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Fencing is any system of systematized offense and defense with the sword, most commonly used to denote those systems of European origin. Today it can be considered in the sense of a martial art or a modern Olympic sport.

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Modern and Classical Fencing

The modern sport of fencing can be traced back to 1913, with the foundation of the Federation Internationale d'Escrime (FIE) in Paris. The purpose of the FIE is to codify and regulate the practice of the sport of fencing, particularly for the purpose of international competition. Prior to this, international sportive competitions had taken place, notably between rival French and Italian masters.

From the perspective of the twenty-first century, we can see the foundation of the FIE as the definitive break between the "sportive" tradition of fencing, which aims to train athletes to win at a competition with often arbitrarily defined rules, and the older, "classical" tradition of fencing, that seeks to preserve training with the sword as a means of self-defense and for the formal duel.

The Weapons

In both its modern and its classical guise, fencing consists of three different weapons: foil, épée and saber. These three weapons had become standard by the late nineteenth century. All but Women's Saber (which will make its debut at the 2004 Olympic Games) are represented at Olympic-level competition. Additionally, in classical academies, one will often find historical fencing weapons, such as grand canne and rapier and dagger, being taught.

Foil used to be the first weapon taught to beginners, because the techniques of foil teach, in abtract 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 by children. Today, while it is advisable to gain at least a fundamental grasp of foil, fencers often begin with any of the three weapons.


The modern foil is descended from the training weapon for the small-sword, a lighter version of the rapier that was the common sidearm of the eighteenth-century gentleman. (Rapier and even longsword foils are also known to have been used but thay were very different in terms of weight and use.) It is a light weapon, with a flexible, quadrangular blade, that scores only with the point. (In modern sport fencing, which makes use of eletrical scoring appratus, one must hit the opponent with the tip of the blade, with a force of at least 0.5 Newtons.)

The valid target area at foil is limited, due to it having evolved from the time when fencing was practiced 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.


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 honor in a case, was developed as a means of settling disputes. The épée is a long, straight and relatively heavy sword, 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-hits 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 0.75 Newtons of force. Classical fencers sometimes use a point d'arret, a three-pronged attachment that will actually catch the opponent's jacket.


The modern saber is descended from the classical northern Italian dueling saber, a far lighter weapon than the cavalry saber. The method and practice of saber fencing is somewhat different from the other weapons, in that they are edged weapons. In modern electric scoring, a touch with the saber, point, flat or edge, to any part of the opponent's valid target (head, torso, or arm) will register a hit. Classical fencing, naturally, has more stringent requirements.

The target area originates from dueling saber 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. Similar right of way rules exist for sabre as they do for foil.

Right of Way

The "right of way" principle in foil and saber is that the first person to 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, mis-judgement or by action on the part of the defender. Parrying[?] (redirecting the attack with the blade) causes priority to change and for the defender to have the opportunity to attack. 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 his- or her-self.

In modern sport épée, both fencers will register a hit if they contact within a certain time of each other. Then the president must decide who had right of way at the time of the hits, and therefore who gets a point. If the president cannot tell, then they will declare the touches null, and restart the fight from where it stopped.

Protective Clothing

The clothing which is worn in modern fencing is made of tough cotton, nylon or kevlar. It includes the following items of clothing:

  • Figure hugging jacket, covering groin and with strap which goes between the legs
  • Half jacket (plastron) which goes underneath the jacket and provides double protection on the sword arm side
  • Glove, which prevents swords going up your sleeve and causing injury, as well as protecting the hand
  • Breeches (knickers), knee length
  • Knee-length socks
  • Mask, including bib which protects the neck

Traditionally, the uniform is white in color. This equipment serves to protect the fencer.

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. Opponents start in the middle of the piste, 4 metres apart, in the en garde position.

A president, or director, or referee presides over the contest, which called a "bout." His or her duties include keeping score, keeping time (if there is no other time keeper), allocating hits and maintaining the order of the bout. He or she stands to the side of the piste, watching the bout.

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 negatively impact the practice of the art.) The electrical scoring system requires additional clothing is required for foil and saber: Foil fencers wear a conducting vest which covers the torso and groin. Saber fencers wear a conducting jacket, sleeve 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 sets off a buzzer and notifies the referee that a touch has been scored. The referee is, in theory, free to observe right-of-way and need not have side judges present to determine whether a touch in fact occurred.

In épée, the fencers carry special weapons with compressible tips. When a touch is scored, the tip of the épée compresses, completing the circuit and signalling a touch. Since target area is the entire body, the fencers do not wear special clothing. However, the strip itself must be grounded, to prevent a touch from scoring when the tip of an épée hits the strip (as opposed to striking the opponent's toe, for example).

Notable modern fencers and fencing masters

Notable classical fencers and fencing masters

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