An Invitation to Fencing

Originally published by the International Teletimes. missing image The image of fencing is sometimes confused with the clashing of swords seen in the movies, from the classic exploits of Errol Flynn to the latest incarnation of The Three Musketeers. When fencers see sword fighting on the silver screen they are almost always disappointed by the lack of thought that is displayed in the fights. For fencing is about an interchange of ideas -- ideas intended to deceive or surprise. Fencing is about thinking and transferring thoughts into action at the maximum rate and with the maximum precision.

Of course movie sword fighting is not intended to be fencing, but as many people have seen more sword play on the movie screen than in a fencing competition, perhaps a few words about how these two activities differ is one way to convey some of the spirit of the modern sport. For example in the movies the sword-fighters often just launch them selves into the action and then start banging away. But a big part of fencing is in choosing the best moment for attack and this involves a certain amount of legwork in order to lure the opponent into a false step or a false sense of security. A second example is that when an attack is begun to the head--for example--it finishes on the head, or more often is blocked by a parry. This may be realistic with a period sword, but with the light weapons used in modern fencing, an important aspect of the game is to conceal the intended target of a thrust by threatening another, or to change the intended target on the fly in response to the opponents defensive actions. One thing that the movies and fencing do share, though, is passion. Whether fighting for one's life or for a medal, fencing requires a complete focusing of one's mental energy on the task of striking the opponent.

Fencing can be done with any one of three different types of weapons (fencers do not tend to use the word "sword"), each with slightly different rules: Foil, Sabre, and Epée. All three share a great deal in terms of technique, but each has its own distinctive character and athletes of a high calibre generally concentrate their training and competition in one of the three weapons.


Ironically, the roots of fencing go back to the introduction of gunpowder into Europe and the invention of the gun. This innovation made armour ineffective and that meant an end to the heavy two handed swords that were needed in order to make an impression on a man in armour. Swords became lighter and were used less for warfare and more for self-defense and for duelling. In order to train for duelling in a non lethal way, swords were tipped with a dull point and certain conventions of scoring were introduced with the intention of instilling the habits that would prove most useful in a duel. The rules of Foil can be understood in these terms. In a duel with weapons such as the shortsword popular with the French nobility of the 17th century, it is important to hit with a thrust and to hit a vital part of the body. In Foil points can only be scored when the tip of the weapon lands on the torso of the opponent; the arms and legs are deemed not vital enough, and the head was not a suitable target in practice, until the development of the fencing mask.

Furthermore, as it is small satisfaction to seriously wound ones opponent in a duel only a split second before one is seriously wounded oneself, Foil fencing does not award points solely based on who hit first. Instead the rules encourage defensive play by dictating that an attack must be defended against before a valid response--or riposte--can be given. Thus the right to attack ("right of way") goes back and forth like the ball in tennis. In the case of hits arriving at about the same time, the point is scored by the fencer who had "right of way."

Much of the essence of foil comes from the fast exchange of the right of way and the consequent alternation of attack and defense. The fencers will generally move along the strip "pushing" and "pulling" each other with threats and retreats either looking for the best moment to attack, or attempting to fool the opponent into believing the advantage is his when it isn't. It usually doesn't take long before one of the fencers takes the plunge and attacks -- typically pushing off the back foot into a lunge. If the defender cannot (or chooses not) to step away, he or she will try to "parry" the attack and if successful will "riposte." Now the tables are turned and the original attacker must defend and may be able to make a riposte back ("counter-riposte").

This is the basic pattern but it comes in a splendid variety. The attack may be made directly or might involve some preparatory attacking of the defender's blade. The defense can be made with a number of different parries. The defender may even decide not to parry, but rather attempt to force the attacker to miss by either stepping back or even stepping forward. The attacker may deceive (avoid contact with) the parry and continue the attack either to the same area of the torso or another. The method of deceiving the parry depends on which type of parry is used and thus requires extremely fast reaction or careful reading of what the defender is most likely to do. If the first parry is deceived, the defender may have time to form a second parry -- especially if the first parry was a mere ruse and the second was part of the original plan. Once the parry is made everything turns around the defender is now attacking with a riposte and the attacker must defend against it. The riposter may attempt to hit with simple thrust, or may deceive the original attacker's parry. You may think this could go on for quite a while, but usually either a hit is made, or someone defends by retreating and the game of looking for just the right moment to attack starts again.


The Sabre is descended from the cavalry sabre. The version used in competition though is a far cry from its heavy antecedent. It is light and quick. Points may be scored either with a thrust as in Foil or with the side of the blade, the latter is called a "cut." The target is the entire body above the waist including the head and arms. The conventions concerning the right to hit are the same as in Foil.

Because the parries must defend against cuts from many angles, they require fairly large movements, this makes them more easily deceived with some fast fingerwork than in Foil and shifts the advantage towards the attack. Thus there is little waiting a round in sabre, one or the other fencer will soon attack -- and often both attack at the same time. Thus one aspect of its cavalry heritage Sabre has not lost is the charge. But that is not to say that Sabre is merely a race to see who can attack first. Tricking your opponent into attacking at the wrong time can lead to a fairly easy parry and riposte. And the fact that the arm is target makes the attacker susceptible to being hit on the wrist as he or she prepares for the attack. The exchange of attacks parries and ripostes seen in Foil is also seen in Sabre, but the emphasis is perhaps even more on attacking at the right time with the right distance.


The Epée is a direct descendant of the short sword used by courtiers for duelling. As honour was generally satisfied by drawing first blood, in Epée points are scored by hitting first, anywhere on the body. The conventions of right of way do not apply. As with the Foil, the Epée is strictly a thrusting weapon, hits with the edge are not counted. The absence of conventions that put an emphasis on parrying means that the best defense in Epée is often a good offense. If your opponent attacks the body, it may be possible to attack them back on the arm, the difference of distance translates to a difference in time and the "counter attack" to the arm is likely to get the point. Even an attack to the arm can be defended against by a thrust that defends with the guard of the weapon and counter attacks with the tip. Of course the option to parry is still there. It is ironic, but the absence of conventions to promote defending makes attacking a risky proposition. Thus Epée, more than foil and much more than sabre, can be a waiting game. But it is an active waiting. The feet are constantly being used to push or pull the opponent. The hand is busy making false attacks to test the defenses and to disguise the real attack when it comes. The eyes are busy learning the reactions of the opponent to each action. And the fingers are feeling the reaction of the opponent whenever the blades meet.

When the attack does come, if it is not a short attack to an ill-defended part of the arm, it is often done in such a way as to neutralize any possible defense. For example the "envelopment" is a spiralling thrust made with the point towards the target so as to pick up the opponent's blade on the way in. This pushes the opponent's point safely out of the way and makes the angle of his or her blade unfavourable for a successful parry.

Doesn't it Hurt?

The typical hit in fencing noticable, but doesn't hurt. The occasional hit will sting for a bit and may leave a small red mark for a day or two.

Fencing is one of the safest sports there is. An Ontario Government study found that of all sports surveyed it was second only to lawn bowling in its safety record. In recent years the introduction of better equipment has made it even safer. Most injuries are of the nature of twisted ankles or pulled ligaments. It is possible for a broken blade to penetrate the protective clothing, but this is extremely rare.

Learning to Fence

Fencing is an enjoyable sport or pastime for people of all ages. It is my observation and that of other fencers and coaches that almost anyone can learn to fence well -- that is, at a level where one begins to touch on the beauty of the sport. The only prerequisite is enough dedication to stick with it for a while.

The learning curve for fencing is generally quite long. In few other sports do you have to learn to walk all over again and learn to make finger movements as fine as are used in writing while holding a half kilogram mass in your hand. When I learned to fence we were taught the basic footwork and handwork for three months before being allowed to engage in any sort of bouting. Nowadays most teachers will get to bouting a lot sooner (perhaps even on the first day), but it still takes about three months before ones basic ability is at a level where the bouting starts to resemble fencing. Of course a good teacher will manage to make that initial learning time rewarding and enjoyable.

Although there are three different weapons, there is a core of skills and ideas common to all three. Thus it doesn't matter which weapon you are taught first. So if you are hell-bent to become a sabreur, but the local club teaches Epée first, don't worry, almost everything you are taught will be useful for all three weapons.

After the basic technical skills are sufficiently mastered, comes the most intangible part of learning: learning to apply those skills appropriately against an opponent doing their utmost to confound you. This is a never-ending process of self-improvement. There are always better fencers and a reaction can always be made just a millisecond sooner. Beyond technique there is tactics: picking the moment, picking the attack, combining footwork and handwork appropriately, deciding what attacks are likely and what to do first in each case; and beyond tactics there is strategy: deciding if it is better to attack or defend, deciding if it is better to dominate the footwork or respond to the opponent's footwork, deciding whether to repeat a previously successful tactic (because it was successful), avoid it (because it will be expected), or elaborate on it (for example begin the same way, but finish differently).

Fencing is usually taught in fencing clubs either private or associated with larger bodies such as universities or the local Y. Most clubs will have classes for beginners at least once a year. To find out about clubs near you the easiest thing is either to check local universities or to contact the national fencing organization. The addresses of three of these are listed at the end of this article and also the address of the international governing body.

The highest level of teacher is a "master" or "maître" who will have had extensive experience and passed exams set by the national organization.

Competitive & Recreational Fencing

Some fencers are satisfied to fence with the other members of their club and engage in friendly competition with their comrades. Others seek new challenges and test their progress by competing on a local, national, or international level. Fencing has been an Olympic sport since the first modern games in 1896.

Both men and women complete in all three weapons -- although at the international level women's sabre is not yet recognized. Competitions are also often broken into age groups so that younger fencers do not have to complete against much more experienced competitors. There are no weight divisions as size confers little advantage except in Epée where long arms can be useful.

Fencing bouts in competitions are observed by referees who keep track of the score, start and stop bouts, award penalties when rules are broken, and--in Foil and Sabre--decide which fencer had the right to hit when there are hits close in time. The referee is assisted by an electrical system that senses hits made on target. In Foil and Sabre the competitors wear electrically conductive clothing and in Foil and Epée each weapon is tipped with a small spring loaded button.

Recreational fencers will find fencing an excellent source of fitness. Whereas running, swimming, and cycling are calmingly repetitive and aerobics has a certain pack appeal, fencing allows an infinite variety of creative expression while providing a combination of aerobic and anaerobic conditioning.

Competitive fencers find that they need to be in top shape in order to remain in peak form throughout the many bouts it takes to get to the medal podium. They also need to keep honing their technical, tactical, and strategic skills through regular practice and one-on-one training sessions with their coach.

The Spirit of Fencing

For me the beauty of fencing lies in the difficulty of some of its concepts and in the interplay of ideas between two opponents.

Take for example, distance and timing. Distance does not mean just the simple distance between the fencers as can be measured with a metre stick, it includes the way that each fencer is moving. For an elementary example, one of the best ways to obtain a favourable opportunity for attack is to reverse direction from going backward to going forward, your opponent is still coming forward and the distance suddenly closens and now is the moment for attack (timing). But this is not so easy as it sounds, for your opponent is already coming forward and may be in a better position to attack than you who are in the midst of changing direction, so any anticipation of your plan by the opponent is likely to be disastrous. And timing does not mean just picking the moment for an attack. It includes the rhythm that actions are performed -- for example, two steps and a lunge might be done in the rhythm slow-fast-slow (thus affecting distance) -- and it must be tailored to exploit the weaknesses or to make weaknesses of the strengths of the opponent.

The interplay of ideas in fencing is very fast. In a few seconds there can be several parry-riposte sequences. Each action made is a challenge to the opponent to come up with an counter action. An attack is a challenge to find and execute an effective parry. A parry is a challenge to manage its deception or to land the hit before the parry is complete. The responses must be made at reflex action speed, yet the best response and the best way to execute the best response vary from opponent to opponent and from situation to situation. This makes fencing very challenging, always different, and hence extremely rewarding.

For More Information

There is an internet newsgroup ( devoted to fencing discussion. A WWW home page is also available.

There are numerous books on fencing although they can be hard to find. [A list of good fencing books is maintained as part of the Fencing FAQ, by Morgan Burke. E-mail him at for more information. - Ed.]

National and International Organizations

Federation Internationale d'Escrime
32, Rue La Boetie
75008 Paris, France

Amateur Fencing Association (Britain)
1 Barons Gate
33-35 Rothschild Road
London W4 5HT
Tel: 081 742-3032

Canadian Fencing Federation
1600 Prom. James Naismith Drive
Gloucester, ON K1B 5N4
TEL: (613) 748-5633
FAX: (613) 748-5742
1994, Theo Norvell, Toronto, Canada