Fencing Information

Insider Info

dotIn the old days, some people used swords to resolve disputes. If someone insulted you or worse, you challenged them to a duel. The least bloody opponent at the end of the fight was the winner.

We have much less violent ways of settling disagreements these days. However, swordplay hasn't disappeared altogether -- it's just taken on a friendlier form called fencing.

dotFencing is the modern sport in which the goal is not to hurt someone, but to score points against an opponent. Zorro fans may be disappointed to find out modern fencing bears little resemblance to the fierce combat it used to be.

"Modern fencing is worlds removed from the historical style of swashbuckling combat," says Phil Marsosudiro, a fencing enthusiast in Colorado.

dotThere are three fencing styles: foil, epee and saber.

  • The foil is a thin and flexible blade with a bell-shaped guard to protect the fencer's hand. Points -- called touches -- are scored when you touch the opponent's torso, front and back, with the tip of the sword.There are complicated rules for "right of way" (who gets the point when two touches are made at the same time) for foil, so a referee (called a director) decides which touches are valid.
  • The epee blade is stiffer and heavier then a foil. Points are scored when the tip of the blade touches anywhere on the opponent's body. Epee is like boxing in that both fencers score points for any touches they make, and the fencer with the greatest number of points at the end of the match wins.
  • Saber is a technique dubbed "hack and slash" by experienced fencers. That's because touches can be made with the tip and the sides of the sword as long as it strikes above the waist. Like foil, saber has complicated rules for right of way, so a director has to be involved to rule on points.

"Like many fencers, I spend some time fencing all three weapons, but saber is my primary weapon. Nearly all competitive fencers concentrate on one weapon, much like competitive athletes in other sports concentrate on one position or aspect of their sport," says Marsosudiro.

The sport of fencing is fast and athletic, a far cry from the choreographed bouts you see on film or the stage.
Courtesy of: Brandeis Fencing

dotThe field of play for all types of fencing is a rectangular strip called a piste. They are usually 45 feet long and about five feet wide.

Electrical contacts within the weapons are connected (via long wires that stretch behind each fencer) to a machine that flashes a light and sounds a buzzer when a fencer's blade strikes the opponent.

dotFencing is a competitive sport since two opponents are pitted in combat. Not every fencer needs to participate in competitions, however. Many buffs may choose to fence only in clubs where the goal is the development of skill rather than victory.

"With fencing, you can choose to never leave your club gym or you can choose to go on an international competition circuit. It's really up to you," says fencing enthusiast Jessie Micales.

dotOne aspect of fencing which surprises many newcomers is how social it is.

"Fencing can also be a marvelously social sport. It's generally common to train and compete in groups of 10 or 20 or more, with individuals spending a short time in engagement with each other fencer. This group interaction breeds a kind [of] camaraderie," says Marsosudiro.

dotWhile directing pointed objects at other people may not seem very sociable, experts say there is no cause for alarm. In fact, a recent study of sports safety says fencing is second only to lawn bowling in its safety record.

"I have a friend that plays rugby. He is constantly wearing support bandages on his ankles and knees, and usually sports a few large bruises. On the whole, fencing is safer than driving to work," says Kentucky fencing buff Adam Lipcomb.

"The weapons aren't sharp and the idea isn't to hurt the other person, but to outwit them," agrees Micales.

dotFencing won't hurt your wallet much, either. A beginner's set, with gloves, sword, protective jacket and mask, will run between $100 and $200. Club costs, which include instruction and space in a gymnasium, usually run $50 to $100 per year. Club memberships may also include free use of fencing equipment.

dotPeople who fence say this is a sport that is physically accessible to almost everyone who is willing to give it a try.

"All it takes to enjoy fencing is the desire to do so. I've seen fencers with every body type and in ages ranging from four to 70. You don't have to be in great shape to do this, but if you give it some effort it will certainly improve your physical condition," says Lipcomb.

dotProfessional job openings are few and far between these days. But there are other options for those with a gift for the sword.

Fencing instructors and fencing referees are needed from the local to the Olympic level of fencing competition and training. There are often part-time positions available. People who coach often referee as well.

People interested in fencing may also find enjoyment in studying medieval and antique military history where the sword, or saber, played a big role. Teaching or museum work are options for people interested in the history of swordplay.

Getting Started

dotYou will need some training in order to get started in this sport. Learning in the company of experienced fencers, preferably a coach, will make fencing more fun.

"Novice instruction is readily available through many college courses and through local fencing clubs. Often, these groups have loaner equipment which makes it possible to try fencing for the first few months without spending money on equipment," says Marsosudiro.

dotFinding a good fencing club is important if you're serious about taking up the sport.

"It is very easy to acquire bad habits and poor technique if you do not have the guidance of a knowledgeable fencing master, coach or fellow fencer," says Micales.

dotRegardless of how you choose to learn fencing techniques, experts say the most important element of fencing is fun.

"Enjoy the sport," says Micales. "Don't expect to go out on the fencing strip the first time and come home a gold medallist. Set realistic goals for yourself."

dotMicales and other fencing enthusiasts agree that most fencing clubs are dominated by a sense of good nature, so don't be afraid to ask for assistance with problem moves.

"Most fencers I have met are delighted to welcome a newcomer to the sport and often give helpful tips after bouts," says Lipcomb.

dotJust for fun, you might want to rent sword-fighting movies like Zorro, The Three Musketeers or Rob Roy. They won't give you an accurate portrayal of fencing as a sport, but you might find them inspirational the next time you're on the mat!

dotThere are many fencing clubs in colleges, high schools and community or recreation centers across America.


United States Fencing Association
1 Olympic Plaza
Colorado Springs , CO   80909-5774

Boston Fencing Club
125 Walnut St.
Watertown , MA   02172


Fencing: Techniques of Foil, Saber and Epee,
by  Brian Pitman


Fencing Net
Find a club near you and then check out some equipment while you're at it

Fencing Footage
You can order training videos from this site

Brandeis University Fencing
Up-to-date news, schedules and photos