The Art of Modern Fencing involves three weapons: Epee, Saber and Foil. The weapons differ according to type of blade, target area and rules. Here at RFC we fence epee.
There is more detail on the history of fencing below. But first …
A Bit about the Three Weapons and Safety Gear…
The epee is a descendant of the rapier and edgeless short sword. When dueling was becoming illegal duelists began to fence to “first blood” as opposed to the death. This meant that whoever bled first lost and it did not matter where on the body the cut, stab or nick occurred. As a result the target area in modern epee fencing is the entire body. You can hit someone on the mask (the head), on the arm, on the torso or even on the toe if you are so inclined. Epee is a point thrusting weapon, meaning you can only hit with the point.
Today, in epee fencing, the force needed to compress the epee tip ( or button), causing the electronic scoring equipment to register a point , is the equivalent to the amount of force, needed to “draw blood” from an opponent if actually dueling to first blood.
The forms developed in epee (and foil) fencing, as seen in the geometrical drawings by Capo Ferro and other fencing masters, are not random but were studied and designed to keep a duelist from being killed. Many of these forms are still used today.
Fencing was a part of the Olympic Games starting int the summer of 1896. Men’s Saber events have been help at every Summer Olympics since that time and went electric in 1988. Men’s Foil was introduced in 1908 and went electric in 1956. Men’s Epee was introduced in 1900 but not electrified until 1936. Women’s Foil became a part of the Olympics in 1924, Women’s Epee in 1996 and Women’s Saber in 2004.
The saber is the descendant of the scimitar. The saber was the weapon used to fight wars on horseback.
The target area of the saber is anything from the waist up. This is a result of the weapon having been a horseback weapon. Back in the day you wanted to harm your opponent not his horse.
Unlike epee saber has a set of rules that establish “right-of-way” or are used to determine whose turn it is. You are only allowed to score points when it is your turn. Saber is a cutting weapon. Points are scored by hitting your opponent with a slashing motion..
The foil is the direct descendant of the rapier. It was the weapon of “duels to the death.” Foil is closely related to epee in history but more like a mix between saber and epee in practice.
The target area in foil is the torso only since that is where your vital organs are located. The foil is a point thrusting weapon like epee but has rules of right-of-way like saber.
Yikes! Is Fencing Safe??
Yes! If the rules are correctly followed and equipment is used properly fencing is one of the safest sports there is!
In modern fencing we are not trying to kill anyone or even make our friends bleed. That would most certainly take the fun out of fencing. We have lots of equipment that keeps us safe!
A Safe Sport
Fencing remains one of the safest sports for kids and adults with injury rates far below those of the more popular sports.
A study of injuries occurring in Olympic competition ranks fencing as having one of the lowest injury rates, making it one of the safest Olympic sports. Only 5 summer Olympic sports posted lower injury rates than fencing in this study of injuries from the 2008 Olympics. (Those were diving, synchronized swimming, rowing, kayak, and sailing.)
(It’s not a helmet!)
The mask features a metal mesh to protect the face but still allowing for visibility, and a bib to protect the neck. The metal mesh can withstand 55 pounds of force, while the bib withstands 360 pounds.
(Front Zip, Back Zip)
The jacket is made from tough cotton or nylon with a strap (croissard) that goes between the legs. A small strip of folded fabric (gorget) forms the collar of the jacket. The jacket is built to resist 180 pounds of force. There are two types of jackets; a front-zip and a back-zip. The front-zip has a zipper to one side of the chest (left example). While the back-zip has a zipper through the center of the back of the jacket (right example).
(Only one on your dominant hand)
A glove is worn on the weapon hand. It has a gauntlet that goes over the top of the jacket to prevent the blade from going up into the sleeve and causing injury. Additionally it protects the hand and helps provide a better grip on the weapon.
The fencing weapons themselves are crafted with safety in mind. All three weapons bend upon impact in order to absorb most of the force of the blow.
And Now A Little Fencing History…
Epee, as all of the modern fencing swords, has a fascinating history.
The history of fencing thought is a history of thought directed to a single purpose: how to most effectively place a sword into an enemy’s body to produce the most damaging results without being hit at the same time. It is a history of inspiration, innovation, and observation. Today, we take for granted that fencing is based on logical behavior and thought. But this has not always been the case. Over the centuries there has been much struggling toward perfection in swordplay. Fencing thought has been created, added, subtracted, refined, divided, re-created, and refined again; thus coming eventually to its present place in the world.
The historian and fencer Richard Burton believed that man evolved his initial combat techniques from watching animals fight and from the accounts of early martial encounters; this may well have been so. Driven by raw emotion, such struggles would have been little more than the modern equivalent of “duking it out.”
Rome, with its flair for organization, eventually brought structure to sword combat, both in the personal clashes of its gladiators, and in the actions of its legions. But with the abrupt demise of Rome in the fifth century, that structure was lost. The Dark Ages brought disorder, which was reflected in the swordplay of that time. Well into medieval times, the thought directed toward sword fights reflected the anything-goes attitude of that brutal age. Knights wore armor and made it a primary part of their defense. The sword was thought of primarily as an offensive tool whose purpose was to make its way through armor. Among the lower classes, however, punching, tripping, tumbling and kicking were all a part of the everyday swordsman’s repertoire. Early manuscripts reflected this approach. A swordsman won his duel as much on guts and aggression as he did through skill with his blade.
With the coming of the Renaissance, however, men began thinking about efficient blade movement. The devastating power of gunpowder and muskets made armor obsolete. New methods of personal protection had to be devised. There was a conscious and deliberate decision to move away from the unpredictable rough-and-tumble methods of previous days to create dependable ways to beat an opponent.
Swordplay went through yet another refining process during this time and emerged as the sport of fencing that we know today. There were many fencing masters who were involved in this refining process and at least one engineer.
Among the more famous fencing masters are: Roberto Bonetti, Girard Thibault, Ridolfo Capo Ferro, Salvator Fabris and Camillo Agrippa.
Bonetti was an Italian fencing master who taught in London during the late 16th century. “He was known for his precision in fighting, allowing his opponent to pick which of the buttons on his doublet he would hit.”
Thibault was a French fencing master and is known for producing “the most massive, lavishly illustrated fencing manual of the time, Academie de L’Espee (The Academy of the Sword).”
Capo Ferro was an Italian fencing master and is well known for his schematic of the fencing lunge since his fencing style centered around careful positioning.
Fabris had a fencing style that is “one of the most distinct rapier techniques out there. The fencer bends forward at the waist until their torso is nearly parallel to the ground, and their arms are extended forward towards the opponent. This unusual position allows the fencer to strike the opponent at maximum range, while only exposing the arms and head to attack.”
Agrippa, although well known in the fencing history circles, was not actually a fencing master. Agrippa was actually an engineer and he thus “used science to simplify swordplay and make it understandable.”
Four of the five men mentioned above actually detailed out their fencing in drawings such as Capo Ferro’s lunge, pictured below, thus scientifically and practically bringing fencing into the forms that we know today.
Having, then seen that fencing went through a specific process under the hands of fencing masters to become what we know as the sport of fencing today, what exactly is the history behind all of this?
As mentioned above, it was the invention of guns and gunpowder that caused the shift to a different form of combat.
Then, in the 15th century, the rapier was born and this invention changed fencing thought dramatically. The rapier was used in linear form instead of in a round and “suddenly the ability to deliver a sword point in a straight line became the prime focus of fencing brainwork.”
Enter Capo Ferro.
When Capo Ferro established the lunge as the primary form of attack the first step towards modern fencing was born.
The Italians took the rapier to England and eventually the rapier replaced the broadsword since “poking holes in one’s adversary proved much more reliable than trying to carve off his body parts.”
The next step came during the 17th Century. During this time period the French produced the first widespread system of point play that was accepted as a fully formed school of fencing thought. Here, the rapier progressed into a small sword which was faster and therefore led to more refined techniques of offense and defense. As a result emphasis was now placed on the blade as the only source of defense, meaning that men no longer also defended themselves with capes, daggers and other objects.
As a result of the nobility killing one another off dueling was becoming illegal. At the same time the refining process of swordplay that came about as a result of the small sword led to a new direction of fencing thought: fencing was not just a martial art but could be enjoyed as a sport.
Thus fencing became:
* Physical Chess
* A discipline as a way to develop self-awareness and self-control
* A way to promote logical thinking
Fencing as a sport was championed by the 18th Century Fencing Master Domenico Angelo and much of what we consider to be modern fencing springs from this time period.
 Evangelista, Nick. The Inner Game of Fencing. Chicago: Masters Press, 2000.