaving the strip > a rules violation
> the fencers passing each other > a fencer being disarmed
> time running out > a fencer requesting a halt
> the referee being unable to clearly see the action > any situation disrupting the safe and orderly conduct of the bout

In foil and sabre, if a touch has occurred the referee will a give an analysis of the action to determine which fencer, if either, had right-of-way and award the touch. If a valid touch is scored, the fencers will return to their starting lines at the center of the strip before fencing resumes. In most other cases (including an off-target touch) the action resumes from where it was halted. Before the start of a bout and prior to putting on masks, the fencers must salute each other. After the conclusion of the bout, the fencers salute again, and then remove their masks and shake hands.

The bout itself, especially when it is between experienced fencers who have mastered the fundamental techniques of attacking and defending, becomes a fast-paced contest of strategy and tactics. Since there is no action that can’t be countered by an opponent with the proper knowledge and skill, a game of guile and deception is needed to ‘set up’ the opponent to be hit. Actions such as feints and deliberately short attacks are used to draw a reaction from the opposing fencer, which will create an opening. Precise sense and control of distance and timing help a fencer successfully score hits.

Fencing tournaments are usually organized into two separate parts: an initial round (or rounds) of pools, followed by a direct elimination. In the initial round, the fencers are divided in to pools of 4-7 people, and everybody in the pool will fence everyone else. Pool bouts are fenced to 5 touches. The results from the pool rounds are then used to seed the fencers into a direct elimination table, and the elimination determines the winner of the tournament. Direct elimination bouts are fenced to 15 touches. In the US, fencers can earn ratings by winning or placing in tournaments. There are 5 ratings, A through E, with A being the highest. What ratings can be earned at a given tournament are determined by the number of rated fencers participating and what level ratings they hold.


Back to Main Page