When you watch a fencing bout, what exactly are you looking at?
Newcomers to competition, including parents, partners and even some of the new fencers may find it confusing to watch and, more importantly, understand fencing. It is a fast sport fought in short bouts (fights) according to strict technical rules with little time to analyse or find explanations.
For this non-fencer and newcomer, this is, in summary, how fencing ‘works’.
The fencers connect to the electrical apparatus by wire or wirelessly. The scoreboard has coloured lights to indicate when hits have landed. Red and green lights are for hits landing on target (all weapons). The white lights are for hits landing off target (foil only). The referee has final say on whether a hit is valid and scores a point according to their interpretation of the action within the rules of the weapon and of the competition.
Winning margin and clock time
Depending on the stage of the competition, the allowed clock time and winning margin is different in the initial pool rounds versus the Direct Elimination (DE).
Pool bouts last 3 minutes or the first fencer to score 5 hits wins. DE bouts are three periods of 3 minutes with 1 minute breaks after the first and second 3 minute exchanges or the first to score 15 hits to win*.
*This is two periods of 3 minutes or first to score 10 hits for Youth U10 categories.
The clock time is measured on a stop watch, starting each time the referee calls “play” and stopping each time the referee calls “halt”. The time-keeper calls “time” when the three minutes expire on the stop watch.
How this plays out in the bout
The Fencers are called to the piste (playing area)
They connect to the electrical apparatus and test – the light on the same side as the fencer will be lit when they land a hit on their opponent.
Salutes are exchanged (including officials)
The fencers take starting positions – standing on guard at their on guard lines
The referee begins the bout with the commands: “on guard”, “ready”, “play” (or “fence”)
There is an ‘exchange’ of fencing, which may or may not include the lights on the scoring box being lit.
The referee calls “halt” and will then explain what happened (the ‘phrasing’ in that exchange (perhaps only the final actions that led to the ‘halt’); they will announce any points awarded for valid hits and update the score. The referee will accompany their analysis using the standard hand signals listed in Appendix 7.
The action may be halted for many reasons other than a hit landing on one or both fencers, such as leaving the piste, bodily contact or other invalid action, or a safety issue.
Certain amped-up fencers will yell long and loud every time they think they have scored (as if the referee will be swayed in their decisions by a lot of shouting). Listen for the scoreboard to buzz, for the lights to come on and for the referee to announce their decision.
The referee restarts the bout; from the position it stopped if no points were awarded, or resetting the fencers to their on guard lines if somebody scored.
The bout continues until one of the fencers reaches the winning margin (5, 10 or 15 hits) or until the clock time expires, in which case the fencer in the lead will be declared the winner.
For the longer Direct Elimination bouts, there are two rest intervals of one minute each after three minutes of clock time.
Should the scores be tied when time expires, the tie-break procedure adds an extra minute of fencing. If the scores are tied after that, a coin is flipped to determine priority for a final ‘sudden-death’ exchange where the next point awarded gains that fencer victory.
At the conclusion of the bout, bother fencers salute, shake hands and shake with the officials.
As a spectator, you may applaud and cheer the performance of the fencers whenever the action halts. Do not yell or clap during the action or do anything which might distract the fencers or officials.
It pays to stay alert; in any moment of inattention it is easy to miss something.
Image credit: Final – Challenge International de Paris 2013-01-26 by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons