New to Fencing

What is Fencing?

Here are some frequently asked questions about the sport for those who are thinking about taking it up.

The Weapons

The Olympic sport of fencing is comprised of three weapons: foil, épée, and sabre. All are fenced on a long rectangular strip, and electronic scoring aids are normally used to assist in the detection of hits. The rules governing these three weapons are determined by the FIE. Briefly, the FIE weapons are described as follows:


The foil has a flexible rectangular blade, approximately 90cm in length, weighing less than 500g. Points are scored with the tip of the blade and must land within the torso of the body.

The valid target area in foil is the torso, from the shoulders to the groin, front and back. It does not include the arms, neck, head and legs. The foil fencer's uniform includes a metallic jacket (called a lamé which covers the valid target area, so that a valid hit will register on the scoring machine. A small, spring-loaded tip is attached to the point of the foil and is connected to a wire inside the blade. The fencer wears a body wire inside his uniform which connects the foil to a reel wire, connected to the scoring machine.

There are two scoring lights on the machine. One shows a green light when a fencer has made a hit, and one shows a red light when her opponent has hit. A hit landing outside the valid target area (that which is not covered by the lamé is indicated by a white light. These "off target" hits do not count in the scoring, but they do stop the fencing action temporarily.


The epée, the descendant of the duelling sword, is similar in length to the foil, but is heavier, weighing approximately 750g, with a larger guard (to protect the hand from a valid hit) and a much stiffer blade. Hits are scored only with the point of the blade. The entire body is the valid target area.

The blade is wired with a spring-loaded tip at the end that completes an electrical circuit when it is depressed beyond a pressure of 750 grams. This causes the coloured bulb on the scoring machine to light. Because the entire body is a valid target area, the fencer's uniform does not include a lamé. Off-target hits do not register on the machine. Unlike foil and sabre, if two coloured lights show on the machine, then two hits have been scored.


The sabre is the modern version of the slashing cavalry sword, and is similar in length and weight to the foil. The major difference is that the sabre is a thrusting weapon as well as a cutting weapon (use of the blade). The target area is from the bend of the hips (both front and back), to the top of the head, simulating the cavalry rider on a horse. The sabre fencer's clothing includes a metallic jacket (lamé) which covers the target area to register a valid hit on the scoring machine. The mask is different from foil and épée, with a metallic covering since the head is valid target area.

Just as in foil, there are two scoring lights on the machine. One shows a green light when a fencer has made a hit, and the other shows a red light when the opponent has hit. Off-target hits do not register on the machine.

How Did Fencing Originate?

Sword fighting as sport has existed since ancient Egypt, and has been practised in many forms in various cultures since then. Although jousting and tournament combat was a popular sport in the European middle ages, modern FIE fencing owes more to unarmoured duelling forms that evolved from 16th century rapier combat.

The first modern Olympic games featured foil and sabre fencing for men only. epée was introduced in 1900. Single stick was featured in the 1904 games. Epée was electrified in the 1936 games, foil in 1956, and sabre in 1988. Early Olympic games featured events for Masters, and until recently fencing was the only Olympic sport that has included professionals.

Women's foil was first contested in the 1924 Olympic games, and Women's epée was only contested for the first time in 1996, although it has been part of the World Championships since 1989. Women's sabre made its first appearance in the 1998 World Championships as a demonstration sport, it became part of the Olympics in 2004.

How is it Played?

The main object of a fencing bout (what an individual "game" is called) is to effectively score 15 points (in direct elimination play) or five points (in preliminary pool play) on your opponent before he scores that number on you.

What Makes Fencing a Good Sport?

Many people who are reluctant to take part in team games enjoy the individuality of fencing. Success in competition will be due solely to their own efforts: matching their own skill, speed and intellect against those of an opponent; female competing equally with male.

Some enjoy the aesthetic pleasure of perfecting and performing disciplined movements correctly and studying the theory and language of fencing for Achievement Awards and Duke of Edinburgh Awards.

Regular fencing training provides an interesting aid to improved co-ordination and general fitness suitable for people of all ages. Fencing is an all-year-round activity: ideal for the wet, cold days of winter when outdoor sports are not so popular.

How Much Does it Cost?

It is not expensive to start fencing. Most clubs charge beginners a fee which includes the cost of tuition and hire of equipment.

After a few weeks new fencers may wish to purchase their own personal equipment and this may be done one item at a time.

A beginner's fencing kit (under-jacket, jacket, glove, weapon, mask) will cost about 180. You may see second-hand kit advertised in the bulletin board on this site.

If you want to purchase your own a list of suppliers is available, search for "Equipment Suppliers".

What Do I Need to Wear?

If you are turning up for the first time then all you really need to wear is a T-shirt, jogging or track suit bottoms and indoor trainers. We will provide the fencing clothing you need on top of this.

Fencing clothing includes the jacket, breeches, sous-plastron (underarm protector), glove, socks and mask. All equipment has to meet one of two European safety standards. Beginners equipment must be CEN 1 compliant, while international competition standard equipment must be CEN 2 compliant.

Does it Hurt?

Not if done properly. Although executed with appreciable energy, a good, clean fencing attack hurts no more than a tap on the shoulder.

The primary source of injury in fencing is from strained muscles and joints. Proper warm-up and stretching before fencing will minimise these occurrences.

Fencing is often said to be safer than golf. Whether or not this is true, it is an extraordinarily safe sport considering its heritage and nature.

How Long Does it Take to Become Good

There is a saying that it takes two lifetimes to master fencing. By the time anyone has come close to "mastering" the sport, they are long past their athletic prime. Some may feel that this is a drawback to the sport, but most fencers see it as a great strength: fencing never becomes dull or routine; there are always new skills to master, and new grounds to conquer.

You should be able to start competing after about 6 months, however you shouldn't expect to be beating all comers! Serious attempts at competing will be possible after 2-3 years, when the basic skills have been sufficiently mastered that the mind is free to consider strategy. A good level of skill can take a few years of regular practise and competition. Penetration of the elite ranks (eg. world cup, international 'A' level) demands three to five days per week of practise and competition, and usually at least 10 years of experience.

Progress can be faster or slower, depending on the fencer's aptitude, dedication, quality of instruction, and the age at which they begin. Rapid progress normally requires at least three practises per week, and regular competition against superior fencers. With the increasing emphasis on athleticism in the modern sport, fencers are getting younger, and the champions are getting to the podiums faster.

What Qualities Make a Good Fencer?

On the athletic side, speed and cardiovascular fitness rank foremost. Other traits that can be exploited are strength (for explosive power, not heavy handedness), manual dexterity, and flexibility. Quick reaction time is extremely important. On the mental side, a fencer must be adaptable and observant, and have a good mind for strategy and tactics. Psychologically, he or she must be able to maintain focus, concentration, and emotional level-headedness under intense conditions of combat.

As far as body type goes, it is always possible to adapt your style to take advantage of your natural traits. Even so, height seems to be the most useful attribute. Small or thin people are harder to hit in foil. A long reach helps in epée, and long legs are an asset in sabre.

It should be noted that left-handers seem to enjoy a slight advantage, especially against less experienced fencers. This may account for the fact that lefties make up 15% of novice fencers, but close to half of FIE world champions.

I Don't Understand the Scoring

Epée is probably the easiest to understand. If there is a hit anywhere on the body then it scores a point for the the person who made the hit. The first to the target number of hits (5 in the initial rounds, 15 in the later ones), or with the highest number of hits when time runs out, wins.

The hits are detected by an electronic scoring apparatus, when a hit is made, a coloured light will come on. If a red light comes on the person on the left has scored, if a green one comes on then the person on the right has made a hit. If both lights come on then both have scored.

One of the most difficult concepts to visualise in foil and sabre fencing is the rule of right-of-way. This rule was established to eliminate apparently simultaneous attacks by two fencers.

In essence, right-of-way is the differentiation of offence and defence, made by the referee. The difference is important only when both the lights from both sides go on at the same time in foil and sabre. When this happens, the winner of the point is the one who the referee determined was on offence at the time the lights went on. If in doubt as to who who has scored watch the referee's hands, he will raise his hands to indicate which way the hit should be scored.

For épée and sabre only the coloured lights are used. For foil the white lights will show if there is an off-target hit, i.e. not on the metallic, lamé jacket.

How Do I follow the Action?

For those new to fencing, it is difficult to follow the lightning speed of the fencers' actions. To become more comfortable in watching a fencing bout, focus on one fencer. The fencer being attacked defends himself by use of a parry, a motion used to deflect the opponent's blade, after which the defender can make a riposte, an answering attack. Thus, the two adversaries keep changing between offence and defence. Whenever a hit is made, the referee will stop the bout, describe the actions, and decide whether or not to award a hit.

In this picture the referee indicates that the fencer on the right made an attack on the fencer on the left. The hit landed and was awarded to the the fencer on the right.

Fencers seek to maintain a safe distance from each other, that is, out of range of the other's attack. Then, one will try to break this distance to gain the advantage for an attack. At times, a fencer will make a false attack to gauge the types of reactions by the opponent that can be deceived in the real attack.

As you become accustomed to the speed of the game, the tactics and strategies become more apparent, and you will gain a better understanding for the finesse and fascination of fencing!