Swordfighting as a sport has existed since ancient Egypt, and has been practised in many forms in various cultures since then. Although jousting and tournament combat was a popular sport in the European Middle Ages, modern FIE fencing owes more to unarmoured duelling forms that evolved from 16th century rapier combat. …
Fencing has evolved over 800 years from a deadly combat to a complete sport. Speed of movement and the intricate strategy of ancient duelling are still very much a part of modern fencing. Since duelling was outlawed, fencing as a sport has grown more and more popular with both men and women. Women and men compete separately, with some fencers becoming proficient in two or all three weapons, while others specialize in only one. Coordination, speed, agility and self-assurance are a few of the qualities this sport requires of its followers. Because of the necessity to analyse the opponent’s game and to develop strategy, fencing is often described as an animated game of chess.
With the development of new metal alloys, lighter and more manageable weapons have become possible. These place a premium on speed and coordination and give little if any advantage to sheer strength.
By fencing, we have come to mean not simply fighting for hits, but a strictly regulated game. Its traditions have been transmitted through generations and make fencing a truly educational sport. Despite the evolution of fencing from combat to sport, certain conventions have remained intact – judges do not distinguish between accidental and strategically thought-out hits. Competitions are presently held in three weapons: foil, épée and sabre.
Different people mean different things by “real” fencing.
For some, “real” fencing is a duel with sharp swords and lives on the line. Other than the fear/courage factor, the primary technical difference here is that with live blades you only need to hit your opponent once, and therefore only require one good move (which explains the prevalence of “secret thrusts” in the bad old days). The sport fencer, by comparison, has to hit his opponent as many as 15 times (even more if the officiating is poor!), and so requires considerably more depth than the duellist. On the other hand, the sport fencer takes many more defensive risks, since he has up to 15 lives to work with.
Some purists will equate “real” fencing with classical fencing, i.e. the prevalent styles of the traditional French and Italian schools of fencing that predominated before electric fencing was popularized. By comparison, modern fencing is more mobile and athletic, while classical fencers were known for their more sophisticated phrasing and bladework.
A few fans of heavy metal think real fencing is only done with big, strong swords, and that light duelling-style weapons are toys. Historically, however, lighter thrusting swords evolved because they were considerably more deadly than heavy cutting weapons. Many masters of the 17th century disliked the new schools of fencing precisely because they were too murderous. However, the light duelling sabres that arose near the end of the 19th Century did lack offensive punch on the cut compared with their more military antecedents. Military sabre fencing required more arm strength, and the use of moulinets.
Lastly, it just seems apparent to some that sport fencing has evolved away from its bloody origins. Technically, this is untrue, at least for the thrusting weapons; the theory, methods, and techniques of fencing have not seen significant innovation since at least the last century. The modern fencer remains well-equipped, skill-wise, to fight a duel. Tactically and psychologically, however, the sport is a vastly different world from the duel. Obviously there is no real danger to getting hit, and with up to 15 hits needed to secure victory, there often isn’t even much figurative danger. In addition, since the quality of a hit (eg. fatal vs. serious wound vs. minor scratch) is immaterial, fencers will naturally prefer an easy “wounding” hit over a difficult “fatal” one, and glancing hits will often win out over strong thrusts.