About Fencing

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What is fencing?

A Brief History

Fencing Today

What is Fencing?

Fencing is the art and sport of fighting with swords. It combines many element of physical and mental control, developing fitness, technique, co-ordination, tactical thinking, problem solving, distance appreciation and reflexes. It is often described as a game of chess at lightening speed, employing deception, traps, intimidation and a host of other tactical and psychological aspects. It's an exciting and competitive sport, suitable for both men and women of any age. By its very nature fencing necessitates the use of skill, timing and technique over brute strength, allowing everybody to compete on equal terms, regardless of age sex or stature.

A Brief History

Fencing is an art of the greatest antiquity with centuries of history and tradition behind it. Probably the first record of fencing occurs in a relief carving in a temple at Luxor in Upper Egypt, created around 1190 BC. The fencers are depicted using swords with covered points and wearing masks remarkably similar to their modern equivalents. Indeed, since long before the birth of Christ the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians - in fact all ancient races, practised swordsmanship according to set rules and movements.

These ancient combats were characterised by the heavy armour worn in battle. So long as such protection was used, swords remained heavy and cumbersome, used as much to bludgeon the opponent as cut him and in turn swordsmanship relied more heavily on aggression and strength than technique and tactics. There is a certain irony to the fact that the employment of gunpowder weapons from the early 15th century (that effectively negated armour) sparked the evolution of sword play as an art. Without the necessity of armour penetration, swords became lighter and allowed for greater speed and neater blade manipulation.

The Italians were the first to appreciate the superiority of the use of the point of the sword rather than the edge. They developed lighter weapons and nimbler, better controlled play. This style spread throughout Europe and by the mid 16th century was well established as Rapier Fencing. The long Rapier initially employed was still a relatively clumsy weapon, unsuited to quick defensive action. In most cases it was used in conjunction with a long knife or cloak that was used to parry (block) the opponent's attacks. It wasn't until the 17th century in France that the lighter, shorter Rapier replaced its heavier counterpart and allowed both attacking and defensive moves to be made with just the one weapon. This new French school of fencing quickly replaced Rapier fencing throughout Europe.

Fighting at close quarters at such high speed always involved the danger of injury, even though the weapons were blunted. The conventions of Fencing were first established as a safety precaution. By limiting the target and simultaneous attacks the combat became safer and more defined. Fencing developed as a formalised 'conversation' of attacks, parries and counter attacks. These conventions remain the basis for Modern fencing to this day.

Throughout this period Duelling remained very popular. Indeed fencing schools acquired a reputation as promoting Duelling and roguish behaviour and Edward I prohibited the teaching of fencing to civilians. Swordsmen continued to be regarded with disfavour until Henry VIII promoted the art and created governing bodies to co-ordinate its teaching.



Fencing Today

Fencing Foil

The foil is the initial training weapon you will use when you start fencing. It is however still fenced in its own right just as much as (if not more than) the other weapons throughout Britain. It is also the weapon most trained and fenced at Gwent Sword club. It is a lightweight weapon measuring approximately 3' from pommel to tip. On a non-electric or 'steam' foil used for practice, the blade is blunt, fitted with a rubber tip and flexible to prevent injury. An electric sword is similar, but is fitted with a button on the tip known as a 'point'. Attacks are made only with the point to specific target areas. This is the entire torso, including the back down to waist level. Hits made to the arms, legs or most of the mask are off-target - hits to these stop the bout like a normal hit, but do not score.

Foil is a 'conventional' weapon and thus is governed by Right-Of-Way, which is described in it's own section below.

In addition to the basic equipment described in the 'Fencing Today' section, all competitive fencing is electric; foilists wear a metallic 'lame' jacket, which covers their target area, and use an electric foil, which is fitted with a switch in the tip to detect hits. The rest of the electrical equipment used is similar to the other weapons.

Fencing Epee

Epee, like foil, is a thrusting weapon - hits must be made with the tip, and not the flat of the blade. However, the weapon has a larger guard to protect the hand and arm, the whole body is target, and there are no rules of Right-Of-Way - if you hit the other person and get a light, you get a point. To prevent endless double lights, once you have been hit you have only 40-50ms to hit back. Thus in epee, it is far more important to hit without being hit (although double hits are an important part of the game, especially if you are winning!). Some epeeists hold their weapon by the pommel for extra reach.

Epee is becoming increasingly popular nowadays. Some clubs teach epee to beginners instead of foil, and it is increasingly common for for the epeeists to outnumber the foilists at competitions!

Epeeists, unlike foilists and sabreurs, do not have to wear metallised lame jackets.

Fencing Sabre

Sabre, like foil, is a 'conventional' weapon with Right-Of-Way. However, sabre is fundamentally different to foil and epee as hits can be made with 'cuts' as well as thrusts, although many fencing techniques such as keeping and using distance are applicable in all weapons. In sabre, the entire upper body from the waist upwards, except for the hands, is target. This includes the arms, chest, back, the mask including the bib and the wrist. In electric sabre, a lame jacket that covers the body including the arms is worn. The mask and bib are also made conductive (a wire connects the mask and jacket by crocodile clips), and an overlay of lame material is worn over the wrist to make this conductive. Any contact of the opponents blade to your jacket, mask or overlay will count as a hit. There is no off-target in sabre; any hit made to any part of the body except the target will have no effect, unlike in foil where it counts as a hit, stopping the bout, although no point can be given for it.

In some ways, sabre is the youngest weapon, although historically cutting weapons are as old or older than stabbing weapons. It was the last weapon to be electrified, as it was only electrified in the last 20/30 years, and suffered some serious problems with electrification. Firstly, sensors were used to make sure that a certain force was used to hit, however this was later dropped as a failure. Secondly, without the restrictions of non-electric fencing, it became a sort of jousting match where fencers only attacked with a run or 'fleche' (a leaping attack), and rarely tried to defend. But the rules were changed to make it against the rules to cross your feet while going forwards. With these changes, popularity of sabre has soared, even more so than epee, although it still has some way to go to catch up!



Right Of Way or the Rules of Priority

Right-Of-Way (also known as priority) determines who gets a hit in foil and sabre if there is a light on for both fencers; double lights never result in both fencers getting a point in these weapons. It should also be noted that there is no differentiation in terms of right-of-way between an off-target hit (only possible in foil) and an on-target hit; if you have ROW but hit off-target then your opponent will not get the point. However you cannot receive points for off-target hits you make.

Right-of-way is a difficult subject to explain in writing, don't worry - it's much, much simpler when you see it happen!

Consider an example. One fencer begins to straighten their arm and 'lunge' at the opponent. Now, because they are extending their arm and threatening the target, they are attacking. So the other fencer has to defend against the attack. What they do is parry - move their sword so as to push the attacking blade out of the way. Now, the attacker becomes the defender as the defender will now 'riposte' - they will begin their own attack by extending their arm. And so on...

Right-of-way (often shortened to ROW on web forums) can be confusing, but it doesn't present any real problems when teaching fencing - it's something you just pick up as you go along.

Electric Equipment

Most of the electrical equipment in fencing is the same for all fencers. In the centre of the piste, opposite the referee, is the 'box', which has the lights on that indicate whether a fencer has made a hit or not. This is connected by 'ground leads' (wires) to the 'spools' at either end of the piste. The fencers are hooked up to an extending wire that comes out of these spools. They then plug their 'bodywire', which is a lead that fencers put down their sword arm when they put their jacket on. They then plug this bodywire into their weapon inside the guard, and in foil and sabre they connect a crocodile clip on the bodywire to their metallised 'lame' (pronounced lar-may) jacket (in sabre they also connect the mask to the lame jacket by another wire). They then turn the box on and hit the other fencer!

In foil, depressing the tip of the blade on any surface (except the other fencer's guard and a metal piste if one is in use) causes one of their lights to come up - coloured if they have hit the other fencer's lame (which covers the target), and white is they have hit anything else (e.g. the floor, the other fencer's legs/arms, the box or the referee)...

In epee, hitting any surface except the opponent's guard or a metal piste where one is in use will bring up a coloured light - the referee then has to determine whether the fencer's hit was anywhere on the other fencer (a valid hit on target), or on the floor, or sometimes on his/herself! There is no 'white light' (a hit made off-target that stops the fight) in epee, since everything is target.

In sabre, a hit is made by touching your blade to the other person's target - their lame jacket (which includes the sleeves, but not below the waist), the wrist (usually sabreurs wear an metallised overlay over their glove), or the mask (which has no insulation, and a metallised bib). There is no 'white light' in sabre.