fencing

Why fencing?

Baz epee shoulder flick - wikimedia commons_400_225If team sports, bat, ball and racquet are not your thing, the antidote is fencing. Modern-day duelling in a competitive sport:

  • a physical game of chess
  • a science
  • an art where nerve and mental agility count more than strength…

Hear a brief radio interview describing the sport and our previous club:

 

 

Overview

A modern sport at all levels, participation will develop:

  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Balance
  • Agility
  • Respiration
  • Mental agility and tactical thinking

Fencing provides good physical exercise, employing practically every muscle and totally absorbing the mind.

The need for coordination, concentration, self-discipline and control of the emotions makes fencing especially beneficial to young people as an education for life.

The social aspects of the sport should never be disregarded; it is equally appealing to men and women and to all ages and abilities.

Technique over brute force


From the duelling age where skill and finesse counted as highly as deadly intent, the modern sport is about technique rather than sheer strength. There is no need to hack off your opponent’s limbs, and with proper training anyone can learn to fence without causing injury. It makes fencing one of the few sports where men and women can compete on equal terms!

Find out about the rules of sports fencing: how bouts are fenced.

Safety first!

Modern fencing has an impressive record, with far fewer injuries than most other sports, attributable to:

  • Mandatory safety equipment
  • Strong regulation and governing bodies
    (in Britain it is British Fencing, part of the FIE – Fédération Internationale d’Escrime)
  • A high standard of qualified coaches.

In defence of the sport’s excellent safety record, there is a set of standards for fencing equipment, in both make and materials.

Any authorised fencing club should be able to lend beginners the full set of protective gear; namely, a jacket, glove and mask.

• See our approach to safety

Ancient art – modern sport

Weapons - foil, epee, sabreThree weapons are used in today’s fencing, each derived from its more lethal ancestor.

  • The foil – a light, flexible weapon, based on the smallsword. Only hits with the point can be scored. The target area is the trunk of the body.
  • The épée – a stiffer, heavier blade – a direct descendant of the duelling rapier. Again, only point hits are valid, but the whole body is the target.
  • The sabre – a lighter, flexible version of the cavalry sword. Hits may be scored using edge cuts or point thrusts. The valid target for sabre is everything above the waist.

From ‘steam’ to electric!

In training and in practice bouts, fencers are relied upon to concede the hits they have against them. In competition, where more impartial judgement is required, additional equipment is needed.
In competition, fencers wear bodywires which enable hits to register automatically on an electronic box. This shows a coloured light and sounds a buzzer indicating which fencer has taken the hit.

• Find our more about the history of fencing

Fencing – an incomplete history

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.

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.

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.