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[FAQ - Part I] [FAQ - Part II] [FAQ - Part III]

Fencing FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

This is a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) with answers, compiled for the UseNet newsgroup rec.sport.fencing. It is intended to reduce repetitive discussions on the Net by addressing commonly raised topics. This document is maintained by Morgan Burke ([email protected]). Contributions, corrections, and suggestions are welcome.

Most of the questions and answers pertain to FIE (Olympic) Fencing; Japanese fencing (kendo, kenjustsu, iaido, etc.) is treated in a separate FAQ list ("Japanese Sword Arts") that can occasionally be found in the newsgroups rec.sport.fencing or rec.martial-arts, or on the IAIDO-L mailing list (see section 3.8 for details). The Japanese Sword Arts FAQ is maintained by Neil Gendzwill ([email protected]).

The Fencing FAQ is presented in three parts:

  1. GENERAL: common questions about starting fencing, training, and rules of competition
  2. EQUIPMENT: fencing equipment, maintenance, and troubleshooting
  3. REFERENCE: organizations, suppliers, reading materials, net resources, glossary, etc.

All parts can be found on the UseNet newsgroups rec.sport.fencing, rec.answers, or news.answers. Otherwise, consult section 3.8 for information on finding archived copies of this document. An HTML version is available on request.


PART 1 : General 

General: 
1.1 What sports and martial arts comprise fencing?  
1.2 How did fencing originate? 
1.3 How is modern fencing different from the "real thing"? 
1.4 Which is the best weapon? 
1.5 Is fencing going to be eliminated from the Olympics? 

Getting Started: 
1.6 Does it hurt? 
1.7 What is the best weapon for a beginner to start with? 
1.8 How long does it take to become good? 
1.9 What qualities make a good fencer? 
1.10 How much does it cost to get involved in fencing? 
1.11 How do I find a good fencing club? 

Training: 
1.12 What kind of cross-training will help my fencing? 
1.13 How can I improve my technique without the help of a coach? 

Regulations: 
1.14 What is right of way? 
1.15 What constitutes an attack? 
1.16 What constitutes a parry? 
1.17 What constitutes a point-in-line? 
1.18 What is the scoop on "flicks" and "whips"? 
1.19 What are the latest rule changes? 


1.1 What sports and martial arts comprise fencing? 

The Olympic sport of fencing is comprised of three weapons: foil, epee, and sabre. All are fenced on a long rectangular strip, and electronic scoring aids are normally used to assist in the detection of touches. The rules governing these three weapons are determined by the FIE (Federation Internationale d'Escrime). Briefly, the FIE weapons are described as follows:

Foil: Descended from the 18th century small sword, the foil has a thin, flexible blade with a square cross-section and a small bell guard. Touches are scored with the point on the torso of the opponent, including the groin and back. Foil technique emphasizes strong defense and the killing attack to the body.

Epee: Similar to the dueling swords of the mid-19th century, epees have stiff blades with a triangular cross section, and large bell guards. Touches are scored with the point, anywhere on the opponent's body. Unlike foil and sabre, there no rules of right-of-way to decide which attacks have precedence, and double hits are possible. Epee technique emphasizes timing, point control, and a good counter-attack.

Sabre: Descended from dueling sabres of the late 19th century, which were in turn descended from naval and cavalry swords, sabres have a light, flat blade and a knuckle guard. Touches can be scored with either the point or the edge of the blade, anywhere above the opponent's waist. Sabre technique emphasizes speed, feints, and strong offense.

The most popular of eastern fencing techniques is kendo, the Japanese "Way of the Sword". Kendo is fought with a bamboo shinai, intended to resemble a two-handed Japanese battle sword. Combatants wear armour, and strike to the top or sides of the head, the sides of the body, the throat, or the wrists. Accepted technique must be observed, and judges watch for accuracy, power, and spirit. See the Japanese Sword Arts FAQ for more information.

Other martial arts that include elements of swordsmanship are:

Aikido -- self defense against armed and unarmed attackers. Includes using and defending oneself against Japanese sword techniques.
Arnis, Escrima, Kali -- Phillipino stick and knife disciplines.
Iaido -- the Japanese art of the sword draw (also Iaijutsu and batto-jutsu, more combat-oriented variants of the same).
Jogo do Pau -- a Portuguese stick-fighting discipline.
Jojutsu -- a Japanese stick-fighting discipline.
Kalaripayitt -- includes sword and weapons techniques from south India.
Kenjutsu -- the unadulterated Japanese martial art of the sword.
Krabi Krabong -- a Thai martial art that includes many sword forms.
Kumdo -- A Korean variant of Kendo.
Kung-fu -- a Chinese martial art that includes many sword techniques.
La Canne -- French Boxing, with a single-handed stick, using rules similar to classical fencing.
Le Baton -- similar to La Canne, but with a longer, 2-handed stick.
Maculele -- Afro-Brazilian machete forms, related to Capoeira.
Mensur -- German fraternity "duelling", with schlagers.
Modern Pentathlon -- the "soldier's medley", a sport that recreates demands placed on a pre-20th century military messenger: running, swimming, shooting, equestrian jumping, and epee fencing.
Pentjak Silat -- Indonesian arts that include sword and stick forms.
Single Stick -- an ancestor of sabre fencing, fought with a basket-hilted wooden rod.
SCA duello -- rapier-like fencing in the round, with off-hand=20 techniques. Additional info on the SCA can be found in the newsgroup rec.org.sca.
SCA heavy lists -- medieval-style heavy combat, with rattan weapons, armour, and shields. Additional info on the SCA can be found in the newsgroup rec.org.sca.
Shinkendo -- real-sword-oriented variant of Kendo.
Tai Chi -- another Chinese martial art that includes many sword techniques.

Lastly, it should be pointed out that stick/baton fighting, shield use, and related infantry tactics continue to be a part of modern riot police training. 

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1.2 How did fencing originate?

Sword fighting as sport has existed since ancient Egypt, and has been practiced 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 dueling forms that evolved from 16th century rapier combat.

Although rapier combat had a nominal military role (for thrusting into the chinks of heavy armour), it was most popular amongst civilians who used it for self-defense and dueling. Rapiers were edged, but the primary means of attack was the thrust. Rapier fencing spread from Italy to Spain and northwest Europe, in spite of the objections of masters such as George Silver who preferred traditional cutting weapons such the English long sword.

The Spanish school, under masters such as Narvaez and Thibault, became a complicated and mystical affair whose geometrical theories required much practice to master. Italian masters like Agrippa and Capo Ferro developed a more pragmatic school in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, introducing innovations such as linear fencing and the lunge.

By the 18th century, the rapier had evolved to a simpler, shorter, and lighter design that was popularized in France as the small sword, or court sword. Although the small sword often had an edge, it was only to discourage the opponent from grabbing the blade, and the weapon was used exclusively for thrusting. The light weight made a more complex and defensive style possible, and the French masters developed a school based on subtlety of movement, double-time parries, and complex attacks. When buttoned with a leather safety tip that resembled a flower, the small sword was known as le fleuret, and was identical in use to the modern foil (still known as le fleuret in French). Indeed, the French small sword school forms the basis of most of modern fencing theory.

By the mid-19th century, dueling was in decline as a means of settling disputes, partially because victory could lead to a jail term for assault or manslaughter. Emphasis shifted to defeating the opponent without necessarily killing him, and less fatal dueling forms evolved using the dueling sword, or epee de terrain, an unedged variant of the small sword. Later duels often ended with crippling thrusts to the arm or leg, and fewer legal difficulties for the participants. This is the basis of modern epee fencing.

Cutting swords had been used in bloodsports such as backsword prizefights at least as far back as the 17th century. Broadswords, sabres, and cutlasses were used extensively in military circles, especially by cavalry and naval personnel, and saw some dueling application in these circles as well. Training was performed with wooden weapons, and stick fighting remained popular until Italian masters formalized sabre fencing into a non-fatal sporting/training form with metal weapons in the late 19th century. Early sport sabres were significantly heavier than the modern sport sabre and necessitated a strong style with the use of moulinets and other bold movements. As with thrusting swords, the sabre evolved to lighter, less fatal dueling forms such as the Italian sciabola di terro and the German schlager. Hungarian masters developed a new school of sabre fencing that emphasized finger control over arm strength, and they dominated sabre fencing for most of the 20th century.

Dueling faded away altogether in the early 20th century. A couple of noteworthy duels were fought over disputes that arose during Olympic games in the 1920s. According to E.F. Morton (A-Z of Fencing) the last widely publicized formal duel occurred in France in 1954, ending with a scratch to the arm. German fraternity dueling (mensur) persisted longer, and may still occur with some frequency.

The first modern Olympic games featured foil and sabre fencing for men only. Epee was introduced in 1900. Single stick was featured in the 1904 games. Epee 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. Disruptions in prevailing styles have accompanied the introduction of electric judging, most recently transforming sabre fencing. Foil fencing experienced similar upheavals for a decade or two following the introduction of electric judging, which were further complicated by the new, aggressive, athletic style coming out of eastern Europe at the time.

Women's foil was first contested in the 1924 Olympic games, and Women's epee was only contested for the first time in 1996, although it has been part of the World Championships since 1989. Women's sabre has a small amount of grassroots support, but has not made much impact yet on the national and international scenes. 

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1.3 How is modern fencing different from the "real thing"?

Different people mean different things by "real" fencing.

For some, "real" fencing is a duel with sharp swords and lives on the line. Other than the fear/courage factor, the primary technical difference here is that with live blades you only need to hit your opponent once, and therefore only require one good move (which explains the prevalence of "secret thrusts" in the bad old days). The sport fencer, by comparison, has to hit his opponent as many as 15 times (even more if the officiating is poor!), and so requires considerably more depth than the duellist. On the other hand, the sport fencer takes many more defensive risks, since he has up to 15 lives to work with.

Some purists will equate "real" fencing with classical fencing, ie. the prevalent styles of the traditional French and Italian schools of fencing that predominated before electric fencing was popularized. By comparison, modern fencing is more mobile and athletic, while classical fencers were known for their more sophisticated phrasing and bladework.

A few fans of heavy metal think real fencing is only done with big, strong swords, and that light duelling-style weapons are toys. Historically, however, lighter thrusting swords evolved because they were considerably more deadly than heavy cutting weapons. Many masters of the 17th century disliked the new schools of fencing precisely because they were too murderous. However, the light duelling sabres that arose near the end of the 19th Century did lack offensive punch on the cut compared with their more military antecedents. Military sabre fencing required more arm strength, and the use of moulinets.

Lastly, it just seems apparent to some that sport fencing has evolved away from its bloody origins. Technically, this is untrue, at least for the thrusting weapons; the theory, methods, and techniques of fencing have not seen significant innovation since at least the last century. The modern fencer remains well-equipped, skill-wise, to fight a duel. Tactically and psychologically, however, the sport is a vastly different world from the duel. Obviously there is no real danger to getting hit, and with up to 15 hits needed to secure victory, there often isn't even much figurative danger. In addition, since the quality of a hit (eg. fatal vs. serious wound vs. minor scratch) is immaterial, fencers will naturally prefer an easy "wounding" hit over a difficult "fatal" one, and glancing hits will often win out over strong thrusts.

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  1.4 Which is the best weapon?

Such a question is an open invitation to religious warfare. Everybody loves to participate, but nothing is ever settled.

If the question means "what kind of fencing is the most fun?" then the answer is: it depends what aspects of fencing you enjoy the most. If you are fascinated by technique, bladework, and tactics, you will probably get a lot of satisfaction from foil fencing. More visceral fencers who want to experience the adrenaline rush of a fast, agressive sword fight will want to try some sabre. Most epee fencers consider themselves practical, no-nonsense sword fighters who rely on as few artificial rules as possible. Enthusiasts of more medieval combat styles, involving armour and heavy weapons, should consider joining the SCA or a kendo dojo.

On the other hand, if the question means "which weapon is the most deadly?" the answer will depend on a lot of factors, not the least of which are the skill of the combatants, the presence of armour, the military and cultural context, and the rules of the fight (i.e.. is this a street fight, a gentlemen's duel, or open field warfare?). Most swords are highly optimized for performance in a specific environment, and will not perform well outside it. Comparing two swords from completely different historical contexts is therefore extremely difficult, if not downright silly.

Then again, perhaps the question means "which style of fencing is the most realistic?" It must be said that questions of realism have little relevance to an activity that has almost no practical application in the modern world other than sport and fitness. Historically, however, epees have the closest resemblance (among FIE weapons) to real dueling swords, and the rules closely parallel those of actual duels (sometimes being fought to only a single point). Other martial arts with a high realism factor include kenjutsu and some aspects of SCA fighting. 

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  1.5 Is fencing going to be eliminated from the Olympics?

Olympic fencing appears to be safe for Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000, and has even been expanded to include Women's Epee. Since the IOC perpetually changes its roster of Olympic sports, nothing is certain beyond then. Although fencing is one of only four sports to have been involved in every modern Olympic Games since their inception in 1896, it has been mentioned in the past as one of the disciplines that may be eliminated from future Games.

According to Gilbert Felli, Sports Director of the International Olympic Committee, the IOC plans to refine future games in various ways, including:

  • limiting the number of athletes to 15000
  • increasing participation by women
  • eliminating "so-called artificial team events"
  • limiting sports of a similar type
  • modernizing the Olympic program
  • encouraging sports that provide a good television spectacle

Fencing recently underwent numerous revisions to its rules and structure to improve its value as a (televised?) spectator sport, perhaps in the hopes of improving its Olympic viability. 

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1.6 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 force of the blow is normally absorbed by the flex of the blade. Reckless and overly aggressive fencers can occasionally deliver painful blows, however. Fencing *is* a martial art, so you should expect minor bruises and welts every now and again. They are rarely intentional. The most painful blows tend to come from inexperienced fencers who have not yet acquired the feel of the weapon.

The primary source of injury in fencing is from pulled muscles and joints. Proper warm-up and stretching before fencing will minimize these occurences.

There is a risk of being injured by broken weapons. The shards of a snapped blade can be very sharp and cause serious injury, especially if the fencer doesn't immediately realize his blade is broken, and continues fencing. Always wear proper protective gear to reduce this risk. FIE homologated jackets, britches, and masks are ideal, as they are made with puncture-resistant fabrics such as kevlar. If you cannot afford such extravagances, use a plastron (half-jacket worn beneath the regular fencing jacket), and avoid old and rusty masks. Always wear a glove that covers the cuff, to prevent blades from running up the sleeve.

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. 

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1.7 What is the best weapon for a beginner to start with?

Foil is the most common starter weapon. It is an excellent weapon to begin with if you have no preferences or want to learn generalized principles of sword fighting. Transitions to the other weapons from foil are relatively straight forward. Foil is an abstracted form of fencing that emphasizes proper defense, and cleanly executed killing attacks. Historically it was a training weapon for the small sword, so it is well suited for the purposes of learning. However, it is far from a simple weapon, and many experienced fencers return to foil after trying the others.

Sabre can sometimes be an effective starter weapon, for a few reasons. Like foil, it has rules of right-of-way to emphasize proper defense, and its de-emphasis of point attacks can be a relief to a beginner who doesn't yet have much point control. Also, in some areas it may still be possible to compete in dry sabre competitions, meaning that it can be the cheapest of all weapons to compete in (although electric sabre is definitely the most expensive weapon). However, sabre differs from foil and epee in a few key respects that can reduce its effectiveness as a starter weapon if the fencer plans to try the others in the future. Among these differences are the aforementioned de-emphasis of point attacks, and a different sense of timing and distance.

Epee is sometimes used as a starter weapon for two reasons. First, the rules are simple and easy to grasp, and second, the equipment costs are lower, since no lame' is required. However, the apparent simplicity of the sport can obscure its subtleties to the beginner, and make progress difficult later on. Furthermore, the lack of right-of-way in epee can make transitions to the other two weapons difficult, if put off for too long. 

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1.8 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.

A dedicated novice who practices twice per week will be ready to try low-level competition in 3-6 months. Competition at this point should be viewed as a learning aid, not as a dedicated effort to win.

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 moderate level of skill (eg. C classification) can take 3-5 years of regular practice and competition.

Penetration of the elite ranks (eg. world cup, A classification) demands three to five days per week of practice and competition, and usually at least 10-15 years of experience.

Progress can be faster or slower, depending on the fencer's aptitude, dedication, and quality of instruction. Rapid progress normally requires at least three practices per week, and regular competition against superior fencers.

The average world champion is in his late 20s to early 30s and began fencing as a child. 

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1.9 What qualities make a good fencer?

There are many.

On the athletic side, speed and endurance must rank foremost. Other traits that can be exploited are strength (for explosive speed, not heavy handedness), precision, and flexibility. Quick reaction time=20 is extremely important.

On the intellectual side, a good mind for strategy and tactics is essential. The ability to quickly size up your opponent and adapt your style accordingly is essential.

Psychologically, a fencer must be able to maintain focus, concentration, and emotional level-headedness under intense conditions of combat. Stress management, visualization, and relaxation techniques are all helpful to putting in winning performances.

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 useful in epee, but not necessarily in sabre. Small or thin people are harder to hit in foil. A long reach helps in epee, and long legs are an asset in foil.

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

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1.10 How much does it cost to get involved in fencing?

Beginner's dry fencing setup: about $100 - $200 US
Includes: cotton jacket, glove, dry weapon, mask

FIE Competition setup: about $500 - $1000 US
Includes: FIE 800N jacket & britches, FIE 1600N mask, at least 2 electric weapons, body cord, socks, glove, shoes, lame (foil & sabre only), sensor (sabre only).
Note: while FIE-certified equipment is recommended both in terms of safety and quality, clothing costs can be as much as halved by purchasing regular cotton or synthetic knits. Do not expect such equipment to be accepted at national or international levels of competition, however. Always wear a plastron when using non-homologated fencing jackets.

Club costs vary, but are usually on the order of $50-$100 per year for each day per week of fencing. Many clubs will provide or rent equipment to beginners.

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1.11 How do I find a good fencing club?

Start with your local Provincial or Divisional fencing association. If you don't know how to find them, contact your national fencing body (see section 3.1). Your national body may maintain a list of known fencing clubs in the country. Otherwise, your local association will be able to tell you about recognized clubs in your area. Many universities and colleges also sponsor fencing clubs and teams that will often accept non-students as members. You might also check out courses or camps offered by local community centers.

Fencers with Web access can find a list of U.S. fencing clubs at http://www.fencing.net/ or at http://www.usfa.org/ and a list of Canadian Fencing clubs at http://www.fencing.ca/fra_dire.htm.

Once you have a list of potential clubs, you will want to evaluate them and your needs. Desirable qualities vary, depending on your skill level and what you want to get out of fencing. Ask the following questions when selecting your club (if you're not sure what you want, "yes" is a good answer to all these questions): Does it have an active beginners' program? Are there enough fencers of your own skill level? Are there some fencers above your skill level? If you don't have your own equipment, does the club provide it? Does the club have ample electric scoring boxes and reels? Does the club emphasize the same weapons that you are interested in? Do club members compete regularly? Does the club have a master or coach? Has he/she had many competitive successes either fencing or coaching? Can you get individual lessons and instruction? At no extra cost?

Lastly, atmosphere is important to any social endeavour. Choose a club that makes you feel comfortable and relaxed without sacrificing the athletic spirit that is essential to progress.

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1.12 What kind of cross-training will help my fencing?

The best training for fencing is fencing. Fencing development is=20 asymmetrical and few other sports use the same muscle groups, so=20 this is a difficult question whose answer depends largely on what=20 aspect of your training you really want to focus on.

Cardiovascular fitness and leg strength always help, so anything that enhances these will be beneficial. Cycling, swimming, aerobics, and skating are good examples. Running, sprinting, soccer, basketball,=20 and similar sports can also be helpful, although some athletes dislike the stresses they put on the knees. Racquet sports like tennis, badminton, squash, racquetball, and table tennis are also excellent, and will exercise your weapon arm in addition to your legs. Circuit or period training (short bursts of high-heart-rate exercise followed by brief recovery periods) has been put forward as particularly relevant to the demands of fencing.

Many martial arts have physical and mental demands that are similar to fencing, and can improve both your fitness and your intellectual approach to the sport. Technique and tactics very rarely translate, however.

Weight training can help, if done properly, but the athlete must remember that flexibility, speed, and technique are more important than raw strength, although proper strength training (especially of the lower body and legs) can improve speed significantly. Otherwise, endurance training should have priority over bodybuilding. Excessive weight training of the upper body can adversely affect point control, according to some masters, who prefer weighted wrist straps worn during regular practice.

Some fencers maintain that juggling improves reactions, hand-eye coordination, and use of peripheral vision.

Many coaches and fencers suggest occasional fencing or workouts with your opposite hand, both to improve skill and balance your muscular development.

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1.13 How can I improve my technique without the help of a coach?

It is very easy to acquire bad habits and poor technique if you do not have the guidance of a knowledgable fencing master, coach, or fellow fencer. If you are serious about improving your fencing, quality coaching is always your best investment. However, a disciplined fencer still has options if decent instruction is not available on a regular basis.

Firstly, a solid knowledge of fencing theory and regulations is a must. The freelance fencer should study the FIE Rules of Competition and a good fencing manual (see Section 3.3). The fencer should test and apply this knowledge by presiding whenever possible. An appreciation of good fencing style is also essential, so that the fencer can readily identify weaknesses in his own and other fencers' techniques. Observation and comparison of skilled or accomplished fencers will develop this ability. Training videotapes and videotapes of high-level competitions (see Section 3.6) are also helpful in this regard.

The freelance fencer must be open-minded and critical of his own technique, so that he can recognize problems before they develop into habits. Discussion of his weaknesses with training opponents will help him clarify the areas that need work. If possible, he should videotape his bouts and review them to spot defects in his tactics and technique.

The fencer should seek out opponents who will strenuously test his weaknesses. More experienced fencers, left-handers, those whose tactics are particularly effective, and even those with annoying (ie. difficult) styles should be courted on the practice strip. When fencing less skilled opponents, the fencer should restrict his tactics to a small set that require practice, and resist the temptation to open up if he should start losing.

The opportunity to participate in footwork and line drills should never be passed up. When he can find an agreeable partner, the fencer can do more personalized drills to exercise his weak areas. (Of course it is courteous to indulge the needs of one's partner when he in turn works on his own training.)

Lastly, the fencer should remain aware of his bout psychology and mental state when fencing, and try to cultivate the mindset that in his experience produces good fencing.

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1.14 What is right-of-way?

Right-of-way is the set of rules used to determine who is awarded the point when there is a double touch in foil or sabre (ie. both fencers hit each other in the same fencing time). It is detailed in the FIE Rules of Competition, Articles 232-237 (foil) and 416-423 (sabre).

The core assumption behind right-of-way is that a fencing bout is always in one of three states:

  • nothing significant is happening
  • the fencers are conceiving and executing their actions simultaneously
  • one fencer is controlling the action and tempo and the other is trying to gain control.

Since no points will be scored in the first situation, we can ignore it. In the second situation, the fencers' actions have equal significance, and it is impossible to award a touch. Both touches will be annulled and the bout will be resumed where it was stopped.

The third situation is the tricky one. The controlling fencer has the right-of-way, and his hit has precedence over any hit from the other fencer. The job of the referee is to decide which fencer was NOT controlling the action, and annul his touch. If he cannot decide, the referee should abstain, annul BOTH hits, and resume the action where it left off.

Control (and right-of-way) is taken whenever one fencer threatens the other with his blade. A threat can be either an attack (see question 1.15), or a "point in line" (see question 1.17) that is established before the opponent attacks.

Control (and right-of-way) is lost when the threat misses, falls short, is broken off, or is deflected away from the target by a parry or other engagement from the defender. The defender has a split-second window of opportunity to return the attack (ie. riposte) before the attacker recovers; if he does so, he takes over right-of-way and the tables have turned. Otherwise it is a toss-up; the first fencer to initiate an attack will sieze the right-of-way anew.

The right-of-way relationships between common fencing actions are as follows:

  • derobement has right-of-way over attacks on the blade
  • attacks on the blade have right-of-way over the point in line
  • point in line has right-of-way over the attack
  • the simple attack has right-of-way over the stop-hit
  • the stop-hit has right-of-way over the renewal of the attack
  • the stop-hit in time has right-of-way over the compound attack
  • the riposte has right-of-way over the renewal of the attack
  • the counter-riposte has right-of-way over the renewal of the riposte
  • the remise of the attack has right-of-way over the delayed riposte

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1.15 What constitutes an attack?

According to Article 10 of the FIE rules of competition, "the attack is the initial offensive action made by extending the arm and continuously threatening the valid target of the opponent."

A threatening weapon is normally interpreted to be one that will or could hit the opponent if no defensive action is taken. In other words, a weapon threatens if it is moving towards the target in a smooth, unbroken trajectory. This trajectory can be curved, especially if the attack is indirect, compound, or involves a cutting action. Hesitations and movements of the blade away from the target will usually be perceived as a break in the attack or a preparation of the attack.

One common misconception is that a straight or straightening arm is required to assert the attack. However, neither the strict wording nor the prevailing interpretation of the above rule require that the attacker's arm become straight or even nearly so. It is sufficient if the arm extends, even just slightly, from its normal on-guard position. A long arm at the moment of the touch is still good style, though, since it gives superior reach and clearly shows the fencer's intent. While the attack can often be asserted with only slight extension, retraction of the arm will usually be interpreted as a break in the attack.

Another common misconception is that a point attack does not threaten unless the point is aimed at the target. This is not generally true. An out-of-line point does threaten if it is moving towards the target on a smooth, unbroken trajectory. The most common example of this is the coupe' (cut-over), in which the blade is pulled away from the target to avoid the the opponent's blade, and then returned into line to finish the attack. Coupe' takes the right-of-way immediately, even though the point is initially pulled away. So-called "flicks", relatives of the coupe' that involve whipping the foible of the blade around parries or blocking body parts, can also take the right-of-way when the blade starts its final forward stroke.

Many fencers are under the mistaken impression that a bent arm or out-of-line point constitutes a preparation, and therefore that they can rightfully attack into it. If the bent arm is extending and the out-of-line point is moving towards the target, however, this assumption is usually false under modern fencing conventions. A successful attack on the preparation must clearly precede the opponent's initiation of the phrase or a break in his attack, or else arrive a fencing time ahead of his touch.

Sabre fencers must also consider Article 417 of the Rules of Competition, which states when the attack must land relative to the footfalls of a lunge, advance-lunge, (and fleche, historically). Attacks that arrive after the prescribed footfall are deemed continuations, and do not have right-of-way over the counter-attack. Sabre fencers must also remember that whip-over touches can be interpreted as remises, and not mal-pare's.

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1.16 What constitutes a parry?

According to Article 10 of the FIE Rules of Competition, "the parry is the defensive action made with the weapon to prevent the attack from arriving".

A successful parry deflects the threatening blade away from the target. It is normally not sufficient to merely find or touch the opponent's blade; the fencer must also exhibit control over it (although the benefit of the doubt usually goes to the fencer making the parry). If the attack continues without any replacement of the point and makes a touch, it retains the right-of-way (mal-pare' by the defender). If the attacker must replace the point into a threatening line before continuing, it is a remise (renewal of the attack) and does not have right-of-way over the riposte. In practice, very little deflection is needed with a well-timed parry.

A well-executed parry should take the foible of the attacker's blade with the forte and/or guard of the defender's. This provides the greatest control over the opponent's blade. In other cases the parry can still be seen as sufficient if the attacking blade is sufficiently deflected. In ambiguous cases, however, the benefit of the doubt is usually given to the fencer who used his forte/guard. For example, if a fencer attempts to parry using his foible on his opponent's forte, it will often be interpreted in the reverse sense (eg. counter-time parry by the attacker), since such an engagement does not normally result in much deflection of the attack. A foible to foible parry could potentially be seen as a beat attack by the opposing fencer depending on the specifics of the action.

At foil, the opponent's blade should not only be deflected away from the target, but away from off-target areas as well. An attack that is deflected off the valid target but onto invalid target still retains right-of-way.

At sabre, the opponent's blade need only be deflected away from valid target, since off-target touches do not stop the phrase. Cuts are considered parried if their forward movement is checked by a block with the blade or guard. Otherwise, sabre parries must be particularly clean and clear to avoid the possibility of whip-over touches.

At epee, a good parry is simply any one that gains enough time for the riposte. Opposition parries and binds are commonly used, since they do not release the opponent's blade to allow a remise.

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1.17 What constitutes a point-in-line?

According to Article 233 section 6 of the FIE Rules of Competition, a point-in-line is a position "with the arm straight and the point threatening the valid target".

Properly done, the arm should be extended as far as possible, and form a more or less continuous line with the blade, with the point aimed directly at the high lines of the target. Excessive angulation at the wrist or fingers negates the point-in-line. Superfluous movement of the point also risks negating the line, especially in sabre. Derobements/trompements, however, are permitted.

In foil and sabre, the point-in-line has priority over attacks that are made without first taking the blade. With these weapons (but not with epee) it is forbidden to assume the point- in-line position before the command to fence has been given. In sabre, a point-in-line that hits with the edge may be considered to have missed, with the cut being considered a counter-attack (assuming it even registers).

Note that although the rules do not comment on the role of the feet in a point-in-line, there are "official interpretations" that convert the point-in-line into an attack--or, more importantly, a counter-attack--if it is delivered with a lunge or fleche. This interpretation allows the line to retain priority if it is delivered with an advance or jump, however. Some referees reject even the latter, along with any other movements (other than deceptions) that "improve the line". Yet another body of opinion holds that a line that develops into an attack is one continuous threat with no break in priority. The rulebook has nothing to help us resolve this dispute, but it seems that the first of these interpretations (that the line is valid except in the case of lunge or fleche) has the most official recognition.

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1.18 What is the scoop on "flicks" and "whips"?

Flicks are whip-like attacks that can score against very oblique and even concealed targets. Sometimes thought of as a recent corruption, flicks actually have a long history that stems from coupe' (the cut-over) and epeeists efforts to throw their points around the bell. Properly executed and judged, they are effective and beautiful attacks; poorly executed and judged, they can be painful and annoying.

One common criticism of the flick is that it would cause minor injury with a real weapon. The obvious, if flippant, response to this is not to flick when fencing with a real weapon.

Another common criticism is that flicks are difficult to defend against. One must simply remember to parry them as if they were cuts, not thrusts (using auxiliary parries like tierce, quinte, and elevated sixte). The flick is also highly sensitive to distance, and a well-timed break in the measure will cause it to land flat.

A third criticism is that flicks are usually given the priority, even though the attack often begins with the point aimed at the ceiling. However, the definition of an attack (see question 1.15) says nothing about where the point is aimed, only what it is threatening. It is normally true that an attack that scores must have threatened in at least its final tempo.

Sabre fencing has suffered from a related and more serious scourge, the whip-over. In this case, the foible bends around the opponent's blade or guard following a parry, to contact the target and register a touch. The scoring machines attempt to reduce these false touches by blocking hits within a certain time window following weapon contact, but this is of limited effectiveness and also has the unfortunate effect of blocking the occasional attack through the blade. Referees have tried to help out by analyzing whip-over touches as remises, but they still score over composed or delayed ripostes. The FIE has been considering and trying various possible fixes, including varying the timeouts and mandating stiffer sabre blades.

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1.19 What are the latest rule changes?

Most of the following rule amendments were introduced for the 1994/95 season.

EQUIPMENT: - In foil, the bib is on target as of Oct 1, 1995. [This amendment appears to have been put off indefinitely. This rule is NOT expected to take effect anytime soon.] - 800N underarm protector (plastron) is required in addition to the regular 800N jacket. - Clothing may be of different colours, but those on the body must be white or light-coloured. - Minimum width of the strip is now 1.5 metres.

ETIQUETTE: - Salute of opponent, referee, and audience is mandatory at the start and end of the bout.

BOUT FORMAT: - Coin flip to determine winner in the event of a tie shall be made at end of regulation time, and one additional minute shall be fenced. The winner of the coin toss shall be recorded as the victor if the bout is not resolved by sudden death in the extra minute. - No more 1-minute warning, although fencers can request the time remaining at any normal halt in the action. - Fencers shall be placed at the en garde lines at the commencement of each 3-minute period in 15-touch elimination bouts.

SCORING: - In sabre, simultaneous attacks that both arrive on the valid target do not result in any points being scored. - In sabre, any action in which the rear leg is crossed in front of the fore shall be penalized with a yellow card, or a red card if a yellow has already been given. Any touch scored by the penalized fencer resulting from the cross-over action shall not be scored, although a properly-executed touch from the opponent is still valid. - In the team relay, the first pair of fencers fence to 5 points or 4 minutes, whichever comes first. The next pair continue from this score up to 10 points within 4 minutes, and so on up to a total score of 45 points.

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:

Author: Morgan Burke ([email protected])
Contributors: special thanks to Suman Palit, Guy Smith, Greg Dilworth, Kevin Taylor, Eric Anderson, Blaine Price, Steve Hick, Kim Moser, David Glasser, Bryan Mansfield, Donald Lane, Ann McBain, Hagen Lieffertz, Mark C. Orton, Mike Buckley, Dirk Goldar, Scott Holmes, Arild Dyrseth, David Airey, Renee Mcmeeken, Marc Walch, Eric Speicher, Anton Oskamp, Bernard Hunt, Francis Cordero, Kent Krumvieda, David Van Houten, John Crawford, Kim Taylor, Brendan Robertson, Ivo Volf, Kevin Wechtaluk, Frank Messemer, Benerson Little, Mark Crocker, Eileen Tan, Mark Tebault, Tim Schofield, Peter Gustafsson, Kevin Haidl, Peter Crawford, Camille Fabian, Matt Davis, Fernando Diaz, Anders Haavie, R=FCdiger Schierz, Todd Ellner, George Kolombatovich, Padraig Coogan

(C) 1993-97 Morgan Burke Permission is granted to copy and distribute all or part of this document for non-profit purposes.


End of rec.sport.fencing FAQ part I
Part II

 

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