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What is Modern Fencing?

When you hear the word "fencing" what images come into your mind? Do visions of flashing swords, gladiators, dueling at dawn, Errol Flyn, Robin Hood, and the Three Musketeers pop into your head? Though fencing has its roots in battle and dueling, today it is practiced for fitness and sport.

Rather than going for blood, in modern fencing the athletes goal is merely to touch the other person. Protective clothing is worn to protect fencers from injury. Modern fencing is done on a strip or piste which is 14 meters long and 1.5 to 2 meters wide.

Both fencers in a bout use the same type of weapon. There are three different weapons used in modern fencing: the foil, the epee, and the saber. The target area where a touch is scored is different for each weapon (see illustration, below).

(Diagram courtesy of fencing.net)The foil is a light, flexible sword descended from the weapon used for training in days of old. In foil fencing, you must touch the point of your foil on the torso (front or back) of your opponent.

The epee is a heavier, stiff blade descended from dueling weapons of old. In epee fencing, a touch may be scored by touching the point of your epee anywhere on your opponent's body (head to toe).

The saber is a light, flexible version of a cavalry sword or cutlass. In saber fencing, a touch is scored by touching the point or edge of your saber anywhere above your opponent's waist (including head & arms).

How to Watch a Fencing Bout

For those new to fencing, it can be challenging to follow the lightning speed of the fencers’ actions. To become more comfortable in watching a fencing bout, it helps to focus on the actions of just one fencer. The fencer being attacked defends himself by use of a parry, a blocking-motion used to deflect the opponent’s blade, after which he/she may attempt to score with a riposte (literally "answer" in French). In fact, you may notice a particular cadence to the bout as the fencers rhythmically alternate roles as attacker and defender.

Fencers seek to maintain a safe distance from each other – that is, out of range of the other’s attack. Then, one may try to close this distance to gain the advantage for an attack. At times, a fencer will make a false attack - a feint - to probe the types of reactions and possible defenses by the opponent. Much of the fencing bout consists of this preparation, during which a fencer simultaneously determines the opponent's true intentions while feeding the opponent false information of their own. The complexity of this deadly "conversation" between the two opponents represents one of the more subtle beauties of the sport.

Of course, eventually one or both fencers will land a valid hit. When this occurs, the referee stops the bout and - in foil and saber - determines who was the attacker, if their opponent successfully defended themselves, and which fencer should be awarded a touch, if any.

Glossary of Fencing Terms

Advance Taking a step towards one's opponent.
Attack Movement or series of movements by which a fencer tries to score a point. In foil and saber, the fencer who attacks first acquires the "right-of-way." In order to execute a attack properly (i.e. one that the referee will acknowledge), the fencer's hand must be clearly extending towards the opponent's valid target in a threatening manner.
Beat Sharp tap on the opponent's blade to initiate an attack or provoke a reaction.
Disengage Evasive action in which the fencer avoids the opponent's attempt to take their blade.
Engagement Contact between the fencers' blades - often as the prelude to an attack.
En Garde Position taken before fencing commences.
Feint A false attack intended to get a defensive reaction from the opposing fencer, thus creating the opportunity for a genuine attack ("feint-disengage attack")
Fleche Explosive, running attack (Foil and Epee only)
Flunge Action unique to saber - a combination of a lunge and a fleche. Evolved recently after the FIE modified saber rules in 1992 to prohibit running attacks.
Guard Part of the weapon between the blade and handle; protects the hand (also: "bell-guard")
Lunge Most common attacking technique, in which the fencer launches himself at the opponent by pushing off from his back leg (which generally remains stationary).
Opposition "Thrust with Opposition" - To simultaneously deflect the opponent's point with one's guard while making an attack of one's own. Commonly used in epee to avoid a double touch.
Parry, Counter-Parry Defensive action in which a fencer blocks his opponent's blade.
Piste French term for the fencing strip.
Point-in-Line Action in which the fencer, who is generally out of attacking range, points his weapon at the opponent with his arm fully extended. A fencer who establishes a point in line has right of way, and the opponent cannot attack until he/she removes the blade from line by executing a beat.
Recover The return to the en garde position after lunging.
Remise Attacking again immediately after an opponent's parry of an initial attack.
Riposte Defender's offensive action immediately after parrying an opponent's attack.
Second Intention A tactic in which a fencer executes a convincing, yet false, action in hopes of drawing a true, committed reaction from an opponent.
Stop Hit, Stop Cut
A counter-action made at the moment of an opponent's hesitation, feint, or poorly executed attack. To be awarded the point, the fencer attempting a stop hit must clearly catch an opponent's tempo. Hence, if the Stop Hit is not "in time," the referee may award the touch to the attacker.
Strip Fencing area, 14 meters long by 2 meters wide.

Courtesy U.S. Fencing Association

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