In 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.
Fencing 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
"Modern fencing is worlds removed from the historical style of swashbuckling
combat," says Phil Marsosudiro, a fencing enthusiast in Colorado.
There 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|
The 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.
Fencing 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.
One 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.
While 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.
Fencing 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.
People 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.
Professional 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
You 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
"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.
Finding 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,"
Regardless 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
Micales 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.
Just 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!
There are many fencing clubs in colleges, high schools and community or
recreation centers across America.
United States Fencing Association
1 Olympic Plaza
Boston Fencing Club
125 Walnut St.
Fencing: Techniques of Foil, Saber and Epee,
Find a club near you and then check out some equipment while
you're at it
You can order training videos from this site
Brandeis University Fencing
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