Often called Olympic fencing; almost exclusively amateur. Slim, light, flexible blades and sturdy protective equipment allow pure athletes to distil the renaissance combat form to a highspeed science. Since about 1900, three diverse sword arts have evolved in the hands of Italian, Spanish, French and Hungarian masters into the modern foil, sabre, and epee.
The three weapons share a common sword length and nearly identical equipment, rules, footwork and narrow, lengthwise fields of play, and each is wielded with a single hand only. But each is suited to a distinctly different personality.
The lightest of the weapons with the smallest guard. Scores with point-thrust only. The target is your opponent’s torso. When both fencers land thrusts close to the same moment, a system of attack priority determines which fencer, if any, gets the touch. These characteristics make Foil the closest in spirit to renaissance rapier play, a true martial Art of Defense.
This light weapon has a knuckle-bow guard, scores with point-thrust AND with cutting action, on your opponent from the hips upward. A system of attack priority similar to foil –but much more difficult to judge– determines which fencer, if any, gets the touch. Its roots are in Hungarian and Mongolian mounted sabre combat. It is by nature a fast-moving, swashbuckling fencing form.
Epee (duelling sword)
The heaviest of the three weapons has a big bell-guard, scores with point-thrust only on ANY PART of your opponent. Who lands the thrust first, by a fifteenth of a second, gets the touch. There are “double touches.” Its roots are in the 17c smallsword and 18c duelling-sword tradition. It is by nature a cat-and-mouse game of waiting, exact distance and picking off tiny targets like the edge of a glove peeking out from behind the guard, but like the other weapons requiring powerful, whole-body action for success.
|Two Sword Club members compete with electric foils in a USFA-sanctioned tournament. The red light shows that Terry has scored on John. The field of play is a grounded metal surface to prevent false off-target signals.|
Many of us casual fencers play with all three weapons, but serious competitors usually focus on one of the three. Nobody expects fame or fortune; there’s no money in the sport; the ultimate to be hoped for is going to the Olympics. All three of the weapons are wired for electronic scoring in tournament competition. (For more on tournaments, see the USFA or FIE on the Links page.) Non-wired weapons are commonly used for practice, lessons and casual play.
Any given evening at the Ann Arbor Sword Club, you might find any or all of the three weapons in casual use by people with between 2 and 45 years experience with them. We have electric scoring equipment for foil and epee only.
Teaching and Learning
Fencing is not widely taught in American schools. A typical class, when you can find one, e.g., at the local Y, lines you up in a a group and teaches only foil, en masse. But individual lessons are essential to get past the beginner and into the enjoyment level. Universities with varsity fencing usually have good learning and recreational opportunities.