Posts about modern sports fencing

Which sports and martial arts comprise fencing?

Olympic fencing - London 2012The Olympic sport of fencing is comprised of four disciplines: foil, epée, and sabre plus the one-hit épée competition in modern pentathlon. All are fenced on a long rectangular strip (the piste), and electronic scoring aids are normally used to assist in the detection of hits. The rules governing these three weapons are determined by the FIE (Fédération Internationale d’Escrime). Briefly, the FIE weapons are described as follows:

Foil: Descended from the 18th century smallsword, the foil has a thin, flexible blade with a square cross-section and a small bell guard. Hits are scored with the point on the torso of the opponent, including the groin and back. Foil technique emphasizes strong defence and the killing attack to the body.

Épée: Similar to the duelling swords of the mid-19th century, épées have stiff blades with a triangular cross-section, and large bell guards. Hits are scored with the point anywhere on the opponent’s body. Unlike foil and sabre, there are no right-of-way rules to decide which attacks have precedence, so double hits are possible. Épée technique emphasizes timing, point control, and a good counter-attack.

Sabre: Descended from duelling sabres of the late 19th century, which were in turn descended from naval and cavalry swords, sabres have a light, flat blade and a knuckle guard. Hits can be scored with either the point or the edge of the blade anywhere above the opponent’s waist. Sabre technique emphasizes speed, feints, and strong offense.

Is fencing going to be eliminated from the Olympics?

Fencing at the 2012 Summer OlympicsOlympic fencing appears to be safe for the present and has even been expanded to include Women’s Epée. Since the IOC perpetually changes its roster of Olympic sports, nothing is certain beyond Beijing. Although fencing is one of only four sports to have been involved in every modern Olympic Games since their inception in 1896, it has been mentioned in the past as one of the disciplines that may be eliminated from future Games.

Fencing recently underwent numerous revisions to its rules and structure to improve its value as a (televised?) spectator sport, perhaps in the hopes of improving its Olympic viability.

Rules: How Bouts are Fenced

Fencing pisteThe field of play is a long strip, or piste. A scored encounter between fencers is called a bout. Bouts are fenced to either 5 or 15 touches: the first fencer to score the required number of touches wins.

The bout is presided over by the referee (also called the director), who enforces rules, gives out penalties, and (most importantly) determines the right-of-way for foil and sabre.

If a scoring machine is not used, there will also be four judges who watch for touches to occur.

Piste - diagram
Dimensions of the fencing piste [click to enlarge]
The fencers start out at the centre of the strip. The referee will instruct the fencers to come on guard, ask if they are ready, and then give the command to begin fencing.

The referee stops the action with the command “halt”.

The following situations stop the action:

  • a touch occurring
  • a malfunction of the scoring equipment
  • a fencer leaving the strip
  • a rules violation
  • the fencers passing each other
  • a fencer being disarmed
  • time running out
  • a fencer requesting a halt
  • the referee being unable to clearly see the action
  • any situation disrupting the safe and orderly conduct of the bout


In foil and sabre, if a touch has occurred the referee will a give an analysis of the action to determine which fencer, if either, had right-of-way and award the touch. If a valid touch is scored, the fencers will return to their starting lines at the center of the strip before fencing resumes. In most other cases (including an off-target touch) the action resumes from where it was halted. Before the start of a bout and prior to putting on masks, the fencers must salute each other. After the conclusion of the bout, the fencers salute again, and then remove their masks and shake hands.

The bout itself, especially when it is between experienced fencers who have mastered the fundamental techniques of attacking and defending, becomes a fast-paced contest of strategy and tactics.

Since there is no action that can’t be countered by an opponent with the proper knowledge and skill, a game of guile and deception is needed to ‘set up’ the opponent to be hit. Actions such as feints and deliberately short attacks are used to draw a reaction from the opposing fencer, which will create an opening. Precise sense and control of distance and timing help a fencer successfully score hits.


Fencing competition are usually organized into two separate parts: an initial round (or rounds) of pools, followed by a direct elimination. In the initial round, the fencers are divided into pools of 4-7 people, and everybody in the pool will fence everyone else. Pool bouts are fenced to 5 touches.

The results from the pool rounds are then used to seed the fencers into a direct elimination table, and the elimination determines the winner of the competition.

Direct elimination bouts are fenced to 15 touches. Fencers can earn ratings by placing in competitions. There are various ratings of competitions, with A-grade, counting toward National and international rankings. What ratings can be earned at a given competition are determined by the number of rated fencers participating and what level ratings they hold.

Fencing Etiquette

Fencing as the gentleman’s pursuit of duelling developed an elaborate set of formalities and practices. After all, if two gentlemen were going to kill each other, it were best done in a gentlemanly fashion! Of these, the formal salute at the beginning and end of each bout to demonstrate due respect accorded the opponent and the president overseeing the fight.

Introduction to Safety

Sabre glovesFencing is a safe sport. Regulation equipment conforming to safety standards and common sense fencing helps to maintain our good safety record.

First, always wear a mask when fencing. Occasionally in a controlled lesson, the coach may dispense with the mask while demonstrating a particular point, but this is an exception. Unless the coach says otherwise, the rule is PLAY IT SAFE. …

General Safety Rules

Fencing maskFinally, a few common sense precautions, although they apply to all, they are directed more to the younger fencer whose enthusiasm and exuberance is sometimes difficult to control!

  • First, NEVER wave the weapon about in front of people who aren’t wearing masks.
  • NEVER turn your back an the person you are fencing, this leaves the neck and back of the head exposed. In competition this is illegal and you will be penalised.
  • NEVER remove your mask in the middle of a fight expecting your opponent to stop without warning The recognised way to stop a fight is to hold up your unarmed hand, palm facing your opponent, and step backward. Do this BEFORE you take off your mask.
  • Finally NEVER, NEVER slash at your opponent with your sword; this serves no purpose except to injure. There is no warning or penalty, you will be disqualified from a competition or banned from fencing for dangerous behaviour.
  • Remember, fencing is fun, providing you PLAY IT SAFE.

Safety: The Mask

Epee maskCheck that your mask has a backstrap fitted. This is a piece of elastic approximately 2 inches wide attached across the back of the mask to prevent it falling off during fencing.

The bib (the padded front piece of the mask that protects the throat) should be sewn on firmly with no holes that would allow a blade to penetrate.

The mesh of the mask (the face) should not be soft enough to push in using your thumbs, nor should it have any rust.

It is important to try and obtain the correct size mask to wear while fencing. It’s very difficult to concentrate on fencing while your head is rattling around inside a mask 2 sizes too big for you!

Masks come in different weights (measured in Newtons of force) offering levels of protection. 600N is the current minimum for club use. When buying new, get an 1600N mask.

Safety: The Plastron

Under plastronAlways wear an under plastron. This is a half jacket that covers your sword arm side and is worn under the fencing jacket.

Get one in the right size, wide enough to cover your torso to the centre line in front.

Plastrons come in different weights (measured in Newtons of force) offering levels of protection. 350N is the current minimum for club use. When buying new, get an 800N plastron.

Safety: The Jacket

Fencing jacketExcept for the pull-over style (a back zip, or collar fastening), the jacket should fasten on the non-sword arm side, that is, zipped on the left for a right-handed fencer. This is to prevent a blade penetrating through the opening. The jacket must not have any holes for the same reason.

Jackets come in different weights (measured in Newtons of force) offering levels of protection. 800N is the current minimum for club use. When buying new, get an 800N jacket.