What is fencing?

Fencing is a lifetime sport for people of all ages and backgrounds. One of only five sports contested at every summer Olympic Games since 1896, fencing challenges athletes both physically and mentally while offering a supportive community and fun environment. There are many benefits to participating in  fencing including good sportsmanship and self discipline while becoming physically fit and healthy. Most importantly, you learn to make complex decisions, analyze problems and think quickly.

The Weapons

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The foil is a descendant of the light court sword formally used by nobility to train for duels. The foil has a flexible rectangular blade, approximately 35 inches in length and weighs less than one pound. Points are scored with the tip of the blade and must land within the torso of the body. The valid target area in foil is the torso from the shoulders to the groin in the front and to the waist in the back. It does not include the arms, neck, head and legs. This concept of on‐target and off‐target evolved from the theory of 18th‐ century fencing masters who instructed their pupils to only attack the vital areas of the body – i.e. the torso. Of course, the head is also a vital area of the body, but attacks to the face were considered unsporting and therefore discouraged.

The foil fencer’s uniform includes a metallic vest (called a lamé), which covers the valid target area so that a valid touch will register on the scoring machine. The flexible nature of the foil blade permits the modern elite foil fencer to attack an opponent from seemingly impossible angles.

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The epee (pronounced “EPP‐pay,” meaning sword in French), the descendant of the dueling sword, is similar in length to the foil, but is heavier, weighing approximately 27 ounces, with a larger guard (to protect the hand from a valid hit) and a much stiffer blade. Touches are scored only with the point of the blade, and the entire body, head‐to‐toe, is the valid target area, imitating an actual duel.

A full‐body target naturally makes epee a competition of careful strategy and patience – wild, rash attacks  are  quickly  punished  with solid  counter‐attacks.

Therefore,  rather  than attacking  outright, epeeists often spend several minutes probing their opponent’s defenses and maneuvering for distance before risking an attack. Others choose to stay on the defensive throughout the entire bout.

1996 was the first Olympics to feature team and individual women’s epee events.

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The saber is the modern version of the slashing cavalry sword, and is similar in length and weight to the foil. The major difference is the use of the blade. The saber is a cutting weapon as well as a thrusting weapon; therefore, saberists can score with the edge of their blade as well as their point. The target area is from the bend of the hips (both front and back), to the top of the head. This simulates the cavalry rider on a horse. The saber fencers’ uniform includes a metallic jacket (lamé), which fully covers the target area to register a valid touch on the scoring machine. Because the head is valid target area, the fencer’s mask is also electrically wired.

If epee is the weapon of patient, defensive strategy, then saber is its polar opposite. In saber, the rules of right‐of‐way strongly favor the fencer who attacks first, and a mere graze by the blade against the lamé registers a touch with the scoring machine. These circumstances naturally make saber a fast, aggressive  game,  with  fencers  rushing their  opponent  from  the  moment  the  referee  gives  the instruction to fence. Athens was the first Olympics to feature a Women’s Saber event.

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The Strip (Playing Field)

Fencers compete on a metal strip, or piste, which measures approximately two meters wide and 14 meters long. Points (or touches) scored in a bout are registered on an electronic scoring machine. The machine receives an electrical impulse when the spring tip of the foil or epee is depressed or, in saber when there adequate contact with the opponent by the blade. The strip is grounded to prevent touches being accidentally scored on the playing surface.

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The Basics of Competition

The Bout

A bout is the contest between two fencers. The object of a fencing bout is to effectively score 15 points (in direct elimination play) or five points (in preliminary pool play) before your opponent, or have a higher score than your opponent when the time limit expires.

Points are received by making a touch in the opponent’s target area. Direct elimination matches consist of three three‐minute periods with a one‐minute break between each in epee and foil. In saber, the first period lasts for eight touches and the second period ends when the first fencer scores 15 points.

Right-of-Way

The right‐of‐way rule was established to eliminate apparently simultaneous attacks between two fencers. This rule is only applied to foil and saber and the difference is important only when both the red and green lights go on at the same time. When this happens, the winner of the point is the one who the referee determines held the right‐of‐ way at the time the lights went on. The most basic, and important, precept of the right‐of‐way is that the fencer who started the attack first will receive the point if they hit the valid target area.

Naturally, the fencer who is being attacked must defend himself or herself with a parry, or somehow cause their opponent to miss in order to take over right‐of‐way and score a point. A fencer who hesitates for too long while advancing on their opponent gives up right‐of‐way to their opponent. The referee may determine that the two fencers truly attacked each other simultaneously. The simultaneous attack results in no points being awarded, and the fencers are ordered back en garde by the referee to continue fencing.

In saber, the fencer who starts to attack first is given priority should his opponent counter‐attack. However, saber referees are much less forgiving of hesitation by an attacker. It is common to see a saber fencer execute a stop cut against their opponent’s forearm during such a moment of hesitation, winning right‐of‐way and the point.

Epee does not use the right‐of‐way in keeping with its dueling origin. He who first gains touch earns the point, or if both fencers hit within 1/25th of a second both earn a point.

How To Follow A Bout

The fencer being attacked defends himself by use of a “parry,” a motion used to  deflect the opponent’s blade, after which the  defender can make a “riposte,” an answering attack. Whenever a hit is made, the referee will stop the bout, describe the action, and decide whether to award a touch. Fencers seek to maintain a safe distance from each other – that is out of the range of the opponent’s attack. Then, one will try to break this distance to gain the advantage for an attack. At times, a fencer will make a false attack to gauge the types of reactions of their opponent.

When a fencer lands a hit, the referee stops the bout. Then in foil and saber he/she determines who was the attacker, if their opponent successfully defended themselves, and which fencer should be awarded a touch, if any.

While it may be difficult to follow the referee’s calls (not helped by the fact that the officiating is performed in French!) the referee always clearly raises their hand and on the side of the fencer for whom they have awarded a point. Watching these hand signals can make it easier for newcomers to follow the momentum of a fencing bout without understanding all of the intricacies of the rules.