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New to Fencing

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What is Fencing?

Interested in the sport but don't know what it is all about?

Read on to find out more, learn how you can get involved or just how to watch if you see it on television

Why Fencing?

A good fencing match is a high-intensity combination of combat and ballet. The combatants push each other up and down a 14m strip with light flashing off their blades as they thrust, parry, attack and evade. While nobody jumps over rocks or retreats up stairs a la the Princess Bride, there is a great, dynamic aspect to the sport.

Fencing is a life-long sport that welcomes swashbucklers of all ages. You can learn it when you're young, or when you're young at heart. While most sports only reward speed or power, fencing lets you choose whether you are going to win by using your speed, or using your guile - which allows the parents to teach their children a thing or two while the children do the same to us.

For children especially the benefits of fencing go deep. By learning to fence a child learns self discipline, respect for others, independence and the importance of honesty and fair play. Such skills are transferable to any endeavour and help to create a well rounded and active person.

The social rewards of fencing should not be overlooked either. Club members often become friends and competitors find themselves meeting hundreds of people over the years as they travel to competitions locally, nationally, and internationally.

Finally, should all of the above fall to the wayside, fencing is always fun! Fantastic in bridging gaps between sexes, sizes, ethnicity and personality (as is seen when the young or elderly defeat an opponent with technique and timing when confronted with brawn and bulk!). Fencing is a great solution to balancing a person's mind, body and spirit in order to temper success!

The first modern Olympic games featured foil and sabre fencing for men only. épée 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.

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 Do I Get Started?

Find a club that does beginners courses or sessions. You can find a list of clubs and the contacts for them from the "Clubs" menu at the top of the page.

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

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. The club will provide the fencing clothing you need on top of this.

Fencing clothing includes the jacket, breeches, 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.

What Qualities Make a Good Fencer?

Coordination, speed, agility and self-assurance are just a few of the qualities this sport requires of its participants. Fencing's intensity and demands for physical and mental acuity are a natural result of its history. And while fencing has morphed from combat to sport, these skills are a large part what make fencing such an exhilarating endeavour. A successful fencer must be capable of mounting powerful driving attacks or conversely, of making subtle and crafty defenses, all within the space of a few seconds. Speed and strength will only take an athlete so far in fencing: intellect is paramount. A good fencer must be clever and with unwavering concentration able to conceive and execute calculated moves quickly.

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 strong 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.

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 (e.g. 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.

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.

 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.

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!

Read 1600 times Last modified on Thursday, 05 December 2020 10:11

Coach at Manchester Fencing Club  and Salle Kiss.

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