Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Fencing is any system of systematized offense and defense with the sword, most commonly used to denote those systems of European origin. Today it can be considered to refer to the European martial art of swordplay, or the modern Olympic sport based on it.

Table of contents
1 The Emergence of Modern Fencing
2 Modern and Classical Fencing
3 The Weapons
4 Right of Way
5 Protective Clothing
6 The Practice of Fencing
7 Electronic scoring equipment
8 Non-electric scoring
9 Notable modern fencers and fencing masters
10 Notable classical fencers and fencing masters
11 External links

The Emergence of Modern Fencing

Until the invention of firearms, swords were the primary offensive weapon in Europe. With firearms making heavy armor obsolete, the broadsword evolved into lighter, more manageable weapons suitable against unarmed opponents. Fencing started to develop in the Renaissance with the Rapier as the weapon of choice. Swords gradually became obsolete as weapons for warfare, but they survived until well into the 19th century as weapons for self-defense and to resolve honor disputes in formal duels.

The modern sport of fencing originates in the late 19th century, when swords became obsolete as duels of honor became outlawed in most European countries and fencing, in order to survive, had to reinvent itself as a sport. This it did in time to be one of the event of the first olympic games in 1896. The first few years of fencing as a sport were chaotic, with important rule disagreements among schools of fencing from different countries, notably the French and Italian schools.

This state of affairs ended in 1913, with the foundation of the Fédération Internationale d'Escrime (FIE) in Paris. The stated purpose of the FIE is to codify and regulate the practice of the sport of fencing, particularly for the purpose of international competition. The foundation of the FIE is a convenent breaking point between the classical and the modern traditions of fencing.

Modern and Classical Fencing

As a sport, the emphasis of the modern sporting tradition is on training athletes to win at competitions with often arbitrarily defined rules, as opposed to the older, "classical" tradition of fencing, seeking to preserve training with the sword as a means of self-defense and for the formal duel.

The effects of this split, however, have manifested only slowly since initially all training was done by fencing masters of the classical tradition. After over one hundred years of practice, though, the differences may be considerable.

The Weapons

In both its modern and its classical guise, fencing consists of three different weapons: foil, épée and saber. These three weapons had become standard by the late nineteenth century. All but Women's Saber (which will make its debut at the 2004 Olympic Games) are represented at Olympic-level competition. Additionally, in classical academies, one will often find historical fencing weapons, such as grand canne and rapier and dagger, being taught.

Foil used to be the first weapon taught to beginners, because the techniques of foil teach, in abtract form, the fundamentals of fencing. Additionally, in the past, women were only allowed to fence foil, and the lightness of the weapon made it easier to handle by children. Today, while it is advisable to gain at least a fundamental grasp of foil, fencers often begin with any of the three weapons.


The modern foil is descended from the training weapon for the small-sword, a lighter version of the rapier that was the common sidearm of the eighteenth-century gentleman. (Rapier and even longsword foils are also known to have been used but they were very different in terms of weight and use.) It is a light weapon, with a flexible, quadrangular blade, that scores only with the point. (In modern sport fencing, which makes use of electrical scoring appratus, one must hit the opponent with the tip of the blade, with a force of at least 4.90 Newtons (500 grams).)

The valid target area at foil is limited, due to it having evolved from the time when fencing was practiced with limited safety equipment. Hits to the face were dangerous, so the head was removed from valid target. The target was then further reduced to only the trunk of the body, where the vitals are located. A touch which lands on nonvalid target stops the fight, but no point is scored.


The modern épée is the closest weapon to an actual classical duelling weapon that is used in modern fencing. Following the great social revolutions of the late eighteenth century, gentlemen no longer commonly wore swords, and so the épée, carried to the field of honor in a case, was developed as a means of settling disputes. The épée is a long, straight and relatively heavy sword, with a triangular, relatively inflexible blade and a large, round, bell-shaped guard.

Like the foil, the épée is a point weapon. The reason for the large guard is that the hand is valid target, as is the rest of the body. Since double-hits are a possibility -- and, since there is no right-of-way (see below), épée fencing tends to be conservative in the extreme. In electric fencing, in order for a point to register, one must hit the opponent with the point, registering at least 7.35 Newtons (750 grams) of force. Classical fencers sometimes use a point d'arret, a three-pronged attachment that will actually catch the opponent's jacket.


The modern saber is descended from the classical northern Italian dueling saber, a far lighter weapon than the cavalry saber. The method and practice of saber fencing is somewhat different from the other weapons, in that they are edged weapons. In modern electric scoring, a touch with the saber, point, flat or edge, to any part of the opponent's valid target (head, torso, or arm) will register a hit. Classical fencing, naturally, has more stringent requirements.

The target area originates from dueling saber training. To attack the opponent's leg would allow him to "slip" that leg back and attack one's exposed arm or head given that the higher line attack will outreach the low line (there is a classic example of the leg slip in Angelo's Hungarian and Highland Broadsword of 1790). The target area is from the waist up excluding the hands. Similar right of way rules exist for sabre as they do for foil.

Right of Way

The "right of way" principle in foil and saber is that the first person to attack has priority. Simply put, if one is attacked, one must defend oneself before counterattacking -- rather than attempting to hit one's opponent even at the risk of being hit oneself. Attacks can be made to fail either by bad luck, mis-judgement or by action on the part of the defender. Parryinging (deflecting the attack with the blade) causes priority to change and for the defender to have the opportunity to attack. For instance, if one fencer attacks, and the other immediately counter-attacks into the attack, and each hits the other, the first fencer's attack is considered successful, while the second is considered to have misjudged. If, however, the second fencer parried the first attack and then responded with an attack of their own, they would have taken the right of way away from the first fencer. It would then be incumbent on the first fencer to defend him- or her-self.

In the modern sports of foil and sabre, both fencers will register a hit if they contact within a certain time of each other. Then the president must decide who had right of way at the time of the hits, and therefore who gets a point. If the president cannot tell, then they will declare the touches null, and restart the fight from where it stopped.

Protective Clothing

The clothing which is worn in modern fencing is made of tough cotton, nylon or kevlar. It includes the following items of clothing:

This equipment serves to protect the fencer.

Traditionally, the uniform is white in color, to assist the judges in seeing touches scored. However, recently the rules have been relaxed to allow colored uniforms.

The Practice of Fencing

Fencing takes place on a strip, or piste, with two fencers facing one another. In modern fencing, the piste is between 1.5 and 2 meters wide, and 14 meters long. Opponents start in the middle of the piste, 4 metres apart, in the en garde position.

A referee (formerly called president of jury, or director) presides over the contest, which called a "bout." The referee's duties include keeping score, keeping time (if there is no other time keeper), awarding points and maintaining the order of the bout. He or she stands on one side of the piste, watching the bout.

Electronic scoring equipment

Electronic scoring is used in all major national and international, and most local, sport competitions. (Classical fencing does not use such devices, as classical fencers feel that such devices negatively impact the practice of the art.) The electrical scoring system requires additional clothing for foil and saber: Foil fencers wear a conducting vest which covers the torso and groin. Saber fencers wear a conducting jacket, gauntlet and mask. In both weapons, the fencers' weapons are also wired. When a fencer scores a touch on an opponent, this completes an electric circuit which turns on a light and an audible alarm to notify the referee that a touch has been scored. The referee observes the fencers and the scoring machine to determine which fencer has the right-of-way.

In épée, the fencers carry special weapons with compressible tips. When a touch is scored, the tip of the épée compresses, completing the circuit and signalling a touch. Since target area is the entire body, the fencers do not wear special clothing. However, the strip itself must be grounded, to prevent a touch from scoring when the tip of an épée hits the strip (as opposed to striking the opponent's toe, for example).

Electronic scoring was introduced to épée in 1936, to foil in 1957, and to sabre in 1988.

Non-electric scoring

Prior to the introduction of electric 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.

When a judge thought he saw a hit, he raised his hand. The president then stopped the bout and polled the judges to determine whether there was a touch, and (in foil and sabre) whether the touch was valid or nonvalid. 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 of one judge abstained, the president's opinion ruled.

Notable modern fencers and fencing masters

Notable classical fencers and fencing masters

External links