Fencing describes the sport of sword fighting with one of three weapons: foil, epee or saber. The weapons and their use differ significantly one from the other. This note deals only with foil fencing. Foil is the predominant school training and competition weapon. The object of the note is to help parents understand what their child is doing as a participant in the sport and provide some basic information about how competition works.
Modern foil fencing is the direct descendant of dueling and, before that, military and civilian sword combat. However, it was dueling that provided the impetus to both formulate rules of engagement and to undertake the formal study and teaching of effective technique in attack and defence. It was a "sport" with a very clear purpose. No matter how far we are removed from more brutal times, fencing as a sport retains a visceral "edginess" that is part of the mental discipline that it teaches. Put simply, a boy or girl must overcome their natural fear when they first start to fence. Trainers and clubs are conscious of beginner's nerves and allow for it.
Fencing is an intense sport requiring a high level of both mental and physical speed and agility. However, it is also subtle. Sheer force or speed will rarely out. It combines learned reflexive skills with considered responses to observation of an opponent, applied psychology and strategy. Because these elements are all involved, but can be used indifferent combinations, a wide range of people can succeed as a fencer over a long time by exploiting their relative advantages and compensating for their relative shortcomings by thinking about what they are doing.
It is also a sport of manners. The rules require fencers to salute each other, the President and judges at the beginning and end of a bout. Dealings with the President in a bout have to be courteous. Fencers should deal with their opponent to win, but without animosity.
A foil is a light, tapered, semi-flexible, tipped weapon. It is designed for attack with the point and defence, or parry, with bottom half of the blade. The blade is steel. It is oblong in section and tapered over its length to the tip so that it bends, in one plane (vertical), towards the tipped end of the blade (the foible). The thick, handle, end (the forte) remains rigid. A cup shaped guard protects the hand and fingers. The handle is either long and thin with a leather or rubber sheath and a counterweight screwed on the end (a French grip) or a "pistol" or orthopedic grip. Beginners use the French grip so as to learn to manipulate the blade tip using mainly the thumb and fingers (finger work). Blades are full sized or a shorter and lighter child's blade.
For beginners' practice and competition fencing, the blade is tipped with a rubber button that can be removed and replaced as needed. This is known as a "steam" blade (i.e. not an electric blade). In all higher level competition a blade fitted with a wire and a small piston switch as the tip is used. This, with a metal thread jacket (a lame) and electric sensing equipment, allows "electric" fencing. A scoring hit is detected when the switch on the tip of a foil hits an opponent's lame.
Fencing is very safe. Properly supervised and conducted it is slightly more hazardous than lawn bowls. Protective clothing is part of the reason for that safety.
Beginners must wear long legged trousers (e.g. tracksuit pants) and a long sleeved shirt. Over this is worn a "plastron", a padded foam rubber or kapok chest and flank protector. Girls will usually also wear "dingers", a hard moulded plastic chest plate. A standard metal mesh helmet with a reinforced "bib" is worn strapped onto the head. A glove is worn on the sword hand.
This level of protection is sufficient for the drills and practice bouts of a beginner.
Sneakers or squash shoes are adequate. Running shoes are not because the shoe heel usually protrudes behind the foot, which unbalances the foot when a fencer lunges.As the fencer progresses a fencing suit made of white cloth and kevlar is worn. A long sleeved jacket with a side zip opening (opposite the sword arm), turned down neck and reinforced panels is worn with breeches of the same material and long socks. Suits have a Newton (e.g. 500N, 800N) rating, reflecting their penetration resistance strength. A kevlar under-plastron may be required to make up the total strength of the covering for some competition. Presently, the international standard for competition suits or total cover is 800N penetration strength. Mask, glove and shoes are as before. For electric fencing a sleeveless over jacket made of very fine conductive metal mesh is worn. Its function is not primarily protective.
Footwork: Students are taught how to adopt and maintain a side on "squat" position; the "en garde" position. In this position the sword arm is presented to the opponent with the body side-on and the front foot toes pointing at the opponent. The back foot is kept one foot-length behind the front foot and at right angles to the front foot. The body is kept upright, between the feet, but dropped slightly down by bending the knees to a semi-squat. This lowers the center of gravity and make it possible for the fencer to advance and retire by short, sharp, controlled steps, one foot at a time, the other following, that keep the body weight between the feet. This way a change in direction, forward and back, can be instant. The head, torso and arms are a fighting turret balanced on a mobile platform of the legs and hips. It is much the same posture seen in boxing, karate and the like. Footwork entails, first, the student learning to move to advance and retire quickly en garde with balance and control. The second aspect of footwork is to learn and practice the use of the feet to attack or retire by the lunge and its variants and the jump back. The object is to make instinctive the correct posture and the capacity to use it to maintain a safe distance from a moving opponent when desired and to be able to close distance from an opponent and attack and retire again, when desired.
Drills teach students the various techniques of the use of the foil for guard, attack, parry and riposte, deception and counter deception. Particularly, the students are taught to control the blade tip and drive the blade using the fingers, with the minimum of arm or wrist movement, in quick and, ultimately, instinctive, actions and reactions. Part of that work is to develop sensitivity to the opponent's actions and reactions, habits, weaknesses, and to exploit them to advantage.
There are two fundamental concepts that underpin foil fencing. The first is "target". The second is "right of way".Target, as the name implies, is that area of a fencer which, if hit by the tip of a foil with 500g pressure, is a legal hit, capable of scoring a point. Whether it is a point depends on right of way. Target in foil fencing is the whole torso, front and back. It is the area covered by a lame. It is not the arms and hands, head,
helmet bib, or legs and feet. A hit to target with the tip of the foil, with force sufficient to bend a steam foil vertically by a hand width, or trip the switch of an electric foil, is a legal hit. For the curious, the bend reflects the force and distance necessary to have the tip penetrate the body significantly if the weapon were sharp. A flat hit with the side of the blade is no hit.
Right of Way
Fencing has been described as a "conversation of blades". The exchange most purely described is attack, parry, riposte, parry, counter riposte, etc etc, until a hit is made. Right of way (the right to deliver a scoring hit) shifts back and forth between the fencers during the dialogue. Right of way determines which of two apparently simultaneous hits prevails as the scoring hit. An attack starts the process.
The rules provide that an attack is made by one fencer on the other, by fully extending the sword arm so that the foil tip threatens (i.e. points at) target. That can be done while standing still or moving in either direction. That attack either will succeed in achieving a valid hit or it won't. Whichever is the case, the fencer attacking has right of way until the attack hits (on or of target), fails (misses), is abandoned, or is parried. If it succeeds by a proper hit on target, there is a point scored, and the President calls halt. The fencers return to en garde lines (either side of the middle of the piste) and start the next point. If it hits, but is off target, the exchange is stopped by the President to be restarted from en garde at the place where the off target hit was delivered. If it simply misses or if it is parried, right of way is lost and the other side has right of way and can try to deliver a scoring hit either by a counter attack (if there is no parry) or a riposte (if there was a parry). The same rules then apply vice versa and continue until a hit or the president calls halt because the exchange has become unplayable, e.g. the fencers "lock up".
If an attack is made on an attacking fencer without a parry, it is a counter attack. If the counter attack succeeds and the attack wholly misses, there is a point to the counter attacker. If the first attack is on or off target, because of right of way, that hit determines the exchange and the counter attack hit is of no effect.Argument and reply is the progress, with the President as the arbiter as to whom, if anyone, has right of way. The rules do not allow simultaneous scoring hits. If one fencer has established right of way by attacking first, or by parrying
and riposting, and hits, even if there is a simultaneous hit from the other sides the point is to the holder of right of way. If neither has established right of way and both hit, e.g. literally simultaneous attacks from both sides, there is no point.
Bouting can be informal and self regulated, as it usually is as part of a class. Students are expected to honestly concede a hit on them to their opponent. The bout can continue as long as they wish, scoring or not.A formal non-electric bout involves two fencers, four corner or hand judges and a President. The hand judges, two at each end, are watching the opposite fencer for proper hits, on or off target. On seeing a hit, they quickly raise their hand. The President calls "halt". The bout stops. The President then "phrases" the action, that is, recites who started the last attack and what happened thereafter as he or she saw it. As right of way shifts according to the phrasing, the President will ask the hand judges on the side with way whether a hit was made from the side they are standing onto the other side and, if there was, whether it was on or off target. The reply from each hand judge will be: "yes" (i.e. on); "off target"; "no"; or, "I abstain" (because they couldn't see or don't know). If the same two answers are given, that is the result. An answer and an abstention, the answer determines. Contradictory answers mean the President has a "casting" vote, if he or she has an opinion. If none, there is no result. The role of the President is important, not only for the application of the rules but also, by the phrasing, so that the fencers understanding why they either scored or did not score, a point.
In electric fencing the President remains but an electric box and the lights take the place of the hand judges. A coloured light shows an on target hit from the side on which the light is. A white light shows an off target hit from the side on which the light is. One coloured light, before halt is called, is a point to the side delivering the hit. The President will phrase but there is little room for controversy. Two lights of whatever combination of colours and the President's phrasing determines right of way and the fate of one of the hits.
Bouts are usually first to 5 hits or three minutes of actual fencing. In the event of a tie at three minutes a coin toss determines who will win absent an opposite hit in the next minute of sudden death fencing. Bouts to 15 hits, with a break every 3 minutes, are used in high level competition.
Bouts are usually within "pools" of fencers constructed by the Directoire Technique (the "DT") to spread the seeded fences around and even up the chances of the lower ranking fencers to advance. Fencers are ranked at the end of each round of a competition (when all fencers in each pool have fenced all others) both on the number of wins versus losses but also their "indicator rate" of hits given and received. How well a fencer wins can be as important as how many wins. Scores entered onto a computer rank the fencers and allow the cut to be made to reduce a tableau of 64 to 32 to 16 and so forth. Rapid elimination can be done by Direct Elimination when the fencer seeded 1 after, say, two rounds, fences 16, 2-15, 3-14, and so on. By this process one fencer eventually wins by eliminating the opposition. It is a process in which, necessarily, the bouts become more difficult as a day progresses. Both mental and physical stamina is needed to survive the process, both for fencers and parents.