The 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.
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 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.