Fencing encompasses any system of sword-based offence and defence but is most commonly used to denote styles of European origin. Today it can be considered to refer to the European martial art of swordplay, Olympic sport-fencing, stage-fencing or academic fencing.
The emergence of modern fencing
- See also Historical European Martial Arts
Fencing can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt as an entertainment for the Pharaohs. The Greeks and Romans had systems of martial arts and military training that included swordsmanship, and fencing-schools and professional champions were known throughout medieval Europe, the earliest surviving record of Western techniques of fencing is the manuscript known as MS I.33, which was created in southern Germany c. 1300 and today resides at the Royal Armouries in Leeds. Throughout the Middle Ages, masters continued to teach systems for using the sword (together with other weapons and grappling) to noble and non-noble alike. The wearing of the sword with civilian dress (a custom that had begun in late fifteenth-century Spain) gradually gave rise to a new system of civilian swordsmanship based more on the thrust than on the cut, with the aim being to keep the adversary at a distance with the point, and slay him there. This gave rise to systems of using the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century rapier and the seventeenth-and-eighteenth century smallsword. Though swords ceased to be an article of everyday dress after the French Revolution, they continued to be used in warfare and to resolve disputes of honour in formal duels through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.
Though antagonistic competition in fencing is as old as the art itself, the modern sport of fencing originated in 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 (F.I.E.) 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 convenient 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-defence 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.
In both its modern and its classical guise, fencing consists of three different weapons: foil, épée and sabre. These three weapons had become standard by the late nineteenth century and all are represented at Olympic-level competition. Additionally, in classical academies, one will often find historical fencing weapons, such as grand canne, Main gauche or rapier-and-dagger, being taught.
Foil used to be the first weapon taught to beginners, because the techniques of foil teach, in abstract 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 for children. Today, while it is advisable to gain at least a fundamental grasp of foil, fencers often begin with any of the three weapons.
Anatomy of the weapons
While the weapons fencers use differ in size and purpose some basic parts of the weapon remain constant throughout the disciplines. The pommel, a weighted piece of metal at the end of the handle that holds the blade and handle together whilst providing a counter-balance to the weight of the blade (in actual combat situations, the pommel could be used as a sort of bludgeon). The handle can be one of three types: French, Italian, or pistol grip. The French grip is contoured to the curve of the hand and resembles in use the handles of most swords. The Italian grip is similar to the French with the addition of a metal bar through which the fingers slide; this grip has become antiquated due to the amount of torque it places on the wrist. The pistol grip (otherwise known as the anatomical or orthopedic grip), originally developed for a nineteenth-century Belgian master who had lost fingers in a tram accident, contours entirely to one's hand and is held much like a pistol, hence the name. The guard separates the handle from the blade and provides protection for the hand.
The modern foil is descended from the training weapon for the small-sword, the common sidearm of the eighteenth-century gentleman. However, it has long since been altered to be similar in length to the épée (averaging 35" or 890 mm). (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 tapered, flexible, quadrangular blade, that scores only with the point. (In modern sport fencing, which makes use of electrical scoring apparatus, one must hit the opponent with the tip of the blade, with a force of at least 4.90 newtons (500 grams-force).)
The valid target area at foil is limited, due to its origins in a time when fencing was practised 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 a invalid target stops the bout, but no point is scored.
In the modern, occasionally used practice of "flicking," the flat of the blade strikes the air, bending the tip backwards to strike the opponent on his or her back. If completed well, it is difficult to parry, and even harder to dodge. The practice is controversial, as some say that it allows a fencer of no great skill to deliver a highly effective strike.
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 honour in a case, was developed as a means of settling disputes. The épée is a long, straight and relatively heavy sword (at least compared to the foil), 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-touches 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-force) of force. Classical fencers sometimes use a point d'arret, a three-pronged attachment that will actually catch the opponent's jacket.
The modern sabre is descended from the classical northern Italian duelling sabre, a far lighter weapon than the cavalry sabre. The method and practice of sabre fencing is somewhat different from the other weapons, in that the sabre is an edged weapon. In modern electric scoring, a touch with the sabre, point, flat or edge, to any part of the opponent's valid target (head, torso, or arm) will register a hit.
The target area originates from duelling sabre 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. Right-of-way applies, much as it does to foil.
Right of way
The "right of way" principle in foil and sabre is that the first person to properly execute an 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, misjudgement or by action on the part of the defender. A properly executed parry (deflecting the incoming attack with one's own blade) causes priority to change and the defender has the opportunity to attack (riposte). The original attacker must counterparry the defender's reposte before attacking again, but if the parry is ineffectual (malparry), if the riposte misses, or the defender hesitates before riposting, the attacker can continue his attack (remise or redoublement ) without counterparrying.
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.
When electrical scoring equipment is used 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 referee must decide who had right of way at the time of the hits, and therefore who gets a point. If the referee cannot tell, then he will declare the touches null, and restart the bout from where it stopped.
Double hits are possible in epee as well, but only if both fencers contact within a very short timeframe (40 milliseconds, or 1/25th of a second). In this case, both fencers will receive a point.
The clothing which is worn in modern fencing is made of tough cotton, nylon or Kevlar. It includes the following items of clothing:
- Form-fitting jacket, covering groin and with strap (croissard) which goes between the legs
- Half jacket (plastron) which goes underneath the jacket and provides double protection on the sword arm side and upper arm.
- Glove, which prevents swords going up the sleeve and causing injury, as well as protecting the hand and providing a good grip
- Breeches (knickers), to below the knee
- Knee-length socks
- Mask, including bib which protects the neck
This equipment serves to protect the fencer.
Traditionally, the uniform is white in colour, to assist the judges in seeing touches scored (black being the traditional colour for masters). However, recently the FIE rules have been relaxed to allow coloured uniforms. The colour white might also be traced back to times before electric scoring equipment, when the blades were sometimes covered in soot or coloured chalk to make a mark on the opponents clothing.
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. Prior to starting a bout it is required for fencers to salute each other as well as the director. Often some fencers choose to salute various other things (i.e. the audience, god, etc.). The fencer's salute consists of the blade going vertically before the fencer saluting with the belgard at face level and back to "en garde". 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, called a "bout." The referee's duties include keeping score, keeping time (sabre is usually fenced untimed), awarding points and maintaining the order of the bout. Often, another person will keep score or time. He or she stands on one side of the piste, watching the bout.
There are many types of modern fencing bouts, but in the two most common formats, the first fencer to score either 5 or 15 touches is declared the winner.
Modern fencing also includes the addition of cards/flags (or penalties). In foil and sabre, yellow cards are awarded for bodily contact between opponents - the penalty going to the aggressor. Two yellow cards equals one red card, and a touch for the opponent. Black cards can mean disqualification and are given out for overtly aggressive actions such as beating one's opponent with the pommel of the sword as well as breaches of protocol such as failure to salute.
It is also possible to fence "in the round," meaning that the bout takes place in a circular or square area instead of on a strip, and fencers can circle in addition to moving forward or backward. This style of fencing is mostly practised today by the SCA and exists not at all in FIE tournaments.
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 hurt the practice of the art.) The electrical scoring system requires additional clothing for foil and sabre: Foil fencers wear a conducting vest which covers the torso and groin. Sabre fencers wear a conducting jacket, gauntlet (wrist/forearm cuff) 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(degen) and foil, the fencers carry special weapons with compressible tips. When a touch is scored, the tip of the weapon compresses, completing a circuit and signalling a touch. In foil fencing, the competitors wear special conductive vests covering the target area that allows a "valid" circuit to be completed, and a coloured light (usually red or green) turns on. If the touch lands off of the valid target area, an "off target" circuit is completed, and a white light turns on. In épée fencing, since target area is the entire body, the fencers do not wear special conductive clothing. In both, the strip itself must be grounded, to prevent a touch from scoring when the tip of a weapon hits the strip (as opposed to striking the opponent's toe, for example).
Fencers connect their weapons to the scoring apparatus via a bodywire, which is threaded from a socket in the guard of the sword, up the sleeve and down to the waist. A spring-loaded spool of cable, placed at the end of the piste, then connects to this bodywire. The springs in the spool ensure that the wiring extends taut from the fencers waist to the rear of the piste, and doesn't interfere with the fencer's movements.
The electronic scoring system caused an unexpected side effect in foil: touches can be scored by using the blade like a whip and depressing the tip on the back and other obscured target areas on an opponent. The FIE (Federation Internationale d'Escrime) recently adopted rules intended to remove this anomaly.
Recently, wireless gear has been adopted at top competitions, including the Athens Olympics. This uses a small radio transmitter worn at the waist.
Although only the most expensive contests bother to ground the piste, each competitor's coquille (hand guard) is always grounded as it is hit often when trying to strike at an opponent's hand.
Electronic scoring was introduced to épée in 1936, to foil in 1957, and to sabre in 1988.
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 invalid. 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 been already 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 renown for their reek of vinegar until the invention of electrical equipment.
Notable modern fencers and fencing masters
Aldo Nadi, gold and silver medallist in the 1920 Summer Olympic Games, well-known fencing master, and author of the classic text, On Fencing.
Italo Santelli, the fencing master who revolutionized sabre fencing with the "Hungarian" style in the 1920s.
Aladar Gerevich - Hungarian foilist who is the only athlete to win the same Olympic event six times.
- Giorgio Santelli , Italo's son, founder of the Santelli salle in New York City, coach to 5 U.S. Olympic teams, legendary fencing teacher, Olympic gold medallist.
Laszlo Szabo, the Hungarian master who defined a system for developing coaches and wrote the defining Fencing and the Master, the only direct student of the legendary Italo Santelli to write of what he learned. Teacher of Olympic and World champions.
- Imre Vass , who authored the definitive guide to épée fencing
Vladimir Nazlymov - Soviet sabre fencer/coach, 10-time world champion, three-time Olympic Team Gold medallist (1968, 1976, 1980). Twice named the world's best sabre fencer by the International Fencing Federation. Currently, head fencing coach of The Ohio State University fencing team.
- Bela Valter , Hungarian master and Olympic coach
Sergei Golubitsky, World foil champion three consecutive times
Notable United States fencers and fencing masters
Peter Westbrook, bronze medallist in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games, 13-time US National Men's Sabre Champion, author of Harnessing Anger, founder of the Peter Westbrook Foundation, teaching and helping youth through sport.
- Michael Marx
- Sharon Montplasir
Ed Korfanty, U.S. National women's sabre team coach, formerly Polish national coach, coach to 7 x Jr. World Sabre Champion Mariel Zagunis, 2004 Cadet Sabre champion, Caitlan Thomas, U.S. World Champion sabre team of Chris Becker, Mariel Zagunis, Sada Jacobson, Nicole Mustilli. Coach to 2004 Olympic Gold medallist Mariel Zagunis. 2003 World Veterans Champion in Men's sabre.
Keeth Smart, first American Male sabre fencer to be ranked #1 in the World, member of 2004 gold medal US sabre team at World Cup
Mariel Zagunis, gold medallist in the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Sabre
Sada Jacobson, bronze medallist in the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Sabre
- Albert Axelrod , bronze medallist in the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Foil
- Janice Romary
- Michael D'Asaro Sr.
Csaba Elthes, legendary coach to 6 U.S. Olympic teams, immigrated from Hungary
- Daniel Bukantz , Olympian U.S. Foil Fencer
- Gay Jacobson D'Asaro , 1976 Olympian U.S. Foil Fencer
Notable classical fencers and fencing masters