Fencing, which is also known as modern fencing to distinguish it from historical fencing, is a family of combat sports using bladed weapons. It is also known as French sword-fighting or French sword-fencing. It is usually practised with the help of a sword or mini-blade.
Fencing is one of four sports which have been featured at every one of the modern Olympic Games, and is divided into three weapons:
Foil, which is a light thrusting weapon that targets the torso, including the back, but not the arms. Touches are scored only with the tip; hits with the side of the blade do not count, and do not halt the action. Touches that land outside of the target area (off-target) stop the action, and are not scored. Only a single hit can be scored by either fencer at one time. If both fencers hit at the same time, the referee uses the rules of right of way to determine which fencer gets the point.
Sabre is a light cutting and thrusting weapon that targets the entire body above the waist, excluding the off hand. Hits with the edges of the blade as well as the tip are valid. As in foil, touches which land outside of the target area are not scored. However, unlike foil, these off-target touches do not stop the action, and the fencing continues. In the case of both fencers landing a scoring touch, the referee determines which fencer receives the point for the action, again through the use of “right of way”.
The Epee is a heavier thrusting weapon that targets the entire body. All hits must be with the tip and not the sides of the blade. Touches hit by the side of the blade do not halt the action. Unlike foil and sabre, Epee does not use right of way, and allows simultaneous hits by both fencers. However, if the score is tied at the last point and a double touch is scored, nobody is awarded the point.
The History of Fencing
Fencing schools can be found in European historical records dating back to the 12th century. In later times fencing teachers were paid by rich patrons to produce books about their fighting systems, called treatises. Fencing schools were forbidden in some European cities (particularly in England and France) during the medieval period, though court records show that such schools operated illegally.
The earliest surviving treatise on fencing, stored at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, England, dates from around 1300 AD and is from Germany. It is known as I.33and written in medieval Latin and Middle High German and deals with an advanced system of using the sword and buckler (smallest shield) together.
From 1400 onwards an increasing number of fencing treatises survived from across Europe, with the majority from the 15th century coming from Germany and Italy. In this period these arts were largely reserved for the knighthood and the nobility – hence most treatises deal with knightly weapons, such as the rondel dagger, longsword, spear, pollaxe and armoured fighting mounted and on foot. Wrestling, both with and without weapons, armoured and unarmoured, was also featured heavily in the early fencing treatises.
By the 16th century, with the widespread adoption of the printing press, the increase in the urban population and other social changes, the number of treatises increased dramatically. After around 1500 carrying swords became more acceptable in most parts of Europe. The growing middle classes meant that more men could afford to carry swords, learn fencing and be seen as gentlemen. By the middle of the 16th century many European cities contained great numbers of fencing schools, often clustered together, such as in London at “Hanging Sword Lane”. Italian fencing masters were particularly popular and set up schools in many foreign cities. The Italians brought concepts of science to the art, appealing to the Renaissance mindset.
The rapier’s popularity peaked in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Dardi school of the 1530s, as exemplified by Achille Marozzo, still taught the two-handed spadone, but preferred the single–handed sword. The success of Italian masters such as Marozzo and Fabris outside of Italy shaped a new European mainstream of fencing.
The Ecole Française d’Escrime, founded in 1567 under Charles IX, produced masters such as Henry de Sainct-Didier who introduced the French fencing terminology that remains in use today.
Duelling went into sharp decline after World War I. After World War II, duelling went out of use in Europe except for very rare exceptions. Training for duels, once fashionable for males of aristocratic backgrounds (although fencing masters such as Hope suggest that many people considered themselves trained from taking only one or two lessons), all but disappeared, along with the classes themselves. Fencing continued as a sport, with tournaments and championships. However, the need to actually prepare for a duel with “sharps” vanished, changing both training and technique.
Starting with epee in 1936, 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 automated in 1956, sabre in 1988. 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 before.
Fencing tournaments vary in format, and include individual and team competitions. A tournament may include all three weapons, both individual and team, or as in an Epee Challenge, individual epee only. Men and women compete separately in high-level tournaments. Mixed-gender tournaments are commonplace at lower levels, especially those held by individual fencing clubs. An individual event consists of two parts: pools and direct eliminations.
Each fencer is assigned to a pool, typically with 6 others. Every fencer fences everyone else in the pool. If the number of fencers competing is not a multiple of seven, one or more pools adjust to six or eight members. After the pools are finished, the fencers are given a ranking, or “seed,” versus other fencers in the tournament, based primarily on their winning percentage, and secondarily on the difference between touches made and received. Once seeding completes, direct elimination starts. Fencers are sorted in a table. High seeds typically receive a bye, while lower seeded players fight for the right to compete against them.
For example, if a tournament has 31 entrants, the fighters compete in 4 pools of 6 and one pool of 7. The top fencer after pools are complete would receive a bye in the direct elimination table of 32 and immediately advance to the top-16 to face the winner of the 16 vs 17 match. After the first round, the 15 winners advance and the top seed joins the fray. Most tournaments do not fence off for 3rd place, so the losers of the semi-final matches would be tied for 3rd in final placement. For example, at the World Championships, fencers do not fence off for 3rd place but in the Olympics the fencers would fence off for the bronze medal.
Team competition involves teams of three fencers. A fourth fencer acts as an alternate, but only one substitution is allowed. The modern team competition is similar to the pool round of the individual competition. Each fencer plays each member of the opposing team, totalling nine matches. Matches are three minutes long, or to 5 points. Points carry into the next bout, thus making it a forty-five touch bout fought by six fencers. Unlike individual tournaments, team tournaments almost always fence for third.