How long does it take to become a ‘good’ fencer?

Competition fencingThere is a saying that it takes two lifetimes to master fencing. By the time anyone has come close to “mastering” the sport, they are long past their athletic prime. Some may feel that this is a drawback to the sport, but most fencers see it as a great strength: fencing never becomes dull or routine; there are always new skills to master, and new grounds to conquer.

A dedicated novice who practices twice per week will be ready to try low-level competition in 3-6 months. Competition at this point should be viewed as a learning aid, not as a dedicated effort to win.

Serious attempts at competing will be possible after 2-3 years, when the basic skills have been sufficiently mastered that the mind is free to consider strategy.

A moderate level of skill can take 3-5 years of regular practice and competition.

Penetration of the elite ranks (eg. world cup, A classification) demands three to five days per week of practice and competition, and usually at least 10-15 years of experience.

Progress can be faster or slower, depending on the fencer’s aptitude, dedication, and quality of instruction. Rapid progress normally requires at least three practices per week, and regular competition against superior fencers.

The average world champion is in his late 20s to early 30s and began fencing as a child.

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What qualities make a good fencer?

Foil fencerThere are many.

On the athletic side, speed and endurance must rank foremost. Other traits that can be exploited are strength (for explosive speed, not heavy-handedness), precision, and flexibility. Quick reaction time is extremely important.

On the intellectual side, a good mind for strategy and tactics is essential. The ability to quickly size up your opponent and adapt your style accordingly is essential.

Psychologically, a fencer must be able to maintain focus, concentration, and emotional level-headedness under intense conditions of combat. Stress management, visualization, and relaxation techniques are all helpful to putting in winning performances.

As far as body type goes, it is always possible to adapt your style to take advantage of your natural traits. Even so, height seems to be useful in epeé, but not necessarily in sabre. Small or thin people are harder to hit in foil. A long reach helps in epeé, and mobility is useful in sabre.

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How much does fencing cost?

Fencing saluteAt beginners level, using club equipment, surprisingly little!

We run inexpensive beginners courses to get you started, providing all equipment.

If you find fencing is for you and you can seriously see yourself carrying on, then think about buying some starter kit. Most people start with a mask (to fit your own head!) and a jacket. We don’t force people to buy kit, but you’re at the ‘mercy’ of the club kit and whatever size and shape we have on the day.

One of the novices bought a full set after 3 weeks, another started a piece at a time after 3 months.

You can acquire kit one item at a time – masks start around £60, jackets around £65.

Most of the suppliers do a complete starter set.

Like any sport, the top kit prices are sky’s-the-limit. You don’t need it for club fencing.

Grades of fencing equipment:

Beginner’s fencing setup: from £135-200
Includes: cotton jacket, glove, steam foil, mask

FIE Competition setup: from £250-1000
Includes: FIE 800N jacket, breeches, plastron, FIE 1600N mask, at least 2 electric weapons, body cord, socks, glove, shoes, lame (foil & sabre only), sensor (sabre only).

Note: while FIE-certified equipment is recommended both in terms of safety and quality, clothing costs can be as much as halved by purchasing regular cotton or synthetic knits. Do not expect such equipment to be accepted at national or international levels of competition, however. Always wear a plastron when using non-competition-weight fencing jackets.

Club costs vary, we have an annual fee plus term fees for attendance (see Fees). Many clubs will provide or rent equipment to beginners.

Looking to Purchase your own fencing equipment? See our Equipment Guide (pdf document)

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What age IS Junior in fencing?

Juniors fencingIn centuries past, children started, learning combat skills from the time they could walk, but in the context of a modern sport, there is such a thing as too young.

The children’s class we run is a mixed age, mixed ability group. There is a recommendation from the FIE (fencing governing body) that age 8 is a suitable age to join in group classes, both for safety’s sake and for beginning productive lessons. That’s the minimum age we’ve tended to start kids at Sway and in other classes we have run in the area.

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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.

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How is modern fencing different from the “real thing”?

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.

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Which is the ‘best weapon’?

Okehampton Castle weapons displaySuch a question is an open invitation to religious warfare. Everybody loves to participate, but nothing is ever settled.

If the question means “what kind of fencing is the most fun?” then the answer is: it depends what aspects of fencing you enjoy the most.

All fencing involves skilled timing, tactics and technique. Most épée fencers consider themselves practical, no-nonsense swordfighters who rely on as few artificial rules as possible. More visceral fencers who want to experience the adrenaline rush of a fast, aggressive swordfight will want to try some sabre. Enthusiasts of more medieval combat styles can try weapons such as the longsword at one of our half-day short courses or apply to us for individual lessons.

On the other hand, if the question means “which weapon is the most deadly?” the answer will depend on a lot of factors, not the least of which are the skill of the combatants, the presence of armour, the military and cultural context, and the rules of the fight (i.e. is this a street fight, a gentlemen’s duel, or open field warfare?). Most swords are highly optimized for performance in a specific environment, and will not perform well outside it. Comparing two swords from completely different historical contexts is therefore extremely difficult, if not downright silly.

Then again, perhaps the question means “which style of fencing is the most realistic?” It must be said that questions of realism have little relevance to an activity that has almost no practical application in the modern world other than sport and fitness. Historically, however, epees have the closest resemblance (among FIE weapons) to real duelling swords, and the rules closely relate to those of actual duels (sometimes being fought to only a single point). Other martial arts with a high realism factor include kenjutsu and some aspects of SCA fighting.

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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.

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