Fencing 101

How to Fence: Basics of Fencing

What Fencing Equipment Do I Need to Start?

Fencing is a safe sport mainly due to the protective fencing uniforms and flexible blades.

If you’re about to get started fencing, then you’re probably wondering what gear you need to be able to practice and spar.  While most fencing clubs offer use of their beginner gear for the term of the introductory class, once you start going to practice on a regular basis, you’ll want to get your own set of gear.

Fencing Gear for Basic and Intermediate Classes

The first things that you’ll want to have are a glove, mask, and foil.  (Or an epee or saber depending on the focus of your class or club.)  The fencing gloves provided by most clubs are used and therefore have a certain amount of “funk” to them.  Spending $10 to $12 on a new glove that is entirely your own is a good practice.  It’s also good to spend the $50 on a new fencing mask that only you will wear.  (Head lice, anyone?)  The mask and glove are intensely personal items and are the most likely to stink more than the club fencing jackets – which are usually washed more often.

Once you have your own glove and mask you may want to go ahead and get a foil.  That will be your own personal fencing sword and allow you to practice on a wall target at home.

Starter Kits

Fencing Starter Kit

Most fencing equipment suppliers (like Fencing.Net) offer Starter Kits which include the glove, foil, fencing mask, and a front-zip jacket for one low cost.  This is a great buy if you’re just taking the beginner class or graduating to the intermediate class where the focus is on basic technique and partner drills.

Once you’re past the intermediate phase, you may be getting into electric fencing, at which point you’ll want to get outfitted with the equipment that you need for sparring using the electric scoring gear.

Besides the basics, there exists a whole host of other pieces and parts which fencing equipment suppliers can provide for you. These consist of everything from spare blades and parts to replace broken gear to component upgrades, premium uniforms, and tools to help you test and fix your own gear.

You can find more out at Fencing.Net’s Fencing Equipment Buyer’s Guide.

What about shoes?

Fencing Shoes - by Nike

Nike Fencing Shoes

Fencing.Net has already written a great Comprehensive Guide to Fencing Shoes, so go and read that article for the lowdown on shoes. If you want the summary before heading there, it’s as follows: indoor court shoes (volleyball, raquetball, squash) are good basic fencing shoes. Only spend the $120+ on good fencing shoes once you’re fully committed to the sport.

Tactics and Fencing’s Tactical Wheel

As we’ve said, fencing is not simply about overpowering or outpacing your opponent.  There is much planning and strategy involved in considering not just your first attack, but every movement of your body and your weapon throughout your entire bout.  Planning your tactics is an important part of your success.

The tactical wheel.

In fencing, the Tactical Wheel or Tactical Tree is a theory or philosophy that teaches that each tactic will defeat the one before it, and be defeated by the one following, if executed properly.  Think of it as an endless game of Rock/Paper/Scissors – rock smashes scissors, scissors cut paper, paper covers rock, and so on.  By assuming your opponent’s attack while planning yours, you can make your choice as to what moves you will use in the bout.

In other words, by assuming your opponent will present scissors, you can choose rock.  If you see that he or she chose scissors twice in a row, you can then assume they’ll chose something else for the next round, and so on.

This is how it works in fencing:

Simple Attack (an attack executed as one quick action) is defeated by:

Parry and Riposte (defending with the blade and/or distance, and then attacking), which is defeated by:

Compound Attack (an attack executed with multiple “feints” to close distance and draw out the final parry), which is defeated by:

Counter Attack/Attack on Preparation (a timed Simple Attack into the early, non-threatening phase of the Compound Attack), which is defeated by:

Counter Time (a feint or preparation used to draw the Counter Attack so the ATTACKER may then make Parry and Riposte), which is defeated by:

Feint in Tempo (a compound counter attack used to evade the Counter time), which is defeated by:

Simple Attack (the wheel has come full-circle).

Second intention.

Each of the above actions may also be executed with a specific, pre-determined follow-up action in mind – just like deciding to use “rock” when you suspect that your opponent will be choosing “scissors,” but better yet, your opponent thinks you’re choosing “paper” and is so baited into choosing “scissors.”  This philosophy is also used in chess – deliberately setting up your opponent to position a certain piece of theirs into a trap so that you can then capture it.  You are making your move to elicit a certain response from your opponent, not to simply score by that move alone.

In other words, you make the first move but plan for it to fail, so that you can follow up with your second move, or second intention.

To make the opponent do what you want him to do is to control the bout.  The best and classic example is to initiate a short attack with no intention of landing the touch. The opponent predictably makes a parry followed by a riposte. That riposte is the setup action. It is parried and a counterattack counter riposte is launched, landing the touch.

These types of executions are called Second Intention Actions.  Any action that is done specifically to elicit a predictable response from an opponent is second intention.

Tactics.

Fencing champions use distractions or other methods to hinder the opponent’s game, although you of course should never rely on these tactics over your skills with the blade or your footwork.

Some distractions might include changes in footwork tempo and cadence, conversation or absence of blade as opposed to the opponent’s demonstrated preferences, blade work and footwork combinations.

Using time between rounds in direct elimination bouts by interaction with a coach so that the opponent at least thinks that either a definite strategy is being discussed or that he is the subject of conversation can also have a demoralizing and distracting effect on an opponent.

Timing tactics.

It’s very important that you be ahead of your opponent when planning your blade work.  You only have a fraction of a second to score your hit before your opponent.

It’s important to use the element of surprise when planning your moves.  This way, your opponent will be caught off guard from not having anticipated your move or response, and therefore will be exploited by your tactic.

Self-control.

As you are trying to catch your opponent off guard or cause him to expose a vulnerable area for your attack, your opponent will be doing the same.  Studying an opponent’s reactions and tactics is very important, but your opponent will be trying to read yours as well.

Having self-control and not allowing yourself to get off tempo, or telegraphing your moves and intentions, is vital.  Undue nervousness or underestimating your opponent will no doubt give him or her the upper hand for your bout.

Spinning the wheel.

One of the most effective tactics one can use during fencing is to “spin the tactical wheel” and move to a different set of tactics than previously used.  Your opponent is probably gauging the things you are doing well – or not so well – during a bout, and by changing your tactics you will then be able to stay one step ahead of him or her, and thereby control the bout – and ultimately have success!

Counter-Attacks and Counter-Offense

Obviously you cannot expect your opponent to stand still while you come at him or her with your own attacks.  You will be facing someone who is just as determined as you are to win the bout, so you need to be prepared with counter movements against their attacks as well.

Here are a few basic ones:

Point in line.

A point-in-line is an established threat made with the extended arm. A point-in-line is a static or unmoving threat, created by one fencer by extending the weapon and arm prior to any actions.

In foil and sabre, a point-in-line has right of way, therefore, if the line is not withdrawn, any attack launched by the opponent does not have right of way.  You would score the point.

Here is a video example of point-in-line in foil.

Counter attack.

An attack made against, or into, an attack initiated by your opponent is simply a counter-attack.  In other words, it’s an attack on an attack. In foil and sabre, a counter-attack does not have the right-of-way.

Counter attack with opposition.

An action to seize the opponent’s blade and control it progressively (moving along the blade) in the same line (of the opponent) is opposition.

So, counter attack with opposition is an attack or counter-attack in the same line as the opponent’s blade; a combined parry and riposte.

This is, by definition, an offensive maneuver, since to ‘progressively’ control the opponent’s blade you must move along its length, closing distance towards him.

Counter attack with evasion.

An evasion is a move that causes the opponent’s point to miss by using carefully timed footwork.  It might also be considered derobement, which is evading the opponent’s attempts to beat or take the blade while your arm is extended and your point is in line. When the opponent fails to find the blade during their attack preparation, the attacker has been derobed.

Counter-Offensive First Intention.

By definition, this is a tactic by which you wait for the attack to begin and then execute your counter-offensive action into the attack, catching your opponent by surprise.  In other words, you’re attacking in response to their first move, not making the first move yourself.

Attack in preparation.

Attack on Preparation is a set of actions where you take your opponent out of their attack by disrupting their preparation or sequence of movements.  In other words, they are preparing their moves, and you attack during this preparation.

As an example, your opponent may begin to make preparations to draw your parry so they can make a disengage. Instead of giving the parry, however, you can attack into the preparation and gain right of way.

Fencing is like any other form of combat or even adversarial game – both opponents will try and avoid the other’s attack while trying to strike out. It doesn’t matter if you’re Playing Poker or snap, you’re wrestling or fencing, you’ll want to avoid your opponent’s attack and counter or strike back as quickly as possible.

The Basics of Defense in Fencing

It’s sometimes said that in sports, “the best offense is a good defense.”

Obviously it pays to be proficient in both offensive and defensive moves when it comes to fencing – and every other sport, for that matter – but in this section we’ll discuss some of those basic defensive moves that you should familiarize yourself with.

Distance control.

It’s said by some that the fencer that controls the distance between the opponents controls the bout.

Your browser may not support display of this image. Keep in mind that fencing is not about a frenzied, overpowering attack.  Your goal is not just to score points for yourself but to create a scenario that denies your opponent their points as well.

Part of your planning should involve drawing out an anticipated response from your opponent, that then makes him vulnerable and which can be exploited – much like a chess player will bait their opponent, having several moves planned at once.

When considering how to control a bout, always think about controlling the distance between yourself and your opponent.  You want to stay far enough away to keep from being hit, but able to move in close enough to score your own point once your opponent does become vulnerable.

Here are some terms regarding distance control in fencing:

closed distance – the opposing fencer is so close that you must withdraw your weapon arm to bring the point of your foil to target surface

short distance – you can reach your opponent’s target surface by simply extending your arm

middle distance – you can reach your opponent’s target surface by lunging

long distance – you can reach your opponent’s target surface by advance-lunging, jump-lunging, or fleching

out-of-distance – you are beyond long distance

critical distance – you are so close to your opponent that you can hit him with an attack before he can physically respond

Parry, riposte, counter-riposte.

The parry.

A parry is just a simple defensive movement that’s only wide enough to allow your opponent’s blade to miss it’s mark.  It’s performed with the strongest part of the blade, closest to the hilt.

Your browser may not support display of this image. Parries are sometimes done in a straight line, but can also involve a circular, semi-circular, or diagonal motion.

To review the movements of parries and the lines along the body that they correspond to, see the previous section on Basics of Blade work.

Here are some terms to remember regarding parries:

Lateral (quarte to sixte, septime to octave, and vice-versa).

Vertical (octave to lifted sixte, octave to lifted septime and vice-versa)

Circular (the counter parries: contre de sixte, contre d’octave, etc.)

Semi-circular (sixte to septime, octave to quarte, and vice-versa)

Riposte.

In conversation, a “riposte” is a quick and often witty or sarcastic response, such as to an insult.

In fencing, a riposte is like such an answer.  It is an attack following a parry.  A simple (or direct) riposte goes straight from the parry position to the target.

Counter-Riposte

When your opponent offers a riposte toward you, your reaction is a counter-riposte.  Counter-riposte can be the second, third, or any further action.

Appel.

Stamping the front foot to the ground, to produce a sound to distract or startle the opponent.  This may be made during an advance, or directly from an en garde position.

The Basics of Blade work

Watching a sport that you don’t understand can be very confusing.  American football, to someone who doesn’t understand each player’s position and purpose, can look like just a bunch of men who run a short distance and then fall down.  If you don’t understand the rules of baseball, you may wonder why the audience is gasping for breath during one play and then nonchalant about another that looks so similar.

However, when you do understand the intricacies of the interaction of players and the purpose behind their every move, then the sport is suddenly exciting and much easier to follow.  And of course, if you’re going to be competing in any sport, you need to understand even the most minute details of that sport and all its “plays” and movements.

With fencing, it may seem to a beginner that the swords are held and pointed in any which direction, however, this could not be further from the truth.  There are actually eight different positions of holding the blade which one should be familiar with; from these come all the advanced blade work techniques.

Some of these positions are rarely used in fencing, and we’re omitting those so as to cause less confusion.

Remember, much of the terminology used in fencing is still in French, so it’s good to become familiar with them in French, as we’ve done here.

The positions we’re going to discuss here differ somewhat between foil and sabre, however, since the foil is the blade most often used by beginners, that’s what we’ll concentrate on.

Line.

Just as a reminder, note the term “line” as we’ve already discussed:

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“Line” refers to a position or area on a fencer’s body.

Imagine that the torso is bisected both laterally and vertically.  There are then four quadrants or sections of the body.  “High line” refers to the sections above the lateral line, “low line” are those below.

The quadrants on the chest side of the vertical division are ‘inside line’ and the other two are ‘outside line.’  The upper chest side quadrant is then referred to as ‘inside high line.’

Positions of your blade.

Prime position.

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Blade down and to the inside of the nipple, wrist pronated. Sometimes known as the “Looking at your watch” parry.

Quarte.

Blade up and to the inside, wrist supinated (the palm is upward).

Sixte.

Blade up and to the outside, wrist supinated.

This parry can be lateral or circular.

The lateral parry is from quarte to sixte.

The circular parry is a D-shaped parry, dropping the points and bringing it up on the inside, bringing your point back towards your en garde line.

Septime.

Blade down and to the inside, wrist supinated.

Point dropped, the wrist is in the same place as in quarte.

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This parry is semi-circular, the point is dropped from quarte to septime (or the opposite).

Octave.

Blade down and to the outside, wrist supinated.

Point is dropped, the wrist is in the same place as in sixte.

This parry is semi-circular, the point is dropped from sixte to octave (or the opposite).

Attack movements.

Thrust.

An attack made by moving the sword parallel to its length and landing with the point.  A stop-thrust is a counterattack made by extending your blade without actually lunging.

Feint.

The word “feint” literally means an attack or movement meant to deceive or distract an enemy.

In fencing, the feint is an attack into one line with the intention of switching to another line before the attack is completed.

A feint is intended to draw a reaction from an opponent, causing them to instinctively protect their line, so as to open them up to a real strike and point scored.

Disengage.

A disengage is a type of feint.  Technically, a disengage is just a deception around the opponent’s blade, but for most, you would feint an attack and avoid the opponent’s attempt to parry, using a small circular motion under the opponent’s blade.

Beat.

A beat is a sharp and controlled hit to the middle or weak side of your opponent’s blade, knocking it aside; their reaction creates an opening.

Bind.

An action in which one fencer forces the opponent’s blade into the diagonally opposite line.

Derobement.

A derobement is a reaction to the opponent’s attempt to entrap, beat, press or take the blade, in a circular, lateral, vertical or diagonal motion.

Extension.

A simple offensive action, consisting of extending the weapon arm forward.  The point should move in the smoothest possible line towards the target, without wavering.  Excess motion can ruin the control needed for precise, consistent hits.

Flick.

Your browser may not support display of this image. A cut that lands with the point, often involving some whip of the top third part of the blade to strike at a target.

Flick attacks often start out without the point directly threatening the target area, and comes in with a circular action, to allow the blade to bend at the end of the attack, placing the point on target.

Remise.

An immediate, direct replacement of an attack that missed, was short, or was parried, without withdrawing the arm.

There are no deceptions or changes of line that occur with the continuation of the attack.  This may be done with a simple further extension of the arm, or may be accompanied with additional forward footwork

In foil and sabre, a remise does not have right of way.

In Quartata.

An attack made with a quarter turn to the inside, concealing the front but exposing the back. This attempts to move some of the target out of harm’s way during an attack or a counter-attack. This attack is often used if the opponent flèches off the strip to your inside and misses, as you are allowed a single counter-attack after an opponent leaves the strip.

The Basics of Footwork

Obviously everyone’s style and approach to the sport of fencing will be different; there’s no right or wrong way to approach the sport or your individual bouts.  This is one of the aspects of the sport that makes it so fascinating; your approach will be just as different as your various opponents’ movements.  Not being able to anticipate every move of their, and not having every move of your completely choreographed, will keep the sport interesting for a lifetime.

However, there are some basic pieces of information that deal with the various moves that you should familiarize yourself with; here are a few:

En garde position.

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The en garde position is the basic stance of fencing.  You stand somewhat sideways from your opponent; this gives him the smallest target to attack.  Your feet should be about shoulder-width apart, your front foot pointed straight out, your back foot pointed sideways.

Your dominant arm — the one that’s going to grasp the sword — is held loosely in front of you, bent just a bit, and you hold your other arm (the “off hand”) behind you at shoulder height, with your elbow out like a chicken wing, or in the traditional position of curved up behind your head.  This position grew from the practice of using a cape draped over this arm, but most importantly, it’s used for balance.  Remember during your bouts to use your off hand for balance throughout all your movements.

Once you’ve gotten into this stance, you should relax, bending your knees slightly and keeping your upper body loose.  Your back should be straight, your head high.

Holding the weapon.

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It may seem as if you should simply grab the handle of your sword in whatever fashion is comfortable for you, but in reality, you should learn to hold your weapon properly in order to have the best control over it, and be sure that you are not wearing out your muscles prematurely.

You should have your thumb and index finger on the widest part of the grip, not the thinner of the two.

Some instructors will teach hand movements based on the index finger and thumb of the sword hand balancing the handle with the remaining fingers. Some will use either the index finger and thumb or the index finger, middle finger, and thumb with less influence of the other fingers.

There are actually different handles or grips to each type of sword used in fencing, and they are typically all held differently.  Note what Wikipedia states about the different grip types in fencing:

“There are four types of grips commonly used today in foil and epee: French, Italian (mostly seen in classical fencing), a hybrid of these two known as the Spanish grip, and the orthopedic or pistol grip (the most common in FIE competition).

Sabre fencing only permits one kind of grip, because of the design of the guard. Sabre grips are generally made of plastic, rubber over metal or plastic, wood, or leather wrapped over wood.”

In the case of orthopedic grips there are several standard types with numerous variations. The orthopedic grips is allow for a composite use of fingers, wrist and elbow which really is almost a merging of other systems.

Pistol grip.

Your browser may not support display of this image. The Pistol grip (otherwise known as the anatomical or orthopedic grip) contours entirely to one’s hand and is held much like a pistol, hence the name.  This grip became popular among sports fencers in the late twentieth century because of the way it complemented the agility and athleticism of competitors — albeit, as critics allege, at the cost of blade sensitivity finesse.  There are several types of pistol grips, such as the basic Visconti (which is what most people refer to as a pistol grip), the American, and Russian, all providing a somewhat firmer hold for the user of the weapon than would be possible with the grip.  The subtle variations in the pistol grip correspond loosely to different fencing styles.

In high-level fencing (national, and international), pistol grips are usually preferred in foil and épée because they allow stronger blade movements.  However, a substantial number of epeeists at all levels use French grips while posting, because of the longer reach, which is especially useful in epee.  Posting is almost unheard of in foil, as posting decreases one’s ability to parry successfully, and thus increasing your opponent’s chance of a successful remise.”2

The advance, the retreat, the lunge.

The advance, retreat and lunge are the three most common and basic moves in fencing, so we’ll cover their footwork here.  For most fencing moves, keep in mind that the legs move the body, not the other way around.  Always begin your movements with the legs or the feet and toes, rather than moving your torso and dragging your legs behind you.

The advance.

Lift the toes of the front foot as you move it forward.  Push the heel out as you straighten your leg at the knee, and then land on the heel.

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The retreat.

Begin with the rear foot, reaching it backwards until it is firmly planted, and push your body back with your front leg.

The lunge.

The lunge is one of the most basic forward thrusts.  It is executed from the en garde position by pushing the front heel out while extending the front leg from the knee.

As this front leg extends, you push your body forward with the rear leg (again, the legs produce the movement; they are not dragged behind by the body moving first).  You will land on your front heel and glide into the final position, where your knee is completely bent and your shin perpendicular to the ground.

Your off hand should be used for counterbalance throughout this entire movement.

The power of the lunge comes from the back leg, so be sure to extend it fully as the spring-like action is fundamental to the lunge.

Recovery, forward recovery.

Once you’ve practiced the lunge and other basic movements, you’ll need to work on your recovery moves.  Again, remember to use your off hand for counterbalance.

The recovery.

A return to en garde stance from any other position, generally by pulling backwards into en garde.

The forward recovery.

After a lunge, pull the rear leg up, rather than pulling the front leg and body backwards.  This brings you in much closer to your opponent and so can catch him off guard.

This is a somewhat difficult move to master, as it requires a shift in weight from the rear leg to the front leg, however, as we’ll discuss in the defensive moves section, controlling the distance between you and your opponent is a critical part of controlling the bout.

Advance-lunge, fleche.

Once a fencing student is comfortable with the basics listed above, there are more complicated bits of footwork that can be practiced.  These include the advanced lunge and the fleche.

Advance-lunge.

This is an advance followed immediately by a lunge. The extension of your front leg can occur before or during the advance, but always before the lunge.

Your browser may not support display of this image. Because many move combinations in fencing need to happen in concert, it’s best to work on a tempo when practicing your moves.  Most instructors will encourage an advance-lunge to have a tempo of 1…2.3, as opposed to the lunge tempo of 1.2…3.

Fleche.

Fleche means “arrow” in French, and the fleche is a very difficult move to master.  It’s usually best if the student has some experience in movement and tempo before trying a fleche.

Essentially, you perform a standard lunge and then, without hesitation, bring your rear foot forward and run at your opponent with your blade still extended, typically for three steps.

One can disengage or otherwise alter one’s attack while flèching, though the flèche is generally most effective in covering a large amount of ground and keeping pressure on the opponent. Again, controlling distance and keeping your opponent unsuspecting of your moves will contribute toward a successful bout.

Right of Way, and Other Basic Rules and Scoring Information

Right of Way.

When using a foil, Right of Way or “priority” determines who receives a point when the fencers have both landed hits during the same action.  In other words, it’s a “tie breaker” in some instances.

The fencer who started to attack first will receive the point if they hit a valid target; they have Right of Way.  However, if the fencer who is being attacked defends himself properly, he then receives Right of Way and may then score the point.

Unlike foil, epee bouts do not employ Right of Way. Fencers score a  point by hitting their opponent first.

Right of Way is very important because you can establish this to score a point, but you can also lose it through your opponent’s skillful play, so it’s important to know which moves constitute Right of Way and what will cause you to lose it as well.  And again, it differs between weapons, so be sure you understand Right of Way according to the weapon you are using.

Other scoring rules.

If the fencers hit each other within 1/25th of a second, both receive a point.  This is commonly referred to as a double touch.

Individual games are called bouts, and a competitor wins a bout by being the first to score 15 points, or by having a higher score than their opponent when the time limit is up.  The time limit for direct elimination matches is nine minutes – 3 three-minute periods with a one-minute break between each.

Fencers are penalized for crossing the lateral boundaries of the strip on which they compete, while retreating off the rear limit of their side results in a touch awarded to their opponent.

Team matches feature three fencers squaring off against another team of three in a “relay” format.  Each team member fences every member of the opposing team in sequence over 9 rounds until one team reaches 45 touches or has the higher score when time expires in the final round.

Some of these rules may differ between competitions or for an event such as the Olympics.  When looking to compete, be sure you have a full copy of the rules governing your bouts and read them carefully.

Penalties.

A combatant can incur penalties during the fencing bout.  Here are a few tips to remember about penalties, taken from Wikipedia:

“Modern fencing also includes the addition of cards/flags (or penalties).  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.

Other Group 1 offences may also include:

  • Leaving the piste without permission
  • Turning one’s back on the opponent
  • Use of the non-sword arm/hand
  • Touching or taking hold of the electrical equipment
  • Leaving the side of the piste to avoid being hit
  • Interrupting of bout without a valid reason
  • Clothing/equipment not working or not conforming; absence of second regulation weapon or body wire
  • At foil and epée bending, dragging weapon point on the conductive piste
  • Bringing weapon into contact with conductive jacket
  • Refusal to obey the Referee
  • Jostling, disorderly fencing. irregular movements on the piste, hits made with violence or while falling
  • Taking off the mask before the referee call ‘halt’; undressing on the piste
  • Unjustified appeal

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 2 offences may include:

  • Interruption of bout for claimed injury, not confirmed by Doctor
  • Absence of weapon check marks
  • Dangerous, violent or vindictive action, blow with the guard or pommel
  • Deliberate hit not on opponent
  • Inappropriate attire that is missing regulated name or other compulsory items

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 3 offences may include:

  • Faking control markings, intentional modification of equipment
  • Fencer disturbing order when on the piste
  • Dishonest fencing
  • Offences against the code of the hosting organization

Group 4 offences include doping, manifest cheating, deliberate brutality, and other breaches of protocol, such as a refusal to salute.  Group 4 offences are penalized with a black card.

Again, it’s important to review all the rules of any tournament or competition you are participating in, as they will have their own list of offenses and penalties, and may refer to them by different terms, such as “Category One” rather than “Group 1.”  It is your responsibility to be familiar with all the rules of your competition.

One-metre penalty:

A penalty where the action is moved a metre further back on the piste for the offending fencer before a bout is restarted.

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.”

It’s very important to understand these penalties as it’s very easy to get caught up in the adrenaline of a good bout.  One must respect the rules of fair play and the rules of the competition overall, so as to not risk losing points or even being expelled.

Lines, and the Target Areas

Line.

“Line” refers to a position or area on a fencer’s body.  Imagine that the torso is bisected both laterally and vertically.  There are then four quadrants or sections of the body.  “High line” refers to the sections above the lateral line, “low line” are those below.

The quadrants on the chest side of the vertical division are ‘inside line’ and the other two are ‘outside line.’  The upper chest side quadrant is then referred to as ‘inside high line.’

Strike zones.

When fencing, the three different weapons that you use have three different strike zones.  It’s important to know this as you cannot simply begin flailing at your opponent your first time out; additionally, your object of the bout is to score points, and you’ll only do that by striking in the correct zone.

The epee.

Only the epee allows you to strike anywhere on your opponent’s body for a point.

Many users of the epee aim for their opponent’s hands or feet, as these are easier targets to hit.  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.

The epee is not subject to right of way rules, so whomever hits first scores a point.

The foil.

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For the foil, the strike zone is only your opponent’s torso.

Hits can be scored only by hitting the valid target surface with the point of the weapon in such a manner as would have caused a puncture wound, had the weapon been sharp; in other words, sliding your weapon across the front of the torso would not award you a point.  A touch on an off-target area stops the bout but does not score a point.

The original idea behind the foil rules was to encourage the fencers to defend and attack vital areas.  This was also to have the combatants fight back and forth between them, concentrating on tactical methods, footwork and blade work.

Because most bouts use electronic scoring machines, and because the foil’s strike zone is the most restrictive, fencers wear a conductive jacket that covers their target area.  This way, hits made out of the strike zone are not registered for points.

The sabre.

The sabre target includes everything above the waist, except the opponent’s hands and back of their head or neck.

Because the sabre is considered the “cutting weapon” and would be sharp along the entire blade, not just the tip, any contact between any part of the blade and any part of the target counts as a valid touch and earns a point.

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The sabre is also subject to the right of way rules, and typically relies more on footwork to score points or evade an opponent’s strikes.

The Etiquette of Fencing

Many contact sports have a certain etiquette or rules of conduct that combatants must follow, or risk point loss and even disqualification.  Fencing is no different, and is considered by many to be one of the most disciplined of sports when it comes to rules of etiquette – both for participants and for onlookers alike.

Your browser may not support display of this image. Consider some of the rules of fencing etiquette we’ve listed here, and when competing, be sure to review any additional rules that your particular competition may outline for you as well:

Salute.

For most competitions, combatants must salute the referee and each other before beginning a match; for matches overseen by judges, they would be saluted as well..  Failure to do so typically results in disqualification; it’s simply that important.

In saluting an opponent, typically a fencer must hold his mask in his left hand with four fingers on top, look his adversary straight in the eye, bring the blade of his weapon up before his right eye, then sweep it down and to the right. The blade should whistle through the air, and must under no circumstances strike the floor.

Taking position.

To begin a bout, the referee stands at the side of the floor strip on which you compete. The fencers walk onto this area fully dressed, except for their mask.

Your browser may not support display of this image. Sometimes the fencers will plug their wires into the spools connected to the electronic scoring machines and test their weapons against each other to make sure everything is working properly. They then move to their en garde or starting lines, and of course salute.

The referee begins the bout, typically by shouting “En garde.  [This is your last signal to be in your beginning fencing position and stance.]  Ready?  Fence!”

Referee signals.

Although many bouts are scored electronically, there is typically still a referee who observes the entire match, and may signal for the combatants to stop at any time, to award a point or call a penalty.  Most fencing bouts are still called in French, so the referee will probably use the term “Halt!”

When the referee uses this term, the combatants stop where they are.  If a point has been awarded, then the competitors return to their en-garde lines; if not, they remain where they were when the bout was interrupted, and the referee will signal to restart.

Fencing bouts are timed; the clock is started every time the referee calls “Fence” and stopped every time he calls “Halt!”.

Asking a referee to “reconstruct” is the polite and proper way to ask for an explanation of their signal and scoring decision.

As in most sports, the referees use hand signals, as it may be noisy in the venue.  On the next page is a photo of the typical hand signals used by referees in most fencing bouts.

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Shaking hands.

It is considered necessary etiquette for both combatants to shake hands at the end of the bout.  Another salute may be offered, but this will vary according to the competition’s regulations.

Etiquette for the spectators.

Much like a tennis match, spectators are expected to remain quiet when the competition is in play.  Fencers are concentrating intensely, and calling to them, or shouting, whistling, or even applauding can interrupt that.

Referees also need to focus intently on the play at hand, since the action happens at such lightning speeds.  So, spectators may applaud between bouts, but should remain quiet otherwise.  However, this doesn’t always happen, and of course with many bouts being played in one auditorium or arena, it can become noisy regardless.

This is important information for anyone who wants to observe a fencing bout, but especially for parents of children who are competing.  The “hockey dad” mentality or the cat-calling parent in the stands would absolutely not be tolerated at a fencing competition.

And if you are bringing friends or family along to observe any of your bouts, be sure that they’re aware of these rules and are willing to comply; otherwise, it’s probably safer to leave them at home!

A brief history of the sport of fencing

To fully appreciate how the sport of fencing has evolved from a combatant role to the graceful sport that it is today, it’s good to take a closer look at its history and heritage.

European swords.

As early as 1500 B.C., the Europeans were making swords from bronze, eventually using steel instead.  Their grips were designed for one hand, as soldiers used their other hand for shields.

Swords at this time were designed for cutting, rather than thrusting, and so were sharpest along the edge and somewhat rounded at the tip.

Around the middle ages, or beginning in the 5th century A.D., armor began to be improved greatly, which meant that the slicing part of swords were rendered less effective.  So, engineers began to concentrate on the tip of the sword, sharpening it to optimize the thrust aspect of the weapon.

Additionally, around this time it seems that the sword became the weapon of choice for personal protection rather than being singled out for the battlefield.  The hilt design around the grip or handle of the sword became popular, protecting the sword bearer’s hand effectively.

Asian martial arts.

When we hear the phrase “martial arts,” we often think of the Asian disciplines of karate, kung fu, kendo, and others.  While the word “martial” comes from Mars, the Roman god of war, technically the phrase “martial arts” simply refers to any form of hand-to-hand combat, whether for use in military settings, self-defense, or simply as a form of exercise.

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The martial arts no doubt developed from a society’s need to defend itself from invading forces, or it’s own plan to conquer a neighboring territory, before there were large-scale weapons available.  Hand-to-hand combat was the only means available to defend or defeat.

It is mostly in the Asian regions that we find swordplay being incorporated into the martial arts, and the form or discipline that relied on swordplay most heavily is kendo, the Japanese martial art of fencing.

Kendo gained its support and popularity during the early 12th century, when swordplay, along with archery, were the main forms of combat and defense.  This art is still practiced today by some eight million participants.

Swordplay as sport.

It has long been a practice of peoples to use their weapons as a means of sports.  In very ancient times, men would practice forms of archery as games; this helped develop their aim and control of the bow and arrow, whether it was necessary on the battlefield or for hunting.  By making a sport of it, young men were able to develop their abilities with this instruments long before they actually had to take part in battle or in a hunt.

Militaries have often done the same thing.  Chariot races taught control of the animal and the wagon, and the rider could learn how to maneuver both at tops speeds.  Again, archery as a sport has been used to train soldiers for centuries.  And of course, because swords were used so extensively on battlefields, it should not be surprising that fencing as a sport is actually thousands of years old.

The earliest images of swords or similar weapons being used in sport date back to 1200 B.C. in Egypt.  Reliefs show combatants using sharp, stabbing weapons with knobs on one end for easier carrying and control.

The story of fencing as it exists today, with its various rules and protocol, probably begins in early fifteenth-century Spain, for that was where the custom of wearing swords with everyday civilian dress was most widespread, and where the first known schools of specialized instruction in a civilian style of swordsmanship existed.

By the end of the century, fencing had actually been officially outlawed, but the personal use of the sword and of duels as a way to settle disagreements and conflicts had already spread throughout much of Europe.

Over the years, fencing developed from a form of combat reserved for the battlefield to a mark of status, as the swords were cumbersome and difficult to carry with everyday dress; soon it was only “gentlemen” who really had no need of defending themselves that carried swords as a sign of their wealth and security.

During the 17th century several major changes occurred in fencing. The foil was developed in France as a lighter training weapon for dueling. Right of Way, a rule that we’ll discuss in a later section, came into practice. With Right of Way, duelists were unlikely to impale each other, as they did not both attack at the same time. This made fencing safer and reduced the number of casualties of dueling.

By the 19th century, fencing had reached a form that is more recognized today.  Schools taught the basics of fencing, including strike points and body movement, along with moves such as disarms.  Duels continued to be fought between those with disagreements, and were very serious – often ending with disfiguring strikes or fatal results, but began to be on the decline.  Authority figures began to step in and prosecute the winners of duels with charges of assaults or even murder; this was done even if both duelists had agreed to participate.  Therefore, fencing began to be viewed as simple sport, rather than a means of survival.

So if you have an interest in this sport today, where to begin?