A Brief History of Fencing

Part II: Modern Fencing

Fencing has evolved over 800 years from a deadly combat to a complete sport. Speed of movement and the intricate strategy of ancient dueling are still very much a part of modern fencing. Since dueling was outlawed, fencing as a sport has grown more and more popular with both men and women. Women and men compete separately, with some fencers becoming proficient in two or all three weapons, while others specialize in only one. Coordination, speed, agility and self assurance are a few of the qualities this sport requires of its followers. Because of the necessity to analyze the opponent's game and to develop strategy, fencing is often described as an animated game of chess. With the development of new metal alloys, lighter and more manageable weapons have become possible. These place a premium on speed and coordination and give little if any advantage to sheer strength.

When the French introduced a new type of fencing, it was neat, quiet, precise and more deadly than before. The essence of the action was nimbleness of wrist and fingers which required quickness rather than muscular vigor.

By fencing, we have come to mean not simply fighting for hits, but a strictly regulated game. Its traditions have been transmitted through generations and make fencing a truly educational sport. Despite the evolution of fencing from combat to sport, certain conventions have remained intact - judges do not distinguish between accidental and strategically thought out hits. Competitions are presently held in three weapons: Foil, Épée, and Sabre.


wpe95586.gif (2063 bytes)In the middle of the XVIIth century a light, straight sword was invented. It was a fine thin blade and sharpened at the tip, approximately 110 centimeters long, having a small round guard fit with a cross-rod at the handle. The fencing masters used this weapon to teach their students the methods of rapier fencing because its lighter weight made it easier to manoeuvre and also prevented the risk of being accidentally hurt or killed during practice. It favored actions with the point and became a study weapon. It established the foundation of our modern foil fencing.

The modern foil is a light weapon. Its blade is rectangular and tapers from a relatively thick and inflexible section at the guard to a more slim and flexible section at the end. The tip is flattened into a small button-like end for a practice foil or fitted with an electric point for official competition. In foil fencing, the target area is confined to the trunk and excludes the arms, legs and mask. Valid hits are those which reach the target area. Hits outside this region are invalid and are not counted.      



It seems that épée fencing was started toward the middle of the XVIth century. After the disappearance of the two-handed broadsword and the abandonment of the complete suit of armor, a new weapon was born in Spain. The rapier or épée, had a long fine blade with a sharper edge and tip that could be used to cut and thrust. The guard looked like a small basket drilled with holes, having a long, straight ramrod bored through it to be used in engaging and breaking the opponent's blade and point. With the change from heavy broadsword to lighter épée, swordsmen were obliged to personalize fencing with trickery and artfulness. Some fencing masters developed the secrets of nasty tricks and the all purpose parries into a sort of philosopher's stone of fencing. In the XVIIIth century, the small sword with its triangular blade, similar to the one used in electric épée today, became the weapon of choice for dueling. Since then, the fencing techniques and weapons have been simplified and improved and their principles have been displayed and transformed into the backbone of the present modern épée fencing.

In modern épée, the blade is triangular in cross-section and lacks any cutting edges. It has the ability to flex upward and downward, but not to the sides. An electric point at the tip is used for recording hits. Unlike foil, the épée target area includes the whole of the fencer's body. There is no area of the opponent's body which is considered off-target.



The modern sabre took its origins and traditions from the cavalry sabre. It is believed that the Hungarians introduced sabre fencing in Europe towards the end of the XVIIIth century. Their sabre, derived from oriental symmetry, had a flat, slightly curved blade and was not as wide and thick as the French cavalry sabre. At that time, Hungarian fencing had not yet developed in depth. The Hungarians could not perfect their sabre until they were influenced by the Italian school which helped them to perfect their teaching.

Towards the end of the XIXth century, the Italians invented a light sabre (Sciabota) destined to be used in dueling. At first it was highly criticized because it had nothing in common with the heavy cavalry sabre. With time however, this sword was universally adopted. The basis and development of the techniques of the light sabre are generally attributed to the Milan fencing master Giuseppe Radaelli.

In France, since the first Empire, sabre fencing was reserved for the cavaliers. It existed in Saumur, a School of Cavalry Sabre. The practice of sabre movements were executed with large twirling actions and a diversity of parries which rendered defense very complex. In the majority of fencing books published in France, one rarely finds a short version of sabre fencing, that teaches the theories and practices of the sabre. It was not until some 50 years ago that sabre fencing was fully developed in France, after the French fencing masters gained more knowledge of the weapon by studying and being influenced by the Hungarian and Italian fencing masters.

The modern sabre is both a thrusting and a cutting weapon. In the past, sabre fencing has been exclusively non-electric, this meant that all bouts required a referee and side judges. Recently an electrical scoring apparatus has been invented and is now in use in all major competitions. In sabre, the target is comprised of all parts of the body above a horizontal line between the top of the folds formed by the thighs and the trunk of the fencer when in the on guard position.                                                                             



On November 29th, 1913 at a meeting in Paris, the national fencing representatives of France, Italy, Great Britain, Germany, Belgium, Bohemia, Holland, Hungary and Norway met and decided to form the Federation International d'Escrime, which has been the governing body of the sport ever since. Later in 1918, the first F.I.E. rule book was published. At present, there are over 80 countries affiliated with the Federation. The F.I.E. is striving to make fencing more visual and dynamic through the use of transparent masks, wireless scoring devices and electronic scoring boards.


The first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 included foil and sabre events. In 1900, the épée was also admitted to the Paris Olympic program. Women participated in Olympic foil events for the first time in Paris in 1924.

With the advance of technique has also come the evolution of the equipment. Electrical monitoring for épée was made mandatory for the first time in Budapest in 1934 at the European Championship. Twenty years later it was also applied to the foil and a system was adopted at the World Championships in Rome in 1955 and at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. However, despite the changes and improvements in scoring systems for épée and foil fencing, the sabre event still depended solely on human judgment for scoring. The first official competition using electric sabre equipment was held in 1985 during the World Cup Finals in Dourdan, France. The equipment used then was very different from that used today; it was very sensitive and fragile, but it was a satisfactory experiment. In Rome in 1987, the F.I.E. presented a more refined microprocessor-based scoring system for the electronic judging of hits. The F.I.E. is now committed to the use of electrical sabre in all major events and 1992 marked the first year that an electrical sabre system was used at the Barcelona Olympic Games. Another important change has been the admittance of women's épée into the 1990 World Fencing Championship in Lyon, France. For the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, women's épée has been added to the fencing program without increasing the total number of fencers in the competition. Women's sabre is still in the process of development, but hopefully it will one day be as popular as the present male-dominated version.

Modern fencing has long been in need of sophisticated electronic scoring systems for use in judging a fencing bout to minimize human error and make the sport more civilized, safe, and enjoyable. Unfortunately, electric judging systems have also contributed some disadvantages. The worst example of this is how today's fencers are more concerned with scoring points rather than employing finesse and grace. The traditional forms of fencing are forgotten or ignored. They sacrifice the elegant play of the traditional fine art in favor of speed and power so that fencing styles sometimes demonstrate ferociousness and bizarre form. Some new fencers use their personal style as well as trickery, stressing the necessity of speed to win a fencing bout; strategy and technique have been downplayed. It no longer matters how you fence but that you score points quickly. The quality of a hit is no longer important, only that the hit is first.

At present, the fundamental principles and techniques structured by the fencing masters of the classical Italian, French and Hungarian schools as far back as the XIXth century have disappeared and we now have in the last half of the XXth century, methods and styles which are designed by amateurs, causing the sport of fencing to grow into some sort of contest of personal eagerness. Many amateur coaches are not trained by professional fencing schools which have solid and time-honored classical methods in their teaching. Instead, they are taught to develop the raw, aggressive and often violent natural abilities of a prospective champion in a manner which does not follow a strictly standardized instruction technique. This results in the fencer not being molded into a professional well-rounded athlete by years of hard-learned technical skills, but rather into an amateuristic competitor who burns-out when the rigors of age reveal the lack of ingrained basic fencing skills. This degradation of the art of fencing has upset the purists who like to consider it a pristine sport. It is my hope that despite these changes, this book will help others to better understand the art of foil, épée and sabre fencing and consequently preserve the traditional forms of fencing as they have been for centuries.



The technique of French fencing is based on a way of movement that significantly involves the forms, with a styled method of making the patterns of form evolve from the movement, and the movement emerge from the forms.

The structures are so varied as to put into play every part of the body from the smallest joint to the largest muscle. Harmoniously designed and masterfully patterned, they are done with flowing continuity, finesse, smoothness and evenness. Precise balance and calmness is the traditional French fencing way.

The basic qualities of the technique are exemplified by the perfect weaving of the dynamics of movement by the weapon hand exhibiting fine movement in circular, lateral, diagonal and semicircular actions and by the subtle movements of the legs in stepping, passing, sliding and hopping forward or backward. Above all, these qualities quiet the mind and regulate the emotions.

t is finesse in the style of exercise which develops energy by never allowing one to expend oneself in a ferocious gesture of violence. This finesse contrasts with the hard or over-energetic force that does not permit reserve of action in the art of fencing. Natural body behavior with a fluid and continuous style of moving eliminates any possibility of becoming too rigid or hard.

In learning the French technique of fencing from this book, the fencers should keep themselves mentally stimulated as the technique develops from form to form. The mind cannot be anywhere but on the action, as the variation and repetitions demand total attention. Because the structure does not evolve correctly without this mental participation, control of the conscious mind inevitably develops and proper concentration is a natural result of such technique and form. Moving with smooth actions prevents the body from becoming tense or hard and makes the muscles more resilient and pliable. Strength cannot be wasted or falsely propelled, because smooth movement requires attentive control.

The entire system is warmed up gradually as the actions accumulate. Patterns and movements in subtle succession activate different parts of the body and never, at any time, repeat themselves in over-concentrated units. This enables the body to do more without causing the heart to beat unduly fast in an effort to keep up with the body's exertions.

Breathing is natural, light or deep depending on the structure and the positions of the fencing techniques themselves. However, the fencer must not concern himself with the breathing process. This aspect is developed gradually in the process of learning.

The fundamentally smooth finesse and tempo are the essence of the French classical technique and contribute to the ability to sustain conscious control and aid in the building of experience in the science of fencing. With flowing alteration between light and strong dynamics, and fluid and solid forms, the technique allows the fencer to execute actions accurately and freely with the mind in harmony with the body.

The method of the French classical fencing movement is, in a deeper sense, related to the movement of the mind; the mind must direct the body's movement in the defensive, offensive or counter-offensive. The alertness and concentration needed to do this are developed as the techniques are being learned by taking lessons from the Fencing Master. One of the great advantages of the French traditional method is that one can never be mechanical when doing it. The benefit of this is perhaps obvious since fencing has, as one of its goals, the development of awareness, quickened reflexes and an alert mind.

The coordinated aspects of movement within movement by the legs to advance, retreat or attack and by the weapon hand in the execution of attack, defense and counter-attack demands complete attention; the subtle regulation of the timing of each small part within the whole is precise coordination. The mind moves from form to style to tempo to coordination to plasticity to dynamics and finally to feeling and yet seems to acknowledge all at the same time. Concentrated by this variety, the mind's attention and awareness are one of the major factors of the French fencing school.

The intrinsic principle of finesse in fencing is the inner smoothness of movement that can be recognized by the fact that there is no visible exertion in the execution of the fencing techniques. The action of the fencer appears to be completely relaxed; the activity is hidden inside, below the surface. The continuous flow of movement into movement such as from defensive to offensive or in advancing to retreating without straining also contributes to the appearance of outer smoothness and finesse. All the movements are performed with centralized inner force. It is not the extent to which the movement can be performed that matters, rather it is the quality in reserve that determines its smoothness. These intrinsically-stored and smooth techniques allow the body to be held loosely and therefore unrestricted. This helps store intrinsic energy and produces an inner elasticity of movement which is rich in the power of resilience.

With continuity and inner smoothness as the component parts of finesse, calmness and lightness in the precise execution of technique are the inevitable results of the French traditional fundamental principles of the science of fencing.


The principles at the very heart of this book are derived from the theories and practices of the innovative ancient French fencing masters schools which were concerned with the development to full potential of a fencer's intrinsic physical and mental abilities. In this book I have incorporated technical ideas that have grown out of my teaching experience to give the fencer not only an intellectual awareness of the French traditional fencing technique, but also to create the understanding necessary to experience their essence as well as their physical form. We know too well that this process cannot be hurried unnaturally; nevertheless, the way can be illuminated by quietly studying and analyzing such that one's body, gradually by degrees, learns to do the bidding of the mind.

"To go a thousand miles one has to take the first step" is a familiar saying. Each step is ostensibly like the following but the added experience that each step brings to the next contributes to endurance, agility and strength. The great variety of the French fencing forms, the intensely interesting techniques - the subtleness of which unfold with experience - and the sheer beauty of the postures of the French traditional style gives delight and grace.

As one develops understanding and progresses with the techniques from this book, the French technique of fencing becomes a richer entity, seemingly limitless in what it has to offer. The ability to perform it at its minimum gives one good lasting form. To perfect it and live with it as a life-long exercise is to assure oneself of stable health, mental alertness and equanimity of spirit.




The personal benefits of fencing range into virtually every area of the participants physical and intellectual being. The intensity of fencing, and the extreme demands it places on the mind and body are a natural result of fencing's bloody and noble heritage. It is perhaps the most complete union of thought and action that has ever evolved as a sport. However the skill, strength and self-control which were once only by-products of this deadly art now figure amongst its highest rewards. Aside from the sheer pleasure of competition, the fencer also enjoys an enhanced coordination, endurance and strength. One need only observe an accomplished fencer in competition to fully appreciate these truths. In order to succeed, a competitor must fence bout after bout with unflagging stamina. To lose concentration or slacken the pace can mean a quick defeat. Also, a successful fencer must be capable of mounting powerful driving attacks or conversely, of making subtle and crafty defenses, all within the space of a few seconds. The coordination must be so finely developed that the fencer can adapt all movements to many different opponents of widely varied strength, skill and speed. A fencer's success however is not purely a result of physical skill. The fencer must also possess the acute intellect of the chess player plus powerful concentration to guide his/her actions and make good his/her calculations.

The pleasant exterior which masks all the scheming and violence of fencing is that of refined gentility. Like many martial arts, fencing is surrounded by a certain amount of courtesy and ceremony, and of course the tradition of the genteel fencer descends directly from the nobleman who first practiced the art. The spirit of fair play and honor which is an integral part of fencing is expected both on and off the fencing strip. A maximum of politeness and consideration is always observed while competing with others, however it would be a mistake to assume that a fencer's good manners, strength and poise begin and end in the gymnasium. Indeed fencing is as much an attitude as it is a sport and those who practice the art find that it can profoundly affect their lives.

First, and most simply, the fencer enjoys the good health and vitality that only intense, vigorous exercise can bring. Fencers become more attuned to their physical potential and can thus use their strength and endurance with greater efficiency. Secondly there is the fencer's grace and natural ease of movement. The mid-point between the purely physical and the purely mental is perhaps best expressed as one's poise. Of this, the fencer is well endowed, having the good posture, precise action and the confident carriage of the ballet dancer. Moreover, the fencer will have developed an alert and shrewd intelligence which easily compliments their physical presence. Were it not for the self-control that good fencing requires, it would be easy for a fencer to become over-confident or even arrogant. However as sound judgment and good sportsmanship pervade the sport this possibility is seldom realized. In addition to its physical and intellectual benefits, it can also be expected that good balanced fencing produces a good balanced character.


" Loyalty is everything in your fencing success... it makes Fencing Masters work for you."

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