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The Art and Science of Fencing

Updated on November 6, 2009

Fencing is the art of attack and defense with such weapons as the foil, saber, and epee. In past centuries wooden weapons, such as the quarterstaff and cane, were also used. Although fencing is now a popular sport for both men and women, it is derived from ancient combat swordsmanship and the "duel to the death" of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The object of dueling was to harm the opponent and remain unharmed by his attack. The object of modern fencing is simply to touch the opponent with the weapon and remain untouched. The required timing and coordination of movements make fencing one of the most exacting of all sports.

Fencing is a popular competitive sport in many countries. Organized meets are held by schools, colleges, and fencing clubs. Most meets include both individual and team contests.

Fencing today is practiced with three weapons, the foil, the epee and the saber.

Choose Your Weapon: The Foil

foil- weighs less than 500g; target area is torso

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The non-electric foil is the basic weapon with which the principles of swordsmanship should be learned. It has a slim, flexible blade up to about 35 inches (89 cm) long with a small bell guard. The foil is a fascinating medium for the exercise of quickness of thought and movement and finesse.

In competition the button, or point, of the foil is taped or padded. Hits are valid only if they are made with the point on the body. To score a touch, the button must land squarely on the target, which is limited to the trunk of the body. Hits which arrive on the head or limbs do not count and stop subsequent hits. The first contestant to score five touches wins the bout. An advance in foil competition has been the electrification of the weapon, so that the point is depressed and the touch is registered on a special scoring device.

Foil fencing is governed by somewhat complicated conventions and rules. Besides the limited target, these rules are based on the convention that the fencer who originated an attack, has the 'right of way' until his attack is parried (deflected clear of the target) when the 'right of way' passes to his opponent for the reply or riposte. If the riposte is parried, the 'right of way' reverts to the original attacker for the 'counter-riposte', and so on through the sequence of fencing movements which form the 'phrase'. Thus if one fencer attacks and his opponent, instead of parrying the attack, makes a simultaneous hit on the attacker only the hit made by the attacker is scored since he had the 'right of way'. An exception to the foregoing occurs when a complicated attack or one made with a bent arm is initiated. If the fencer who is attacked can seize the initiative and make a 'stop hit' well before the final movement of the attack arrives, this is given priority over the attack although no parry has been made.

A simple attack (extending the sword-arm to hit the opponent's target) is easily parried, so that it is usual to precede the real attack with false attacks, called feints, to induce the opponent to form a parry prematurely and thus leave some part of the target exposed for the final or real movement of the attack to score a hit.

Foil fencing is a game of skill, speed and finesse. It is thus equally suitable for women as well as men, and both can derive much exercise and enjoyment from a bout together on much more even terms than at most other sports.

Choose Your Weapon: The Epee

épée- weighs less than 770g; target area is entire body

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The epee, or dueling sword, is similar to the foil except that it has a heavier, fluted triangular blade and a larger bell guard on the handle.

In epee fencing the complete body, from head to toe, is the target, and five touches are necessary to win the bout. Hits, with the point only, may be scored on any part of the opponent's body, head, or limbs.

Epee bouts are fenced as near to the conditions of a duel as possible; none of the conventions of foil play apply but the object is to hit the opponent before he can hit you and, if possible, without his scoring a hit at all. The fencer who hits his opponent first, scores the point. If both fencers are hit practically simultaneously a hit is scored against each because in a duel both would be wounded or dead. In order that hits can 'fix' on the wider target a pointe d'arret is affixed to the point of the epee.

Since epee bouts are judged entirely on time between the hits an electrical judging device is used in all competitions. Epee fencing is a more open, simpler and more athletic game than foil; tactics are of great importance and hits tend to be concentrated on the sword-arm and wrist as the nearest parts of the target.

Choose Your Weapon: The Saber

saber- weighs less than 500g; target area is waist-up
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The saber, unlike the foil or epee, is a weapon for cutting, as well as for thrusting. All movements are wider, simpler, and more spectacular than those made with the foil or epee.

The saber is the light Italian dueling sword. It has a half-circular guard and a flexible flattened blade with which hits can be scored with the whole of the front edge or the last third of the back edge (cuts) as well as with the point. The valid target is the head, arms and trunk down to the waist. Although it is a recognized dueling weapon, saber fencing in competitions is governed by similar conventions and rules to the foil. Stop cuts at the arm are much used and saber fencing is a game of much movement and skill with point and edge.

Foil: The thumb and index finger guide the weapon and control the point toward the valid target area, illustrated in black, which is covered with a metallic vest worn by each fencer.
Foil: The thumb and index finger guide the weapon and control the point toward the valid target area, illustrated in black, which is covered with a metallic vest worn by each fencer.
Epee: The e'pee grip is the same as foil and the valid target area includes every portion of the body, therefore no metallic vest is necessary to pinpoint the validity of any touch.
Epee: The e'pee grip is the same as foil and the valid target area includes every portion of the body, therefore no metallic vest is necessary to pinpoint the validity of any touch.
Saber: The thumb is held almost vertical on top of the handle and the valid target area includes all portions of the body above the juncture of the legs and the trunk, as illustrated.
Saber: The thumb is held almost vertical on top of the handle and the valid target area includes all portions of the body above the juncture of the legs and the trunk, as illustrated.

Target Areas

In epee, the entire body from head to feet is the target. In saber, the head, arms, and trunk of the body serve as the target. In foil the target area covers only the trunk. For purposes of instruction in blade action in foil, the target is divided into sections in relation to the position of the defensive hand in the guard stance. Two imaginary lines, one vertical and the other horizontal, meet in the center of the target dividing it into four sections. These quadrants are the open lines of attack: high outside, high inside, low outside, and low inside.

There are two guard positions for each line: tierce (third) and sixte (sixth) for high outside, quinte (fifth) and quarte (fourth) for high inside, seconds (second) and octave (eighth) for low outside, and prime (first) and septime (seventh) for low inside. In the first-named guard position for each line the fencer holds the foil with his hand in pronation (thumb to the left, fingernails down). Because most fencers hold the foil in supination (thumb to the right, fingernails up) the preferred guards are sixte and quarte.

A defender may check an attack by executing a defensive motion with the blade or guard, or both, that blocks or deflects an attempt at scoring. This hand motion is called a parry. The fencing target can be defended by eight parries, which are numbered according to the guard positions where they block the opposing blade. Therefore, the final position of each parry is the same as the guard positions. The preferred foil parries in the high lines are quarte and sixte, and the corresponding counterparries; in the low lines, septime and octave.

To "cover" a target line, or to close it to an opponent, is to engage (cross) blades in such a position that the line is blocked to a direct attack or thrust. If, for example, contact is made with the hand in sixte, it is called a sixte engagement; in quarte, a quarte engagement.

In saber fencing the target is represented by a vertical rectangle enclosing the fencer's trunk. Three sides of this rectangle require protection: the top (head) and the left and right sides. Consequently, the lines and parries are slightly different from the foil lines and parries. In saber, closing the line means parrying by moving into the line.


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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Epee isn't more athletic than foil...

    • profile image

      Cobweb Emdee from MD 

      8 years ago

      Thanks for the information! I need it for my school project and I'm also considering on taking up the sport!

    • DixieMockingbird profile image

      Jan Charles 

      8 years ago from East Tennessee

      Thank you for this - my children and I have been involved for a couple of years now and we love it!

    • chammock profile image


      8 years ago

      I have a friend who really took his hobby of fencing to the next level and created a nice eCommerce site generating a significant income. Thanks for the details you have provided. Now I can talk a little more intelligently about his passion for fencing.

    • profile image

      philip carey 61 

      9 years ago

      I've never actually taken time to understand anything about this sport. This hub was well written, and I like topics that are something other than mainstream discussions. Good work.

    • dusanotes profile image


      9 years ago from Windermere, FL

      Wow! This was so good, Paraglider, that I've decided to bookmark it and come back and really take some time learning the art of fencing. you are a very smart man. Don White

    • profile image

      Wife Who Saves 

      9 years ago

      This was a very interesting hub. I enjoy watching fencing competitions.

    • darkside profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Australia

      Forum Fencing! Love it!

      My biggest regret, this is to do with the sport fencing, not forum sparring, is that at high school we could choose fencing as a sport. The teacher, a Frenchman who was the head teacher of the Language Department taught it. His son, from what I recall, was an Olympic contender. Not sure if he won medals, but still, I'm sure his old man taught him a trick or two.

      Instead for a whole term I chose Table Tennis. What the hell was I thinking?

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Neat stuff and here I thought this would be an article about verbal sparring on the forums, but then I remembered that you tend to rise above the mud. Too bad you have inspired me to pull my two swords from storage, now all I need is a partner.


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