The sport of fencing is a uniquely classic sport. It has history, drama, romance, style, art, plus all the advantages of an active, physically and mentally demanding sport.
Fencing is also fast and athletic, a far cry from the choreographed bouts seen on film or on the stage. Instead of swinging from a chandelier or leaping from balconies, you will see two fencers performing an intense dance on a six-foot by forty-foot strip. The movement occurs so quickly that the touches are scored electronically.
Fencing - The Game
Fencing is played on a metal strip, or piste, which measures approximately 2 meters wide and 14 meters long. Points, called touches, that are scored in a bout are registered on an electronic scoring machine. The machine receives an electrical impulse when the spring tip of the foil or epee is depressed or, in Sabre, when there adequate contact with the opponent by the blade. The strip is often grounded to prevent touches being accidentally scored on the playing surface.
In the preliminary rounds, or pool bouts, each fencing bout is fenced for five touches, with a time limit of 3 minutes. In the later rounds, for all events except the Youth events, each bout is fenced to a maximum of 15 touches. The bout is separated into three rounds of three minutes, with a one-minute rest period between rounds. In the event that the score is tied when time has elapsed, the referee will randomly determine priority (with a coin toss or equivalent) for one fencer. Fencing will continue for one additional minute. The first touch to score ends the bout. If the score remains tied at the end of the additional minute, the fencer with priority will win.
In Youth events, the later rounds are fenced best two out of three 5-touch bouts, of three minutes each, with a one minute rest period between bouts. In the event of a tie score at the end of time, the bout will proceed as outlined above.
After the preliminary rounds, the fencers who are promoted will be seeded into a direct elimination table. In some formats, the winner advances, and the loser is out. In other formats, it requires two losses to be eliminated. In the format that is most common in National competition, the direct elimination continues until 32 fencers remain, and then, two losses are required to be eliminated.
Foil, epee, and sabre are the three weapons used in the sport of fencing. Foil and epee are point-thrusting weapons. Sabre is a point thrusting as well as a cutting weapon. The target areas differ for the three weapons, though all three are scored electronically.
The foil has a flexible rectangular blade, approximately 35 inches in length, weighing less than one pound. Points are scored with the tip of the blade and must land within the torso of the body.
The valid target area in foil is the torso, from the shoulders to the groin, front and back. It does not include the arms, neck, head and legs. The foil fencer's uniform includes a metallic vest, called a lamé, which covers the valid target area, so that a valid touch will register on the scoring machine. A small, spring-loaded tip is attached to the point of the foil and is connected to a wire within the blade. The fencer wears a body cord inside the uniform, which connects the foil to a reel wire, connected to the scoring machine. A touch on the valid surface will register a colored light on the scoring machine. A touch on the non-valid surface will register a white light.
The epee (pronounced "EPP-pay"), the descendant of the dueling sword, is similar in length to the foil, but is heavier, weighing approximately 27 ounces, with a larger guard (to protect the hand from a valid hit) and a much stiffer blade. Touches are scored only with the point of the blade. The entire body is the valid target area.
The blade is wired with a spring-loaded tip at the end that completes an electrical circuit when it is depressed beyond a pressure of 750 grams. This causes the colored bulb on the scoring machine to light. Because the entire body is a valid target area, the epee fencer's uniform does not include a lamé.
The sabre is the modern version of the slashing cavalry sword, and is similar in length and weight to the foil. The major difference is that the sabre is a thrusting weapon as well as a cutting weapon (allowing use of the blade in addition to the tip in scoring). The target area is from the bend of the hips (both front and back), to the top of the head, simulating the cavalry rider on a horse. The sabre fencer's uniform includes a lamé, which covers the target area, to register a valid touch on the scoring machine. The mask is different from foil and epee, with a metallic covering as the head is valid target area.
Touches that arrive on the valid surface register a colored light on the scoring machine. Off-target hits register a white light on the scoring machine.
There are five lines painted on the strip. Two meters on either side of the centerline are the en garde lines. The fencers begin each touch of the bout behind these lines. Three meters behind the en garde line is the beginning of the warning area. This two-meter area is brightly marked and serves to remind fencers that they are approaching the end line of the strip. Passing the end line with both feet during a bout counts as being touched.
The Three Skills:
The sport involves three basic skills: blade work, footwork, and tactics. These skills can be learned at any age and a good fencer is always striving to improve them. Physical size is not considered an important factor due to the nature of the game and the variety of ways in which touches can be scored. Successful fencers come in all shapes and sizes.
1. Blade work is perhaps the most difficult of the essential skills to master. It permits a skilled fencer to deceive opponents and reach the target despite the opponent's attempts to defend against it.
2. Footwork, the most physically demanding of the skills, is the one which permits a fencer to move into appropriate positions and distances to allow effective utilization of blade work to touch the opponent and to allow the fencer to "get away" to avoid the opponent's attack.
3. Tactics consist of the plans and counter plans utilized by fencers to coordinate use of blade work and footwork against the fencing styles of opponents.
The Individual Competitions: At an individual event, all of the entries are seeded based on past performance in USA Fencing and international (Federation Internationale d'Escrime or FIE) competitions. They are divided into pools of five to seven fencers, which are balanced for strength and club separation based on the seed. Each fencer in the pool will fence a bout against each of the other members of the pool. After completion of the pool, a predetermined number of its members will be elevated to the next round.
After the pools are concluded, the promoted fencers will be organized from best record to worst into an elimination table of 16, 32, 64 or 128 fencers. This may be fenced in a single or double elimination tableau. In a single elimination, a fencer losing against an opponent is eliminated form the tournament. In double elimination, a fencer is eliminated after two losses. The finals of an event are fenced as a single elimination table of eight fencers.
Team Competitions: At a team event, two, three, or four person teams plus one permitted alternate are fielded by clubs, schools, or countries and are seeded based on the strength of the fencers comprising the teams. The preliminary round(s) are fenced under the pool format and the later rounds are usually fenced with a single elimination format.
In a team match, each of the fencers on the team fences each of the fencers on the other team. Scoring is "relay" style. In Relay, the first thee minute bout is fenced until one fencer has 5 touches. The second bout is fenced until one fencer has ten touches, and so on, until a final score of 45 is reached. It is possible for one fencer to score more than 5 touches in a single bout. Should the score be tied at the end of the final bout, priority is determined by the referee, and an additional minute is fenced.
The rules are divided into four basic categories:
1. The strip rules dealing with the position of the fencers.
All fencing action takes place on the fencing strip, as described earlier. The director will stop the bout each time a fencer crosses the lateral boundaries of the strip with one or both feet, or passes an opponent while remaining on the strip.
When a fencer leaves the strip with one or both feet, that fencer is penalized one meter of distance, the opponent advancing one meter from the point occupied at the moment the infraction occurred. If this distance penalty caused the fencer to retreat beyond the end line of the strip, the fencer is counted as being touched.
2. The rules of right-of-way, which determine priority in foil and sabre if both fencers make a touch during the same action.
The rules of right-of-way in judging the priority of hits made in foil and sabre fencing are based on the generalized theory that an individual being threatened with a real sword will first defend against the attack before initiating offensive action.
The following are listed in order of priority:
- A point in line is a fully extended arm - pointing toward the valid target of the opponent and must be in place prior to initiation of an opponent's attack and has the highest priority. The valid target in foil is both the front and back of the torso, and in sabre it is the body above the hips. An advance or retreat by an individual who has established a point in line has no effect on the priority. An attack is an offensive action made with the arm extending and the point threatening the valid target of the opponent. The attack continues to have priority until it misses the opponent, the opponent parries, or the weapon arm is retracted.
- A parry is the defensive action made by deflecting the blade of the attacker away from the target. After successfully parrying the attack, the defender has the right-of-way to attempt a touch in turn.
- A riposte is an action technically executed in the same manner as an attack, but which must be preceded by a parry.
- A defender may also respond to an attack by making a counter attack. Although a counter attack is technically executed in the same way as an attack, the counter attacker does not initiate the action but is merely responding to the attacker. The counter attack does not have priority over the attack. Therefore, if both fencers arrive on the target, only the action of the attacker will be considered. If, however, the attacker fails to hit either valid or invalid target, the action of the counter attacker will be counted, and, if it arrives on the valid target, the fencer executing the counter attack will be awarded the touch.
In sabre fencing, off-target hits are not registered on the machine and therefore do not stop the bout.
In epee, there is no right-of-way or limited target area. The point simply awarded to the first fencer that hits the opponent, anywhere on the body. If both fencers hit simultaneously, a point is awarded to both fencers.
In all three weapons, the bout is over when one fencer reaches 5 or 15 touches, or time expires.
3. The penalty rules list the infractions for which touches may be added to the score of the opponent or annulled from the fencer who scored while committing an infraction. More severe sanctions may be awarded for serious offenses.
4. The organizational rules regulate the manner of conducting a competition.
Penalties are divided into four categories.
All Category One penalties are interdependent. Upon the first occurrence of an offense during a bout, the fencer is warned and receives a yellow card. Committing any additional offense during the bout will result in the offender receiving a red card and the opponent receiving a penalty touch.
All Category Two penalties are also interdependent. A fencer is given a red card upon first and any subsequent infraction during a bout.
Both Category One and Two infractions result in the annulment of a touch made by the offending fencer while committing the offense.
Category Three penalties may be assessed for infractions against safety or the order of the competition. Such infractions can result in penalty touches (red card) or expulsion (black card) from the competition.
The Category Four penalties involve unsportsmanlike conduct, using fraudulently modified equipment, collusion or brutality. The infractions result in automatic expulsion (black card) from the competition.
A complete listing of infractions and penalties can be found in the USA Fencing Rulebook.
Two types of officials are present at competitions: the Referees and the Bout Committee. The Referee describes the actions made by the fencers and awards the touches based on the rules of priority and registration of touches on the scoring machine. They are also responsible for awarding penalties. The Bout Committee is responsible for seeding the participants, establishing the format of the competition and resolving rules disputes.
How to Follow the Action
For those new to fencing, it is difficult to follow the lightning speed of the fencers' actions. To become more comfortable in watching a fencing bout, focus on one fencer. The fencer being attacked defends himself by use of a parry, a motion used to deflect the opponent's blade, after which the defender can make a riposte, an answering attack. Thus, the two adversaries keep changing between offense and defense. Whenever a hit is made, the referee will stop the bout, describe the actions, and decide whether or not to award a touch, and to whom.
Fencers seek to maintain a safe distance from each other, that is, out of range of the other's attack. One will try to break this distance to gain the advantage for an attack. At times, a fencer will make a false attack to gauge the types of reactions by the opponent for the real attack.
As you become accustomed to the speed of the game, the tactics and strategies become more apparent, and you will gain a better understanding of the finesse and fascination of fencing!
Spectators at Tournaments
Fencing events generally take all day. Unless your fencer does not move up from the initial rounds (pools), you can expect to spend a great deal of time in the venue. Be patient. The Bout Committee (BC) is working to get the event moving as fast as they can. Bring something that will help you pass the time - a book, knitting, a laptop, etc., and dress comfortably.
Encourage the fencer to rest, drink water, and perhaps eat something light while waiting between rounds. Bring a cooler of food and water if possible; most local venues do not offer food service. There are products made for coolers that are in the form of a 'blanket'. This can serve double duty: keeping the food and water cool and, as needed, for placing on an injury.
There are usually few seats available to spectators in venues. Bring your own folding chair or stool and use it. DO NOT take chairs meant for athletes. They need somewhere to sit between bouts to rest their legs. Placing a towel over their legs will help keep the muscles warm.
The athlete's anxiety may be high; your job is to provide a calm environment. They will absorb any anxiety you exude. Be supportive of your fencer no matter what the outcome of the tournament. Every tournament is a learning experience. If you are a parent, discuss with your fencer what they have learned and what they will work to improve upon.
What to Bring to a Tournament
Fencing equipment listed below. Other items to consider: Medical Insurance Card and emergency contacts (especially for children travelling without their parents); small bills, checkbook and/or credit card/ATM debit card; books or other hobby/activity to pass the time while you are waiting; Band-Aids; feminine hygiene products; mineral ice; batteries; sharpie/permanent marker; ice packs; water bottle; hair ties; camera with high-speed film; power cord; cell phone; and any other items you feel essential to you or your child's well being.
Regional Youth Circuit, Super Youth Circuit
The Regional Youth Circuit (RYC) gives young fencers the opportunity to gain more experience before moving on to higher-level tournaments. The RYC & Super youth Circuit Events are an excellent opportunity to compete against young fencers from varying regions. The RYC are a qualifying path to participate in the North Cup Tournament and Summer Nationals. The Super Youth Circuit events are an opportunity for young fencers to earn points and be placed on the National Rolling Point Standings (NRPS). Points can also be earned at a North American Cup event, Junior Olympics, and Summer Nationals. For more information on the Regional Youth Program please visit http://www.usfencing.org/ryc-resources.
Once you are performing locally at a consistent level and improvements are solid, you may be ready to consider competing at a national tournament. USA Fencing runs several national tournaments: North American Cup (NAC), Junior Olympics, and Summer Nationals. National tournaments have entry rules/qualification paths that must be met before entering the tournament. These entry rules/qualifying paths are listed in chapter one and chapter two of the Athlete Handbook.
A young fencer's first start at a national tournament should be in their age category. This might mean trying to qualify for the summer nationals. (See qualifying paths in Athlete Handbook). They should not push themselves to compete in every age event for which they qualify; the same guidelines should apply as for local events. You and the coach should discuss what events would fit best in the overall training scheme.
Send the entry forms for National tournaments in a timely manner. Late entries require a triple late fee (3x the total amount due.) There are numerous ways to send in an entry. You may fax your entry form to the National Office (request fax back of receipt of your entry) or mail (enclose a self-addressed postcard). If you send via mail, we recommend using any service with a tracking number. Note that sending anything return-receipt requested tends to take longer to get to the recipient. Priority mail allows one to track the status of the packet and know when it arrives at the USA Fencing office.
Tournament confirmation materials sent to you by USA Fencing have important information such as date, time of your event and directions to the venue and host hotel. Host hotels fill up quickly so make your hotel reservations as early as possible after you have sent in your entry form.
Hotel and transportation information can usually be found on the USA Fencing website. Plan to arrive at least one full day prior to the start of your event and leave the day after your last event. Taking the last flight of the day before an event is ill advised (due to possible flight cancellations). Never make travel arrangements on the same day as an event. Events may run longer than expected and the added stress of catching a flight is likely to affect your performance. Leaving an event before the athlete has been eliminated results in a black card. This means that your name will not appear on the results list that is posted on the web, having been replaced by the words FENCER EXCLUDED.
Nota Bene: recent events make traveling more arduous so have all photo identification easily accessible. Some airlines have implemented new restrictions on non-refundable fares. Check with your airline about this prior to traveling.
Once you have earned national points and reached a certain level in the national point standings, you may be eligible for international competition. Generally the top eight athletes in the junior or senior points standings are able to compete in World Cups. World Cups are tournaments for top-level junior and senior fencers from around the world to meet and compete.
In many cases, an athlete's first exposure to international competition is at a Cadet Designated Competition. Each weapon will typically have 1-3 Cadet international competitions per season. Typically the top 12 fencers on the Cadet point standings are eligible.
Athletes may not enter themselves in World Cups. All entries must come from the fencing federation of each country. In addition, athletes must apply for an FIE license which is obtainable from the USA Fencing. An application to be considered for a world cup must be submitted to USA Fencing. The athlete is responsible for expenses to and from World Cups. The Junior and Senior world cup schedule for each season is posted on the USA Fencing website as well as on the FIE web site (http://fie.org/) by mid summer preceding the start of the new season.
It can also be found in the Athlete Handbook accompanying the criteria for participating in World Cups. The Athlete Handbook is an excellent guide for rules and regulations regarding international fencing.
Making a World Team
There are various world teams that athletes may strive to earn a spot on, including the Olympics, Senior World Championships, Junior World Championships, Cadet World Championships, Pan American Games, Junior and Cadet Pan American Championships, and occasionally World University Games. Selection criteria for these competitions can be found in the Athlete Handbook.
Equipment Fencers Need
Selection of fencing equipment is a key issue among coaches, parents and fencers. When purchasing and fitting fencing equipment, the fencer should be adequately protected and the uniform should allow freedom of movement to properly perform the necessary skills.
A full set of fencing equipment can be purchased for a relatively reasonable cost. You need not buy the most expensive equipment in order to be protected and enjoy the sport. You may inquire at your local fencing club to see if used equipment is available. Properly maintained equipment can normally be resold. Some clubs may provide basic equipment for their novice classes.
You do NOT need to own FIE equipment. FIE equipment is only required for international events.
The following is a list of minimum required equipment to ensure you have. Check weapons to make sure they are working before you leave for a tournament; don't go to any event with non-working weapons. While it may seem compulsive, you should check them again upon arrival; equipment can be affected by travel.
- Mask (sewn-in bib, must pass 12K punch test)
- Underarm protector
- Chest Protector (mandatory for women)
- Jacket (no holes, must close in back or opposite weapon arm)
- Knickers (no holes, must close in back or opposite weapon arm, must be overlapped by jacket by at least four inches)
- Glove (no holes except for body cord. Must cover approximately half the forearm)
- Long socks (white, must reach bottom of your knickers- soccer socks work well)
- Fencing shoes or sneakers
- Minimum two working weapons (epees must pass weight and shim test)
- Y10 fencers must use weapons with blades that are no longer than 32.5 inches. This includes both genders, and all three weapons.
- Minimum two working body cords
- Fencing Bag (to carry your equipment in)
- Water Bottle
- Towel and plastic bag to hold wet equipment
- Tool Kit (screwdrivers for tip and pommel, spare screws, springs, Allen wrenches, small white cloth to use as base, small magnet, flashlight) -Test Box, weight, and shims will help avoid penalties on the strip for nonworking equipment
Put identification on all your equipment!
Wash whites in cold water and on a medium spin. Hang to dry.
Lamés may be hung in the shower and spray rinsed and drip dry; some people use blow dryers.
Masks may be washed in dishwashers (make sure to wash by itself).
Washable gloves and socks per normal wash.