So you've seen sword fights in movies, from Star Wars to The Princess Bride or Zorro and you've wondered about starting fencing, but think it might be difficult? Well, it's probably a lot easier than you think!
First off, fencing is safe. When you start you'll be sore, unless you are already fit and used to exercise. You'll also suffer some bruising, until your classmates learn how to fence properly. Apart from that, you should never suffer an injury. One day of paintball should see you suffering more bruises than the first 6 months of fencing.
Secondly, it's fun. It's one of the few activities that exercises your body and your mind at the same time. It's true when they say fencing is like physical chess. Only the moves aren't on a board, you have to perform them with your body and your sword. Having said that, you don't need to be fit when you start, and it's entirely up to you to what level you take it. As long as you enjoy yourself, there's no particular need to reach for the Olympics.
International fencing is regulated by the FIE, or the Federation Internationale d'Escrime, w ww.fie.ch, which is based in France. Seeing as the French don't like anyone else, especially the English, they don't have an English version of their website, but you can get a full translation of the rules, as well as other cool stuff, from the website of the British Fencing Association at w ww.britishfencing.com
A Short Short History
You're probably aware that modern sport fencing is the descendant of European sword art as practised in times past, way back when swords were actually used as weapons, both in war and for self defence. Whilst this is no longer the case in many places in the world, fencing remains a fun and invigorating way to train your body and test your mind against those of other human beings.
It's not the purpose of this guide to introduce you to a history of fencing. Suffice to say that while modern sport fencing shares many things with the age-old arts, including the way you train, the goals are different and so the way you fence will be different too. You're not fighting for your life, just for fun and points (and hey, possibly a medal or two). The sport of fencing has more in common with fencing training than fencing itself, even when you're competing. Otherwise, competitions would include hanging from chandeliers and using chairs as shields ;-)
For a good, but brief, introduction to the history, check the Usenet Fencing FAQ at w ww.faqs.org/faqs/sports/fencing-faq but for more comprehensive info you should check your local library or a bookstore.
Competing and Scoring
A bout typically consists of two opponents fencing to 5 touches. If you touch your opponent with your sword, you score a point. If they touch you first, they score a point. The first to 5 points wins, and if no one has scored 5 touches by 3 minutes, whoever is ahead at the end wins. Draws are decided by sudden death. In a typical competition, entrants will be split into pools and will have to fence everyone in their pool, then will be ranked on their win/loss ratio and points for/against. Ranked entrants will then enter an elimination round. Eliminator bouts are fenced to 15 points, with 3 sets of 3 minutes, seperated by 1 minute rest periods, if necessary.
In training, scoring is typically done by a referee and opponents will use their steam weapons. This means their weapons are non-electric. A touch is scored if the ref sees it, or if the opponent feels it and admits it (which fencers are encouraged to do). Electric scoring is usually done in competitions, and involves using electric weapons which are connected by cable to scoring boxes. A ref is still involved to interpret phrases (a fancy fencing term for a single set of exchanges leading to a stop in play) and to record the score.
When fencing, opponents move back and forth along a strip or piste. No great degree of lateral movement is allowed, as there's not much point to this "in real life", it just wastes time and allows your opponent to spin to face you much faster than you'd be able to circle them.
There are three weapons in modern sports fencing. They are the foil, epee and sabre. Blades consist of a pommel (the very back), a hilt (the handle you hold), a guard (the bell-shaped thing protecting your fist) and the blade. The blade itself is pliable, and will bend normally under pressure. As such you can thrust at someone with force and not pierce them. Eventually, all blades will become brittle with use, probably rusty, and will one day break. A good blade should last you at least a year, if you use it frequently. Poor blades might break within a few months. All blades these days are designed such that if you break them - and you will - they form a flat break. If they broke during a thrust and the break was jagged, it would increase the possibility of piercing someone.
Electric foils and epees have a little button on the end which depresses to register a hit when you touch someone. Electric sabres do not have this button, as any part of the blade can score points.
This is variously described as descended from the epee training sword or the European small sword, but regardless, this is traditionally the weapon most people begin with. If you're sure which weapon you want to learn, then by all means begin with that weapon, there's nothing wrong with that. But if you're not, then the foil is the logical starting point, because it shares more in common with the epee and sabre than they do with each other, so it's easier to change.
The foil has a thin, flexible blade with a square cross-section and a small bell guard. When fencing the foil, opponents may attack only the torso of their opponent and the groin. Attacks to the head, arms and legs are off-target and do not attract points. When fencing electric, a light, metal-mesh jacket is worn covering the target area, to allow the blade to complete a circuit with the jacket so the scoring box can register a touch. When an off-target hit is registered, the ref halts the bout and seperates the fencers before resuming. When an on-target hit is registered, a point is usually awarded and the fencers return to their starting lines to begin again.
Points may only be scored by the tip of the foil and not the edge. Foil bouts attract the "Right of Way" rule.
The epee, French for "sword", is the traditional rapier. It is flatter, heavier and less flexible than the foil and all areas of the body can be legitimately targeted. As such no jacket is worn in electric epee as you can hit your opponent anywhere you like and the touch counts as a point. Like the foil, however, the epee can only score touches with the point of the blade and not the edge. Since the hand is a legitimate target area, epees have a much larger bell guard usually covering the entire fist. Epee does not attract the "Right of Way" rule and is therefore generally faster-paced than foil, as well as allowing the scoring of simultaneous points.
The sabre is descended from the cavalry sabre, which is descended from the naval cutlass, which in turn is descended from the Turkish scimitar. As such it has always been an edged weapon and points can be scored with the edge or the tip, i.e. the entire blade. Unlike the other weapons, it has a triangular cross-section, with the sharp edge generally used for slashes (even though in sports fencing it is actually blunt) and the back edge used for parries, or blocks. The point can also be used, but as the blade is shorter than the foil or epee, this is not done as often. Sabre bouting also attracts the "Right of Way" rule.
In sabre, the target area consists of the entire body above the waist. This is a throwback to mounted cavalry, when there wasn't much point attacking someone's legs which were flush with the side of a horse. They're difficult to hit, and you might hurt the horse, which was often seen as bad form (although in practise people targetted horses all the time - they just didn't brag about it). As such sabreurs wear a metal mesh jacket that doesn't include a groin piece, but has sleeves, as well as a special mask and gloves that conduct electricity.
Right of Way
To keep sports fencing, or fencing training, a good practise for getting out there and duelling people for real hundreds of years ago, "Right of Way" was invented. This is a rule that says if you start an attack against your opponent, then your opponent cannot score a point by attacking you, even if they are successful in finishing their attack first and touching you for a point.
Think about it this way: Your opponent starts attacking you. You're at risk of death.You can either parry the attack, or attack them in return. No sane person would allow the attack to continue, because the risk of death is just too high, so to keep the bout realistic, the rules say you must parry or evade the attack before you can launch an attack of your own.
The upshot of this is that if your opponent attacks you, and you respond by counterattacking and even manage to be quicker and touch them first, they still get the point, and not you. This rule applies to both foil and sabre. The final arbiter of who had right of way in any particular phrase is the referee.
Epee avoids this rule by claiming to be "more realistic" in that it has as few rules as possible, just like real life. Seeing as both foil and epee are sports forms of original swordplay, it's entirely up to you which one you prefer. In practice, epee ends up having very different tactics than foil, because of the rule differences.
The Four Guard Positions, Attacking and Footwork
The main four guard positions you will learn are carte, sixte, septime and octave, representing the four quadrants of the body. Sixte is upper right, carte upper left, octave is lower right and septime is lower left. You will usually begin a bout by holding your sword to cover sixte position, and will parry by moving from one position to another, depending on which quarter of your body your opponent attacks.
An attack in foil and epee consists of extending your arm to touch your opponent with the point. If you execute your attack from a distance, then you must lunge at the same time as extending your arm. A lunge consists of stepping forward with your front foot and leaning down by bending your front knee. This serves to extend your attack further than otherwise.
An attack in sabre can take the form of point attacks, as described above, or slash attacks. Because of this, sabre sometimes bears some resemblance to stick fighting.
A riposte is the name of an attack that immediately follows a parry. So if your opponent attacks you and you manage to parry this attack to the side, and then launch an attack of your own, this is called a riposte. A counterattack is when you launch an attack without bothering to parry first, and this is done a lot in epee. You can do it in foil too, but Right of Way means that you had better have evaded your opponents initial attack or else you're wasting your time.
Footwork is a little difficult to describe without pictures. Tradtional clubs will require you to practice footwork and moves (without a sword) for a year or two before you are allowed to use a weapon. As fencing is not very popular in Australia and clubs wish to encourage as much interest as possible, training with weapons is almost immediate. It also means the fun starts a lot earlier too.
The basic stance involves pointing your front foot toward your opponent and placing your back foot at 90 degrees to the front one, with the heels in line, knees bent and feet about shoulder-width apart. Fencers will usually advance toward one another in order to threaten with their weapons, and this involves stepping foward with the front foot first, then bringing up the back foot. Feet do not usually cross. Retreating is done with the back foot moving backward first, then bringing back the front foot. Apart from being a good way to increase distance, retreating is usually done simultaneously with a parry, in order to minimise the chance of being touched.
A full set of new and at least decent quality fencing equipment will set you back about $1500, but don't let that deter you, you won't need it all straight away. Check out w ww.jgfencesport.com for typical pricing. You should be able to borrow as much club equipment as you need to when you join, but if you like it enough to stick with it then it's best to buy the following:
- a steam foil or other weapon of choice; you'll get sick of breaking the old ones at the club and annoying everyone, and besides, it's nice to have one which has a grip you've especially chosen. A new one will set you back about $100, or a second hand one from someone at the club or eBay will fetch much less. Note that very old or very rusty blades might break quickly, but might still be worthwhile if they're cheap enough.
- a glove for your weapon hand; it'll fit better if you picked it yourself and be less scungy. A new one shouldn't cost more than about $45, and again, you can buy them second hand. At least second hand gloves aren't likely to break!
- a mask; this is the protective head gear you wear and will cost about $280 brand new. It's expensive but you don't want to skimp where your head is concerned. Club masks usually stink, which is an incentive to buy your own. They are also absolutely necessary when you cop a hit in the face, which you shouldn't even feel when wearing a mask. You can get your mask second hand too, just make sure the stitching isn't fraying much, and there are no severe dents in the mesh.
Other equipment you might want to look into getting, includes:
- a breast plate; you can get them for guys but they are indispensable for girls
- a box; this actually isn't standard equipment for fencers, freakishly enough. But I would recommend one anyway for blokes. You seriously do not want to get a point scored on your groin, especially if you're fencing foil or epee where it is a legitimate target area.
- a protective jacket; club jackets really do tend to smell
- an under plastron; a kind of half jacket you wear over your sword shoulder, under your jacket. You can get full plastrons as well, but neither are really necessary for beginners.
- an electric weapon; because scoring is so much more reliable that way, and bouts are more fun and require less refereeing
- an electric jacket if you fence foil or sabre; necessary with the electric weapon
- an electric cable; necessary for all electric weapons
- breeches; those daggy three-quarter protective pants fencers wear. Not really necessary if you're a beginner, like the under-plastron, but you'll need them when competing.
- shoes; you don't have to buy fencing shoes, as they can be expensive, any decent running, cross-training or squash shoes will do
- socks; they actually have proper fencing socks, but you can wear anything, even if your grandmother knitted them
- a bag; when you have enough kit, you'll want something convenient to carry it around in. Although carrying a sword around in public can be a cool talking point if you're bored on the bus and want to talk to the stranger sitting next to you. However, it can be hard hailing a taxi.
If you really want to fantasise about all the equipment it's possible to get, check out the Leon Paul website at w ww.leonpaul.com which also includes some cool graphically enchanced tutorials on some of the information included in this guide.
Most areas, universities and some schools should have fencing clubs around, or you might find an instructor in the Yellow Pages. Some of the larger clubs hold beginner and intermediate level classes in various weapons, but after that you will need to find a personal instructor and find people to practice with on your own initiative, although the club can help you with both of these.
Most fencers are unusually nice and the cameraderie is rampant. In fact you'll find you'll like most of your opponents when you meet them for the first time at tournaments, even while you're trying to work up enough agression to face them on the piste.
Costs can include anything from $80 to $300 per year to join but this should include unlimited use of club facilities and equipment, including temporary borrows for tournaments, should you decide to enter them. Tuition can be anything from $15 to $50 per half hour. Competitions are usually not expensive, but you might be expected to help with setting up facilities.
For a list of clubs you can check the Australian Fencing Federation website, w ww.ausfencing.org, or your state fencing body such as the NSW Fencing Federation, w ww.nswfencing.org.au. The website w ww.fencing.net is also a great resource for fencing information and online discussion fora.
After a year or so of training you might find that you're more interested in classical fencing than sports fencing. Classicists do not usually compete, prefer to fence as if their lives depended on it and are more interested in fitness and history than fitness and competition. As such, they tend to suck in competitions, due to slowness and overcaution. Nevertheless, classical fencing is probably just as enjoyable for its historical perspectives as anything else.
Buying Equipment on eBay
eBay can be a good source of fencing equipment. There's not much, as the sport is not very popular in Australia, but it's there if you keep an eye out. The equipment tends to come in two categories. New or near-new stuff that someone bought and gave up on the sport pretty quickly, and really old stuff that's been sitting around for ages. You don't want to use extremely old weapons or masks, unless they are spares or emergency backups (and unless you got your 10 year old sword pretty darn cheap), but everything else is fair game as long as it's in decent nick.
Most buyers are happy to tell you the history of the equipment, as well as giving sizing and condition information. Considering how expensive fencing equipment is to buy brand new, there can be some real bargains around. I have seen brand new masks go for $60 and electric foils a few months old go for $40. I bought a pair of near-new fencing shoes for $10 once! Sometimes, it's even worth buying from overseas.
Anyway, in conclusion, good luck and have fun! If you decide to start fencing, I guarantee it'll be one of the most enjoyable and exhilarating things you'll ever do. Please feel free to contact me if you wish to suggest amendments or corrections to this guide.