Fencing: Early history, Organizations, & Equipment

A word is used for attack and defense in fencing, which is an organized sport involving different types of swords — épées, foils, or sabers.

Though swords have been used since prehistoric times, and swordplay dates back to ancient civilizations, fencing as a sport started at the end of the 19th century. A Japanese sword fighting art can be found at kendo.

Early history

An Egyptian relief depicts swordplay built about 1190 BCE to celebrate the birthday of Ramses III shows swordplay for the first time.

As the swords are covered, the swordsmen are wearing masks, large bibs, and padding around their ears, and shields can be seen strapped to their left arms.

The ancient Persians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, and Germanic tribes also practiced swordsmanship as a pastime and in single combat and war.

Both Roman legions and gladiators learned sword combat from the Romans, who brought it to a highly systematic art form. The gladiators were trained by professional instructors (doctors) in schools (ludi).

A wooden sword called a rudis was used as a practice tool by beginners. Weapons used during advanced training were somewhat heavier than those used during combat.

Sword fighting persisted throughout the Middle Ages, although sword training became less uniform and reflected the individual master’s-at-arms’ ideas.

School of sword fighting developed an unsavoury reputation at this time, attracting criminals and those seeking to acquire skilled weapons skills. It was only by banning fencing schools within their boundaries that many communities solved this problem.

An edict passed by King Edward I in 1286 condemned swordsmen for committing “the most unheard-of villainies” and threatened swift punishment. Fencing schools flourished in spite of such laws.

Weapons and swordsmanship emerge

It was virtually impossible to handle a sword adeptly among the nobility of Europe during the Middle Ages because there was no armour to protect them. It was the sword that penetrated the protective armor, which was heavy and heavy.

Due to gunpowder being introduced in the 14th century, armor became obsolete (musket balls easily pierced the armor, making it ineffective in battle). In times of war as well as in a gentleman’s daily life, the use of a sword was the only weapon that could be worn on the body for self-defense since armour had become obsolete.

In 1480, The Holy Roman emperor Frederick III granted letters patent to the Marxbrüder, the Union of St. Marcus of Löwenberg, among European fencing master guilds. It was the guilds who taught early fencing methods, which included wrestling techniques.

Secret moves were guarded jealously by guilds, so they could take advantage of the unexpected to defeat their enemies. Before 1540, Henry VIII granted several fencing masters letters patent that allowed them to teach fencing in England.

European rapiers eventually replaced the English cutting swords and bucklers (small shields worn on the free arm) in the early period.

The Italians discovered that a sword’s point was more effective than its edge when used dexterously. European fencing styles emphasizing skill and speed rather than force had spread throughout Europe by the end of the 16th century because of their lighter weapon, the rapier. Fencing established as an art after most of the wrestling tricks were abandoned, the lunge developed, and the lunge became an accepted wrestling trick.

Despite its beautiful balance, excellent attack skills, and superb ability to keep opponents at a distance, the long rapier was too heavy for all the movements of combat. Parrying with the left hand was used to defend against rapiers when wearing a gauntlet or cloak or carrying a dagger. Ducking or sidestepping was often used to avoid opponents’ thrusts.

The sword and swordsmanship changed dramatically in the second half of the 17th century as gentlemen’s clothing changed.

A silk stocking, breeches, and brocaded coat became the fashion of the court of Louis XIV, replacing the doublet and hose, top boots, and cloaks. Long, trailing rapiers were unsuitable for the new form of dress, so a light, short court sword was worn instead. After the Italian style had taken hold in Europe earlier, the French style spread throughout the continent.

Despite its initial derision, the court sword was soon regarded as a versatile light weapon that allowed offensive and defensive maneuvers impossible with heavier weapons.

Because of its light weight, the sword did not require other items, such as daggers, cloaks, or free hands, to be used. A sword’s point was used exclusively to strike the opponent, a sword’s blade was used to defend, and what is now known as modern fencing developed as a result. French sword fighting fully replaced Italian sword fighting at this point.

There was a great deal of emphasis on form and strategy in the French school of sword fighting. This form of swordplay was taught according to conventions and rules. Additionally, a practice sword, or foil, was used to create a safe environment for training.

Joseph Bologne, chevalier de Saint-Georges, and the fencing master La Bossière devised a mask in the 18th century to enhance safety.

Dueling with swords continued even as fencing with foil became increasingly stylized. With reverence for rules and conventions, foil fencing which is practiced under ideal conditions in schools, or salles, has evolved into an art form of absorbing interest.

Against a determined opponent with a sharper and heavier weapon who dispensed with all conventions on a gray morning on a greensward or gravel path, this orthodox, controlled swordplay was of no use.

Although fencing had reached its peak in techniques and theory by the middle of the 18th century, dueling with swords had virtually disappeared because firearms became more accurate. Swordplay developed into a sport at this time, and in form, it was not much different from modern fencing.

During the second half of the 19th century, the épée de combat was created for those few who continued to use swords to resolve conflicts. There were no targets or other conventions associated with the practice version of this weapon, which was a regulation, but blunted, dueling sword. The conditions of épée fencing are very similar to those of a duel, except for the use of protective clothing.

A curved saber (adapted from the Eastern scimitar) was the last modern fencing weapon introduced by the Hungarians in the late 18th century. Several European armies adopted the saber soon after.

Until the Italians introduced a light saber as a sport weapon at the end of the 19th century, fencing schools used heavy military sabers (and their counterpart, the naval cutlass).

Organized sport

As the 19th century progressed, fencing became increasingly organized and competitive. During the 1880s, the French fencing master Camille Prévost collected and laid down the first basic conventions.

It was also in 1891 that the Amateur Fencers League of America, in 1902, and in 1906, the Amateur Fencing Association of Great Britain were established.

It was also in this era that collegiate fencing in the United States first developed: the Intercollegiate Fencing Association organized its first matches in 1894 (now governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, collegiate fencing in American universities is governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association).

Since the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896, fencing for men has been part of the games. Epée was added to the Olympic program in 1900, along with foil and saber.

As of 1904, foil competition was introduced along with saber and épée in 1908. There had been numerous disputes over fencing rules by the early 20th century.

France withdrawn its entire foil team from the 1912 Olympics because of a dispute over the target area, and Italy refused to fence in the épée events because their request to increase the blade length was rejected.

This led to the founding in 1913 of the Fédération Internationale d’Escrime, which ruled both Olympic and world championship fencing for amateurs.

The Olympic contest has added events for women fencers over the years. Fencing for women was introduced to the Olympic Games in 1924, followed by a team event in 1960. 1996 marked the Olympic debut of women’s team and individual épée.

In 2004, the Olympic Games introduced the individual saber and the team saber events for women. However, from 2004 to 2016, the Olympics eliminated the two team events as a result of a refusal by the International Olympic Committee to increase fencing’s medal count in a commensurate manner.

French and Italian athletes dominated épée and foil competitions from the late 19th century until the post-World War II era. After that, the Soviets and Hungarians became the dominant fencing nations.

During the 20th century, the Hungarians dominated saber. Famous fencers of the 20th century included the Hungarian Aladár Gerevich, who won six consecutive gold medals at the Olympics, and the Italian Edoardo Mangiarotti, who won 13 gold medals at the world championships.

As early as 1936, fencing officials were able to eliminate the inaccuracies of determinations made by the electrical épée. The electrical apparatus fully registers the arrival of hits and their judgment.

At the 1956 Olympics, judges were required to interpret the priority of the arrival of hits as part of the introduction of electrical scoring for foil competitions in 1955. During the 1992 Olympics, the saber was scored electronically.

In fencing, the electrical system works similarly to the doorbell. Electric weapons are detected by lamé interlaced with copper threads worn by fencers. Epée fencing involves half the fencer’s body as the target; foil fencing involves the fencer’s vest as the target; saber fencing involves the fencer’s vest and mask.

Fencers’ clothing, weapons, and scoring boxes are all connected by cords. A weapon touches the fencer with even a small amount of pressure, a circuit is created, and the scoring box reflects a hit.

The cords coil into a spring-loaded reel to prevent the fencer from tripping. A bout in Olympic fencing is won by the fencer who scores 15 points first. The fencer with the highest score can also win a predetermined bout if the bout has a predetermined duration.


Fencers must also wear white stockings, flat-soled shoes, and body cord in addition to their jacket, mask, glove, pants, or knickers. Additionally, fencers who compete in saber and foil must wear a mask cord and a lamé made of conductive material over their jackets.

Weapons of modern fencing and rule variations

There are three different types of weapons with different designs and competition rules. Fencing masks include lamé and conductive portions, which together cover the trunk of the body, the groin, and parts of the neck, and all hits must be made with the tip of the weapon.

A pressure-sensitive button is located at the tip of the foil, which depresses when a force of 500 grams or more is applied. The hit is valid as long as the tip is in contact with the lamé; if it contacts the jacket or knickers that are not conductive, the hit is considered to have been off-target and is not counted.

A fencer who scores an on-target hit has 300 milliseconds to score another hit before the scoring box locks them out. It is possible to score touches only through on-target hits, since fencing halts both off-target and on-target hits. A fencer’s right-of-way is determined by the rules of the right-of-way if both of them hit the target.

The point is used as in foil, but unlike foil, the target area in épée is the entire body. Any surface unconnected to the scoring box will register a hit if the pressure-sensitive tip is depressed with a force exceeding 750 grams.

Grounding wires connect the piste (fencing area) to the scoring box to prevent hits from being counted as touches. Hits to the piste do not register as off-target; they do not register as off-target. A fencer can score only one hit before the scoring box locks him out after 40 milliseconds following a hit. The right-of-way does not exist if two fencers score hits.

The blade of the saber is rounded, and does not require a certain pressure to strike (unlike the épée or foil). Because of this, sabers have a cutting action instead of thrusting.

Sabreists wear lamé jackets, conductive gloves, and conductive masks. Touches made above the waist are valid if they are made to this equipment. Following a hit, fencers have 170 milliseconds to strike before they are locked out. Saber right-of-way rules (which are different from foil rules) must be used to determine who should receive a touch.

Fencing area

Metal or another conductive material is used for the piste, which is between 1.5 and 2 metres wide and 14 metres long. Each end has a 1.5 metre runback. There is a center line, a guard line, a warning line, and a rear limit line on the track. Spools containing 20 metres (66 feet) of cable are located at either end of the piste.

Fencing bod cords are attached to spools that retract and extend as fencers move up and down the piste. A hit is registered by lighting up and making noise at the scoring box, which is attached to the spools. Spools are no longer required for the highest levels of competition, thanks to wireless scoring systems.

During a bout, the fencers begin in en-garde, four metres apart (13.1 feet). Referees sit facing the scoring box opposite the piste to judge bouts.

Fencing conventions

Despite the differences in each weapon’s rules, all three have common standards. There are preliminary rounds, or pools, where competitors fence in five-touch bouts round-robin style against one another for three minutes under a three-minute time limit.

A bout is determined by the amount of time spent fencing; the referee will stop the clock when fencing is not taking place.) After the pools, a series of direct elimination matches is held, with seeding decided by the results of the pools.

There are three periods of three minutes between each bout in these direct elimination bouts, each bout being fenced to 15 touches. In contrast to foil and épée, saber bouts usually occur quite quickly – a fifteen-touch bout rarely lasts more than three minutes – so the fencers take a minute’s rest after scoring eight touches.

An épée fencer will receive a touch if he or she scores a valid hit; if both fencers score a valid hit, both fencers receive touches. Electric épée’s tight timing (a fencer can return a hit in less than 40 milliseconds) makes it difficult for two fencers to simultaneously hit. There can only be one touch at a time in foil and saber.

As a result, fencers registering hits are subject to complicated rules called “right-of-way.” While the application of these rules differs between the two weapons, the broad principles remain the same.

 Attackers have priority over defenders, and defenders gain priority by parrying or making the attacker miss. The referee must decide which fencer initiated the attack first if both fencers attacked simultaneously; if both attacks were initiated simultaneously, no touch is awarded.

It is illegal for a fencing opponent to register a light in order to score without right-of-way, therefore a defending fencer can counterattack without right-of-way.

Wheelchair fencing

German-born English neurosurgeon Sir Ludwig Guttmann, who was born in Germany, introduced wheelchair fencing at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, England. Guttmann introduced fencing to World War II veterans with spinal cord injuries as one of many sports therapies he introduced.

At the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948, Guttmann introduced Olympic-type competitions for disabled athletes. Wheelchair fencing soon became a regular fencing event in Europe.

In the 1950s, wheelchair fencing became an international sport. Paralympic Games have included wheelchair fencing since 1960. Since the 1960s, this unique form of fencing has been developed in the United States, but not actively.

A special frame keeps the wheelchairs stable during the fencing. Unlike standard fencing, wheelchair fencing involves five touches, but advancing or reversing is not possible. To achieve or avoid touches, wheelchair users duck, make half turns, and lean forward and backward.

In order to generate touches, athletes must not have to rise from the chair seat. More-advanced wheelchair fencers develop technique and timing as their strengths rather than muscle and aggressive tactics. In the wheelchair game, you can use all three types of fencing weapons.

Fencing summary

Fencing is a sport in which a light sword is used to attack and defend, such as a foil, épée, or saber. The Middle Ages are filled with evidence of swordplay. By the 15th century guilds of fencing masters had formed, and swordplay had become part of the daily life of European gentlemen in the 14th century. 

Original guild secrets became orthodox fencing moves after they were jealously guarded for centuries. There were various conventions and rules in place by the late 17th century. A hit in a modern bout is only counted if it touches a specific point on the opponent’s body, except in saber or foil matches.

One or more points are awarded for each valid hit. A modern Olympic fencing competition was first held for men in 1896, then for women in 1924. As a result of the frequent inaccuracy of human judgment, electronic scoring was introduced in 1936.

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