Fencing is a family of sports and activities that feature armed combat involving cutting, stabbing, or slapping bludgeoning weapons that are directly manipulated by hand, rather than shot, thrown or positioned. Examples include swords, knives, pikes, bayonets, batons, clubs, and similar weapons. In contemporary common usage, fencing tends to refer specifically to European schools of swordsmanship and to the modern Olympic sport that has evolved out of them.
Fencing is one of the four sports which has been featured at every modern Olympic Games. Currently, three types of weapon are used in Olympic fencing:
The word fence was originally a shortening of the Middle English defens, that came from an Italian word, defensio, in origin a Latin word. The first known use of defens in reference to English swordsmanship is in William Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor: "Alas sir, I cannot fence."
See main article: Historical European Martial Arts and Dardi school. Fencing teachers and schools can be found in European historical records dating back at least to the 12th century. In later times some of these teachers were paid by rich nobles to produce books about their fighting systems, called treatises.
The earliest known surviving treatise on fencing, stored at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, England, dates from around 1300 AD and is from Germany. It is written in medieval Latin and Middle High German and deals with an advanced system of using the sword and buckler (small shield) together.From 1400 AD onwards there are an increasing number of fencing treatises surviving from across Europe, with the majority from the 15th century coming from Germany and Italy. In this period these arts were largely seen as 'knightly' and for the nobility - hence most of these treatises deal with the knightly weapons, such as rondel dagger, longsword, spear, pollaxe and armoured fighting mounted and on foot. Some treatises do cover the weapons more usually used by the common classes however, such as großes Messer and sword and buckler. Wrestling, both with and without weapons, is also featured heavily in the early fencing treatises.
By the sixteenth century, with the widespread adoption of the printing press and the increase in the urban population, together with other social changes, the number of fencing treatises being produced increased dramatically. Fencing schools had been forbidden in some European cities (particularly in England and France) during the medieval period, though court records show that such schools were kept illegally. After around 1500 it seems to have become more socially and legally acceptable to carry swords openly in most parts of Europe, and the increasing fortunes of the middle classes meant that more men were aspiring to carry swords, learn fencing and be seen as gentlemen. By the middle of the 16th century many European cities contained great numbers of fencing schools, often clustered together, such as in London in 'Hanging Sword Lane'. Italian fencing masters were particularly popular in the 16th century and they went abroad and set up schools in many foreign cities. The Italian styles of fencing at this time, bringing concepts of science to the art, were seen as revolutionary and new, and they appealed to the new Renaissance mindset.
In 16th century Germany compendia of older Fechtbücher techniques were produced, some of them printed, notably by Paulus Hector Mair (in the 1540s) and by Joachim Meyer (in the 1570s), based on the teachings of the 14th century Liechtenauer tradition. In the 16th century German fencing developed sportive tendencies. Eventually the newer Italian attitude to fencing grew in popularity in Germany as well as elsewhere.
Today there are many groups around the world recreating the old fencing systems, using the surviving treatises. Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) are growing fast, bringing in people from many backgrounds, including those who have taken part in modern sport fencing and Asian martial arts.
See also: Rapier fencing, Destreza and Joseph Swetnam. Strictly, the European dueling sword is a basket and cage hilted weapon specifically used in duels from the late 17th to the 19th century. It developed through several forms of the rapier to the smallsword - reflecting the changes from a cutting style of swordplay to a thrusting style ('foining'). This was a result of increasing specialization in their use on the dueling field, and the social stigma attached to carrying and using swords too obviously adapted to the actual "work" of warfare. The smallsword, and the last version of the rapier, were made possible only by metallurgical advances in the seventeenth century as high toughness steels became more readily available..
In England, it was not uncommon for fencing masters to take on other fencing masters in a fight, often to the death, often with intervals for medical staff to dress wounds. Such spectacles were generally held in beargardens, particularly in the Southwark neighborhood near London.
The foil was invented in France as a training technique in the middle of the 18th century; it provided practice of fast and elegant thrust fencing with a smaller and safer weapon than an actual dueling sword. Fencers blunted its point by wrapping a foil around the blade or fastening a knob on the point ("blossom", French fleuret). In addition to practice, some fencers took away the protection and used the sharp foil for duels. German students took up that practice and developed the Pariser ("Parisian") thrusting small sword for the Stoßmensur ("thrusting mensur"). After the dress sword was abolished, the Pariser became the only weapon for thrust fencing in German colleges and universities.
Since thrust fencing with a sharply pointed blade of any kind is quite dangerous, many students died from (especially) pierced lungs (Lungenfuchser). However, a counter movement had already started in Göttingen in the 1750s, with the invention of the Göttinger Hieber, a predecessor of the modern Korbschläger, a new weapon for cut fencing. In the following years, the Glockenschläger was invented in Eastern Germany universities, also for cut fencing.
See also: Classical fencing and Academic fencing. Thrust fencing (using the Pariser), and cut fencing (using Korbschläger or Glockenschläger), existed in parallel in Germany during the first decades of the 19th century, according to local preferences. Thrust fencing was especially popular in Jena, Erlangen, Würzburg and Ingolstadt/Landshut, two towns where the predecessors of Munich University were located. The last thrust Mensur is recorded to have taken place in Würzburg in 1860.
Until the first half of the 19th century all types of academic fencing can be seen as duels, since all fencing with sharp weapons was about honour. No combat with sharp blades took place without a formal insult. For duels involving non-students, e.g. military officers, the academic sabre became usual, apparently being derived from the military sabre. It was then a heavy weapon with a curved blade and a hilt similar to the Korbschläger.
The term "Classical Fencing" is a relatively new invention, retroactively applied to select periods and methods. As it is understood today, classical fencing derives most directly from the 19th and early-20th century national fencing schools, especially in Italy and France, although other pre-World War II styles such as Russian and Hungarian are also considered classical. Masters and legendary fencing figures such as Giuseppe Radaelli, Louis Rondelle, Masaniello Parise, the Greco brothers, Aldo Nadi and his rival Lucien Gaudin are today considered typical practitioners of this period.
Scoring was done by means of four judges who determined whether a touch had been made. Two side judges stood behind and to the side of each fencer, and watched for hits made by that fencer on the opponent's target. A director followed the fencing from a point several feet away from the centre of the action. At the end of each action, after calling "Halt!", the director would describe the action, and then poll the judges in turn. If the judges differed, or abstained, the director could overrule them.
This method had serious limitations, though it was universally used. As described in an article in the London newspaper, The Daily Courier, on June 25, 1896: "Every one who has watched a bout with the foils knows that the task of judging the hits is with a pair of amateurs difficult enough, and with a well-matched pair of maîtres d’escrime well-nigh impossible." There also were problems with bias: well-known fencers were often given the benefit of mistakes (so-called "reputation touches"), and in some cases there was outright cheating. Aldo Nadi complained about this in his autobiography The Living Sword in regard to his famous match with Lucien Gaudin.
The Daily Courier article is an early description of a new invention, the electrical scoring machine, that would revolutionize fencing.
Dueling went into sharp decline after World War I. After World War II, dueling went out of use in Europe except for very rare exceptions. Training for duels, once fashionable for males of aristocratic backgrounds (although fencing masters such as Hope suggest that many people had only taken one or two lessons, and thus considering themselves trained), all but disappeared, along with the classes themselves. Fencing continued as a sport, with tournaments and championships. However, the need to actually prepare for a duel with "sharps" vanished, changing both training and technique.
Starting with épée in the 1930s, side judges were replaced by an electrical scoring apparatus, with an audible tone and a red or green light indicating when a touch landed. Foil was electrified in the 1950s, sabre in the 1980s. The scoring box reduced the bias in judging, and permitted more accurate scoring of faster actions, lighter touches, and more touches to the back and flank than were possible with human judges.
Contemporary fencing is divided in three broad categories:
There are numerous inter-related forms of competitive fencing in practice, all of which approach the activity as a sport, with varying degrees of connectedness to its historic past.
Olympic fencing (or simply "fencing") refers to the fencing seen in most competitions, including the Olympic Games and the World Cup. Competitions are conducted according to rules laid down by the Fédération Internationale d'Escrime (FIE), the international governing body. These rules evolved from a set of conventions developed in Europe between mid 17th and early 20th century with the specific purpose of regulating competitive activity. The three weapons used in Olympic fencing are foil, épée, and sabre. In competition, the validity of touches is determined by the electronic scoring apparatus, so as to minimize human error and bias in refereeing.
Wheelchair fencing, also known as jousting, an original Paralympic sport, was developed in post-World War II England. Minor modifications to the FIE rules allow disabled fencers to fence all three weapons. The most apparent change is that each fencer sits in a wheelchair fastened to a frame. Footwork is replaced by torso or arm movement, depending on the fencer's disability. The proximity of the two fencers tends to increase the pace of bouts, which require considerable skill. The weapons are identical to those used in Olympic fencing. The youngest wheelchair fencing champion in the history of the sport, is named George Kenneth Robinson IV, also known as Kenny. He was in third grade and originally hails from England.
Other variants include one-hit épée (one of the five events which constitute modern pentathlon) and the various types of competitive fencing, whose rules are similar but not identical to the FIE rules. One example of this is the American Fencing League (distinct from the United States Fencing Association): the format of competitions is different, there is no electronic scoring, and the priority rules are interpreted in a different way. In a number of countries, the accepted practice at school and university level deviates slightly from the FIE format.
Some practitioners of fencing approach it as a Western martial art, with the goal being to train for a theoretical duel. The element of sport is absent (or nearly so) from these forms of fencing, but they all share a common origin with each other and with competitive fencing.
Classical fencing is differentiated from competitive fencing as being theoretically closer to swordplay as a martial art. Those who call themselves classical fencers may advocate the use of what they see as more authentic practices, including little or no emphasis on sport competition. There is strong interest within the classical fencing community in reviving the European fencing practices of the 19th and early 20th century, when fencers were expected to be able to fight a duel using their training. Weapons used are the standard (non-electric) foil, standard épée (often equipped with pointes d'arret), and the blunted dueling sabre. AFL fencing is often referred to as classical fencing, but this is a misnomer.
Historical fencing is a type of historical martial arts reconstruction based on surviving texts and traditions. Predictably, historical fencers study an extremely wide array of weapons from different regions and periods. They may work with bucklers, daggers, polearms, navajas, bludgeoning weapons, etc. One main preoccupation of historical fencers is with weapons of realistic weight, which demand a different way of manipulating them from what is the norm in modern Fencing. For example, light weapons can be manipulated through the use of the fingers (more flexibility), but more realistically-weighted weapons must be controlled more through the wrist and elbow. This difference is great and can lead to drastic changes even in the carriage of the body and footwork in combat. There is considerable overlap between classical and historical fencing, especially with regard to 19th-century fencing practices.
Finally, there are several other forms of fencing which have little in common besides history with either of the other two classifications.
Academic fencing, or mensur, is a German student tradition that has become mostly extinct but is still sometimes practiced in Germany, Switzerland and Austria as well as in Flanders and Latvia. The combat, which uses a cutting weapon known as the schläger, uses sharpened blades and takes place between members of student corporations - "Studentenverbindungen" - in accordance with a strictly delineated set of conventions. It uses special protective gear that leaves most of the head and face, excluding the eyes, unprotected. (The special goggles are called Paukbrille.) The ultimate goal is to develop personal character, therefore there is no winner or loser and flinching is not allowed. Acquiring a proper cut on the face with the sharp blade, called a Schmiss (German for "smite"), was considered a visible sign of manly courage and status as "Akademiker", or member of the professional upper class. However, tales of cuts being intentionally manipulated by sewing in horsehairs or rubbing wounds with vinegar or salt have been discredited as popular myths since the 1880s.
Stage fencing seeks to achieve maximum theatrical impact in representing a wide range of styles, including both modern and historical forms of fencing. Theatrical fight scenes are choreographed by a Fight Director, and fencing actions are exaggerated for dramatic effect and visual clarity.
Recreational roleplaying often incorporates fencing in the context of historical or fantasy themes in the Society for Creative Anachronism or live-action roleplaying games. Technique and scoring systems vary widely from one group to the next, as do the weapons. Depending on local conventions, participants may use modern sport fencing weapons, period weapons, or weapons invented specifically for the purpose, such as boffers.
Three weapons survive in modern competitive fencing: foil, épée, and sabre. The spadroon and the heavy cavalry-style sabre, both of which saw widespread competitive use in the 19th century, fell into disfavour in the early 20th century with the rising popularity of the lighter and faster weapon used today. The singlestick was featured in the 1904 Olympic Games, but it was already declining in popularity at that time. Bayonet fencing experienced a somewhat slower decline, with competitions organized by some armed forces as late as the 1940s and 1950s.
While the weapons fencers use differ in shape and purpose, their basic construction remains similar across the disciplines. Every weapon has a blade and a hilt. The tip of the blade is generally referred to as the point. The hilt consists of a guard and a grip. The guard (also known as the coquille, the bell, or the bellguard) is a metal shell designed to protect the fingers. The grip is the weapon's actual handle. There are a number of commonly used variants. The more traditional kind are approximately straight and terminate with a pommel (a heavy nut intended to act as a counterweight for the blade). In the case of foil and épée, these have been surpassed in popularity by a variety of ergonomic designs, often collectively refereed to as pistol grip (the way they are held resembles how one holds a pistol). All of the weapons used for modern competition have electrical wiring which allows them to register a touch on the opponent.
See main article: Foil (fencing).
In modern competitive fencing, 'electric' weapons are used. These have a push-button on the point of the blade, which allows hits to be registered by the electronic scoring apparatus. In order to register, the button must be depressed with a force of at least 4.90 newtons (500 grams-force) for at least 15 milliseconds. Foil fencers wear conductive (lamé) jackets covering their target area, which allow the scoring apparatus to differentiate between on- and off-target hits.
The target area is restricted to the torso, including the front and back. When fencing with electrical equipment, there is an area around each armpit that is not covered by the lamé, and is thus effectively not legal target as well.
A modification in FIE rules from 1 January 2009 onwards means that the valid target area includes that part of the bib below a straight line drawn between the shoulders; prior to this, the bib of the mask was not a valid target. This rule has not been implemented uniformly in all National fencing organizations. For instance, the USFA has not decided on a timetable for adopting the rule, while the European nations have generally decided on September 1 2009 as the date for all competitions to use the new rule.
The target must be hit with the tip of the foil; a touch with any other part of the foil it has no effect whatsoever and fencing continues uninterrupted. A touch on an off-target area stops the bout but does not score a point. Foil fencing also features rules of right of way or priority, which determine which fencer's hit will prevail when both fencers have hit. The basic principle of priority is that the hit of the fencer who begins an offensive action first will prevail over his/her opponent's hit, unless the action of the former fails. A fencer's action fails when it falls short of his/her opponent, when it misses, or when it is parried. When one fencer's action fails, the other's current or next offensive action gains priority, unless they delay too long (longer than one period of "fencing time", the time taken to perform one action at the current tempo of the exchange), in which case the previously defending fencer loses priority. If priority cannot be determined when both fencers have hit each other, no point is awarded. The original idea behind the rules of foil fencing was to encourage fencers to defend and attack vital areas, and to fight in a methodical way with initiative passing back and forth between the combatants, thus minimizing the risk of a double death.
When an exchange ends in a hit, the referee will call "halt", and fencing will cease. The referee will then analyse the exchange and phrase it in official terminology. The first offensive action is called the attack. All defensive actions successfully deflecting an opponent's blade are called parries. The first offensive action preceded by a parry is called a beat-attack. An offensive action of a parrying fencer directly following the parry is called a riposte. An offensive action of a fencer, who attacks without first withdrawing the arm directly after being parried, is called a remise. An offensive action of a fencer from the on-guard position, after being parried and then returning to the on-guard position, is called a reprise. An offensive action of a fencer after his/her opponent has lost the right to riposte via inaction is called a redouble. An offensive action begun by a fencer who is being attacked by his/her opponent is called a counter-attack.
See main article: Épée.
Épée, as the sporting weapon known today, was invented in the second half of the 19th century by a group of French students, who felt that the conventions of foil were too restrictive, and the weapon itself too light; they wanted an experience closer to that of an actual duel (although the effect is now the opposite as the épée is very slow in comparison). At the point of its conception, the épée was, essentially, an exact copy of a small sword but without the needle-sharp point. Instead, the blade terminated in a point d'arrêt, a three-pronged contraption, which would snag on the clothing without penetrating the flesh.
Like the foil, the épée is a thrusting weapon: to score a valid hit, the fencer must fix the point of his weapon on his opponent's target. However, the target area covers the entire body, and there are no rules regarding who can hit when (unlike in foil and sabre, where there are priority rules). In the event of both fencers making a touch within 40 milliseconds of each other, both are awarded a point (a double hit), except when the score is equal and the point would mean the win for both, such as in modern pentathlon's one-hit épée, where neither fencer receives a point. Otherwise, the first to hit always receives the point, regardless of what happened earlier in the phrase. Also epee's are the heaviest of the weapons. However, with today's techniques, we see some epee blades as light as 150g. An epee is composed of a blade, a point, a bell guard, and a handle or grip (french or pistol grip).
The 'electric' épée, used in modern competitive fencing, terminates in a push-button, similar to the one on the 'electric' foil. In order for the scoring apparatus to register a hit, it must arrive with a force of at least 7.35 newtons (750 grams-force) (a higher threshold than the foil's 4.9 newtons), and the push-button must remain fully depressed for 1 millisecond. All hits register as valid, unless they land on a grounded metal surface, such as a part of the opponent's weapon, in which case they do not register at all. At large events, grounded conductive pistes are often used in order to prevent the registration of hits against the floor. At smaller events and in club fencing, it is generally the responsibility of the referee to watch out for floor hits. These often happen by accident, when an épéeist tries to hit the opponent's foot and misses. This results in a pause in the action but no points. However, deliberate hits against the floor are treated as "dishonest fencing," and penalized accordingly.
See main article: Sabre (fencing).
Sabre is the 'cutting' weapon: points may be scored with edges and surfaces of the blade, as well as the point. Although the current design with a light and flexible blade (marginally stiffer than a foil blade which bends easily up and down while a sabre blade bends easier side to side) appeared around the turn of the 19th and 20th century, similar sporting weapons with more substantial blades had been used throughout the Victorian era.
There is some debate as to whether the modern fencing sabre is descended from the cavalry sabres of Turkic origin, which became popular in Central and Western Europe around the time of Napoleonic Wars, or one of Europe's indigenous edged duelling weapons, such as the cutting rapier. In practice, it is likely to be a hybrid of the two. Most of the conventions and vocabulary of modern sabre fencing were developed by late 19th and early 20th century masters from Italy and Hungary, perhaps most notable among them being Italo Santelli (1866 - 1945).
The sabre target covers everything above the waist, except the hands (wrists are included) and the back of the head. Today, any contact between any part of the blade and any part of the target counts as a valid touch. This was not always the case, and earlier conventions stipulated that a valid touch must be made with either the point or one of the cutting edges, and must arrive with sufficient force to have caused a palpable wound, had the weapon been sharp. These requirements had to be abandoned, because of technical difficulties, shortly after electronic scoring was introduced into sabre fencing in late 1980s.
Like foil, sabre is subject to right of way rules, but there are some differences in the precise definition of what constitutes a correctly executed attack and parry. These differences, together with a much greater scoring surface (the whole of the blade, rather than the point alone), make sabre parries more difficult to execute effectively. As a result, sabre tactics rely much more heavily on footwork with blade contact being kept to a minimum.
The clothing which is worn in modern fencing is made of tough cotton or nylon. Kevlar was added to top level uniform pieces (jacket, breeches, underarm protector, lamé, and the bib of the mask) following the Smirnov incident at the 1982 World Championships in Rome. However, kevlar breaks down in chlorine and UV light, so the act of washing one's uniform and/or hanging it up in the sun to dry actually damaged the kevlar's ability to do the job.
In recent years other ballistic fabrics such as Dyneema have been developed that perform the puncture resistance function and which do not have kevlar's weakness. In fact, the FIE rules state that the entirety of the uniform (meaning FIE level clothing, as the rules are written for FIE tournaments) must be made of fabric that resists a force of 800 newtons (1600N in the mask bib).
The complete fencing kit includes the following items of clothing:
Traditionally, the fencers' uniform is white in color (black being the traditional color for instructors). This may be to some extent due to the occasional pre-electric practice of covering the point of the weapon in dye, soot, or colored chalk in order to make it easier for the referee to determine the placing of the touches. Recently the FIE rules have been relaxed to allow colored uniforms (black still being reserved for the coaches). The guidelines delineating the permitted size and positioning of sponsorship logos are however still extremely strict.
See main article: Fencing practice and techniques.
Fencing tournaments are varied in their format, and there are both individual and team competitions. A tournament may comprise all three weapons, both individual and team, or it may be very specific, such as an Épée Challenge, with individual épée only.And, as in many sports, men and women compete separately in high-level tournaments. Mixed-gender tournaments are commonplace at lower-level events, especially those held by individual fencing clubs. There are two types of event, individual and team. An individual event consists of two parts: the pools, and the direct eliminations.
In the pools, fencers are divided into groups, and every fencer in a pool will have the chance to fence every other fencer once. There are typically seven fencers in a pool. If the number of fencers competing is not a multiple of seven, then there will usually be several pools of six or eight. After the pools are finished, the fencers are given a ranking, or "seed," compared to all other fencers in the tournament, based primarily on the percent of bouts they won, then based secondarily on the difference between the touches they scored and the touches they received. Once the seeds have been determined, the direct elimination round starts. Fencers are sorted in a table of some power of 2 (16, 32, 64, etc.) based on how many people are competing. Due to the fact that it is highly unlikely for the number of fencers to be exactly a power of two, the fencers with the best results in the pools are given byes or the bottom seeded fencers are eliminated. The winner carries on in the tournament, and loser is eliminated. Typically no one has to fence for third place (the exception is if the tournament is a qualifying tournament with limited slots for continuation). Instead, two bronze medals are given to the losers of the semi-final round.
Team competition involves teams of three fencers. A fourth fencer can be allowed on the team as an alternate, but as soon as the fourth has been subbed in, they cannot substitute again. The modern team competition is similar to the pool round of the individual competition. The fencers from opposing teams will each fence each other once, making for a total of nine matches. Matches between teams are three minutes long, or to 5 points, and the points then carry onto the next bout, thus making it a forty-five touch bout fought by six fencers. Unlike individual tournaments, team tournaments almost always fence for bronze.
Fencing has a long history of association with universities and schools. At least one style of Fencing, Mensur in Germany is practiced only within universities. University students compete against each other at an international level at the World University Games. The United States also holds a national level university tournament including the NCAA championship tournament in the USA and the BUCS Fencing Championships in the UK.
The cost of equipment and the relatively small scale of the sport means fencing at the school level has traditionally been dominated by a small number of schools. National fencing organizations have set up programs to encourage a greater number of students to get involved with fencing at a school level examples include the Regional Youth Circuit program or the Leon Paul Youth Development series in the UK.
In the UK there are two national competitions in which schools compete against each other directly; the Public Schools Fencing Championship, a competition only open to Independent Schools, and the Scottish Secondary Schools Championships, open to all secondary schools in Scotland it contains both a teams and individual event and is one of the most anticipated competition in Scottish youth fencing. However schools also organise matches directly against one another and school age pupils can compete individually against one another in the British Youth Championships.