What is Fencing?
Derived from the use of sword fighting during early wars, Fencing remains a popular martial art that is practised worldwide. The combat sport is especially known as an Olympic sport, being a part of the modern games since their formation.
The art consists of the use of swords in a point fighting style where the aim is to outpoint your opponent. Allowing practitioners to strategically plan and defend attacks as they aim towards victory.
- The origins and history of Fencing
- How Fencing spread across the world
- Basic principles and techniques of Fencing
- Different Fencing swords
- Equipment needed when you first start Fencing
- Fencing as a competitive and Olympic sport
- Why study Fencing over other martial arts?
- Benefits of Fencing
- How to get started and find a Fencing class!
The origins and history of Fencing
Early reports of Fencing
The actual origins and foundation of Fencing remains unknown. However, there are some events that Fencing may have stemmed from.
The earliest signs of Fencing date to Ancient Egypt in 1190 BCE. Where, in the temple of Medinet Habu, there is a depiction of a match taking place where the competitors are holding sticks with bronze plates attached to the end.
They are also wearing what looks to be masks to protect their faces and holding a shield in the other hand. Many people believe this was the start of duels with swords taking place.
With the use of masks evolving and being reintroduced further down the line, where they are used in modern Fencing today.
As we already know, Fencing was part of the first modern Olympic games in 1896. But was also a part of the original Olympic games that took place in 776 BCE. Sword fighting was common amongst both Ancient Greece and Rome.
It was in Ancient Rome where Fencing would start to become more popular. At around 648 BCE, Fencing was introduced to the Roman schools known as ‘ludi’.
Gladiators and legions were trained in the art. With beginners using a wooden sword called the ‘rudis’ and advanced practitioners using heavier swords.
After the fall of the Roman Empire at around 476 AD, Fencing no longer had this systematic format and masters implemented their own styles and ideas.
Fencing in the Middle Ages
Through the Middle Ages, criminals started to learn the art of the sword and use it for malicious purposes. Many places started to outlaw Fencing schools, with King Edward I passing an edict in 1286 warning the fencing teachers.
This did not have a major impact on Fencing schools as they remained popular at the time.
The establishment of armour made swords useless. Causing the development and production of heavier swords to break through the armour.
This would make swordsmanship more about strength rather than skill. Including elements of wrestling as swords became a defensive weapon.
Ironically, the introduction of gunpowder rendered armour purposeless too. People then re-trained themselves to use the sword as it became important not just in wars, but everyday life.
Emergence of modern day Fencing
In the 15th century, many guilds were being created as Fencing masters started to teach their own techniques and way of fighting. Modern Fencing started to emerge as it also became a popular hobby for men.
Spain was the first to be known for their fencers and they published the first two Fencing manuals in 1471 and 1474.
The 1540’s saw King Henry VIII support Fencing in England as he allowed Fencing masters to teach in the country.
The Italians would play a big part in using the point of the sword, rather than the edge. With the creation of the lightweight ‘Rapier’ the focus was shifted to skill and speed.
Wrestling techniques were now abandoned too. Due to the length of the sword, competitors had to keep at a distance. This made it harder for the practitioners to defend themselves as they had to use their other hand to parry strikes.
History of Foil Fencing
Coming to the end of the 17th Century, major changes were made to Fencing rules. King Louis XIV of France changed the clothing worn by Fencers. With the new uniform consisting of jackets with brocade, breaches and silk stockings.
The rapier didn’t fit well with the new attire so the lighter court sword was introduced. The new sword was better than the rapier as it was lighter and stronger allowing for Fencers to be both offensive and defensive.
The lightness of the court sword didn’t require both hands to hold. In one hand they would hold the court sword, which left the other hand free for balance rather than parrying strikes.
The foil was a version of the court sword that was initially developed for Fencers to train with. Rules were added to teach people the strategies used in this style of Fencing.
This included the likes of the rule ‘right of way’ as hits were only permitted to the body from the head to the neck. The French style would become popular throughout Europe, just like the Italian style had done before.
Foil Fencing had emerged and became the most popular style of Fencing.
French fencing master Texier de la Boëssièr, was accredited for the creation of the wire mask in 1780. This made Fencing much safer and more flexible.
History of Epée Fencing
Epée Fencing was introduced in France in the 1860s. This style was a result of people wanting to convey the conditions of a duel.
They believed Foil Fencing did not resemble a true duel and they wanted to remove the dangerous parts of the sport. Fencing masters taught students to aim for the hand or arm rather than the body to reduce the chances of injury.
History of Sabre Fencing
The final type of Fencing, Sabre, was introduced in the late 18th century by the Hungarians. They developed a curved sabre that was initially created for the cavalry.
Many countries adopted the weapon and created their own variations of it. Initially the sabre was a heavy weapon, but the Italians developed a much lighter sabre at the end of the 19th century that was ideal for duelling and Fencing.
Due to the continuous development of firearms, sword fighting became almost obsolete on the battlefield. This allowed Fencing to develop into more of a sport.
Being a part of the Modern Olympics since its creation in 1896. Since then, Fencing has been involved in all the Olympic games.
How Fencing spread across the world
Fencing was already popular amongst European countries. They would spread knowledge to one another to develop the sport to where it is today. Primarily, Spain, France and Italy played key roles in the creation of modern-day Fencing.
Fencing first became popular in America in the 1860s/1870s via French and Italian immigrants. There were Fencing masters who entered the country, immediately teaching their skills to interested Americans. The first fencing school was founded in 1874.
The German Turners are also credited for introducing Fencing to America. They included Fencing in their gymnastics training regime.
Post-civil war, many colleges and athletic clubs would implement this training regime into their own programmes.
The Amateur Fencers League of America was the first governing body that was founded in 1891. They held national championships from the year after. Two other governing bodies formed after this.
The Amateur Fencing Association of Great Britain in 1902. Then the Fédération Nationale des Sociétés d’Escrime et Salles d’Armes de France formed in 1906.
The Men’s Foil and Sabre competitions were a part of the first modern Olympic games in 1896. With the Men’s Epée competition joining the Olympics in 1900.
Due to disputes amongst countries regarding the rules, the Fédération Internationale d’Escrime was formed to settle the disagreements in 1913. This organisation is now the governing body for Fencing in the Olympics.
In 1955 the first foil event included an electric system, making it easier to keep track of scored points. The other styles would follow suit with electrical systems in place soon after.
The Women’s Foil competition would then join the Olympics in 1924, with the Women’s Epée competition following later in 1996.
Fencing is one of just 4 sports that has been involved in all modern Olympic games since 1896!
Basic principles and techniques of Fencing
Fencing can be tricky to understand especially for beginners. There are various moves to learn with many different terms for each one. We will break down the important aspects of Fencing for all practitioners:
- Stance- This is the most important fundamental element of fencing to learn when first starting. With a good stance you will be able to perform all techniques efficiently. If your stance is not correct, you will struggle to perform even the most basic moves. A typical Fencing stance would consist of your front foot facing forward, with the back foot at a 90-degree angle to it. Each foot should be around 90cm apart. When moving in your stance, to move forward you will move your front leg first. To move backwards you will move your backfoot first.
- Attack- Knowing how to attack is important in Fencing as this is how points are scored. There are many different types of attacks that you can learn in order to advance towards your opponent to score points. A famous attack is the lunge. This is where you extend your front leg forward, then whilst keeping your balance you will strike with your sword to the scoring area. Through constant training in Fencing, you will learn different ways to set up your attacks, allowing you to develop your own style, by seeing what techniques are effective for you.
Check out this video which shows you the correct fencing stance and how to lunge:
- Defence- Defence is as important as the attack as it stops your opponent from advancing and scoring points. With a good defence, you will be able to minimise your opponent’s attacks and have the ability to strike back with your own. A popular defensive move is parrying. There are many subcategories within this manoeuvre, but the overall move is to defend your opponent’s attack by using your blade.
This video goes through how to parry:
Different Fencing swords
As we now know, there are 3 different types of Fencing swords that are used in competition. The Foil, Epée and Sabre. All 3 swords are different to one another. Here is what you need to know about each sword:
The foil was the first modern fencing sword to emerge. It is the most popular style of Fencing across the world. The blade has a rectangular shape, being no longer than 90cm.
The overall sword itself does not pass the 110cm mark. The majority of fencers prefer to use a lightweight foil weighing around 350g.
However, the maximum weight of a foil sword can be up to 500g. The blade is quite flexible too which means it bends on impact, reducing the likelihood of injuries occuring.
Points can only be scored using the tip of the sword aiming at the torso area only (from the shoulders to groin area).
The right of way rule is used in this style of Fencing. This means that points aren’t always scored on who makes first contact. Rather the points are scored with the competitor that hits with priority.
The competitor that attacks first usually has the priority, so it is up to them to whether they can execute the attack correctly to score the points.
The epée sword is very similar to the foil. The main differences are that the epée has a triangular shaped blade and is slightly heavier, with the sword weighing no more than 770g.
The blade is also flexible with points only being scored with the tip of the sword. The scoring area is different to the foil, with competitors being able hit the whole body, from head to toe.
The right of way rule is not applicable in Epée Fencing, which means that whoever makes contact first will score the point. However, in this style there is an emphasis on minimum impact. This is taken into consideration when awarding points.
The sabre sword is a flat blade. Making it different to both the foil and epée as it isn’t as flexible. Competitors can score points with the edge as well as the point of the sword in Sabre Fencing.
The sword can weigh no more than 500g. The scoring area for Sabre Fencing is the body above the waist, including the head and arms (hands and below the waist are not permitted). The right of way rule also is in place for Sabre Fencing.
This video shows you the 3 different Fencing swords
Equipment needed when you first start Fencing
Due to Fencing including the use of swords, extra equipment is needed for safety. Many clubs are able to provide newcomers with the correct equipment to use at the training facility.
We would recommend you wear a t shirt and tracksuit bottoms (Militar clothing coming soon!) with indoor trainers on your first few sessions.
When it comes to purchasing your own equipment, this will depend on the school you attend. They may have different rules on what is regarded necessary to train in.
We would recommend you contact the school prior to purchasing equipment as they will be able to guide you on what you need.
Nevertheless, here is equipment that you will most likely need to purchase before training in Fencing:
- Fencing jacket- This jacket will make sure that your torso and arms are protected. Make sure to choose a jacket that is comfortable and well-made so that it protects you whilst training in Fencing.
- Fencing breeches- These are short trousers that end just below the knee. Providing your upper legs with extra protection
- Fencing mask- The mask again will protect your face from any potential injuries. It is important that the mask is well padded so that it protects your face. Make sure that the sizing is correct so that it is not tight or loose on your head.
- Fencing glove- This is one of the first purchases a Fencer will make. With a correct sized glove, you will be able to train effectively in Fencing practise. There is an option to purchase either a non-electric or electric glove. Depending on your intentions with Fencing, an electric glove is beneficial for use in competitions.
- Fencing underarm protector- This will provide you with extra protection. The underarm protector is like a half jacket worn underneath your fencing jacket. This is not a necessity for starters but can help prevent from injuries and is required in most competitions.
- Fencing chest protector (required for women)- This is mainly important for women to wear and is not necessary for men. Kids can also wear them too as they get used to the art. Again providing extra protection.
- Fencing weapon- Depending on the style you choose to practise in, you will need a sword to train with. Purchasing either a foil, epée or sabre sword. The school you intend to train with will be able to guide you on this in more detail.
This video goes through the equipment needed in Fencing in more detail
Fencing as a competitive and Olympic sport
As we know, Fencing is most known as an Olympic sport. It is the most prestigious tournament a fencer can win, though there are numerous tournaments on a national, continental and global level.
The overall rules and scoring system are the same amongst all formats. They key difference comes within the sword type and scoring area.
Fencing scoring areas
- Foil- Points can only be scored on the torso (shoulder to groin) area using the tip of the sword only.
- Epée- Points can be scored on the whole body, from head to toe using the tip of the sword only
- Sabre- Points can be scored on the body above the waist (including the head and arms, hands and waist not allowed) using either the tip or edge of the sword
Fencing bouts are scored based on the competitor being able to strike their opponent before they are struck themselves. Electrical systems are in place on both the swords and the scoring areas of the body.
This allows the spectators too determine who landed first when awarding points. Usually there are lights in the background, with the light turning on when a point is scored.
As we have gone through in the Different Fencing swords section, the ‘right of way rule’ is in place for both the foil and sabre competitions.
Again meaning that the competitor that hits with priority will score the point. The right of way rule is not applied to the sabre competition. Instead, the first competitor to strike will score the point.
Key rules of Fencing
Fencing bouts consist of 3 rounds that are each 3 minutes long. A winner can be announced if they are able to reach 15 points or have more points than their opponent after the contest.
Fencers will compete on what is known as the ‘piste’ which is up to 14m long and 2m wide. There are also team competitions in Fencing where there are 2 teams that are made up of 3 people, who compete against each other.
Bouts consist of 9 rounds that are 3 minutes each in total.
Penalties can also be awarded using these 3 cards:
- Yellow- a warning is issued to the competitor.
- Red- a point is awarded to the opponent.
- Black- the competitor has been disqualified.
These are some of the key rules in Fencing:
- Fencers must salute to each other and the referee before the bout and at the end
- Competitors must not leave the piste
- You are not allowed to turn your back on your opponent
- Fencers cannot use their non playing hand
- Competitors must not use their hands to cover the scoring area or barge their opponent
Check out this video to learn more about the rules of Fencing as a competitive sport:
Why study Fencing over other martial arts?
All martial arts are similar in the respect that they teach you ways of defending yourself and how to control both the mind and the body.
A key reason many people choose to study Fencing is due to its rich heritage as an Olympic sport. The combat sport has been involved in all the modern Olympics games since 1896, and even in the original Olympic games too!
Being a part of such a historic art can be a privilege and a great experience for many people. Swords are well known for their use in historic wars and duels.
People are able to experience this feeling through training in Fencing. With many practitioners dreaming of competing in the Olympics one day.
Though Fencing does not include any techniques without using a sword, it can be great for building up speed,reflexes and balance. Due to the nature of the art, Fencers must be fast so that they can counter and attack their opponents to score points.
Through constant training, practitioners will develop speed as their reflexes continue to improve. This can be a great skill that can be implied to other arts and anything else that requires good reflexes.
The combat sport is very strategic too, making sure that Fencers are thoughtful with their attacks. Everything happens so fast in Fencing, requiring competitors to make the right moves at the right time.
This improves a competitor’s ability to think and perform under pressure. Implementing this thought process will make competitors much more successful in their bouts but can also be applied to real life scenarios. Where they may need to analyse different situations to come up with appropriate solutions.
Benefits of Fencing
There are many benefits of training in Fencing. We will go through some of the key benefits:
- Learn self-defence using a sword- Fencing will teach you how to defend yourself using a sword and how to attack effectively too.
- Improve your strength and stamina- When training in the art it can be intense as fast movements are used in order to score points. This will help to improve both your strength and stamina the more practise you do. Wielding the sword will also improve your strength as you learn how to use it correctly.
- Improve your self-confidence- You will become more confident in yourself with regular training. As you start to develop your skills and ability, you will push yourself and see what you are truly capable off. This will make you feel a sense of accomplishment and this confidence can spread into everyday life.
- Improve your reflexes- Fencing requires you to be fast with your movements. Points are scored in a split second, so you will need to have good reflexes. The more you train in Fencing, the faster your reflexes will become, as you will condition your mind and body.
- Improve your mental health- Regular training can help to reduce stress you may have and uplift your sprits by providing you a way of expressing yourself through the martial art. It can help combat depression and anxiety.
- Anyone can practice Fencing- Fencing can be trained by people of most ages and abilities. It is a great way to express yourself in an art form!
How to get started and find a Fencing class!
Anyone can start Fencing, no matter how old or fit you are. Finding a Fencing class is a simple process! Make sure to check online for nearby Fencing schools in your area, as most will have an online presence.
Contact the school (if they have contact details) if you have any questions you want to ask. Find out which session you would like to attend by contacting them if possible. If not, then just turn up and see how the class is for yourself!
After going to a few classes and trying this martial art, Fencing may not be for you. Don’t worry, there are many other martial arts out there! Be sure to check out our ‘MARTIAL ARTS…WHAT ARE THEY?’ post to gain a good understanding of other popular martial arts too!
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We have gone through Fencing in this post. In our next few posts on the Martial Arts Series, we will cover other individual martial arts. Make sure you subscribe to our blog to keep up to date with the latest posts!