Fencing is a group of contact sports played with bladed weapons. The sport is sometimes referred to as modern fencing to distinguish it from a form of the sport played in historical times, now known as historical fencing or classical fencing. The term historical fencing is usually reserved for the sport as it was played from the 14th through the 18th centuries, while the term classical fencing usually refers to the form of the sport played in the 19th century. Modern fencing, then, is the form of the sport played since the beginning of the 20th century. Three kinds of weapons are used in modern fencing: the foil, sabre, and épée.
According to a traditional saying, the purpose of fencing is “to touch and not be touched.” That is, the goal of fencing is to bring your weapon into contact with some part of your opponent's body, without being touched yourself. The area of the body considered to be an acceptable target differs for each type of weapon. A touch (touché) in foil fencing must involve the opponent's torso (including the back and shoulders), but not the arms. A touch in sabre fencing must strike any part of the body above the waist, except for the hands. A touch with the épée may occur anywhere on the body.
Individuals of both genders, all ages, and all physical conditions participate in fencing. Internationally, fencers are divided into a number of divisions based on age and gender. Fencers under the age of 17 are classified as cadets, those who are 18 to 20 are juniors, seniors include those in the mid-range from 20 to 40, and veteran groups are available for those over the age of 40 (who are often divided into sub-groups of ages 40–50, 51–60, 61–70, and older). Wheelchair fencing is now a Paralympic sport in which rules are modified only slightly to accommodate men and women confined to wheelchairs. A somewhat dated survey from 2003 provides a broad, overall view of American fencers. At the time, 17,200 men and women belonged to the United States Fencing Association (USFA), governing body for the sport in the United States. Of this number, about two-thirds were men, and onethird women. The largest group by age consisted of men and women under the age of 20, who made up 42 percent of all USFA members. Almost half of that number qualified as cadets (under the age of 17). About one quarter (22%) of all members were over the age of 40, and about 20 wheelchair athletes were enrolled in the association.
A similar evolution occurred in western Europe, where a heavy katana-like weapon, the rapier, was known as early as the end of the 15th century. Like the katana, it too eventually evolved into a lighter, thinner weapon. With the appearance of the rapier, fencing began to take on a new dimension. Instead of its having the character of a legal decision maker, it became a sport in which participants could demonstrate a variety of elegant moves. Fencers became just as much concerned as to how well they purported themselves in a match rather than whether or not they actually won the match. Duels with rapiers became a wildly popular method of resolving minor disagreements, insulting comments, or conflicts in love. In fact, dueling became so popular-at the loss of many lives-that it was outlawed in many parts of Europe by the end of the 17th century.
The 16th century also saw the beginning of the formalization of fencing. This growth occurred in three centers, Spain, Italy, and France. It began in Spain in 1471 when Sierge de Valera produced the first fencing manual, outlining the nature of the sport and its special characteristics. By the beginning of the 16th century, the rapier had become widely popular in Italy, and dueling was a common part of everyday life among nobels. In 1553, Milanese architect and mathematician defined the four basic positions in fencing: prime, seconde, tierce, and quatre. Two decades later, a basic move in fencing, the lunge, was developed by Italian masters Angelo Vigiani and Giacommon di Grassi. Fencing in France during the period was distinguished by the creation of the French Fencing Academy in 1567 by King Charles IX and publishing in 1573 of the first French fencing treatise by Henry de St. Didier.
Over time, the three national schools of fencing came to dominate the way the sport was played in various parts of the world. Today, the Spanish school predominates in Spain and Portugal; the Italian school in Italy, Austria, Germany, Hungary, and South American; and the French school in France, England, the United States, and Central America. Fencing was brought to the United States in the 1870s by immigrants from France and Italy, who founded the first school of fencing here in 1874. Internationally, the sport remained in the spotlight when it was chosen as one of the nine sports in the first modern Olympic games of 1896. More than a decade later, an international governing body for the sport was created, the Fédé ration Internationale d'Escrime (FIE). FIE retains that role today. The governing body for American fencing, the United States Fencing Association (USFA) was created even earlier than the FIE, in 1891 under the name of the Amateur Fencers League of America (AFLA). AFLA changed its name to its present form in 1981.
The two most prestigious international fencing contests are the Olympic games, held every four years, and the world champsionship, held annually. Championships in both events are awarded in all three weapon categories: foil, sabre, and épée.
As with most major sports, fencing is governed by a detailed and extensive set of rules that, for this sport, runs nearly 200 pages in length. Rules governing the sport at the international level are those set by the FIE, while competition in the United States follows rules established by the USFA. The two sets of rules are similar but not identical.
A fencing match takes place in an area known as the piste, a rectangular space 14 meters long and 1.5 to 2 meters wide. A match begins when the referee announces “en garde”(on your guard), calling two opponents to take their position at the on-guard lines in the piste. At the signal “allez,” or “fence,” the competitors begin fencing. Competitors use various combinations of a few basic movements to score a point against an opponent. These movements include the lunge, in which the weapon is thrust forward; the parry, a defensive action by the opponent; and a riposte, an offensive action mounted by a defender after an attack by an opponent. Competition continues until the referee calls “halt,” a command that occurs when one of a number of events occurs, including:
The bout is resumed after stoppage for any of these reasons when the referee again calls “en garde.”
Simultaneous and near-simultaneous touches are not uncommon in fencing, so rules have been established as to which competitor receives credit in such a case. Those rules are called “right of way” rules. In general, the competitor who has begun an attack first is said to have the “right of way.” In case of simultaneous touch, that competitor is awarded the point. When two touches occur within 1/25th of a second in épée, both competitors are awarded one point each. Simultaneous touches in foil and sabre are not permitted, and awarding of points is determined by right of way. Touches are awarded only when the point of the weapon has come in contact with an opponent in épée and foil, while a touch with the front edge or the upper third of the back edge is permitted with sabre.
The length of a fencing match depends on the type of competition involved. In a tournament match, a bout ends when one competitor has scored five touches, or after four minutes of fencing have elapsed. In direct elimination matches, a bout lasts nine minutes, divided into three three-minute periods. A competitor who scores 15 touches before the bout ends is declared winner.
Fouls are declared for a variety of reasons. For example, a player who leaves the piste in an effort to avoid a competitor's thrust is scored with a foul. Normally, the first foul comes with only a warning from the referee, although subsequent fouls result in the opponent's being awarded a touch. Fouls may also be awarded if a competitor ignores a referee's instructions or warning or uses the unarmed arm or hand for defense. Fouls are also awarded for a number of violations regarding the proper use of the fencing weapon. Such rules differ for each type of weapon.
As with any sport, competitors should make every effort to be physically fit and prepared to take part in an activity that is physically and emotionally stressful. Fencing coaches also recommend that a competitor be certain that his or her weapon is in perfect condition. He or she should also check out the condition of the piste and surrounding area in order to become familiar with the area in which the competition will occur. Competitors should also be certain that they have all necessary equipment and that the equipment is in the best possible condition.
The most important piece of equipment in fencing is, of course, the weapon itself. The required dimensions of all three types of weapons are described in great detail by IFE rules and regulations. Coaches often recommend that beginning students select weapons that are more flexible than ones they might use as they become more proficient in the sport. In addition to the weapons themselves, other equipment needed for fencing includes:
Anyone who has ever seen a fencing match might guess that a crucial aspect of training for such matches involves footwork exercises. Good fencers must learn how to move about quickly and smoothly to attack an opponent or defend against an opponent's thrust. In addition, fencers must practice a host of procedures involved in both attack and defense maneuvers used in fencing. Many internet fencing sites have detailed explanation of the exercises one can follow in preparation for a fencing match. See, for example, http://www.fencing.net/drills/ or http://huahuafencing.com/english/training.html .
It stands to reason that a sport that uses weapons is likely to pose certain serious risks to competitors. Perhaps of greatest concern is any situation in which a competitor's head becomes exposed, either because he or she loses a mask entirely or if the mesh covering the face fails and a weapon penetrates the mesh. In general, most risks arise when some part of a fencer's uniform fails and the opponent's blade breaches the mask, bib, jacket, glove, or other item of clothing. Muscle injuries are also common in fencing. The actions taken by a fencer in attempting to score a point or to deflect a weapon involve rapid twisting and turning, movements that can severely stress muscles. Some common injuries resulting from these actions include pulled or strained muscles, especially hamstring muscles; twisted ankles; damage to the knees or Achilles tendon; lower back injury; and bruises, scrapes, or contusions resulting from falls or contact with an opponent. A 1993 study of 1,603 competitors, for example, found that just over half of the subjects reported some type of injury during a match. More than half of those injuries involved sprains and strains, while only about three percent involved some type of puncture injury as a result of equipment failure. No fencer has ever been fatally injured in the history of the sport in the United States.
A responsible program of prematch training combined with use of the very best equipment available almost guarantees that a fencer will not experience major physical injuries, although minor sprains, strains, bruises, and contusions are likely to occur.
Cheris, Elaine. Fencing: Steps to Success. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2002.
Evangelista, Nick. The Art and Science of Fencing. New York: McGraw Hill, 1999.
James, Harry. Strength Training for Fencers. Staten: SKA SwordPlay Books, 2007.
Pitman, Brian. Fencing: Techniques of Foil, Épée, and Sabre. Ramsbury: Crowood Press, 1988.
Price, Rob. Ultimate Guide to Weight Training for Fencing, 2nd ed. Chicago: Price World Publishing, 2009.
“Fencing 101.” USA Fencing. http://www.usfencing.org/basics-of-competition (accessed January 18, 2017).
Fédération Internationale d'Escrime (International Fencing Federation), Maison du Sport International, Ave. de Rhodanie 54, 1007 Lausanne, Switzerland, 41(0)21 320 31 15, Fax: 41(0)21 320 31 16, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.fie.ch .
USA Fencing, 4065 Sinton Rd., Ste. 140, Colorado Springs, CO, 80907, (719) 866-4511, Fax: (719) 632-5737, information@USFencing.org, http://usfencing.org .
David E. Newton, AB, MA, EdD