Some have said fencing is like playing chess at 100 miles per hour. If sport mimics life, then fencing attempts to satisfy one of the primordial instincts — the urge to risk it all with weapon in hand. If you are looking for a sport that involves speed, agility, fitness combined with chess-like strategic thinking, then fencing is for you.
The methods of attack and defense have been dissected and analyzed so that the mastery of the sport, on the highest level, requires fluency in a complicated vocabulary of movements invented mainly by French, Italian and Hungarian fencing masters. But, even after some basic instruction people of all skill levels can enjoy fencing for a lifetime.
The Concept of Modern Fencing
In modern fencing there are three weapons: foil, épée and sabre. Each weapon has its own style and set of rules. The rules, particularly for foil and sabre, are based on training for the duel. What would you do if someone came at you with a sharp sword? Your first concern would be to defend — to save yourself. After you avoid being hit, you would try in turn to hit your opponent. This is known as gaining the “right-of-way.”
Simply stated, the attacker has the right to hit until the defender blocks (parries) the attack or makes the attack miss. The defender then gains the right to hit by returning an offensive thrust or cut. The rules for épée don’t include this convention.
Although the rules for each weapon differ slightly the object is the same: touch your opponent before they touch you. Although the concept is simple, more often than not, scoring a touch involves complex tactics, combined with lighting fast execution.
The foil is the modern version of the court sword. It has a flexible rectangular blade (approximately 35 inches in length) and weighs just over a pound. Touches are scored with the tip of the blade and must land on the torso of the body.
Foil Scoring: With electronic scoring equipment the fencer’s valid target area is covered with a metallic cloth vest. When an opponent’s tip hits this vest and the tip depresses it completes an electrical circuit. This sets off a light and a buzzer on the scoring machine against the one who is hit. A colored light signifies that the valid target (the metallic vest) was hit; a white light signifies that the hit landed outside the target area. When a light comes on, the director halts the bout – even though no point is awarded for an off-target hit. If colored lights go on for both fencers, the director must decide who gets the point based on “right of way.”
You will remember the attacker has the right away until the other fencer blocks (parries) the attack. The defender then gains the right-of-way by making a return thrust (riposte).
The épée (pronounced eh-pay) is the descendant of the rapier, a dueling sword, and is similar in length to the foil and sabre but is heavier (at about 27 ounces). It has a larger guard than a foil, to protect the hand from a valid hit, and a stiffer, triangular, blade. Like foil, points may only be scored with the tip of the blade. The entire body, from the tip of the toes to the top of the head, is valid target.
In épée Scoring, unlike electric foil and sabre scoring, there is no need for a special metallic vest or jacket as the entire body is valid target. Touches are registered electrically when the tip of the blade depresses and completes the electrical circuit, triggering a colored light and a buzzer on the machine against the one who is hit. There is no rule of “right-of-way” in épée. The fencer who hits first gets a point and if both fencers hit at the same time, or within 1/25th of a second, both score a point. In bouts for five touches, if the score is tied and there is no time remaining in the bout, both fencers lose – a “double defeat.”
The sabre is the modern version of the slashing and thrusting cavalry sword. It is similar in length and weight to the foil. It has, however, a triangular blade and a guard that also covers the side of the hand. Touches are scored with cuts as well as the tip of the blade. The target is based on what was available to hit when a cavalry soldier was mounted on a horse. All cuts or thrusts must land on the part of the body above the top of the legs, including the torso, arms and head, except for the back of the hand and the fingers of the weapon hand.
Sabre Scoring: Sabre is the last weapon to be fitted for electric scoring. As with foil, the fencer’s valid target area is covered with a metallic cloth jacket. The fencer’s mask is also electrically conductive and is connected to the metallic jacket with a cord. When an opponent’s blade hits the jacket, with either the point or the edge, an electrical circuit sets off a light and a buzzer on the scoring machine against the one who is hit. Mere contact (i.e., a blade just sliding along the jacket) is not enough to register a touch. The colored light signifies that valid target (the jacket or mask) was hit. Unlike the foil, there is no “off-target.” Anytime a light comes on, the director halts the bout and awards, if appropriate, a point. If the colored lights go on for both fencers, the director must decide who gets the point based on “right-of-way.”
Remember, the attacker has the right-of-way until the defender blocks (parries) the attack. The defender can then gain the right-of-way with a riposte, the response attack after a parry. The actions in sabre differ from those in foil and epee because of the cutting motions. The game appears much faster with fast footwork and big attacks.