Foil, epee and saber are the three weapons used in the sport of fencing. While some fencers compete in all three events, the elite generally choose to focus their energies on mastering one weapon. At Heartland Fencing Academy, we focus on Foil and Epee.
The foil is a descendant of the light court sword formerly used by nobility to train for duels. It has a flexible, rectangular blade approximately 35 inches in length and weighing less than one pound. Points are scored with the tip of the blade and must land on valid target: torso from shoulders to groin in the front and to the waist in the back. The arms, neck, head and legs are considered off-target – hits to this non-valid target temporarily halts the fencing action, but does not result any points being awarded. This concept of on-target and off-target evolved from the theory of 18th-century fencing masters, who instructed their pupils to only attack the vital areas of the body – i.e. the torso. Of course, the head is also a vital area of the body, but attacks to face were considered unsporting and therefore discouraged.
Although top foil fencers still employ classical technique of parries and thrusts, the flexible nature of the foil blade permits the modern elite foil fencer to attack an opponent from seemingly impossible angles.
Competitors often “march” down the fencing strip at their opponent, looking to whip or flick the point of their blade at the flank or back of their opponent. Because parrying(blocking) these attacks can be very difficult, the modern game of foil has evolved into a complicated and exciting game of multiple feints, ducking and sudden, explosive attacks.
Foil: Weapon and Target Area
Épée is a thrusting weapon like the foil, but much heavier. In épée, the entire body is a valid target. The hand guard on the épée is a large circle that extends towards the pommel, effectively covering the hand, which is a valid target in épée, although it is a low-percentage shot. Like foil, all hits must be with the tip and not the sides of the blade. Hits with the side of the blade do not halt the action. As the entire body is legal target, there is not the concept of an off-target touch, except if the fencer accidentally strikes the floor, setting off the electric tone. Unlike foil and sabre, épée does not use “right of way”, and allows simultaneous hits by both fencers. However, if the score is tied in a match at the last point and a double touch is scored, the point is null and void.
Épée: Weapon and Target Area
Sabre is a light cutting and thrusting weapon that targets the entire body above the waist, except the weapon hand. The hand guard on the sabre extends from pommel to the base of where the blade connects to the hilt. This guard is generally turned outwards during sport to protect the sword arm from touches. Hits with the entire blade or point are valid. As in foil, touches that land outside of the target area are not scored. However, unlike foil, these off-target touches do not stop the action, and the fencing continues. In the case of both fencers landing a scoring touch, the referee determines which fencer receives the point for the action, again through the use of “right of way”.
Sabre: Weapon and Target Area
Because foil actions often occur at blinding speed, an electrical scoring system was devised to detect hits on valid target. Each foil has a blunt, spring-loaded button at the point of the blade that must be depressed with a pressure of 500 grams or better to register a hit. The foil fencer’s uniform features an electrically wired metallic vest called a lamé – a hit to the lamé causes the scoring machine to display a colored light on the side of the fencer that scored the touch. Meanwhile, a hit off target – on the arms, legs or head, which are not covered by the lamés – causes the machine to display a white light. Hits off target stop the action of the match temporarily, but do not result in a touch being awarded. If the scoring machine displays both a colored light and a white light, it means the fencer quickly hit off target and then hit on target before the machine could lock out. In such situations, the fencer’s hit is ruled off target and no touch is awarded.
Another part of the fencer’s equipment is a special cable called a body cord. This plugs into his foil and runs though the sleeve of his arm out the back of his uniform, connecting to a retractable reel which is, in turn, connected to the scoring machine. Of course, with all this equipment a lot can go wrong, so before each foil bout commences, both fencers ceremoniously test each other’s lamés to ensure they are working properly.
Watching a Bout
For those new to fencing, it can often be challenging to follow the lightning speed of the fencers’ actions. To become more comfortable in watching a fencing bout, it often helps 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 they 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 determine their opponent’s true intentions while feeding them 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.