What is Fencing?

An Overview of Fencing

Fencing is the recreational sport of swordplay that can be enjoyed by people of any age, and offers a multitude of benefits. Fencing is both a physical and a mental workout, in which fencers learn to hone their strategies against opponents of varying skill levels, and build up physical endurance, agility, and accuracy. Confidence and sportsmanship are gained through participation in fencing and extend throughout other areas of life. You can begin fencing as a youth or an adult – for fun, for fitness, or to train to compete. Best of all are the friends you’ll make.

The three weapons of fencing are foil, saber, and epeé. The object of fencing is to score a point or touch by hitting your opponent’s target with your weapon before they get the scoring touch on you, but the rules, strategies, and target areas differ with each weapon to make the games distinct. As such, most fencers develop a preference and a proficiency for one weapon over the others, but many enjoy the challenge and diversion of taking on a bout in another weapon every once in a while, or even develop competence in a second weapon. A rare fencer is expert in all three weapons!

General conduct of play:

A fencing bout takes place on what is called a “strip” or “piste”, about 14 meters long and 2 meters wide. Two fencers’ weapons are each wired by a cord through their sleeve to an electric scoring machine paired with their opponent, and they next test that their weapons and cords are functioning correctly by touching their opponent on their target, a metallic garment called a lamé (except in the case that epeéists, who do not wear a lamé, test by touching the point to the guard of their opponent’s weapon). They return to their respective starting lines 4 meters apart, salute their opponent, put on their mask, and get in the en garde position, facing their opponent and ready to fence. The referee then calls the beginning of the bout. Fencers remain facing the direction of their opponent and are not to leave the strip during the bout.

Fencing Director Referee a Bout
The director decides which fencer scored the touch according to the rules of right-of-way.

The referee halts play when an action is completed, and determines each time which fencer won a touch until a winner is determined. In regular/preliminary competition between two fencers, the bout continues until one fencer has scored five touches, and in the direct elimination (DE) round of a tournament, it can go to 15 points, though the DE round can vary, depending on age classification of a competition or in team events. When the bout is over, both fencers return to their starting lines, remove their masks, salute each other, and approach to shake hands. Good sportsmanship maintains the dignity of the sport.

Foil

Foil Fencing Target
Valid target in foil fencing
© Francois Cartegnie / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

Traditionally, the foil was the weapon duelists used to train. Due to its small target area and strict rules, if a student starts with foil, it is easier to learn the techniques and strategies of the saber or epeé than it is to try foil after being inducted in either of them. A touch with a foil is scored with the point of the weapon, and the target, illustrated in blue, is the torso. Foil fencing is a balance of offensive and defensive strategies, and adheres to rules of right-of-way. Right-of-way rules determine which fencer’s maneuver had priority of their opponent’s in the case of both making a hit and triggering the scoring machine simultaneously. For example, a defensive block and response hit, called a “parry-riposte,” takes priority over a direct attack. In foil, if the fencer with priority hits their opponent outside the target area (off-target), no point is awarded, even if the other fencer has hit them on-target. The action is halted and the fencers resume the bout at the place on the strip where they halted.

 

Saber

Saber Fencing Target
Valid target in saber fencing
© Francois Cartegnie / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

In saber, fencers can score when any part of their blade hits the valid target area, indicated on the illustration in blue. While foil and epeé require thrusting the blade to score with the point, saber fencers usually “cut” or “slash” with the blade against the opponent’s head, arms, or body above the waist. (Modern saber fencing is supposed to have been derived from the technique used in cavalry battles in the Napoleonic Era.) Like foil, saber fencing also adheres to right-of-way rules to determine which fencer scored a touch, but follows a more aggressive attack strategy than the foil. Simultaneous attacks are common, and neither fencer is awarded a point in that case, but unlike foil, in saber fencing, an off-target hit for the fencer with right-of-way is null, and doesn’t halt the action of the bout. Movement is rapid and bouts are short. You only have 170 milliseconds to get in that riposte!

Saber fencing is what children naturally emulate, clashing pretend sword blades against one another, imagining themselves to be pirates, knights, warrior princesses or Jedis.

 

Epeé

Epee Fencing Target
Valid target in epee fencing
© Francois Cartegnie / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

(Pronounced: EP-ay) Epeé fencers must score with the point of the weapon against any part of the opponent’s body, hands and feet included, show in blue in the illustration. Epeé was the dueling weapon, and most duels were fought to “first blood,” so a nick of the hand or leg would have been a victory, with little need to hit a vital organ. As such, there are no right-of-way rules in epeé fencing. The strategy is a patient and psychological waiting game to strike while avoiding being hit, as simultaneous touches result in both players gaining a point. The defense has the big advantage and the bouts tend to be involved mental games while each fencer feints attacks to try to draw their opponent into an error; attacking straight ahead is not the wisest course in epeé.