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Fencing (sport)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


In the broadest possible sense, fencing is the art and science of armed combat involving cutting, stabbing, or bludgeoning weapons directly manipulated by hand, rather than shot or thrown (in other words, swords, knives, pikes, bayonets, batons, clubs, and so on). 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. The current modern weapons for sport fencing are the foil, épée, and sabre. The term 'Fencing' derives from the label, "The Art of Defence", meaning the art of defending one's self in combat.


Contemporary fencing is divided in three broad categories:

  • Competitive fencing
  • Fencing as a Western martial art
  • Other forms of fencing

Competitive fencing

There are three forms of competitive fencing in practice. Variations make each of them a distinct game. All three approach the activity as a sport, with varying degrees of connectedness to its historic past.

Russian Ivan Tourchine and American Weston Kelsey fence in the second round of the Men's Individual Épée event in the 2004 Summer Olympics at the Helliniko Fencing Hall on August 17, 2004.
Russian Ivan Tourchine and American Weston Kelsey fence in the second round of the Men's Individual Épée event in the 2004 Summer Olympics at the Helliniko Fencing Hall on August 17, 2004.

Olympic fencing

Olympic fencing (or just "fencing") refers to the fencing seen in most competitions (including the Olympic Games). It is marked by the use of electronic scoring equipment, and conducted according to rules laid down by the Fédération Internationale d'Escrime (FIE), the sports federation governing most international fencing competitions. The current rules are very loosely based on a set of conventions developed in 18th- and 19th-century Europe to govern fencing as a martial art and a gentlemanly pursuit. The weapons used are the electric foil, electric épée, and electric sabre.

This article is predominantly about Olympic fencing.

Wheelchair fencing

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.

American Fencing League fencing

American Fencing League (AFL) fencing is conducted in the United States according to rules of the American Fencing League, which are based on the 1940 rules of the old Amateur Fencers League of America. AFL fencing is not as purely athletic a game as Olympic fencing, as it has longer "phrases," longer time limits, 1-touch épée rules, a different approach to the principle of "right of way," and a revival of 3-weapon bouts. It uses the standard (non-electric) foil, standard épée, and standard sabre. Confusingly, it is sometimes referred to as classical fencing (see below). The United States Fencing Association (USFA) has taken the place of the AFL as the governing organization of fencing in the U.S.

Fencing as a Western martial art

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

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 (meaning "not electric", a usage from when electrical scoring was less common) foil, standard epee (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

Historical fencing is a type of historical martial arts reconstruction based on surviving texts and traditions, with a particular emphasis on pre-19th century fencing practices. Predictably, historical fencers study an extremely wide array of weapons from different regions and periods. They may work with bucklers, daggers, polearms, 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, 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.

Other forms of fencing

Finally, there are several other forms of fencing which have little in common (beyond history) with either of the other two classifications.

This circa 1900 painting illustrates a typical mensur bout in Heidelberg, Germany. The combatants have their swords high in the air and are wearing only metal goggles to protect the eyes and nose.
This circa 1900 painting illustrates a typical mensur bout in Heidelberg, Germany. The combatants have their swords high in the air and are wearing only metal goggles to protect the eyes and nose.

Academic fencing

Academic fencing, or mensur, is a German student tradition that is still practiced in Germany, Switzerland and Austria (where it is illegal) as well as in Flanders and Latvia. The combat, which uses a cutting weapon known as the schlager, uses sharpened blades and takes place between members of fraternities - "Verbindungen" - in accordance with a strictly delineated set of conventions. It uses special protective gear that - in some cases - leaves most of the head and face unprotected. The ultimate goal is to develop personal character and thereby acquire a proper cut across the face with a sharp blade as a visible sign of manly courage.

Stage fencing

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 and fencing actions are exaggerated for dramatic effect and visual clarity.

Recreational roleplaying

Recreational roleplaying often incorporates fencing in the context of historical (see the Society for Creative Anachronism) or fantasy themes (see 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).


Three weapons survive in modern competitive fencing: foil, épée, and sabre.

The spadroon and the heavy cavalry-style sabre, both of which saw widespread competitive use in the 19th century, fell into disfavour in the early 20th century with the rising popularity of the lighter and faster weapon used today, based on the Italian duelling sabre. The singlestick featured in the 1904 Olympic Games, but it was already declining in popularity by that time. Bayonet fencing was somewhat slower to decline, with competitions organized by some armed forces as late as the 1940s and 1950s. At one time, staves of various lengths, spears, halberds, axes, daggers, wrestling, shields and flails were all included in Fencing. Today these weapons are the preserve of historical fencing.

While the weapons fencers use differ in size 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, 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 (see grip (sport fencing)). The more traditional kind tend to terminate with a pommel, a heavy nut intended to act as a counterweight for the blade.


Main article: Foil (fencing)
A foil fencer.  Valid target (the torso) is in red.
A foil fencer. Valid target (the torso) is in red.

The foil is a light and flexible weapon, originally developed in the mid 17th century as a training weapon for the court sword (a light one-handed sword designed almost exclusively for thrusting). It is the weapon that, traditionally, many students practice first. Hits can be scored only by hitting the valid target surface with the point of the weapon. The target area is restricted to the torso. A touch on an off-target area stops the bout, but does not score a point. There are "right of way" conventions or priority rules, whose basic idea is that the first person to create a viable threat or the last person to defend successfully receives a "right" to hit. If two hits arrive more or less simultaneously, only the fencer who had the "right of way" receives a point. If priority cannot be assigned unambiguously, no points are awarded. The basic idea behind the foil rules was, originally, to encourage the defence of one's vital areas, and to fence in a methodical way with initiative passing back and forth between the two fencers and no last-minute counter-attacks ---- which risk a double death.

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 (Originally 1-5 milliseconds, but changed in 2004, done to counter the popularity of the "flick attack"). Fencers wear conductive (lamé) jackets covering their target area, which allow the scoring apparatus to differentiate between on- and off-target hits.

The 1980s saw the widespread use of "flicks" — hits delivered with a whipping motion which bends the blade around the more traditional parries, and makes it possible to touch otherwise inaccessible areas, such as the back of the opponent. This has been regarded by some fencers as an unacceptable departure from the tradition of realistic combat, where only rigid blades would be used, while others feel that the flick adds to the variety of possible attacks and targets, thereby expanding the game of foil. Ironically, flicks were not entirely an artefact of electronic scoring. Indeed, in 1896, The Lancet published an account of an early "electric scorer" and claimed among its advantages, that "flicks, or blows, or grazes produce no result."[1] Nevertheless, it is the introduction of electronic scoring to high-level competitive foil in the 1950s that is often blamed for the rise in the flick's popularity. In 2004-2005, in an effort to curtail the use of flicks, the FIE raised the contact time required to trigger the scoring apparatus from 1 millisecond to the current 15 milliseconds. This has not made flicks impossible, but it has made them more technically demanding, as glancing hits no longer register, and it is essential that the point arrives more or less square-on. Before they changed the rule, the blade could bend more easily so the back and flanks were easier to hit and score.

Fencers soon discovered new ways to take advantage of, and some would say abuse (needs reference), these changes. Due to the longer point depress time, and the fact that the point will bounce off when it hits a hard surface, it was documented that by wearing a plastic chest protector can often defect a solid hit without registering a touch. In Junior fencing, it has became a common practice for people to wear such protector. During a competition, it's often seen that a fencer hits his opponent with a great attack and the hit was valid (heard with a loud bang as it hit the protector), but the scoring box doesn't register a touch. It's an unwanted side effect and makes attacking in foil a less attractive action.



Main article: Épée (Fencing)
An Épée fencer.  Valid target (the entire body) is in red.
An Épée fencer. Valid target (the entire body) is in red.

Épée fencing was started at the beginning of the 16th century. While the use of two-handed longsword was declining and full suits of plate armour became less common, this new weapon was born in Spain. The rapier épée had a long fine blade with a sharper edge, and the tip could be used to cut and thrust. The guard looked like a small basket drilled with holes, having a long, straight ramrod bored through it to be used in engaging and breaking the opponent's blade and point. The introduction of the rapier brought about a new style of fencing, used almost entirely in the civilian realm of battle.

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, épée lacks the foil's most artificial conventions: the restricted target area and the priority rules. In épée, a hit can be scored by landing a hit anywhere on the opponent's body. The fencer whose hit lands first receives the point, irrespective of what happened in the preceding phrase. If two hits arrive simultaneously (within 40 milliseconds of each other), a double hit is recorded, and both fencers get a point (except for in modern pentathlon one-hit épée, where neither fencer receives a point).

In order for the scoring apparatus to register a hit, the push-button on the end of the weapon must remain fully depressed (tip must be depressed for a certain distance) for 2-10 milliseconds. To register, the hit must arrive with a force of at least 7.35 newtons (the equivalent of 750 grams of stationary mass) - a slightly higher threshold than the foil's 4.9 newtons (500 grams). 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. In such cases, they are simply ignored. However, deliberate hits against the floor are treated as "dishonest fencing," and penalized accordingly (see "The Practice of Fencing" below).

In the pre-electric era, épéeists used a point d'arret, a three-pronged point with small protruding spikes, which would snag on the opponent's clothing or mask, helping the referee to see the hits. The spikes caused épée fencing to be a notoriously painful affair, and épéeists could be easily recognized by the tears in their jacket sleeves. These days, the adherents of the point d'arret are few and far between, and non-electric weapons are generally fitted with foil-style rubber buttons.

The épée is the heaviest of the three weapons (approaching the weight of an actual court sword). However, ultra-lightweight blades can actually reduce the weight of an épée to below that of a foil.[2] On low-end weapons, the épée has a relatively stiff blade, though new technology has resulted in a flexible blade comparable to the other weapons. The épée is characterized by a V-shaped or approximately triangular cross-section, and a large round guard which offers much more protection to the wrist than the foil guard.

Épée fencing tends to be more conservative in style than the other weapons, and bouts tend to be somewhat more deliberate.


Main article: Sabre (fencing)
A sabre fencer. Valid target (everything from the waist up, including the arms and head) is in red (exception: The hands, which are shown in red, are not valid targets).
A sabre fencer. Valid target (everything from the waist up, including the arms and head) is in red (exception: The hands, which are shown in red, are not valid targets).

The sabre is the "cutting" weapon, with a curved guard and a triangular blade. However, in modern electric scoring, a touch with any part of the sabre, point, flat or edge, as long as it is on target, will register a hit.

The modern sabre is commonly believed to have taken its origins and traditions from the cavalry sabre, but that has recently been exposed as a myth.[citation needed] It is believed that the Hungarians introduced sabre fencing in Europe towards the end of the 18th century. Their sabre, derived from oriental scimitars, had a flat, slightly curved blade and was not as wide and thick as the French cavalry sabre. The Hungarians could not perfect their sabre until they were influenced by the Italian school, which helped them to perfect their teaching.

The target area in sabre is everything from the waist up, except for the hands. A hit that lands off target will not register a light or stop the bout.

Like foil fencing, sabre fencing uses right of way rules. However, the definition of an "attack" is slightly different for the two weapons, and as a result, the right of way rules distinguish sabre and foil, though the basic concepts are the same. Sabre right of way rewards very fast fencing (on offence and defence), so sabre fencing tends to be more aggressive in style than the other weapons.

Protective clothing

Equipment of a right-handed épée fencer: 1-Jacket 2-Glove 3-Body wire 4-Épée 5-Breeches 6-Mask 7-Plastron Not pictured: socks and shoes
Equipment of a right-handed épée fencer: 1-Jacket 2-Glove 3-Body wire 4-Épée 5-Breeches 6-Mask 7-Plastron
Not pictured: socks and shoes

The clothing which is worn in modern fencing is made of tough cotton or nylon. Kevlar was added to top level uniform pieces (jacket, knickers, underarm protector, 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:

  • Form-fitting jacket, covering groin and with strap (croissard) which goes between the legs, a small gorget of folded fabric is also sewn in around the collar to prevent a blade from slipping upwards towards the neck.
  • Under-arm protector (plastron) which goes underneath the jacket and provides double protection on the sword arm side and upper arm. It is required to not have a seam in the armpit, which would line up with the jacket seam and provide a weak spot.
  • Glove, with a gauntlet that prevents swords going up the sleeve and causing injury, as well as protecting the hand and providing a good grip
  • Breeches, which are a pair of trousers. The legs are supposed to hold just below the knee.
  • Knee-length socks, which cover the rest of the leg.
  • Mask, including a bib which protects the neck. For competition, the bib must be sewn into the mask frame to eliminate a hole that might admit a blade. Thus, masks with snap-in bibs are not legal for competition. The mask can usually support 12 kilograms of force, however FIE regulation masks can stand much more, at least 25 kg.
  • Plastic chest protector, mandatory for female fencers. While male versions are also available, they were, until recently, primarily worn by instructors, who are hit far more often during training than their students. Since the change of the depression timing (see above), these are increasingly popular in foil, as the hard surface increases the likelihood of point bounce and thus a failure for a hit to register. Plastrons are still mandatory, though.

Traditionally, the uniform is white in colour. This is primarily to assist the judges in seeing touches scored (black being the traditional colour for masters), but rules against non-white uniforms may also have been intended to combat sponsorship and the commercialization of the sport. However, recently the FIE rules have been relaxed to allow coloured uniforms. The colour white might also be traced back to times before electronic scoring equipment, when the blades were sometimes covered in soot or coloured chalk to make a mark on the opponent's clothing.

  • Fencing Masters wear a heavier protective jacket, usually reinforced by plastic foam to cushion the numerous hits an instructor has to endure.
  • Sometimes in practice, masters wear a protective sleeve or a leg leather for protection of their fencing arm or leg.


The following description pertains to the practice of modern competitive fencing, as governed by the FIE, and does not cover the many variations such as fencing within a circle popular with SCA enthusiasts.


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. Two meters either side of the mid-point, there are two en-garde lines, where the fencers stand at the beginning of the bout. There are also two warning lines two metres from either end of the strip, to let a retreating fencer know that he is nearly out of space. Retreating off of the strip scores a touch for the opponent.


There are at least three people involved: two fencers and a referee.

The referee may be assisted by two or four side-judges. This was common practice prior to the introduction of electronic scoring. Their function is somewhat similar to that of linesmen in soccer. Their primary job used to be to watch for hits scored. Consequently, 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 referee stands at the side of the piste. The fencers walk on piste fully dressed, aside from the mask. If necessary, they plug their body wires into the spools connected to the electronic scoring apparatus and test their weapons against each other, to make sure everything is functioning. They then retreat to their en-garde lines.

Prior to starting a bout, the fencers must salute each other. Refusal to do so can result in a fencer's suspension or disqualification. Both fencers must salute each other and the referee. They may choose to salute the audience. In non-electric events the 4 judges should be saluted also. There are many variations of the salute, including some fairly theatrical ones, but the common theme is that the fencer stands upright, mask off, facing whomever he/she is saluting and raises his/her sword to a vertical position with the guard either at or just below face level, and then lowers it again. Various apocryphal stories about the origin of the salute circulate, like gladiators saluting each other in the arena, crusaders pointing their sword heavenward in pre-battle prayer, duellists showing each other that their swords are the same length, etc. The most likely source of the modern fencing salute is the "Present arms" command from military drill, which originated in the 16th century.

After the salutes are completed, the referee will call "En-garde!" The fencers put on their masks and adopt the fencing stance with the front foot behind the en-garde line and the blade in the sixte line.[3] They are now in the on-guard (en-garde) position. The referee then calls "Ready?" In some countries, the fencers are required to confirm that they are. Finally the referee will call "Play!" or "Fence!", and the bout will start. Judging is often done in French, in which case the referee will say "En garde. Prêt. Allez". (In some circles, beginning the bout with the order "fence" is deemed incorrect and is contrary to the rules in certain countries). To interrupt the bout the referee calls "Halt!" (if judging in French, the term is the same). A bout may be interrupted for several reasons: a touch has been made, the rules have been breached, the situation is unsafe, or the action has become so disorganized that the referee can no longer follow it. Once the bout is stopped, the referee will, if necessary, explain his reasons for stopping it, analyse what has just happened and award points or give out penalties. If a point has been awarded, then the competitors return to their en-garde lines; if not, they remain approximately where they were when the bout was interrupted. The referee will then restart the bout as before. If the fencers were within lunging distance when the bout was interrupted and they are not required to return to their en-garde lines, the referee will ask both fencers to give sufficient ground to ensure a fair start. A common way of establishing the correct distance is to ask both fencers to straighten their arms and to step back to the point where their blades no longer overlap in the referee's view. If a fencer needs to stop the bout to adjust his/her mask, tie his/her shoe or something else needs that requires the referee's attention, he/she may do so by tapping their back foot and/or waving their back hand and the referee will generally call a halt. Tapping the front foot is called an appel and is actually a tactical move, intended to distract the opposing fencer...thus, the referee may ignore a front-foot tap.

This procedure is repeated until either one of the fencers has reached the required number of points (generally, 1, 5, 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 three minutes of fencing (or 8 touches in saber). In 15 point bouts, a 1 minute break occurs in between the three 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 director determines priority randomly. After priority is determined the fencers bout for one minute. If a point is scored, then that fencer wins, however if no points are scored then the fencer with priority wins. Note that this concept of priority is not the same as the priority used in foil and sabre to determine right-of-way.

Priority ("right of way") rules

Foil and sabre are governed by priority rules, according to which the fencer who is the first to initiate an attack or the last to take a successful parry receives priority. When both fencers hit more or less simultaneously, only the fencer who had priority receives the point. If priority cannot be assigned unambiguously, no points are awarded. These rules were adopted in the 18th century as part of teaching practice. Their aim is to encourage "sensible" fencing and reward initiative and circumspection at the same time, in particular to reward fencers for properly made attacks, and penalize fencers for attacking into such an attack that lands, an action that could be lethal with sharp blades. The risk of both duellists charging onto one another's swords is kept to a minimum. At least in principle, in a prolonged phrase, the initiative passes smoothly from one fencer to the other, and back again, and so on. In practice most phrases are broken off quickly if neither fencer lands.

Despite the simplicity of the underlying principles, priority rules are somewhat convoluted, and their interpretation is a source of much acrimony. Much of this acrimony is centered on the definition of attack. According to the FIE rules, an attack is defined as "the initial offensive action made by extending the arm and continuously threatening the opponent's target..." The general consensus is that the referee should look for whose arm starts straightening first. In practice, referees, especially inexperienced ones, may go for the easy option and give priority to whichever fencer happened to be moving forwards. This is technically wrong, but it is far from unusual. There is also a school of thought, subscribed to by a relatively small minority, that priority should be given to the fencer who was the first to straighten his arm fully. This, again, is out of line with the current rules. The adherents argue that this is the more classical way of doing things, but this claim is dubious, as actual practice decades ago based right of way on which fencer started straightening the arm (not which fencer completed the extension); and the reworded rules conform better to actual, traditional practice which was documented in some older editions of the rules. For example, the 1957 Amateur Fencers League of America (AFLA) rules said an attack "consists of a forward movement of the weapon", and "the rules do not require that the attack be made with a fully extended arm" (pages 141-142).

It is clear that an attack which has failed (i.e. has missed or been parried) is no longer an attack. The priority then passes to the defending fencer; he is now free to launch a riposte (if he has just parried an attack) or a counterattack (if the attack missed of its own accord). Whatever he chooses to do, he must do it immediately, as hesitation also leads to loss of priority. A hesitant defender may lose priority and get hit with a renewal of the initial attack.

A parry, just like an attack, to be counted as valid must fulfill certain criteria. In foil any action that deflects a linear attack from its passage towards the target (i.e. temporarily removes the threat by deviating the point from the target) or breaks the momentum of an attack delivered by a swinging motion will, generally, be given as a parry. Consequently, foilists often parry with a sharp beating motion which does not necessarily end in a full cover. In sabre, according to the FIE rules, "the parry is properly carried out when, before the completion of the attack, it prevents the arrival of that attack by closing the line in which that attack is to finish". In practice, when blades clash, sabre referees tend to look at the point of blade contact: contact of a defender's forte with an attacker's foible is generally counted as a parry, and the priority passes to the defender; whereas contact of a defender's foible with an attacker's forte is counted as a malparry, and the priority stays with the attacker. Some fencers refer to a retreat that makes an attack fall short as a "distance parry", but this is informal use: an actual parry requires blade contact.


Modern fencing also includes the addition of cards/flags (or penalties). Each card has a different meaning. A fencer penalized with a yellow card is warned, but no other action is taken. A fencer penalized with a red card is warned, and a touch is awarded to his opponent. A fencer penalized with a black card is excluded from the competition, and may be excluded from the tournament, expelled from the venue, or suspended from future tournaments in the case of serious offences.

Offences are broken down into four groups, and penalties are assessed based upon the group of the offence. Group 1 offences include actions such as making bodily contact with the opposing fencer (in foil or sabre), delaying the bout, or removing equipment. The first group 1 offence committed by a fencer in a bout is penalized with a yellow card. Subsequent group 1 offences committed by that fencer are penalized with a red card. Group 2 offences include actions that are vindictive or violent in nature, or the failure to report to the strip with proper inspection marks on equipment. All group 2 offences are penalized with a red card. Group 3 offences include disturbing the order of a bout, or intentionally falsifying inspection marks. The first group 3 offence committed by a fencer is penalized with a red card, while any subsequent group 3 offence is penalized with a black card. Group 4 offences include doping, manifest cheating, and other breaches of protocol, such as a refusal to salute. Group 4 offences are penalized with a black card.

There is also a specific penalty for putting one or both feet off the side edge of the piste: halt is called, and the opponent may then advance one metre towards the penalised fencer. The penalised fencer must retreat to 'normal' distance before the bout can restart - that is, the distance where both fencers can stand on-guard, with their arms and swords extended directly at their opponent, and their blades do not cross. If this puts the fencer beyond the back edge of the piste, the fencer's opponent receives a point.

Electronic scoring equipment

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. There are, however, still traditionalists within the fencing community who have fundamental objections to the practice (discussed later on in this section).

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 must be worn. This includes a jacket of conducting (lamé) cloth (for both weapons) and (in the case of sabre) a conducting mask and cuff (manchette).

Recently, reel-less gear has been adopted for sabre at top competitions, including the Athens Olympics. In this system, which dispenses with the spool (by using the fencer's own body as a grounding point), the lights and detectors are mounted directly on the fencers' masks. For the sake of the audience, clearly visible peripheral lights triggered by wireless transmission may be used. However, the mask lights must remain as the official indicators, as FIE regulations prohibit the use of wireless transmitters in official scoring equipment, to prevent cheating. Plans for reel-less épée and foil have not yet been adopted because of technical complications.

In the case of foil and épée, hits are registered by depressing a small push-button on the end of the blade. In foil, the hit must land on the opponent's lame to be considered on-target. (On-target hits set off coloured lights; off-target hits set off white lights.) At high level foil and épée competitions, grounded conductive pistes are normally laid down to ensure that bouts are not disrupted by accidental hits on the floor. In sabre, an on-target hit is registered whenever a fencer's blade comes into contact with the opponent's lamé jacket, cuff or mask. Off-target hits are not registered at all in sabre. It has been proposed that a similar arrangement (non-registration of off-target hits) be adopted for foil. This proposal is due to be reviewed at the 2007 FIE Congress. In épée the entire body is on-target, so the subject of off-target hits does not arise (unless you count the hits which miss the opponent entirely and land on an ungrounded section of the floor - needless to say doing so on purpose is considered cheating). Finally the competitors weapons are always grounded so hits against an opponent's blade or coquille do not register.

In foil and sabre, despite the presence of all the gadgetry, it is still the referee's job to analyse the phrase and, in the case of simultaneous hits, to determine which fencer had the right of way.

"Electric" fencing has not been without its problems. One of the most talked about has been the registration of glancing hits in foil. Traditionally, a valid, "palpable" hit could only be scored, if the point were fixed on the target in such a manner, as would be likely to pierce the skin, had the weapon been sharp. However, the electric foil point (the push-button on the end of the blade) lacks directionality, so hits which arrive at a very high angle of incidence can still register. In the 1980s, this lead to a growing popularity of hits delivered with a whip-like action (commonly known as "the flick"), bending the blade around the opponent's parry. Many saw this as an unacceptable deviation from tradition. In fact, the disputes over the flick grew so bitter that a number of traditionalists advocated (and still continue to advocate) complete abandonment of electronic scoring as something detrimental to fencing as an art. In 2004-2005 the FIE brought in rule changes to address such concerns. The dwell time (the length of time the point has to remain depressed in order to register a hit) was increased from 1 millisecond to 15 milliseconds. This change has been rather controversial. While it has not eliminated the flick altogether, it has made it technically trickier thereby denting its popularity. However, there have been some serious problems with apparently "palpable" hits not registering. Moreover, the imperative to make clear "square-on" hits has lead to a number of unforeseen results, which, it has been argued, have made foil less rather than more classical. The following have been reported:

  • Unwillingness to attack, leading to long periods of inactivity and loss of certain visually striking (but risky) manoeuvres;
  • Loss of popularity of the more sophisticated and technically demanding compound actions;
  • A rise in the number of renewed offensive actions (at the expense of counter-ripostes) delivered with a decidedly non-classical pumping action;
  • A rise in the number of counterattacks with avoidance (at the expense of ripostes);
  • Increased popularity of unorthodox "cowering" on-guard positions among young fencers;
  • Hard hitting.
  • Bouncing from direct hits on certain protective gear.

Having said that, every one of the above claims is a subject of dispute.

In sabre, the inadequacy of existing sensors has made it necessary to dispense with the requirement that a cut must be delivered with either the leading or the reverse edge of the blade and that, once again, it must arrive with sufficient force to have caused an injury had the blade been sharp (but not so forcefully as to injure your opponent with a blunt weapon!) At present, any contact between the blade and the opponent's target is counted as a valid hit. Some argue that this has reduced sabre to a two-man game of tag; others argue that this has made the game more sophisticated.

The other serious problem in sabre (universally acknowledged as a problem) is that of "whip-over." The flexibility of the blades is such that the momentum of a cut can often "whip" the end of the blade around the defender's parry. The low success rate of parries (compared to other weapons) is seen by many as impoverishing the tactical repertory of the weapon. In 2000 the FIE brought in rule changes requiring stiffer blades. This has improved matters but not eradicated the problem altogether. There has been talk of making the sabre guard smaller, in order to make attacks on preparation and counterattacks easier and thus slow down the momentum of the attack, giving the defender more of a chance.

Finally, the cut-out times deserve a mention. The cutout time is the maximum time allowed by the box between two hits registering as simultaneous (if this time is exceeded, only one light will appear). In épée this time is very short: 40 milliseconds. This means that, so far as human perception is concerned, the hits really do need to arrive at the same instant. In foil and sabre, where priority rules apply, the cutout times are considerably longer (hundreds of milliseconds). This was a source of two problems:

  • Double lights are a frequent occurrence, making refereeing difficult. Too many decisions are disputed.
  • Once again, the attacker gains an unreasonable advantage. It is possible to execute a long marching attack with only a hint of an arm extension, clearly inviting an attack on preparation, which is then followed by a delayed trompment.

For those reasons, in 2004-2005 the FIE slashed the cut-out times for foil and sabre from 750 milliseconds to 350 milliseconds and from 350 milliseconds to 120 milliseconds respectively. While these changes were controversial at first, the fencing community now seems to have accepted them. Some concerns remain at sabre, where immediate renewals frequently "time out" indirect ripostes.

Non-electronic scoring

Prior to the introduction of electronic scoring equipment, the president of jury was assisted by four judges. Two judges were positioned behind each fencer, one on each side of the strip. The judges watched the fencer opposite to see if he was hit. This system is sometimes called "dry" fencing (USA) or "steam" (United Kingdom, Australia) fencing.

When a judge thought he saw a hit, he raised his hand. The president (referee or director) then stopped the bout and reviewed the relevant phases of the action, polling the judges at each stage to determine whether there was a touch, and (in foil and sabre) whether the touch was valid or invalid. The judges would answer "Yes", "Yes, but off-target" (in foil and sabre), "No", or "Abstain". Each judge had one vote, and the president had one and a half votes. Thus, two judges could overrule the president; but if the judges disagreed, or if one judge abstained, the president's opinion ruled.

Épée fencing was later conducted with red dye on the tip, easily seen on the white uniform. As a bout went on, if a touch was seen, a red mark would appear. Between the halts of the director, judges would inspect each fencer for any red marks. Once one was found, it was circled in a dark pencil to show that it had already been counted. The red dye was not easily removed, preventing any cheating. The only way to remove it was through certain acids such as vinegar. Thus, épée fencers became renowned for their reek of vinegar until the invention of electronic equipment.

Despite the problems mentioned in the previous section on electronic scoring, the vast majority of fencing considers it a great improvement over non-electric system described here. 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." In addition there were frequent problems with bias and collusion, leading to the wry expression that a dry jury consisted of "4 blind men and a thief". Some fencers, particularly in sabre, would hit hard to ensure their touches could not be missed, and dry sabre could be an extremely painful undertaking despite the protective jackets. Even in the best of circumstances, it was very difficult to accurately score hits, and it systematically under-reported valid touches to hard-to-see areas, such as the back or flank under the arm. Consequently, even though there are limitations and controversy over electronic scoring, and despite its rejection by the classical fencers, electronic scoring is by far the dominant method used to determine if touches land.


Two junior épéeists mid-bout. The fencer facing the camera is in the initial stages of a flèche.
Two junior épéeists mid-bout. The fencer facing the camera is in the initial stages of a flèche.

In a fencing bout, a great deal depends on being in the right place at the right time. Fencers are constantly manoeuvring in and out of each other's range, accelerating, decelerating, changing directions and so on. All this has to be done with minimum effort and maximum grace, which makes footwork arguably the most important aspect of a fencer's training regimen. In fact, in the first half of the 20th century it was common practice to put fencers through six months to a year of footwork before they were ever allowed to hold a sword. This practice has now been largely abandoned.

Modern fencing tends to be quite linear. This is dictated by the width of the piste — no more than 2m — and rules dictating a halt once fencers come into contact or pass each other.

These rules may reflect older duelling styles and the changing nature of weapons: Sideways movement, which was a common defence against an attack with a comparatively unwieldy weapon like the rapier, became an unreliable tactic when faced with smaller, much lighter weapons. In contemporary sport fencing defence by footwork usually takes the shape of moving either directly away from your opponent (out of his range) or directly towards him (making the attack "overshoot").

The fencing stance and movements may appear artificial, but they have evolved over centuries of trial and error to afford optimal protection and mobility. Fencers tend to stand somewhat side-on to the principal direction of movement (the fencing line), leading with the weapon side (right for a right-hander, left for a left-hander). In this fencing stance the feet are a shoulder-width or more apart with the leading foot forward and the trailing foot at right angles to it. Finally, the knees are well bent and the centre of gravity is kept mid way between the heels. The fencer is now in a position where he is well balanced, able to use his leg muscles to generate rapid bursts of speed and change directions with comparative ease. In foil and épée, particularly, this stance decreases the vulnerable target area. Further, and more importantly, it maintains balance and ease of movement both forward and backward.

The most common way of delivering an attack in fencing is the lunge, where the fencer reaches out with his front foot and straightens his back leg. This maneuver has the advantage of allowing the fencer to maintain balance while covering far more distance than in a single step, yet still allowing a return to the more defensive fencing stance.

Sometimes fencers do take the more "natural" kind of steps, where the back foot passes the front foot. These are usually referred to as cross-steps. While cross-steps do have the advantage of range and speed, they may put a fencer in an awkward and frequently unbalanced position mid-step.

A somewhat exaggerated version of the cross-step, sometimes used to deliver an attack in foil or épée, is the flèche ("arrow" in French). In the flèche, the fencer leans forward and takes a long running cross-step, generating most of the thrust with his front leg. Ideally, the hit delivered with a flèche should arrive as or just before the fencer's front foot hits the ground. When (as often happens) the flèching fencer runs past the defender the defender is allowed to finish a defensive action, generally a riposte following a parry.

In sabre forward cross-steps were prohibited in the 1990s, one of numerous efforts to increase the sport's popular appeal.

Variations and portions of the above movements can also be used by themselves. For example, a check-step forward is performed by moving the back foot as in a retreat, then performing an entire advance. This manoeuvre can trick your opponent into thinking that you are retreating, when in reality you are about to close distance.

Other footwork actions include the appel (French for "call"), which is a stomp designed to upset the opponent's perception of rhythm, and the ballestra, which is a "hopping" step occasionally used as a preparation for attacks (the back foot leaves the ground, while the front foot is still in mid-air; both feet come down at the same 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 Epee Challenge, with individual épée only. And, as in many sports, men and women compete separately.

Individual events

Generally, 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. The size and number of the pools is determined by the number of athletes who have registered for the competition.

Pool bouts are three minutes long, and are fenced to five points. If no fencer reaches five points, then the one with the most points after three minutes wins. Pool results are recorded on a scoresheet, which must be signed by the fencers after their last match. The referee will write down how many points each fencer scored in the bout, although normally if a fencer won with five points a "V" (for victoire) is written down instead of a 5. Losing a pool match does not eliminate a fencer from the tournament.

In some tournaments, there are two rounds of pools, with the second round following the same format, but with pools of different fencers.

After the pools are finished, 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. There are rarely exactly the right number of people for this to work out perfectly, so the lowest ranking fencers may be eliminated, or they may be included in the next highest power of 2 with the top fencers receiving a bye.

Once the table size has been chosen, fencers are slotted into the table like this: first place vs. last place, second vs. second last, third vs. third last etc. A fencers place is decided by their indicator score, which is calculated by the numbers of hits for and against during the pool rounds.

The elimination round matches in foil and épée are fenced in three periods of three minutes each. In between each period, there is a one minute break. Sabre matches are so much faster that the three minute mark is almost never reached. Therefore, in sabre, when one fencer reaches 8 points, there is a one minute break.

In all three weapons, the match goes until 15 points. If no one has reached 15 points, then the fencer with the most points wins. The rules for ties are explained above under Protocol. The winner carries on in the tournament, and loser is eliminated.

Fencing is slightly unusual in that no one has to fence for third place. Instead, two bronze medals are given to the losers of the semi-final round.

Team events

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 leave again. The opposing team must be alerted of this substitution at least one round before it happens.

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. At the beginning of the team match, each team fills out one side of a score sheet with the order they will fence in. Teams are not aware of the order their opponents will be fencing in, although the sheet is designed so that no two athletes will fence each other twice.

Matches between teams are three minutes long, or to 5 points, as in the pools. There are important differences, however: each match the score carries over, and the maximum score for each match is increased by 5. For example, lets imagine that Fencer A from Team 1 and Fencer X from Team 2 finish their first bout at 5-3. Next, Fencer B and Fencer Y step on the piste. They will be fencing to 10 points, but Fencer B starts at 5, and Fencer Y starts at 3, right where their team-mates left them. This means that Fencer Y can still pull ahead, if she scores 7 points before Fencer B scores 5.

Imagine, however, things go slowly, and after three minutes the total score is 8-6. Although neither fencer reached the limit of 10 total points for this match, the next pair to fence will still be able to go as high as 15. In other words, the maximum score for each round continues increasing by 5 regardless of how many points were scored in the previous match.

Since there are 9 matches, the highest score possible is 45 points. However, the winner is simply the team with the highest score at the end of the ninth match, even if it is less than 45. While sabre almost inevitably goes to 45, it is not unusual to see an epee score in the mid to low thirties. If there is a tie at the end of the ninth match, then the usual tie-breaking rules apply, and it is the same two fencers who will do the tie-breaker match.

Team tournaments sometimes use pools and elimination rounds, although given the possible length of a team match (often a half-hour each), this is not so common, and they usually begin in a direct elimination format. The seeding of the teams in this case can be random, or based on the performance of the individual members (if it is a tournament with both), or even based on the results of the same team at other tournaments (for example if it is a national team). Unlike individual tournaments, teams must almost always fence for bronze.

There is also an older team format, no longer is popular use. Under these rules, the teams were still three members each, and still consisted of nine matches round-robin tournament style. However, scores did not carry over. The team to first win 5 matches (a majority) was declared the winner.


Collegiate fencing

Collegiate fencing has existed for a long time in the US. Some of the earliest programs came from the Ivy League schools, but now there are over 100 fencing programs nation-wide. Both clubs and varsity teams participate in the sport, however only the varsity teams may participate in the NCAA championship tournament. Due to the limited number of colleges that have fencing teams, teams fence inter-division (teams from Division I schools to Division III), and all divisions participate in the NCAA Championships. In 2006 Harvard edged out Penn State to win their first national championship in the sport.

Collegiate fencing tournaments are "team tournaments" in a sense, but contrary to what many people expect, collegiate meets are not run as 45-touch relays. Schools compete against each other one at a time. In each weapon and gender, three fencers from each school fence three fencers on the opposing team in five-touch bouts. (Substitutions are allowed, so more than three fencers per squad can compete in a tournament.) A fencer's individual results in collegiate tournaments and regional championships are used to select the fencers who will compete in NCAA championships. Individual results for fencers from each school are combined to judge the school's overall performance and to calculate how it should be placed in a given tournament.

  • Intercollegiate Fencing Association
  • List of NCAA Fencing Schools
  • List of club-level US collegiate fencing programs

High School Fencing

High School Fencing has had ups and downs over the years. Fencing was once part of many school's physical education curriculum, and many schools had clubs that would sometimes hold inter-school tournaments. In more recent years in the United States fencing all but vanished from physical education classes. This has been attributed to worries about teaching children to use weapons or that it teaches violence and requires expensive equipment, as well as other reasons.[citation needed] Fencing remained a club sport at a few schools until recently, when there has been an increase in High School fencing clubs and tournaments.

High school fencing season is generally in winter. Fencing in most places is not sanctioned by the state and therefore rules and competition rules vary.

See also

  • Academic fencing
  • Fencing terminology
  • Olympic medalists in fencing (men)
  • Olympic medalists in fencing (women)
  • List of notable fencers
  • List of American foil fencers
  • List of American epee fencers
  • List of American sabre fencers
  • USFA Hall of Fame
  • Kendo


  1. ^ (1896-06-24) "Fencing: an Electric Scorer". The Lancet 141 (3643): 37-38.
  2. ^ Leon Paul created a 230g complete épée [1]
  3. ^ Guidance for referees, British Fencing Association, 2003.

External links

Look up fencing in
Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

Governing bodies

Olympic fencing

  • Fédération Internationale d'Escrime The body responsible for all international Olympic fencing
  • United States Fencing Association
  • Canadian Fencing Federation
  • British Fencing Association
  • Australian Fencing Federation
  • Chilean Fencing Federation

Other styles

  • International Wheelchair Fencing Committee The body responsible for all international (Paralympic) wheelchair fencing
  • American Fencing League National organization for AFL fencing in the United States
  • Association for Historical Fencing An international organization for classical and historical fencing
  • Australian Historical Swordplay Federation
  • Italian Historical Fencing Federation
  • Sala d'Arme Achille Marozzo Ancient Fencing Art Italian Institute

Professional organizations

  • U.S. Fencing Coaches Association

Other sites

  • Classical Fencing and Historical Swordsmanship Resources An extensive directory of traditional fencing groups and individuals
  • Fencing FAQ from
  • Classic books on fencing
  • FencingPhotos Official photographer of the Fédération International d'Escrime
  • FRED: Fencing Results and Events Database
  • Fencing.Net Fencing news, training drills and active discussion forums
  • Directory of fencing links

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