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Learn about the history and basics in fencing/swordplay.

Fencing/swordplay is an original form of combat that has existed for more than 2,000 years. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Fencing/swordplay is an original form of combat that has existed for more than 2,000 years.

Fencing/swordplay is an Olympic-caliber sport that is steeped in history and in codes of honor and courage. Fast and athletic, fencing/swordplay has been immortalized in the images of Hollywood actors swinging from chandeliers or engaging in swordfights, but people should not be fooled by this. Fencing/swordplay is a serious modern sport that evolved from historical combat and dueling. Intricate, technically sophisticated movements are so fast in modern fencing/swordplay that electronic scoring -- a button at the tip of the sword -- is now needed to capture the "touches" that occur with the sword tip, according to the United States Fencing Association.

History of Fencing/Swordplay

Originally a form of combat, fencing/swordplay has existed for more than 2,000 years. Historians believe the ancient Egyptians fenced because ancient temple carvings show what appear to be fencers. Other ancient civilizations, from China to Greece, practiced some form of fencing/swordplay. During the 14th or 15th century, fencing/swordplay evolved into a sport in either Italy or Germany.

A French fencer/swordsman named most of fencing's movements, so many of the terms related to fencing are in French. During the 16th to 18th centuries, duels were common and were sometimes fatal. During the 17th century, steps were taken to make fencing a safer sport -- the sword tip was padded, certain body parts were declared off-limits and wire-mesh masks were worn.

Fencing/swordplay is one of only four sports to be included in every modern Olympics. The sport was also featured in the ancient Olympic Games, according to the United States Fencing Association. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who wrote the original modern Olympic rules, specifically stated that fencing/swordplay should be included as a competition.

How Fencing Works

To imitate a confined castle hallway, fencing occurs on a narrow strip called a "piste." To retreat beyond the strip is considered an act of cowardice and dishonor. Professional fencers who maneuver in the strip are called masters.

Fencing matches are called "bouts." Modern bouts last just three minutes for five touches and nine minutes for 15 touches. Some historical bouts lasted as long as seven hours and were not limited by time. A touch must contain enough force to break the skin. The first master to score 5 or 15 touches (depending on the length of the bout) wins; otherwise, the person with the highest score at the end of the bout wins. Fencers who retreat across the strip receive penalties. The sport also features team play.

The Fencing Official's Commission publishes a list of fencing rules that underscore how intricate and precise the sport has become in competition. The United States Fencing Association publishes a list of fencing clubs in the U.S. for those wishing to begin fencing. The 2009 competition schedule includes eight competitions in Texas, including a wheelchair competition and the national championships. In addition to the Olympic Games, international fencing competitions include world championships and world university games. Youth fencers learn self-discipline and good sportsmanship. Fencing/swordplay requires the ability to make complex split-second decisions, so it combines physical and mental acuity.

Fencing/Swordplay Weapons

The sword's tip is the second-fastest moving object in sports, after the marksman's bullet. Three events occur in fencing/swordplay, which involve three different weapons:

  • Foil: The foil is similar to the light court swords that nobles used when they trained for duels. Thirty-five inches long, the foil weighs less than one pound and is very flexible. The arms, neck, head and legs of the opponent are considered forbidden targets. Parries and thrusts are common foil techniques. Foil fencing operates with the concept of "right of way." If both fencers score a touch at the same time, the fencer who started to attack first wins the touch. If both fencers started to attack at the same time, no one gets the touch. According to Fencing.Net, the foil is the most common weapon used in fencing/swordplay competition today. Two kinds of foils exist: the dry, non-electric foil and the electrically scored foil. Foils consist of a pommel, thumb pad, grip, guard and blade.
  • Saber: The saber (sometimes spelled sabre) descends from the cavalry sword. The edge of the saber, in addition to the point, can be used to score a point, which is a key difference from foil fencing. The opponent's hands and the body below the waist are off limits. In saber fencing, the fencer who attacks first is rewarded; thus, saber fencing is a more aggressive style of play. Fencers who use the saber are called a sabreur or sabreuse.
  • Epee: A heavier blade than a foil, the epee descends from the dueling sword. It weighs 27 ounces and is thicker than other swords used in fencing. Unlike foil fencers, epee fencers do not have right of way, so epee is usually a game of careful strategy and patience. Epee fencers rarely engage in raw, thoughtless attacks. In epee fencing, the entire body is a potential target.

Other Fencing/Swordplay Equipment

In addition to the weapon of choice, fencers use other pieces of equipment, including masks, body cords, gloves and other apparel, such as a white fencing jacket, uniform and shoes. Practice weapons are also used. A chest guard is worn for protection, and a sword guard protects the hand.

Fencers wear white because, before electronic scoring, the weapons had blue chalk mounted on their tips. When a fencer was touched, a blue mark could be seen on the white uniform, which made it easier to keep score. Fencers today are not required to wear white, but most do because of tradition.

Fencing Moves

Common fencing moves include:

  • Parry - a blocking move that blocks an opponent's blade.
  • Riposte - an "answer" to a parry -- an attempt to score.
  • Feint - a false attack.
  • En Garde - the position assumed before the fencing starts.
  • Fleche - a powerful, running attack.
  • Lunge - a common attacking move.

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