weapons

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.

What are the Modern Fencing Weapons?

Overview

Weapons - foil, epee, sabreThere are three weapons in modern fencing, each with different rules and target areas:

•  Foil is the foremost training weapon
•  Epée is descended from the a duelling weapon
•  Sabre is a former cavalry weapon

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.

Epée: 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.

Weapons: Foil

Weapons - foilThe oldest of the three competitive weapons is the foil. The foil is a thrusting weapon, up to 500 grams (1.1 lbs). It has a circular, curved hand-guard. The target area for foil fencing is the torso except for the back below the hipbones; only hits which arrive on the target area score. Hits which arrive off-target stop the action but don’t score a touch.

A set of rules referred to as ‘right-of-way’ determine which fencer scores if both are hit. The basic principle of right of way is that when attacked, you need ensure that you are not hit before attempting to hit your opponent back. If neither fencer has right-of-way and both are hit, then no touch is scored.

Target area: for Foil, as a former training weapon – the trunk of the body only (shown in red)

foil target area

Weapons: Sabre

Weapon - sabreThe sabre can score by hitting with the edge as well as the point. Target area for sabre is the body above the hips, including the arms and head. The blade of the sabre can be up to 88 cm long, and is usually lighter than a foil blade. The handguard is much larger than a foil’s, and curves back over the knuckles to end of the handle. As with foil, right-of-way rules determine who scores if both fencers are hit. Off target hits in sabre are ignored and do not stop the action.

Target area: for Sabre, as a former cavalry weapon – everything above the waist (shown in red).

sabre target areas

Weapons: Epée

Weapon - epeeThe Epée, like the foil, is a point-only weapon. Unlike foil and sabre, the entire body is target in Epée, and there are no right-of-way rules. Whoever hits first scores; if both fencers hit at the same time, both score.

The Epée is the heavier than the foil or sabre, weighing up to 770 grams (1.7 lbs).

The blade is the same length as the foil, but has a V-shaped cross-section. The hand-guard is circular, but larger and deeper than the foil guard, in order to more fully protect the hand.

Target area: for Epée, descended from the duelling weapon where ‘anything goes’ – whole body (shown in red)

epee target areas

Weapons: The Target Areas

Fencing weapon target areasThe respective target area for each weapon reflects its’ origins:

  • for Foil, as a former training weapon – the trunk of the body only (shown in red)
  • for Sabre, as a former cavalry weapon – everything above the waist (shown in red)
  • for Epée, descended from the duelling weapon where ‘anything goes’ – whole body (shown in red)
Fencing weapon target areas
Above: target areas for foil, epée and sabre.