Fencing: the modern sport (An Incomplete History)

Fencing in the 19th centuryThe sport of fencing developed out of the formalized sword duel. The duel of honour, which first became prevalent in the early 16th century, may have had roots in both the single combats of the medieval tournament and in the notion of ‘trial by combat’, which dated to Norman times.

The weapon most commonly associated with early duelling, the rapier, also originated in the 16th century. The rapier had a narrower blade than the medieval broadsword, and was optimized for thrusting attacks (although it could also be used for cutting). Contrary to popular conception, rapiers were not any lighter than broadswords, as they tended to be very long (sometimes 4 feet or more), and usually required the wielder to have some additional device (like a small shield or parrying dagger) in the off hand to use for defence. With changes in technique and fashion – the swords were essentially gentlemen’s sidearms, worn as much for style and status as for defence – the rapier was gradually lightened and shortened into the smallsword of the 18th and 19th centuries. The smallsword was quick enough to be used for both attacking and parrying, eliminating the need for a separate parrying device. The fighting styles developed for the smallsword are the direct ancestors of modern fencing techniques.

Killing in a duel had long been outlawed by the beginning of the 1800s, and by the 1820s the wearing of swords had passed out of fashion. Fencing was moving into the realm of sport. Sports fencing was originally done only with the foil, the blunted practice sword used to teach the basics of swordsmanship. In the second half of the century, the lightweight duelling sabre gained acceptance as a sporting weapon. The practice of duelling continued to be found through the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, although by this time duels were rarely fought to the death. The thrusting sword often used in these duels was heavier and stiffer than a foil, and the nature of the weapon and the duel required a somewhat different set of techniques and tactics than used in bouts with the foil. This weapon eventually became standardized into the fencing épée. These are the three weapons used in modern fencing.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were two dominant schools of fencing: the French school and the Italian school. Each used its own type of sword grip and emphasized a different style of fighting, the French favoring deft deceptions of the blade, the Italians stronger, more forceful blade actions. Over the course of the last 60 years styles which merged aspects of the two schools (along with new techniques) have become dominant, although a few more traditional masters continue to adhere to the classical schools. Fencing is one of the few sports to have been in every Olympics since the first Games of the modern era in 1896.

When the French introduced a new type of fencing, it was neat, quiet, precise and more deadly than before. The essence of the action was nimbleness of the wrist and fingers which required quickness rather than muscular vigour.

epée competitionThe first modern Olympic Games featured foil and sabre fencing for men only. Épée was introduced in 1900. Single stick was featured in the 1904 Games. Épée was electrified in the 1936 Games, foil in 1956, and sabre in 1988. Early Olympic Games featured events for masters, and until recently fencing was the only Olympic sport that has included professionals. Disruptions in prevailing styles have accompanied the introduction of electric judging, most recently transforming sabre fencing. Foil fencing experienced similar upheavals for a decade or two following the introduction of electric judging, which were further complicated by the new, aggressive, athletic style coming out of Eastern Europe at the time.

Women’s foil was first contested in the 1924 Olympic Games, and women’s épée was only contested for the first time in 1996, although it has been part of the World Championships since 1989. Women’s sabre has a growing uptake and over recent seasons started to impact on the national and international scenes.