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What is Fencing?

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Fencing Academy of Philadelphia - Fencing Students

As a fencing school that works with all levels of fencers – from absolute beginners to Olympic alternates, we field a few of the same questions in each beginner class, so we’ve written this post for those of you that might be completely new to fencing.

It contains a brief overview of the sport, its equipment, and how you can get started with this under-appreciated combat sport!

What’s so great about Fencing anyway?

Fencing is a sport that most anyone can take part in, regardless of age, and is beneficial in many physical and mental ways, just like some martial arts, such as Judo and Karate. It requires great mental work, as well as physical, because of just how much technique and strategy is involved. There’s a reason the 2016 Olympian Fabian Kauter called fencing “Chess on a high physical level”!

Some of the benefits of fencing are:

·       Building physical agility & balance

·       Building endurance

·       Improving eye-to-hand coordination & accuracy

·        Gaining confidence & sportsmanship (especially in younger students)

·        Gaining more graceful movement

To score points (touches) in fencing, combatants must touch their opponent with their weapon, before their opponent can do the same to them. Fencing contains 3 weapon styles – Foil, Saber & Epeé and depending on the weapon, a different part of the sword must hit the opponent to score a point. This causes each sword style to have a different technique, strategy, rules and target areas to attack.

This makes each weapon a unique style of challenge and spectacle. Eventually, most fencers start to prefer or perform better with one weapon than the others so it’s usual to see competition level fencers mostly compete with one sword. Some practice with two and it’s rare to find a competition level fencer that can compete in all three!

Modern Fencing Rules

In the current era, fencing has a standard set of rules for all bouts, but the three weapon disciplines each carry their own rules of play. These rules are maintained by the governing body for fencing which is the FIE, standing for Fédération Internationale d’Escrime (translated to English as the International Fencing Federation). The FIE has 145 national federations which are recognized by the Olympic committee as the representative of Olympic fencing from that country. The US is governed by the US Fencing Association.

Fencing is taken seriously as a sport of history, respect and good sportsmanship, therefore a great deal of importance is placed on following the rules, traditions and good practices of the sport.

Standard rules

Fencing takes place on a platform called a “Strip” or “Piste” (depending on where you are), which is a platform measuring 46ft (14 metres) long by 4.9 – 6.6ft (1.5 – 2 metres) wide. At the beginning of the bout, the fencers must be standing behind 2 en-garde lines, 6.6ft either side of the center of the strip. If the competitors step off the end of either side of the strip, their opponent scores a touch. There are two warning lines 6.6 feet from either side of the ends of the Strip, to let fencers know they’re about to run out of space.

In preliminary competition, bouts continue until one fencer scores five touches, however, in DE (Direct Elimination), this number changes depending on the age class of a tournament up to 15 points.

Fencers enter the piste in complete uniform other than mask, plug their body wires into “the box” and test their weapons are working by touching each other – with épée by touching the tip of the weapon against their opponents weapon guard, and sabre and foil, on their opponents body uniform.

Each competitor returns to their starting position line and then salutes each other and the referee by facing the person they’re saluting with their mask off, raises their sword with the guard at face level, with the tip pointing upward and then lowering. Very similar to the “Present arms” command in the military. Fencers can be penalised if they don’t salute each other as this shows a lack of respect for their opponent and poor sportsmanship.

The referee will then call “En-garde”, which is a sign for fencers to put their masks back on and take the en-garde position. This is with the front foot behind the en-garde/starting line (and with foil bouts, the weapon in the sixte line). Then a call of “Ready?” from the referee, finally “Fence!”, which is the official beginning of the bout.

When an action is completed, the referee will halt play by calling “Halt”. He will then explain why the halt was called and award a point if appropriate. If a point was awarded, players will return to their en-garde line and reset their positions. If a point was not awarded, they keep their positions as close as possible to when play was halted and begin again when given the order by the referee.

Foil fencing Rules

A touch with a foil is only scored with the point of the weapon touching the torso of the opponent – from groin to neck, between the shoulders. Foil fencing also adheres to right-of-way, in which a fencer’s maneuvers and techniques take precedence over the opponent’s, even if the opponent hit the combatant first. Foil fencing is both very strategic and more difficult to attack with (due to the smallest target area and a strict rule set), which is why it’s the style we first teach to students in our fencing classes.

Saber Fencing rules

With a saber, a touch can be scored if any part of the blade hits the target area of the opponents torso (above the waist), arms or head. Due to this, saber fencers usually slash at their opponent rather than thrust. Saber also adheres to right-of-way rules. It’s often to see saber fencers attack each other simultaneously, in which case neither fencer is awarded a touch.

Epeé fencing rules

Epeé fencers are able to strike an opponent anywhere on their body to achieve a touch, but must strike with the tip of the sword. Epeé was the original duelling weapon and the one you’d see in most Hollywood movies when characters are “duelling”! Simultaneous strikes are also common in Epeé, however, unlike Saber, both competitors DO score a point when this occurs. This causes Epeé to be a strong psychological and mental game, attempting to cause your opponent to make a wrong move defensively so you can take advantage of an opening in their guard.

Fencing Uniform

Originally, Fencing was scored by 4 judges and a Director (head referee), who would call “halt” at the end of each action and poll the judges on whether a touch was made by competitors. As you can probably guess, this threw a massive amount of human error and bias into the mix!

In the modern era, Fencing now uses electronic point scoring. Fencers weapons are connected to an electronic system called “the box”, either through wiring, or most recently, moving to wireless connections. These boxes are paired to their opponent and detect when touches are made. When one is made, they light up a system on the fencers masks and around them to notify the audience and referee a touch was made. Simple enough for épée – however, foil and saber need to detect when on-target hits are made.

As foil and saber fencers need to distinguish between on-target and off-target hits, they will wear a specialised fencing uniform called a lame, which is a special conductive clothing, a body cord, which connects the weapon to the system and with a saber – a conducting mask and manchette.

Main Fencing competitions

While there are many competitions for fencing across the world, there are three top level ones for competitors to take part in:

  • Summer Olympics – Fencing has been in the modern Olympics since the very first in 1896, with saber being in every event, foil skipped the 1908 Olympics and épée skipped the first one. Just as for most sports, the Olympics are the most prestigious event for fencers to take part in and we’re so pleased to have sent our student Maia Weintraub to the latest Olympics as an alternate!
  • Fencing World Cup – An annual event organized by the FIE, The World Cup is the most prominent fencing-focused international competition. Consisting of a season of play, this is the tournament that awards seed rankings based on a consistent winning effort. You’ll have to be a high-performing, consistent fencer for the entire season to come top in The World Cup – so you’ll need a lot of endurance!
  • World Fencing Championships – Another annual event organized by the FIE, the It is a single tournament style competition at the end of each season. Starting in 1921 in Paris, they are now held in a different country each year. Since 2020, they aren’t held on the same year as the Olympics to allow competitors to take part in the Olympics instead. As opposed to The World Cup, because it’s a short, single tournament, it’s much more based on performance “on the day”, rather than giving a consistently strong effort.

Want to start fencing classes?

While we’ve tried to go over the starting basics of Fencing as a sport, there is so much more to learn that we just can’t fit here (but we’ll attempt to in later blog posts!) So why not join us for a term and get to know a bit more about the sport?

Our fencing coaches train new starters all the time in our Philadelphia and Wyncote fencing academies, and we’ll be glad to see you there! Head on over to our contact page to find out more information, or our FAQ goes into greater detail of the day-to-day of fencing classes and learning the art of fencing with us!

If you aren’t close enough to us, or can’t make our classes then most cities have a local fencing club you can join to learn and fence with your friends! It’s a sport that more and more people are getting into (and sticking to!) as they find out just how enjoyable it is and we’d love for you to start getting involved!

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