Sword types used today in the sport of Fencing
The image of fencing is sometimes confused
with the clashing of swords seen in the movies,
from the classic exploits of Errol Flynn to the
latest incarnation of The Three Musketeers. When
fencers see sword fighting on the silver screen they
are almost always disappointed by the lack of
thought that is displayed in the fights. For fencing is
about an interchange of ideas -- ideas intended to
deceive or surprise. Fencing is about thinking and
transferring thoughts into action at the maximum
rate and with the maximum precision.
Of course movie sword fighting is not intended to be
fencing, but as many people have seen more sword play
on the movie screen than in a fencing competition, perhaps
a few words about how these two activities differ
is one way to convey some of the spirit of the modern
sport. For example in the movies the sword-fighters
often just launch them selves into the action and then
start banging away. But a big part of fencing is in choosing
the best moment for attack and this involves a certain
amount of legwork in order to lure the opponent
into a false step or a false sense of security. A second
example is that when an attack is begun to the head--for
example--it finishes on the head, or more often is
blocked by a parry. This may be realistic with a period
sword, but with the light weapons used in modern fencing,
an important aspect of the game is to conceal the
intended target of a thrust by threatening another, or to
change the intended target on the fly in response to the
opponents defensive actions. One thing that the movies
and fencing do share, though, is passion. Whether fighting
for one's life or for a , fencing requires a complete
focusing of one's mental energy on the task of
striking the opponent.
Fencing can be done with any one of three different
types of weapons (fencers do not tend to use the word
"sword"), each with slightly different rules: Foil, Sabre,
and Epée. All three share a great deal in terms of technique,
but each has its own distinctive character and
athletes of a high calibre generally concentrate their
training and competition in one of the three weapons.
Ironically, the roots of fencing go back to the introduction
of gunpowder into Europe and the invention of
the gun. This innovation made armour ineffective and
that meant an end to the heavy two handed swords that
were needed in order to make an impression on a man in
armour. Swords became lighter and were used less for
warfare and more for self-defense and for duelling.
In order to train for duelling in a non lethal way,
swords were tipped with a dull point and certain
conventions of scoring were introduced with the
intention of instilling the habits that would prove most
useful in a duel. The rules of Foil can be understood in
these terms. In a duel with weapons such as the shortsword
popular with the French nobility of the 17th century,
it is important to hit with a thrust and to hit a
vital part of the body. In Foil points can only be scored
when the tip of the weapon lands on the torso of the
opponent; the arms and legs are deemed not vital
enough, and the head was not a suitable target in practice,
until the development of the fencing mask.
Furthermore, as it is small satisfaction to seriously
wound ones opponent in a duel only a split second
before one is seriously wounded oneself, Foil fencing
does not award points solely based on who hit first.
Instead the rules encourage defensive play by dictating
that an attack must be defended against before a valid
response--or riposte--can be given. Thus the right to
attack ("right of way") goes back and forth like the ball
in tennis. In the case of hits arriving at about the same
time, the point is scored by the fencer who had "right
Much of the essence of foil comes from the fast
exchange of the right of way and the consequent
alternation of attack and defense. The
fencers will generally move along the strip "pushing"
and "pulling" each other with threats and retreats
either looking for the best moment to attack, or
attempting to fool the opponent into believing the
advantage is his when it isn't. It usually doesn't take
long before one of the fencers takes the plunge and
attacks -- typically pushing off the back foot into a
lunge. If the defender cannot (or chooses not) to step
away, he or she will try to "parry" the attack and if
successful will "riposte." Now the tables are turned
and the original attacker must defend and may be able
to make a riposte back ("counter-riposte").
This is the basic pattern but it comes in a splendid
variety. The attack may be made directly or
might involve some preparatory attacking of the
defender's blade. The defense can be made with a
number of different parries. The defender may even
decide not to parry, but rather attempt to force the
attacker to miss by either stepping back or even stepping
forward. The attacker may deceive (avoid contact
with) the parry and continue the attack either to the
same area of the torso or another. The method of
deceiving the parry depends on which type of parry is
used and thus requires extremely fast reaction or careful
reading of what the defender is most likely to do. If
the first parry is deceived, the defender may have time
to form a second parry -- especially if the first parry
was a mere ruse and the second was part of the original
plan. Once the parry is made everything turns
a round the defender is now attacking with a riposte
and the attacker must defend against it. The riposter
may attempt to hit with simple thrust, or may deceive
the original attackers parry. You may think this could
go on for quite a while, but usually either a hit is made,
or someone defends by re t reating and the game of
looking for just the right moment to attack starts again.
The Sabre is descended from the cavalry sabre.
The version used in competition though is a
far cry from it's heavy antecedent. It is light
and quick. Points may be scored either with a thrust
as in Foil or with the side of the blade, the latter is
called a "cut." The target is the entire body above
the waist including the head and arms. The conventions
concerning the right to hit are the same as in
Because the parries must defend against cuts from
many angles, they require fairly large movements,
this makes them more easily deceived with some
fast fingerwork than in Foil and shifts the advantage
towards the attack. Thus there is little waiting
a round in sabre, one or the other fencer will soon
attack -- and often both attack at the same time.
Thus one aspect of its cavalry heritage Sabre has
not lost is the charge. But that is not to say that
Sabre is merely a race to see who can attack first.
Tricking your opponent into attacking at the wrong
time can lead to a fairly easy parry and riposte. And
the fact that the arm is target makes the attacker
susceptible to being hit on the wrist as he or she
prepares for the attack. The exchange of attacks parries
and ripostes seen in Foil is also seen in Sabre,
but the emphasis is perhaps even more on attacking
at the right time with the right distance.
The Epée is a direct descendant of the short sword used
by courtiers for duelling. As honour was generally satisfied
by drawing first blood, in Epée points are scored
by hitting first, anywhere on the body. The conventions of
right of way do not apply. As with the Foil, the Epée is strictly
a thrusting weapon, hits with the edge are not counted.
The absence of conventions that put an emphasis on parrying
means that the best defense in Epée is often a good offense. If
your opponent attacks the body, it may be possible to attack
them back on the arm, the difference of distance translates to
a difference in time and the "counter attack" to the arm is
likely to get the point. Even an attack to the arm can be
defended against by a thrust that defends with the guard of
the weapon and counter attacks with the tip. Of course the
option to parry is still there. It is ironic, but the absence of
conventions to promote defending makes attacking a risky
proposition. Thus Epée, more than foil and much more than
sabre, can be a waiting game. But it is an active waiting. The
feet are constantly being used to push or pull the opponent.
The hand is busy making false attacks to test the defenses
and to disguise the real attack when it comes. The eyes are
busy learning the reactions of the opponent to each action.
And the fingers are feeling the reaction of the opponent
whenever the blades meet.
When the attack does come, if it is not a short attack to an ill-defended
part of the arm, it is often done in such a way as to
neutralize any possible defense. For example the "envelopment"
is a spiralling thrust made with the point towards
the target so as to pick up the opponents blade on the way
in. This pushes the opponent's point safely out of the way
and makes the angle of his or her blade unfavourable for a
The typical hit in fencing noticable, but doesn't hurt.
The occasional hit will sting for a bit and may leave
a small red mark for a day or two.
Fencing is one of the safest sports there is. An Ontario
Government study found that of all sports surveyed it was
second only to lawn bowling in it's safety record. In recent
years the introduction of better equipment has made it even
safer. Most injuries are of the nature of twisted ankles or
pulled ligaments. It is possible for a broken blade to penetrate
the protective clothing, but this is extremely rare.
Fencing is an enjoyable sport or pastime for people
of all ages. It is my observation and that of
other fencers and coaches that almost anyone
can learn to fence well -- that is at a level where one
begins to touch on the beauty of the sport. The only
prerequisite is enough dedication to stick with it for
The learning curve for fencing is generally quite
long. In few other sports do you have to learn to
walk all over again and learn to make finger movements
as fine as are used in writing while holding a
half kilogram mass in your hand. When I learned to
fence we were taught the basic footwork and handwork
for three months before being allowed to
engage in any sort of bouting. Nowadays most teachers
will get to bouting a lot sooner (perhaps even on
the first day), but it still takes about three months
before ones basic ability is at a level where the bouting
starts to resemble fencing. Of course a good
teacher will manage to make that initial learning
time rewarding and enjoyable.
Although there are three different weapons, there is
a core of skills and ideas common to all three. Thus it
doesn't matter which weapon you are taught first. So
if you are hell-bent to become a sabreur, but the local
club teaches Epée first, don't worry, almost everything
you are taught will be useful for all three weapons.
Once the basic technical skills are sufficiently mastered
comes the most intangible part of learning:
learning to apply those skills appropriately against
an opponent doing their utmost to confound you.
This is a never-ending process of self-improvement.
There are always better fencers and a reaction can
always be made just a millisecond sooner. Beyond
technique there is tactics: picking the moment, picking
the attack, combining footwork and handwork
appropriately, deciding what attacks are likely and
what to do first in each case; and beyond tactics
there is strategy: deciding if it is better to attack or
defend, deciding if it is better to dominate the footwork
or respond to the opponent's footwork, deciding
whether to repeat a previously successful tactic
(because it was successful), avoid it (because it will
be expected), or elaborate on it (for example begin
the same way, but finish differently).
The highest level of teacher is a "master" or "maître"
who will have had extensive experience and passed
exams set by the national organization.
Some fencers are satisfied to fence with the other members
of their club and engage in friendly competition
with their comrades. Others seek new challenges and
test their progress by competing on a local, national, or
international level. Fencing has been an Olympic sport
since the first modern games in 1896.
Both men and women complete in all three weapons --
although at the international level women's sabre is not yet
recognized. Competitions are also often broken into age
groups so that younger fencers do not have to complete
against much more experienced competitors. There are no
weight divisions as size confers little advantage except in
Epée where long arms can be useful.
Fencing bouts in competitions are observed by referees
who keep track of the score, start and stop bouts, award
penalties when rules are broken, and--in Foil and Sabre--decide
which fencer had the right to hit when there are hits
close in time. The referee is assisted by an electrical system
that senses hits made on target. In Foil and Sabre the competitors
wear electrically conductive clothing and in Foil
and Epée each weapon is tipped with a small spring
Recreational fencers will find fencing an excellent source of
fitness. Whereas running, swimming, and cycling are
calmingly repetitive and aerobics has a certain pack
appeal, fencing allows an infinite variety of creative
expression while providing a combination of aerobic and
Competitive fencers find that they need to be in top shape
in order to remain in peak form throughout the many
bouts it takes to get to the pedal podium. They also need to
keep honing their technical, tactical, and strategic skills
through regular practice and one-on-one training sessions
with their coach.
For me the beauty of fencing lies in the difficulty of
some of its concepts and in the interplay of ideas
between two opponents.
Take for example, distance and timing. Distance does not
mean just the simple distance between the fencers as can
be measured with a metre stick, it includes the way that
each fencer is moving. For an elementary example, one of
the best ways to obtain a favourable opportunity for attack
is to reverse direction from going backward to going forward,
your opponent is still coming forward and the distance
suddenly closens and now is the moment for attack
(timing). But this is not so easy as it sounds, for your opponent
is already coming forward and may be in a better
position to attack than you who are in the midst of changing
direction, so any anticipation of your plan by the opponent
is likely to be disastrous. And timing does not mean
just picking the moment for an attack. It includes the
rhythm that actions are performed -- for example, two steps
and a lunge might be done in the rhythm slow-fast-slow
(thus affecting distance) -- and it must be tailored to
exploit the weaknesses or to make weaknesses of the
strengths of the opponent.
The interplay of ideas in fencing is very fast. In a few seconds
there can be several parry-riposte sequences. Each
action made is a challenge to the opponent to come up
with an counter action. An attack is a challenge to find and
execute an effective parry. A parry is a challenge manage
its deception or to land the hit before the parry is complete.
The responses must be made at reflex action speed, yet the
best response and the best way to execute the best
response vary from opponent to opponent and from situation
to situation. This makes fencing very challenging,
always different and hence extremely rewarding.
Many clubs run dedicated beginners courses
which are probably the best way to try the sport. You'd be part of
a group of like minded individual guided by an experienced fencing master. The club would usually provide the basic fencing equipment too.
Aletrnatively you can take individual lessons with the master.