Fencing, the art of swordplay, developed in the 15th century when gunpowder had rendered armor obsolete. Skill and speed with a sword took precedence over strength. Defense became as important as attack. Originally, a sword duel was as subtle and graceful as a cat fight. Kicking, secret thrusts, multiple weapons, and an occasional thrown chair were all part of the action. Eventually, the brawl was refined to an art with different styles developing in Spain, France, and Italy. As the weapons became lighter, the movements of fencing became more precise. Duels became tests of skill to settle a matter of honor. However, as dueling was outlawed in Europe and the US, fencing became a competitive sport with blunted tips replacing deadly points.
Swordfighting has been highly romanticized in our culture through books and movies of swashbuckling heroes. Due to this, the inexperienced fencing spectator usually expects to see a recreation of the final scene from an Errol Flynn movie. Modern fencing might confuse those not familiar with the sport. The following is a brief guide to modern fencing which explains the equipment used, the conduct of a competition, and how to enjoy being a spectator.
Modern fencing uses three weapons, each with their own characteristics: the foil, a light court sword; the epee, a heavier dueling weapon; and the sabre, a light cutting sword. Bouts are fought until one fencer is touched (hit) five times. The bouts are three minutes in duration, conducted on a fencing strip that is 14 meters long and 2 meters wide. The foil and epee are point weapons that use electricity to register touches. Each weapon’s tip has a button which when depressed connects a circuit which lights up a scoring machine near the strip. Sabre, a cutting weapon, has also become electrified; the blade itself carries a small current and a circuit within the scoring machine determines the whether the touch arrived. The target areas and other characteristics for each of these weapons are diagramed in the illustration.
Each bout is presided over by a referee. He or she controls the fencers and awards the touches aided by the scoring machine. At the beginning and end of each bout, fencers keep the traditional honor associated with the sport by saluting each other and the referee with their weapons. Each fencer wears protective clothing and a strong wire mask that help make fencing one of the safest sports.
After the commands of “En garde. Ready? Fence.” by the referee, the fencers move up and down the strip keeping a “fencing distance” away from each other until one closes with an attack. When watching the sport, the spectator will notice two main actions: the thrust by the attacking fencer and the parry, or blocking of the opponent’s blade, by the defending fencer. The role of attacker and defender will switch rapidly with quick movements that often elude the eye. Spectators are advised to watch one particular fencer to learn how to discern the various actions. At the end of a bout, fencers will shake hands. Even after the heat of a competition in a combat sport, honor and respect for your opponent are very important.
Fencing is an Olympic sport which has been dominated by the Europeans. The United States has been steadily improving in the development of world class fencers. The United States Fencing Association (USFA) is the governing body of the sport in the US. Each year they hold the National Fencing Championships and the National Junior Olympic Championships in addition to many other tournaments.
Fencing is a sport for men and women of all ages. Where a youth might have speed and agility, an older fencer will have experience and cunning. The combination of both these abilities makes the complete fencer.