En Garde: An Introduction to Sport Fencing

Two men meet on a field of honor, their blades at ready. In a moment, they will be at each other, each trying desperately to find a weakness in their opponent’s defense so that their blade might find it’s mark. A signal is given, and the duel begins; a spectator has but a single question as the fight wears on. “What’s with those funny pants?”

For a spectator, sport fencing might seem to be quite a confusing game. There aren’t any teams to root for, and the action of the sport is more of a flurry of motion than most other sports; even the competitors themselves can seem confusing, as they’re most likely dressed in almost the same outfits. Once you learn what is that you’re watching, though, the excitement of fencing can become evident.

The first thing that you should know about fencing is the goal of the bouts. To put it simply, each competitor has a sword, and the pointy end goes into the other guy. In other words, the goal is to score points on the opponent, while preventing that same opponent from scoring points. Points are scored in different ways depending upon the weapon being used, but in the end the basic movements are the same.

And yes, before you ask, I did say that it depends upon the weapon being used. There are actually three weapons that can be used in sport fencing… the foil, the sabre, and the epee. The foil is straight and thin, and is the stereotypical fencing weapon; points are scored by making a hit with the tip of the weapon, anywhere on the torso of the body. The sabre is also long and thin, but has an added edge to it to simulate the cutting edge of a real sword. Sabres score points with either a hit by the point or by a hit from the “cutting edge” of the blade to the body from the waist up (including the arms and head.) The epee is the weapon that’s designed to look the most like a rapier, with a wider tapered blade, and scores hits with the tip, anywhere on the body.

Of course, since the weapons are made of metal, safety equipment has to be used. The fencing jackets, knickers (that’s those tight white pants that fencers wear, that cover the waist, upper legs, and knees), and even the gloves are made of puncture-resistant materials, and the masks are made of metal mesh or scratch-and-puncture resistant plastics. Equipment is routinely tested before competition, and should it fail the test must either be repaired satisfactorily or replaced before the fencer can compete again.

Once a fencer has suited up and is on the fencing strip (also known as a piste, or the marked-off boundary within which all of the action takes place), they are asked to salute by the bout director. Traditionally, competitors will be asked to salute the director, the audience, and each other before the bout begins, but in practice situations most fencers will only salute their opponents. Once they have saluted, they go to their “en garde” position (also known as a first position, or the ready position) and the director calls for the beginning of the bout.

Action in a fencing bout can often blur together; sometimes, it is all that a director can do to watch the bout and be able to call the action when a point is scored. It is usually recommended for the casual observer to simply watch the actions of one or the other of the fencers, so that they’ll be able to better follow the action. Choose a single competitor, and watch what they do; each parry, each thrust, each step often has meaning that might seem strange given the movement’s simplicity.

In reality, there are actually quite a small number of movements that make up the majority of fencing motions. There are around 8 basic parries (or defensive motions), with 2 or 3 more advanced parries thrown in for good measure, and only a few variations on basic attacks. Even the footwork is somewhat simple, with only around 4 or 5 basic steps. Of course, all of these motions are sewn together (almost) effortlessly, often in hopes of creating a certain response from the competition… as quickly as the movements can happen in a fencing bout, they are sometimes planned 2, 3, or more moves in advance. An apparent mistake can often end up being an elaborate trap set by one of the competitors, simply waiting for their opponent to take what they think is an open opportunity to attack.

Fencing bouts usually range from 5 to 15 points per bout, with 5-point bouts allowed 3 minutes and 15-point bouts allowed 3 of the 3-minute periods, with a minute of rest time in between each. While that may not seem like a long time, when you’re on the strip it can seem like the longest 3 minutes of your life.

Should you get the chance to watch a live fencing bout, take it. Should you get the chance to watch fencing on tv, take it but remember that it’s hard to capture all of the intensity of a fencing bout on camera. And if you ever get the chance to start fencing yourself, keep one thing in mind: Victory isn’t measured in wins or losses; it’s all in the clash of the blade.

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