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What is Fencing?


2007 European Fencing Championships
Here's a look at what competitors look like at the international level.

Fencing is like playing chess at 100 miles per hour
If sport mimics life, then fencing attempts to satisfy one of the primordial instincts -- the urge to risk it all with weapon in hand. If you're looking for a sport that involves speed, agility, and fitness combined with chess-like strategic thinking, then fencing is for you.

The object for each weapon is the same: Touch your opponent without being touched. Although the concept is simple, more often than not, scoring a touch involves complex tactics, combined with lighting fast execution.

The methods of attack and defense have been dissected and analyzed so that the mastery of the sport, at the highest level, requires fluency in a complicated vocabulary of movements invented mainly by European fencing masters. But, even after some basic instruction people of all skill levels can enjoy fencing for a lifetime.

The Concept of Modern Fencing
In modern fencing there are three weapons: foil, épée and sabre. Each weapon has its own style and set of rules. The rules, particularly for foil and sabre, are historically based on training for the duel. What would you do if someone attacked you with a sharp sword? Your first concern would be to defend -- to save yourself. After avoiding being hit, you would in turn try to hit your opponent. This is known as gaining the "right-of-way."

Simply stated, the attacker has the right to hit until the defender blocks or parries the attack, making the attack miss. The defender then gains the right to hit by returning an offensive thrust or cut.

The Foil Foil target area
The foil is the modern version of the court sword and was traditionally used for training. It has a flexible rectangular blade (approximately 35 inches in length) and weights just over a pound. Touches are scored with the tip of the blade and must land on the torso of the body.

Foil Scoring: With electric scoring equipment the fencer's valid target area is covered with a metallic cloth vest. When an opponent's tip hits this vest and the tip depresses it completes an electrical circuit. This sets off a light and a buzzer on the scoring machine against the one who is hit. A colored light signifies that the valid target (the metallic vest) was hit; a white light signifies that the hit landed outside the target area. When a light comes on, the director halts the bout -- even though no point is awarded for an off-target hit. If colored lights go on for both fencers, the director must decide who gets the point based on "right-of-way."

You will remember the attacker has the right-of-way until the other fencer blocks or parries the attack. The defender then gains the right-of-way by making a return thrust also called the riposte.

The Épée Epee target area
The épée (pronounced eh-pay) is the descendant of the dueling sword and is similar in length to the foil and sabre (about 27 ounces) but is heavier. It has a larger guard than a foil, to protect the hand from a valid hit, and a stiffer, triangular, blade. Like foil, points may only be scored with the tip of the blade. The entire body, from the tip of the toes to the top of the head, is valid target.

Épée Scoring: Unlike electric foil and sabre scoring, there is no need for a special metallic vest or jacket as the entire body is valid target. Touches are registered electrically when the tip of the blade depresses and completes the electrical circuit, triggering a colored light and a buzzer on the machine against the one who is hit. There is no rule of "right-of-way" in épée. The fencer who hits first gets a point and if both fencers hit at the same time, or within 1/25th of a second, both score a point. In bouts of five touches, if the score is tied and there is no time remaining in the bout, both fencers lose -- a "double defeat."

The Sabre Sabre target area
The sabre is the modern version of the slashing and thrusting cavalry sword. It is similar in length and weight to the foil. It has, however, a triangular blade and a guard that also covers the side of the hand. Touches are scored with cuts as well as the tip of the blade. The target is based on what was available to hit when a cavalry soldier was mounted on a horse. All cuts or thrusts must land on a part of the body above the top of the legs, including the torso, arms and head, except for the back of the hand and the fingers of the weapon hand.

Sabre Scoring: Sabre is the last weapon to be fitted for electric scoring. As with foil, the fencer's valid target area is covered with a metallic cloth jacket. The fencer's mask is also electrically conductive and is connected to the metallic jacket with a cord. When an opponent's blade hits the jacket, with either the point or the edge, an electrical circuit sets off a light and a buzzer on the scoring machine against the one who is hit. Mere contact (i.e., a blade just sliding along the jacket) is not enough to register a touch. The colored light signifies that valid target, the jacket or mask, was hit. Anytime a light comes on, the director halts the bout and awards, if appropriate, a point. If the colored lights go on for both fencers, the director must decide who gets the point based on "right-of-way."

Remember, the attacker has the right-of-way until the defender blocks or parries the attack. The defender can then gain the right-of-way with a riposte, the response attack after a parry. The actions in sabre differ from those in foil and épée because of the cutting motions. The game appears much faster with more running actions. Watch only one fencer and look for "stop hits," those cuts made as the opponent is preparing to make an attack and all of the cuts to the mask, chest, arm, wrist, flank and stomach area.

The Bout
Simple stated, a match between two fencers. The bout begins with the director saying: "On Guard ... Ready?... Fence!" In competition fencers have to score a total five touches to win a bout in the initial pool rounds or 15 touches in each direct elimination round.

The Strip or Piste
The area for fencing bouts is the "strip" or "piste," measuring 14 meters (about 46 feet) long and two meters (about 6 feet) wide. Fencers must be on the strip to score touches. There are warning areas at the end of each strip. If a fencer goes off the end of the strip with both feet, this gives the opponent a point, even if there is no actual hit.

How to Follow the Action
The action of fencing is difficult to follow at first because of the speed. To become more comfortable in watching a bout, focus on one fencer. If this one is being attacked, the fencer must defend by a "parry," a motion to block the opponent's blade, after which the defender can make a "riposte." Whenever a hit is made, the director will call "halt" to stop the bout. The director will then describe the action and, if appropriate, award a point. Fencers must try to maintain a safe distance from each other. They want to stay out of range of their opponent’s attack. To overcome this, they must "break" this distance and be close enough to score a touch. Fencers will often fake attacks to gauge the reactions of the opponent so they can be deceived in the real attack. As you get used to the speed of the game, strategies become more apparent. With more experience you will gain more understanding of the intelligence and athleticism of this original Olympic sport.

Basic Skills
The sport involves three skills: blade work, footwork, and tactics. Physical size is not an important factor due to the nature of the game and the variety of ways in which touches can be scored.

Blade Work: Blade work is perhaps the most difficult of the essential skills to master. It permits a skilled fencer to deceive his opponent and reach the target area despite attempts of an opponent to defend themselves.

Footwork: Footwork, the most physically demanding of the skills, is one which permits a fencer to move into appropriate positions and distances that will allow him to effectively utilize blade work to touch the opponent's target area and allow him to get away from an opponent's attack.

Tactics: Tactics consist of the plans and counter plans utilized by fencers to coordinate use of blade work and footwork against the fencing style of opponents. Fencing is like playing a physical game of chess. In theory, for every attack there is a defense followed by an attack. So, in theory, if you had two perfect fencers, they would never score on each other.

The Officials
Two types of officials are present at competitions: the directors and the bout committee. The director describes the actions made by the fencers and awards the touches based on the rules of priority and registration of hits on the scoring machine. The bout committee is responsible for seeding the participants, establishing the format of the competition and resolving any rules disputes.

The Rules
The rules are divided into four basic categories.
1. The strip rules dealing with the positions of the fencers.
2. The rules of right-of-way, which determine priority if both fencers make a touch during the same action.
3. The penalty rules where touches may be awarded to an opponent if a fencer commits a fault. More severe sanctions may be awarded for serious offenses.
4. The organizational rules which regulate the manner of conducting a competition.

Strip Rules: All fencing actions take place on the fencing strip. The director will stop the bout each time a fencer crosses the lateral boundaries of the strip with one or both feet, or passes an opponent while remaining on the strip. When a fencer leaves the strip with one foot, the director will center that fencer on the strip with the center point of the action remaining as it was before the infraction. When a fencer leaves the strip with both feet, the director will center the fencer on the strip at the point of action, but then the opponent will gain one meter from that spot. If a fencer intentionally leaves the strip to avoid getting hit, that fencer is given a yellow card (warning) or a red card, which means his opponent is awarded a touch. When a fencer crosses his own end line, his opponent is awarded a touch.

Right-of-Way (Foil and Sabre): The rules of right-of-way are used to judge the priority of hits made in foil and sabre fencing. Right-of-way is based on the generalized theory that an individual being threatened with a real sword will first defend himself before beginning his own offensive action. The following is the order of priority: extended arm, point of the weapon pointing at the valid target of the opponent and point moving towards target. These three things must happen prior to the initiation of the opponent's attack for proper right-of-way to occur.

The Attack: An attack is an offensive action made with the arm extending and the point threatening the valid target area of the opponent. The attack continues to have priority until it misses or the opponent defends with a parry action.

The Parry and Riposte: A parry is a defensive action made by deflecting the blade of the attacker away from the target. After successfully parrying the attack, the defender will attempt to score a touch with a riposte. The riposte is counter attack action, which must be preceded by a parry.

Counter Attack: A defender may also respond to an attack by making a counter attack. Although the counter attack is technically executed in the same way as an attack, the counter attacker does not initiate the action, but is merely responding to the attacker. The counter attack does not have priority over the attack. Therefore if both fencers hit a target area, the fencer with the initial attack will have priority over the fencer attempting the counter attack.

Épée is not governed by the rules of right-of-way. The first fencer to hit the target area (the entire body) scores the touch. If both fencers hit within 1/25th of a second, both fencers will be awarded a point.

Penalties: Two simple penalties are interdependent. When a fencer receives a warning for any infraction, a yellow card is shown to that fencer. For every infraction that fencer receives after that, a red card is shown to the fencer and his opponent receives a point. The fencer can lose a bout because of penalty points. Severe penalties can bring about a red card without the fencer receiving a yellow warning card first. There are also special penalties that will bring up a black card, which causes expulsion from the tournament.