An Introduction to Fencing
Welcome to fencing. If you have never watched fencing before you are
going to find it an exciting and complex sport. At times fencing may
appear to be doing little more than standing around and "psyching-out"
the opponent, before engaging in lightning speed action, where split
second timing can win or lose the bout. This section will help you to
learn some of the rules about fencing and to help you appreciate what
you are seeing, from the subtle hand skill to the flash of speed
You will notice that the fencers are fighting in a defined area, which is
easy to see when they are fencing on a metallic fencing surface, or
within a determined space on the ground. This area is called the
fencing Piste or Strip. You will also notice that both fencers are
attached by cords or cables that run from their weapons, through their
jackets, to a nearby scoring apparatus. This apparatus will light up
from time to time, with either coloured lights or coloured and white
lights. Most importantly you will notice that each fencer is dressed in a
“fencing uniform”. This uniform not only provides them bullet proof like
protection, but it also helps in some weapons in the detection of a hit.
Oh! We almost forgot the well dressed individual that looks like they
are directing an orchestra, is the referee, this individual determines,
with the aid of the scoring box, who has scored
valid hits and who eventually wins the bout.
The fencing field of play is called “The piste” or “Fencing Strip”; it
measures 1.50 to 2.00 metres wide and 14 metres long, marked off in
the middle and a 2-metre line on each side from the centre as a start-
up line. If a fencer steps off the end of the fencing strip, a hit will be
awarded to the opponent. The strips, whether metal or just tape on the
floor, help line up the fencers and keep order. The advantage of the
metal piste is to prevent a misread hit by the score box when they
accidentally hit the floor.
As you have been watching the scoring box has probably gone
off several times, have you noticed the correlation between the
coloured lights and the actual points being scored? When
watching epee it is most evident of what is going on, the
coloured light goes on and a point is awarded to the side who’s
light has just come on. In the other two weapons, (foil & sabre)
it is important for the untrained eye to watch the Referee to
follow the action. For example when there are multiple lights
going off watch for the referee’s hand movements, such as a
hand being raise up in the air, this will let you know which fencer
has just received the point.
In a round robin system, the competitor who scores the first five
hits within four minutes is the winner. If the allowed time ends
before five hits are scored against one fencer then the fencer
who has scored more hits will win the bout. If a tie exists at the
end of regulation time, the referee will toss a coin and will allow
a minute of supplementary time. If the score remains tied after
this supplementary minute, the winner of the coin toss will win
In a direct elimination system (as at the Olympic Games) a
winner must be determined in all weapons by fencing successive
bouts up to fifteen hits. A fencing match, in this case, consists of
three three-minute periods with one minute of rest and coaching
time between each three-minute period. As with the shorter five-
minute bouts, if a tie exists at the end of regulation time, the
referee will toss a coin and will allow a minute of supplementary
time. If the score remains tied after this supplementary minute,
the winner of the coin toss will win the bout.
Watching a fight
Fencing is physically and mentally demanding, where speed,
strength, footwork, finger-work and psychology are
essential to winning. These following hints should be helpful in
giving you an eye for the game:
• Do not try to watch both fencers, focus on one fencer only
(maybe even, cheer for them).
• The fencer who moves forward first is usually considered to be
the attacker; this is usually accompanied
with the blade point being directed towards the opponent’s
• The attacker's blade move may be parried (the blade is moved
out of the line of attack) and the defender
may then immediately riposte (attempt to hit the attacker).
• A fencer is defending when taking steps back, or when
parrying and riposting.
• Watch the footwork, and notice how fencers try to maintain
distance in order to either launch an attack with
a lunge or to assure their defense if the opponent attacks. (The
fencer with the best footwork usually wins.)
• Try to recognize the split second in which the fencer you are
watching tries to provoke a counter action or a
reaction from the opponent.
• To follow the actions in Foil and Sabre watch the Referee and
make note of his hand actions.
• Also watch the small controlled movements of the Fencer’s
hands as the tiny movements they make can
take years to learn.
Foil is the modem version of the earlier practice weapon, for the
duel. The foil is light and flexible and has a rectangular blade.
The valid target is limited to the torso, which is covered with a
metallic vest. This permits the hits to be registered by an
electrical scoring apparatus reacting to a 500.1 gram (or more)
thrust. Hits are delivered with the point only and the rule is
based on the fundamental convention of the right-of-way. This
means that there are defined rules of engagement, the referee
plays an important role in the action, by making the distinction
between the actions and who receives the scored hit.
Epee is the modem version of the historical dueling sword. An
epee is heavier than a foil with a rigid triangular blade. The valid
target is the whole body and hits are made with the point only
and registered by an electrical scoring apparatus, reacting to a
750.1 gram (or more) thrust. Epee hits are registered on the
basis of which fencer makes the first hit, which mean that in this
discipline, both fencers can react at the same time and create a
double hit situations, where both fencers earn a point.
Sabre is the modem version of the cavalry sword. Hits can be
scored with the point or the cutting edges on the target area,
which is anywhere above the waist including head and arms,
and registered electrically. The target area is covered with a
conductive material to "sense" the touches. A hit also on the off
target area does not stop the game, unlike the foil. Sabre is
based on the fundamental convention of right-of-way. The rules
are similar to those of foil in regards to defined rules of
engagement, the referee plays an important role in the action,
by making the distinction between the actions and who receives
the scored hit.
The British Fencing website has a section that explains fencing.
The official 2004 Olympics website also provides good
information on how a fencing fight takes place.