Fencing is a modern Olympic sport, which evolved from the duelling and cavalry weapons of European use in the 15th Century. Swordplay as sport has been around since the 13th Century, when the Egyptians first competed against one another with non-lethal weapons.
In it's modern guise, fencing consists of three different weapons: foil, epee and sabre. They are all competed at an international level, and all but Women's Sabre are represented at Olympic level.
Fencing takes place on a strip, or piste, with 2 fencers, facing one another. The piste is between 1.5 and 2 metres wide, and 14 metres long. Opponents start in the middle of the piste, 4 metres apart, in the en garde position.
A president, or director, presides over the fight. His/her duties include keeping score, time keeping (if there is no other time keeper), allocating hits and maintaining the order of the bout. He/she stands to the side of the piste, watching the fight.
The aim of each competitor is to hit the opponent on their valid target area, and timing those hits so that they are not also hit according to the rules for the weapon they are using.
The epee is the closest weapon to an actual duelling epee which is used in modern fencing. It is a long, straight and quite heavy sword, with a trangular blade which does not flex very much. It has a large round bell-shaped guard above the handle.
The epee is a point weapon, and in order for a point to register, you must hit the opponent with .75 Newtons of force using the tip. Hitting the opponent with the edge of the blade does not count.
The reason for the large guard is that the hand is valid target, as is the rest of the body. Any hit which arrives on the body counts, provided it arrives either before the other person lands a hit or up to a certain time period after the other persons hit arrives. If both competitors land a hit, then each scores a point.
Foil is the first weapon which beginners learn. This is because it introduces the complexities of 'right of way', which are necessary to fence at foil and sabre (see below for sabre details). The basic techniques learnt at foil also translate reasonably to epee, and the rules translate reasonably to sabre, so it makes sense to learn foil before deciding to progress to either of the other two.
A foil is a lighter, smaller version of the epee, with a much more flexible blade. It is a point weapon, in that you must hit the opponent with the tip of the blade, with a force of at least .5 Newtons.
The valid target area at foil is limited, due to it having evolved from the practice weapon for epee. When fencing was practiced with limited safety equipment, hits to the face were dangerous, so the head was removed from valid target. The target was then further reduced to only the trunk of the body, as this was the easiest target to protect well.
Right of Way
The 'right of way' principal of foil, mentioned above, moves the sword fighting further from replicating deadly duels and more towards a sport, with rules which add to the game. The basic idea behind right of way is that the first person to attack has priority - if one fencer attacks, and the other immediately counter-attacks into the attack, the first fencer gets a point, the second does not. If an attack fails, then the priority switches sides - you are effectively taking turns to hit one another.
Attacks can be made to fail either by bad luck, mis-judgement or by action on the part of the defender. Parrying (blocking the attack with the blade) causes priority to change and for the defender to have the opportunity to attack.
As with epee, both fencers will register a hit if they contact within a certain time of each other. Then the president must deicde who had right of way at the time of the hits, and therefore who gets a point. If the president cannot tell, then they will declare the touchs null, and restart the fight from where it stopped.
Sabres are radically different from the other weapons, in that they are edged weapons. There is no need to hit the opponent with any force at all - simply contacting your blade to their target area is sufficient to register a hit.
The target area originates from cavalry sabre use. Then, the only target which would do useful damage to another cavalry soldier was above the waist, as hitting the opponents leg would simply hurt them and result in them cleaving through your wide open defence. The target area is fromt he waist up therefore, and similar right of way rules exist for sabre as they do for foil.
The clothing which is worn in modern fencing is tough cotton or kevlar. It includes the following items of clothing:
- Figure hugging jacket, covering groin and with strap which goes between the legs
- Half jacket (under plastron) which goes underneath the jacket and provides double protection on the sword arm side)
- Glove, which prevents swords going up your sleeve and causing injury,as well as protecting the hand.
- Breeches, knee length
- Knee length socks
- Mask, including bib which protects the neck
This is all intended to prevent serious injury (anything worse than a small cut or a large bruise).
Electronic scoring equipment
Electronic scoring is used in all major national and international, and most local, competitions. Additional clothing is required for foil and sabre. Foil fencers wear a conducting vest which covers the torso and groin. Sabre fencers wear a conducting jacket, sleeve and mask. In both weapons, the fencers' weapons are also wired. When a fencer scores a touch on an opponent, this completes an electric circuit which sets off a buzzer and notifies the referee that a touch has been scored. The referee is, in theory, free to observe right-of-way and need not have side judges present to determine whether a touch in fact occurred.
In epee, the fencers carry special weapons with compressible tips. When a touch is scored, the tip of the epee compresses, completing the circuit and signalling a touch. Since target area is the entire body, the fencers do not wear special clothing. However, the strip itself must be grounded, to prevent a touch from scoring when the tip of an epee hits the strip (as opposed to striking the opponent's toe, for example).
- Aldo Nadi, gold and silver medalist in the 1920 Summer Olympic Games, well-known fencing master, and author of the classic text, "On Fencing".
- Peter Westbrook, bronze medalist in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games, 13-time US National Men's Sabre Champion, author of "Harnessing Anger"
- Sharon Montplasir
- Iris Zimmerman
- Felicia Zimmerman