Fencing is the art of armed combat involving cutting, stabbing, or slapping bludgeoning weapons directly manipulated by hand, rather than shot, thrown or positioned, of European origin. Examples include swords, knives, pikes, bayonets, batons, clubs, and similar weapons. In contemporary common usage, "fencing" tends to refer specifically to European schools of swordsmanship and to the modern Olympic sport that has evolved out of them.
Fencing is one of the four sports which has been featured at every modern Olympic Games. Currently, three types of weapon are used in Olympic fencing:
Etymology: The word 'fence' was originally a shortening of the Middle English 'defens', that came from an Italian word, 'defensio', in origin a Latin word. The first known use of defens in reference to English swordsmanship is in William Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor: 'Alas sir, I cannot fence.'
By the 16th century German fencing had developed sportive tendencies. Treatises by Paulus Hector Mair and Joachim Meyer came from the teachings of the earlier centuries within the Liechtenauer tradition, but added new and distinctive characteristics. Jacob Sutor's (1612) printed fechtbuch is the last in that German tradition.
The Italian school was continued by the Dardi school, by such masters as Antonio Manciolino and Achille Marozzo. From the late 16th century, Italian rapier fencing attained considerable popularity all over Europe, notably by Salvator Fabris's 1606 treatise.
In England, it was not uncommon for fencing masters to take on other fencing masters in a fight, often to the death, often with intervals for medical staff to dress wounds. Such spectacles were generally held in beargardens, particularly in the Southwark neighborhood near London.
Foil was invented in France as a training technique in the middle of the 18th century; it provided practice of fast and elegant thrust fencing with a smaller and safer weapon than an actual dueling sword. Fencers blunted its point by wrapping a foil around the blade or fastening a knob on the point ("blossom", French fleuret). In addition to practice, some fencers took away the protection and used the sharp foil for duels. German students took up that practice and developed the Pariser ("Parisian") thrusting small sword for the Stoßmensur ("thrusting mensur"). After the dress sword was abolished, the Pariser became the only weapon for thrust fencing in German colleges and universities.
Since thrust fencing with a sharply pointed blade of any kind is quite dangerous, many students died from (especially) pierced lungs (Lungenfuchser). However, a counter movement had already started in Göttingen in the 1750s, with the invention of the Göttinger Hieber, a predecessor of the modern Korbschläger, a new weapon for cut fencing. In the following years, the Glockenschläger was invented in Eastern Germany universities, also for cut fencing.
Until the first half of the 19th century all types of academic fencing can be seen as duels, since all fencing with sharp weapons was about honour. No combat with sharp blades took place without a formal insult. For duels involving non-students, e.g. military officers, the academic sabre became usual, apparently being derived from the military sabre. It was then a heavy weapon with a curved blade and a hilt similar to the Korbschläger.
The term "Classical Fencing" is a relatively new invention, retroactively applied to select periods and methods. As it is understood today, classical fencing derives most directly from the 19th and early-20th century national fencing schools, especially in Italy and France, although other pre-World War II styles such as Russian and Hungarian are also considered classical. Masters and legendary fencing figures such as Giuseppe Radaelli, Louis Rondelle, Masaniello Parise, the Greco brothers, Aldo Nadi and his rival Lucien Gaudin are today considered typical practitioners of this period.
Fencing was one of the disciplines at the first 1896 Summer Olympics.
Scoring was done by means of four judges who determined whether a touch had been made. Two side judges stood behind and to the side of each fencer, and watched for hits made by that fencer on the opponent's target. A director followed the fencing from a point several feet away from the centre of the action. At the end of each action, after calling "Halt!", the director would describe the action, and then poll the judges in turn. If the judges differed, or abstained, the director could overrule them.
This method had serious limitations, though it was universally used. As described in an article in the London newspaper, The Daily Courier, on June 25, 1896: "Every one who has watched a bout with the foils knows that the task of judging the hits is with a pair of amateurs difficult enough, and with a well-matched pair of maîtres d’escrime well-nigh impossible." There also were problems with bias: well-known fencers were often given the benefit of mistakes (so-called "reputation touches"), and in some cases there was outright cheating. Aldo Nadi complained about this in his autobiography The Living Sword in regard to his famous match with Lucien Gaudin.
The Daily Courier article is an early description of a new invention, the electrical scoring machine, that would revolutionize fencing.
Starting with épée in the 1930s, side judges were replaced by an electrical scoring apparatus, with an audible tone and a red or green light indicating when a touch landed. Foil was electrified in the 1950s, sabre in the 1980s. The scoring box reduced the bias in judging, and permitted more accurate scoring of faster actions, lighter touches, and more touches to the back and flank than were possible with human judges.
There are numerous inter-related forms of competitive fencing in practice, all of which approach the activity as a sport, with varying degrees of connectedness to its historic past.
Olympic fencing (or simply "fencing") refers to the fencing seen in most competitions, including the Olympic Games and the world cup. Competitions are conducted according to rules laid down by the Fédération Internationale d'Escrime (FIE), the international governing body. These rules evolved from a set of conventions developed in Europe between mid 17th and early 20th century with the specific purpose of regulating competitive activity. The three weapons used in Olympic fencing are foil, épée, and sabre. In competition, the validity of touches is determined by the electronic scoring apparatus, so as to minimize human error and bias in refereeing.
Wheelchair fencing, an original Paralympic sport, was developed in post-World War II England. Minor modifications to the FIE rules allow disabled fencers to fence all three weapons. The most apparent change is that each fencer sits in a wheelchair fastened to a frame. Footwork is replaced by torso or arm movement, depending on the fencer's disability. The proximity of the two fencers tends to increase the pace of bouts, which require considerable skill. The weapons are identical to those used in Olympic fencing.
Other variants include one-hit épée (one of the five events which constitute modern pentathlon) and the various types of competitive fencing, whose rules are similar but not identical to the FIE rules. One example of this is the American Fencing League (distinct from the United States Fencing Association): the format of competitions is different, there is no electronic scoring, and the priority rules are interpreted in a different way. In a number of countries, the accepted practice at school and university level deviates slightly from the FIE format.
Some practitioners of fencing approach it as a Western martial art, with the goal being to train for a theoretical duel. The element of sport is absent (or nearly so) from these forms of fencing, but they all share a common origin with each other and with competitive fencing.
Classical fencing is differentiated from competitive fencing as being theoretically closer to swordplay as a martial art. Those who call themselves classical fencers may advocate the use of what they see as more authentic practices, including little or no emphasis on sport competition. There is strong interest within the classical fencing community in reviving the European fencing practices of the 19th and early 20th century, when fencers were expected to be able to fight a duel using their training. Weapons used are the standard (non-electric) foil, standard épée (often equipped with pointes d'arret), and the blunted duelling sabre. AFL fencing is often referred to as classical fencing, but this is a misnomer.
Historical fencing is a type of historical martial arts reconstruction based on surviving texts and traditions. Predictably, historical fencers study an extremely wide array of weapons from different regions and periods. They may work with bucklers, daggers, polearms, navajas, bludgeoning weapons, etc. One main preoccupation of historical fencers is with weapons of realistic weight, which demand a different way of manipulating them from what is the norm in modern Fencing. For example, light weapons can be manipulated through the use of the fingers (more flexibility), but more realistically-weighted weapons must be controlled more through the wrist and elbow. This difference is great and can lead to drastic changes even in the carriage of the body and footwork in combat. There is considerable overlap between classical and historical fencing, especially with regard to 19th-century fencing practices.
Finally, there are several other forms of fencing which have little in common besides history with either of the other two classifications.
Academic fencing, or mensur, is a German student tradition that has become mostly extinct but is still sometimes practiced in Germany, Switzerland and Austria as well as in Flanders and Latvia. The combat, which uses a cutting weapon known as the schläger, uses sharpened blades and takes place between members of student fraternities - "Studentenverbindungen" - in accordance with a strictly delineated set of conventions. It uses special protective gear that leaves most of the head and face, excluding the eyes, unprotected. (The special goggles are called Paukbrille.) The ultimate goal is to develop personal character, therefore there is no winner or loser and flinching is not allowed. Acquiring a proper cut on the face with the sharp blade, called a Schmiss (German for "smite"), was considered a visible sign of manly courage and status as "Akademiker", or member of the professional upper class. However, tales of cuts being intentionally manipulated by sewing in horsehairs or rubbing wounds with vinegar or salt have been discredited as popular myths since the 1880s.
Stage fencing seeks to achieve maximum theatrical impact in representing a wide range of styles, including both modern and historical forms of fencing. Theatrical fight scenes are choreographed by a Fight Director, and fencing actions are exaggerated for dramatic effect and visual clarity.
Recreational roleplaying often incorporates fencing in the context of historical or fantasy themes in the Society for Creative Anachronism or live-action roleplaying games. Technique and scoring systems vary widely from one group to the next, as do the weapons. Depending on local conventions, participants may use modern sport fencing weapons, period weapons, or weapons invented specifically for the purpose, such as boffers.
While the weapons fencers use differ in shape and purpose, their basic construction remains similar across the disciplines. Every weapon has a blade and a hilt. The tip of the blade is generally referred to as the point. The hilt consists of a guard and a grip. The guard (also known as the coquille, the bell, or the bellguard) is a metal shell designed to protect the fingers. The grip is the weapon's actual handle. There are a number of commonly used variants. The more traditional kind are approximately straight and terminate with a pommel (a heavy nut intended to act as a counterweight for the blade). In the case of foil and épée, these have been surpassed in popularity by a variety of ergonomic designs, often collectively refereed to as pistol grip (the way they are held resembles how one holds a pistol). All of the weapons used for modern competition have electrical wiring which allows them to register a touch on the opponent.
The target area is restricted to the torso. Up until 01/01/2009, the bib of the mask is not valid target. From 01/01/2009, valid target will include that part of the bib below a straight line drawn between the shoulders, under the rules of fencing's international governing body, the Federation International d'Escrime. If you hit your opponent with any part of the foil other than the tip, it has no effect whatsoever - fencing continues uninterrupted. A touch on an off-target area stops the bout but does not score a point. There are right of way or priority rules, which determine which fencer's hit will prevail when both fencers have hit. The basic principle of priority is that the hit of the fencer who begins an offensive action first will prevail over his/her opponent's hit unless the original fencer's action fails. A fencer's action fails when it falls short of his/her opponent, misses, or is parried. When one fencer's action fails, the other's current or next offensive action gains priority, unless they delay too long (longer than one period of "fencing time" - the time taken to perform one action at the current tempo of the exchange), in which case the previously defending fencer loses this right. If priority cannot be determined when both fencers have hit each other, no point is awarded. The original idea behind the foil rules was to encourage the fencers to defend and attack vital areas, and to fight in a methodical way with initiative passing back and forth between the combatants, thus minimizing the risk of a double death.
When an exchange ends in a hit, the referee will call "halt", and fencing will cease. The referee will then analyse the exchange and phrase it in official terminology. The first offensive action is called the attack. All defensive actions successfully deflecting an opponent's blade are called parries. The first offensive action preceded by a parry is called a beat-attack. An offensive action of a parrying fencer directly following the parry is called a riposte. An offensive action of a fencer, who attacks without first withdrawing the arm directly after being parried, is called a remise. An offensive action of a fencer from the on-guard position, after being parried and then returning to the on-guard position, is called a reprise. An offensive action of a fencer after his/her opponent has lost the right to riposte via inaction is called a redouble. An offensive action begun by a fencer who is being attacked by his/her opponent is called a counter-attack.
In modern competitive fencing 'electric' weapons are used. These have a push-button on the point of the blade, which allows hits to be registered by the electronic scoring apparatus. In order to register, the button must be depressed with a force of at least 4.90 newtons (500 grams-force) for at least 15 milliseconds with 3 significant figures of accuracy. Fencers wear conductive (lamé) jackets covering their target area, which allow the scoring apparatus to differentiate between on- and off-target hits.
Épée, as the sporting weapon known today, was invented in the second half of the 19th century by a group of French students, who felt that the conventions of foil were too restrictive, and the weapon itself too light; they wanted an experience closer to that of an actual duel (although the effect is now the opposite as the épée is very slow in comparison). At the point of its conception, the épée was, essentially, an exact copy of a smallsword but without the needle-sharp point. Instead, the blade terminated in a point d'arrêt, a three-pronged contraption, which would snag on the clothing without penetrating the flesh.
Like the foil, the épée is a thrusting weapon: to score a valid hit, the fencer must fix the point of his weapon on his opponent's target. However, the target area covers the entire body, and there are no rules regarding who can hit when (unlike in foil and sabre, where there are priority rules). In the event of both fencers making a touch within 40 milliseconds of each other, both are awarded a point (a double hit), except when the score is equal and the point would mean the win for both, such as at in the modern pentathlon one-hit épée, where neither fencer receives a point. Otherwise, the first to hit always receives the point, regardless of what happened earlier in the phrase.
The 'electric' épée, used in modern competitive fencing, terminates in a push-button, similar to the one on the 'electric' foil. In order for the scoring apparatus to register a hit, it must arrive with a force of at least 7.35 newtons (750 grams-force) (a higher threshold than the foil's 4.9 newtons), and the push-button must remain fully depressed for 1 millisecond. All hits register as valid, unless they land on a grounded metal surface, such as a part of the opponent's weapon, in which case they do not register at all. At large events, grounded conductive pistes are often used in order to prevent the registration of hits against the floor. At smaller events and in club fencing, it is generally the responsibility of the referee to watch out for floor hits. These often happen by accident, when an épéeist tries to hit the opponent's foot and misses. This results in a pause in the action but no points. However, deliberate hits against the floor are treated as "dishonest fencing," and penalized accordingly.
Sabre is the 'cutting' weapon: points may be scored with edges and surfaces of the blade, as well as the point. Although the current design with a light and flexible blade (marginally stiffer than a foil blade which bends easily up and down while a sabre blade bends easier side to side) appeared around the turn of the 19th and 20th century, similar sporting weapons with more substantial blades had been used throughout the Victorian era.
There is some debate as to whether the modern fencing sabre is descended from the cavalry sabres of Turkic origin (which became popular in Central and Western Europe around the time of Napoleonic Wars) or one of Europe's indigenous edged duelling weapons, such as the cutting rapier. In practice, it is likely to be a hybrid of the two. Most of the conventions and vocabulary of modern sabre fencing were developed by late 19th and early 20th century masters from Italy and Hungary, perhaps most notable among them being Italo Santelli (1866–1945).
The sabre target covers everything above the waist, except the hands (wrists are included) and the back of the head. Today, any contact between any part of the blade and any part of the target counts as a valid touch. This was not always the case, and earlier conventions stipulated that a valid touch must be made with either the point or one of the cutting edges, and must arrive with sufficient force to have caused a palpable wound, had the weapon been sharp. These requirements had to be abandoned, because of technical difficulties, shortly after electronic scoring was introduced into sabre fencing in late 1980s.
Like foil, sabre is subject to right of way rules, but there are some differences in the precise definition of what constitutes a correctly executed attack and parry. These differences, together with a much greater scoring surface (the whole of the blade, rather than the point alone), make sabre parries more difficult to execute effectively. As a result, sabre tactics rely much more heavily on footwork with blade contact being kept to a minimum.
The clothing which is worn in modern fencing is made of tough cotton or nylon. Kevlar was added to top level uniform pieces (jacket, breeches, underarm protector, lamé, and the bib of the mask) following the Smirnov incident at the 1982 World Championships in Rome. However, kevlar breaks down in chlorine and UV light, so the act of washing one's uniform and/or hanging it up in the sun to dry actually damaged the kevlar's ability to do the job.
In recent years other ballistic fabrics such as Dyneema have been developed that perform the puncture resistance function and which do not have kevlar's weakness. In fact, the FIE rules state that the entirety of the uniform (meaning FIE level clothing, as the rules are written for FIE tournaments) must be made of fabric that resists a force of 800 newtons (1600N in the mask bib).
The complete fencing kit includes the following items of clothing:
Traditionally, the fencers' uniform is white in colour (black being the traditional colour for masters). This may be to some extent down to the occasional pre-electric practice of covering the point of the weapon in dye, soot, or coloured chalk in order to make it easier for the referee to determine the placing of the touches. Recently the FIE rules have been relaxed to allow coloured uniforms (black still being reserved for the coaches). The guidelines delineating the permitted size and positioning of sponsorship logos are however still extremely strict.
A fencing bout takes place on a strip, or piste, which, according to the current FIE regulations, should be between 1.5 and 2 meters wide and 14 meters long. There are at least three people involved: two fencers and a referee. The referee may be assisted by two or four side-judges (also known as corner-judges). The arrival of the electronic scoring apparatus has rendered them largely redundant. Under current FIE rules, a fencer may ask for two side-judges (one to watch each fencer) if (s)he thinks that the referee is failing to notice some infringement of the rules on his opponent's part (such as use of the unarmed hand, substitution of the valid target area, breaching the boundary of the piste etc.).
The fencers start and stop the bout at the referee's command. Generally, referees interrupt the bout, whenever the electronic apparatus registers a touch (either on or off-target) or whenever one or both of the fencers break the rules of the game. Once the bout is stopped, the referee must explain his reasons for stopping it, analyze what has just happened, and award points or penalties. If a point has been awarded, then the competitors return to their on-guard lines; if not, they remain approximately where they were when the bout was interrupted. The referee will then restart the bout. This procedure is repeated until either one of the fencers has reached the required number of points (generally, 1, 5, 10 or 15, depending on the format of the bout) or until the time allowed for the bout runs out.
Fencing bouts are timed: the clock is started every time the referee calls "Fence!" and stopped every time he calls "Halt!" The bout must stop after 3 minutes of fencing (or 8 touches in sabre). In 15 point bouts, a 1 minute break occurs in between the 3 minute intervals. If 9 minutes of fencing time elapse in a 15 touch bout, or 3 in a 5 touch bout, the bout is over, and the current scores are taken as final. If the score is tied when time runs out, then the fencers go into an extra minute, at the beginning of which the referee randomly assigns "priority" to one of the fencers (generally done by coin toss). The first touch within the extra minute wins the bout. If neither fencer makes a touch during the extra minute, the winner is the fencer who had "priority".
At international events and large European events including Opens and those similar, all refereeing is in French, which is the official language of international fencing. In practice, neither the referee nor the fencers need anything more than the knowledge of a handful of key words and phrases (like "En garde. Prêt. Allez" to begin the bout and "Halte!" to interrupt it), coupled to a system of corresponding hand gestures. At domestic events, referees typically use the language of the country (for instance, to keep with the earlier example, "On guard! Fencers ready? Fence!" and "Halt!").
Foil and sabre are governed by right of way rules, according to which the fencer who is the first to initiate an attack (by straightening the arm) receives right of way. Commonly but incorrectly it is said that the person who parries also receives right of way. Instead, the person who parries must initiate an attack to gain right of way; parrying just eliminates the opponent's right of way and grants the defender the right to make a riposte. In the event of a double touch (both fencers landing a hit at the same time), only the fencer who had right of way receives a point. These rules were adopted in the 18th century as part of teaching practice. Their main aim was to discourage careless tactics, which result in simultaneous hits and, in a real duel, would leave both participants dead (the least desirable outcome). In both sabre and foil, there are rules regarding what can be considered a properly executed attack or parry.
Electronic scoring is used in all major national and international, and most local, competitions. At Olympic level, it was first introduced to épée in 1936, to foil in 1956, and to sabre in 1988. The central unit of the scoring system is commonly known as "the box." In the simplest version both fencers' weapons are connected to the box via long retractable cables. The box normally carries a set of lights to signal when a touch has been made. (Larger peripheral lights are also often used.) In foil and sabre, because of the need to distinguish on-target hits from off-target ones, special conductive clothing and wires must be worn. This includes a lamé (a jacket with metal threads woven in), a body cord to connect the weapon to the system, a reel of retractable cable that connects to the scoring box and, in the case of sabre, a conducting mask and cuff (manchette) as the head and arms are valid target areas.
At the most basic level, fencing revolves around the opening and closing of various lines of attack and defense. In order for one fencer to hit, the other must make a mistake and leave an "opening." Fencing tactics rely on a mixture of "open-eyes" opportunism and deliberate "set-ups", where the opponent is systematically fed false information about one's own intentions.
A great deal in fencing depends on being in the right place at the right time. In general, Olympic fencing has put a premium on balance, speed, and athleticism in footwork, somewhat diluting orthodoxies regarding the classical stances and methods. To a degree, this has led to increasing resemblance between fencing footwork and that of other martial arts, with the significant caveat that a scoring "touch" requires almost no power behind the blow, only timing and the ability to manipulate distance.
Fencing tournaments are varied in their format, and there are both individual and team competitions. A tournament may comprise all three weapons, both individual and team, or it may be very specific, such as an Épée Challenge, with individual épée only. And, as in many sports, men and women compete separately in high-level tournaments. Mixed-gender tournaments are commonplace at lower-level events, especially those held by individual fencing clubs. There are two types of event, individual and team. An individual event consists of two parts: the pools, and the direct eliminations.
In the pools, fencers are divided into groups, and every fencer in a pool will have the chance to fence every other fencer once. There are typically seven fencers in a pool. If the number of fencers competing is not a multiple of seven, then there will usually be several pools of six or eight. After the pools are finished, the fencers are given a ranking, or "seed," compared to all other fencers in the tournament, based primarily on the percent of bouts they won, then based secondarily on the difference between the touches they scored and the touches they received. Once the seeds have been determined, the direct elimination round starts. Fencers are sorted in a table of some power of 2 (16, 32, 64, etc.) based on how many people are competing. Due to the fact that it is highly unlikely for the number of fencers to be exactly a power of two, the fencers with the best results in the pools are given byes. The winner carries on in the tournament, and loser is eliminated. Typically no one has to fence for third place (the exception is if the tournament is a qualifying tournament with limited slots for continuation). Instead, two bronze medals are given to the losers of the semi-final round.
Team competition involves teams of three fencers. A fourth fencer can be allowed on the team as an alternate, but as soon as the fourth has been subbed in, they cannot substitute again. The modern team competition is similar to the pool round of the individual competition. The fencers from opposing teams will each fence each other once, making for a total of nine matches. Matches between teams are three minutes long, or to 5 points, and the points then carry onto the next bout, making team fencing one forty-five touch bout fought by six fencers. Unlike individual tournaments, team tournaments almost always fence for bronze.
Fencing has a long history of association with universities and schools. At least one style of Fencing, Mensur in Germany is practiced only within universities. University students compete against each other at an international level at the World University Games. Most nations also hold a national level university tournament including the NCAA championship tournament in the USA and the BUCS Fencing Championships in the UK.
The cost of equipment and the relatively small scale of the sport means fencing at the school level has traditionally been dominated by a small number of schools. National fencing organisations have set up programs to encourage a greater number of students to get involved with fencing at a school level examples include the Regional Youth Circuit program or the Leon Paul Youth Development series in the UK.
In the UK the only national competition in which schools compete against each other directly is the Public Schools Fencing Championship, a competition only open to Independent Schools. However schools also organise matches directly against one another and school age pupils can compete individually against one another in the British Youth Championships.