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Basics of Foil Fencing

Updated on February 10, 2009

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Foil Fencing

Attack in Fencing

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Basics of Foil Fencing

Fencing as a pure sport began only in the 18th century. Before that, the art of swordsmanship was studied for its practical utility- as a weapon to settle disputes, for instance. The original swords were primarily for cutting and slashing, and were heavy, the better to be able to cut through armor. The development of gunpowder in the 15th century, however, canceled the advantage of armor, giving rise to lighter and better- balanced swords, which, in turn, put premium on sword- handling skills. The musket rendered swords obsolete in warfare, but the need for self protection from robbers and the rise are in the popularity of duels assured the continuity of the sword. Fencing schools flourished, with masters enjoying immense social prestige.

It was not until the 16th century, however, that thrusting weapons gained ascendancy. Faster and deadlier, the weapon thus developed, the rapier, nonetheless was primarily an offensive weapon, defense being left to a buckler or cloak held in the left hand.

Later, the use of a single weapon for both offense and defense became popular, resulting in the modern fencing position with the body sideways to provide the smallest target, and to make possible the lunge. Then in the beginning of the 17th century, the Italians introduced the riposte or the counteroffensive after the parry, rounding off what we know today as fencing with thrusting weapons. The French in the 17th century introduced the foil.

Fencing as a Sport.

Credit for making foil fencing as a distinct sport complete with rules goes to D. Angelo and G. Danet who wrote treatises on fencing in the 18th century for gentlemen who wanted to learn to fence foil. The weapon used was the foil, which came with a metal mask with an eye slit providing protection to the face. The rules revolve around the confining of legitimate targets to the torso, and the orderly “give and take” following the of rules Right of Way: the attack had the Right of Way until it was parried, the defender’s riposte had the Right of Way until parried to, and so on. The Italians and French were the acknowledged masters, and tournaments were organized that approached royal proportions. Throughout the 19th century, outstanding fencers were all foil fencers.

Fundamentals of Foil Fencing.

The position of his opponent’s defensive hand determines the open lines of attack for the fencer. There are four possibilities: high-outside, high-inside, low-outside, low-inside. For each line, there are two guards: 3rd and 6th for high-outside, 1st and 4th for high-inside, 2nd and 8th for low-outside, and 5th and 7th for low-inside. In the first-named guard for each line, the weapon is held in pronation (with the fingernails down), although many prefer holding the weapon in supination (with the fingernails up), with the preferred guards being 6th and 4th. At 6th, the fencer has his elbow turned in around 6 to 9 inches in front of the flank, the weapon held so that it forms a straight line from elbow to tip. In this position, the tip is level with and slightly to the right of the opponent’s mask.


The simplest attack is the lunge. If the blades engage, the attacker may, by a small movement of the tip, slip his point into an open line. He may accomplish the same by exerting force upon his opponent’s blade and gliding his own along it. A third way would be to force an opening by a beat. The weapon held in supination causes the blade to form an upper arc upon connecting with the target.


In the face of an attack, two options are available to the defender: move away by retreating or sidestepping, or parrying. The latter is the preferred response, as it wins the right to riposte. The defender’s parries may be straight or circular. By making a blocking movement or a sharp beat executed with the elbow remaining in place, the defender makes a straight parry. The circular or counterparry is executed by drawing a small circle with the point that that picks up the attacker’s blade and brings it back to the guard position from which the parry was begun.

The favored parries in the high lines are the 4th and 6th, and the relevant counterparries. The ones favored in the low lines are the 7th and 8th.

The attacker wouldn’t want to give the defender the chance to counterparry, so he may attack so fast at close range, giving the defender no time to parry. He may pretend to attack, causing his opponent to move to parry, and catching him on his riposte, scoring on the counterriposte. By a bind or envelopment, he may control the opponent’s blade, catching his opponent’s blade at the third nearest the point where it is weakest with the third of his blade nearest the guard where it is strongest, rendering it ineffective with a circular or a semi-circular motion.


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