Fencing brings to mind armor-clad knights battling with long swords. Fencing has its roots as an art of attack and defense. But now recreational fencing has developed as a competitive sport with its set of rules and techniques. As a regular sport at the Olympic games and as part of the modern pentathlon, modern fencing has come into its own. It differs in technique and style from the classical fencing practiced in France and Italy as also the use of electrical scoring patterns. Read on to find out more about the various fencing swords, gear and terms used.
The history of fencing
The fencing sword has always been an offensive and defensive weapon since the 5th century. The rapier was introduced in fencing schools in Italy around the 16th century and this led to systematization of fencing. The Italian technique became very popular throughout Europe. The épée was invented in France and its use was widespread. The Italian style of fencing was characterized by the use of pronounced and vigorous movements with the rapier whereas the French style of fencing was more formal and restrained. It was the style popularized by the French that gained more prominence and formed the basis for modern fencing rule and competitions. Rapier fencing was used more for self –defense and dueling.
The fencing sword was widely used in the Middle Ages in Europe for duels. The 19th century saw fencing developing into a sport. The fencing gear and equipment such as the mask of wire netting, the chest protector (plastron) and the glove on the fencing sword hand were developed during this period. As compared to traditional fencing, modern fencing is athletic and mobile. Classical fencers displayed prowess in sophisticated blade work. Emphasis had moved from killing an opponent to settle a dispute to defeating an opponent in a sport.
A fencing game hinges around a fencing bout or game. A player has to score 15 points in a direct elimination play or 5 points in a preliminary pool play to win the game. A fencer scores each time he scores a touch. Direct elimination matches are usually a bout of 3 three-minute periods.
Fencing equipment can be classified as foil, épée and saber. Fencers develop their skills with any one of these weapons though some fencers have known to be proficient in the use of all three. While foil and épée are point-thrusting equipment, saber is point thrusting as well as cutting equipment. The target areas for each of the fencing equipment differ.
A foil is made up of a flexible rectangular blade that weighs less than a pound and is approximately 35 inches in length. To score a point, the tip of the blade must land within the torso of the body, from shoulders to groin, front and back. A foil fencer wears a metallic vest known as a lame that covers the target area. Any touch on this vest results in a light on the scoring machine.
The épée is a heavier version of the foil with a lighter guard and a stiffer blade. A fencer can use the épée to score a point by touching the opponent anywhere on his body. The épée fencer’s uniform does not include a lame since the entire body is a target area. The épée is a more complex equipment to use on account of its shorter and lighter design. It had a leather safety tip that resembled a flower bud and thus was born the name ‘le fleuret’. Fencing saber
The blades of fencing equipment are made of tempered steel. Individual fencers choose handles or grips for foil and épée according to their preferences. A French grip is slightly curved with a pommel at the end whereas the Italian grip has a crossbar with pronged handles. The saber has a scoop shaped hand guard that curves under the hand. The fencing saber is similar in length and weight to the foil and resembles a modern day slashing cavalry sword. The target area for the fencing saber is from the hips to the top of the head. The saber fencer’s uniform also has a lame so as to cover the target area and register a valid touch on the scoring machine.
The right-of-way fencing rule was established to eliminate simultaneous attacks by both fencers. This fencing rule is the differentiation between offense and defense. The right –of-way fencing rule is laid down by the referee.
The ‘on-guard’ position is the base position from which all motions of attack and defense are initiated. This is characterized by a crouch with both knees flexed and the rear arm crooked upward and the sword arm extended towards the opponent. The ‘lunge’ is the primary attacking action that a fencer executes by stabbing with the sword arm at the opponent with a thrusting movement of the front leg. For an attack to be successful, a touch must be scored on a valid target area. When a fencer makes an attempt to block an attack, this movement is known as parry. Various parries such as prime, seconde, tierce, quarte, quinte, sixte, septimea and octave are designed to protect various target areas from attack. A riposte is a retaliatory thrust made on the opponent following a parry.
An offensive fencing rule can be either a simple attack made with one motion or a couple of motions. A feint is an initial attack that throws the opponent off guard by parrying in a direction opposite to the one from where the attack is poised. Beating or pressing the opponent’s blade aside could be other ways of creating an opening attack. A flehe or running attack is used to surprise the opponent.
A fencing match is held on a strip that is 1.5 to 2 m in width and 14 m in length. The weapons used by the fencers are wired and connected to an electronic scoring apparatus. A touch on the opponent results in a flashing light on the scoring machine.
A glossary of fencing terms will give you a clear understanding of the various terminologies that are peculiar to fencing. The On guard position that describes the stance that a fencer assumes when preparing to attack is know by the fencing term ‘en garde’. ‘Finta in tempo’ is the fencing term that describes a feint in time. An offensive action undertaken by a fencer after a parry of opponent’s attack is known by the fencing term of ‘riposte’.
Fencing was introduced in the Olympic games in 1896. The modern pentathlon also incorporates épée fencing. The fencing rule did not permit women to participate in competitions in épée and saber till recently. Now USFA & FIE offer national fencing competitions for women in épée and saber. Women’s épée competition was held for the first time in the Olympic games in 1996.
Only foil and saber were introduced in the first modern Olympics. The épée was introduced in 1900 and was electrified in the 1936 Olympic games. Until recently, fencing was the only Olympic sport that allowed professionals to participate. There has been much controversy about the transformation of saber fencing to suit electric judging and the subsequent adoption of an aggressive and athletic style of fencing popularized in Eastern Europe. This year’s summer Olympics at Athens will not see Korea’s first women’s world fencing champion on account of a torn knee cartilage. She grabbed headlines by winning the women’s individual épée gold at the 2002 World Championship held in Lisbon.
The Fédération Internationale d’Escrime (International Federation of Fencing) is the premier governing body for fencing and oversees all international fencing tournaments. The 2003 – 2003 World Fencing Championships were held in Havana in Cuba. Keeth Smart of the U.S. rose to become a fencer of repute on the international arena. Stanislav Pozdniakov of Russia and Aldo Montano are other prize-winning fencers on the international circuit. The World Championships are held to determine individual and team champions for each weapon category. 1935 saw the first World Championships in fencing being held in Lausanne. It was also the first successful demonstration of electric jackets.
The U.S. Fencing Association organizes various competitions at the regional and national level. The USFA (United States Fencing Association) was originally started as the AFLA (Amateur Fencers League of America) in 1891. This association is affiliated to the Féderation Internationale d’Escrime (FIE), the International Federation for fencing founded in Paris in 1913. College fencing competitions are conducted under the auspices of the NCAA.
Fencing gear consists of combined jacket and pants as well as plastron underarm protectors. Jackets are selected by the fencers depending on whether they are left or right-handed or even ambidextrous. Fencers use socks and gloves so that no part of the body is exposed other than the trailing hand and the back of the head. Women fencers use added protection. Homologated clothing is commonly used in elite fencing tournaments and is fashioned from fabrics such as Kevlar, Startex or ballistic nylon. This type of clothing offers a fencer a high degree of protection.
The fencing rule insists that foil masks be well insulated so as to prevent touching the opponent’s head. The épée masks should cover the collarbones. Fencing masks are available in different sizes. The fencing rule insists on the mask passing the 12 kg punch test to be certified for competition. Maraging steel foil blades are made of special alloy steel that has just a 5% chance of developing micro cracks that will lead to breakage. These blades are made out of an alloy of iron, nickel and titanium. Such blades are available for épée too.
A fencer must possess good reflexes, speed and endurance. Precision and flexibility also play a crucial role in creating a master fencer. A fencing exponent must be able to focus and concentrate under stressful conditions of combat. A winning performance hinges on focus and level headedness. A good fencer must be able to size up his opponent quickly and adopt a suitable strategy. Left-handedness seems to offer a slight advantage to fencers which may be why nearly half of the FIE World Champions are left-handed.
A fencing club can be found at various universities and educational institutions. Some fencing clubs date back to the 19th century. A fencing club offers training to novice fencers as well as conducts competitions and duels.