What is Fencing?

Oxford English Dictionary:
“The action or art of using the sword scientifically
as a weapon of offence or defense; the practice of
this art with a blunted sword, foil or stick”

Fencing, as an ancient art, was used as a means of settling disputes, often ending in death. Fencing in the modern world, however, is a more refined and safety focused version of this. It is a very tactical sport as one requires swift movement and the ability to think quickly under pressure. Fencing is a sport which is present throughout the world, with both young and old participating. The weapons used in the ancient art are still present, in some form, in our modern weapons.

Modern Times Fencing

The sport of Fencing is always changing. In the last century alone, we have seen the move from visual to electric fencing, the invention of Kevlar safety gear and the incorporation of female fencing into Olympic Fencing.

Electric Fencing

In 1936, Epée was the first weapon adapted to electric fencing. This was a very big step forward for fencing technology and it has forever revolutionized Epée fencing. Electric foil followed in 1956, while Sabré was not made electric until 1988.

Foil fencing runs on a closed circuit system. This means that when a foil hits off target, it breaks the circuit but when it contacts with the lamé, the circuit is earthed. Sabré runs on a closed circuit also, but there is no ‘off target’ option.

Epée is run on an open circuit system which means that when contact is made, the circuit is complete.

Both the Foil and the Epée blades have a thin wire running along them, down to the tip (a button), making circuits possible. The Sabré has no wire but rather the circuit uses the metal blade itself to complete the circuit, earthing when contact is made with the lamé.

Olympic Fencing

Fencing is one of the only four sports to have been represented in every Olympic Games since 1896; the year of the first Modern Olympic Games. Men’s Foil and Sabré events were present, in their visual form. Men’s Epée joined the Olympics in 1900.  In 1912, both France and Italy refused to compete due to discrepancies in the fencing rules. Because of this, in 1913 the Federation Internationale D’Escrime was founded to regulate the rules.
Women’s fencing in the Olympic Games was introduced later, with Women’s foil present in the Games in 1924; Women’s Epée was later introduced in 1956. Women’s Sabré was not introduced until very recently; the first Women’s Olympic Sabré event was held in Athens in 2004.

Electric fencing in the Olympic Games was introduced in:

  • Epée – 1936
  • Foil – 1956
  • Sabré – 1992

The History of Fencing

Fencing is a fighting style that has survived many ages and many forms of evolution. The earliest record found of fencing is on Medinet-Habu temple in Luxor, Egypt. Some theorize that the frieze displayed is that of a fencing bout, complete with archaic safety equipment and judges. Fencing was also present in the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome. Their armies were trained to use the short sword; Romans were the last to use a light sword until the development of the Rapier.

What we in the modern world know as fencing, started development in the 16th Century BCE, in Europe. Spain was one of the first countries to develop this, but Italy had the most impact. The Italians started frequent use of the Rapier and it was during this time that both the lunge and the four standard fencing positions (prime, seconde, tierce and quarte) were invented.

Elsewhere, in France, during the reign of King Louis XIV, it was decided that the Rapier was no longer appropriate as a court sword, due to the changing fashions. A new shorter and lighter court sword was developed and several new blades were also developed from this.  One of these was a blade designed for practise and training; this is what we know as our modern Foil. This thinner weapon was also known by the French as the le fleuret. A thrusting action was used and unlike its predecessor the Rapier, a Foil was also a defensive weapon.

Around the mid 19th Century, deadly fencing duels fell out of fashion; murder and manslaughter charges were now possible. Fencing duels became about winning, not dealing out death, thus weapons evolved to suit this. What was known as the colichemarde was one of the weapons that evolved out of the new French court sword. This weapon was again a thrusting weapon, but adapted to the need for a shorter bout. Fencers used this new weapon on their opponents, inflicting crippling blows rather than death. After another modification, the colichemarde developed into what we know as the Epée.

In the late 18th Century we see the introduction of the third of our modern weapons: the Sabré. It was originally a heavy curved blade; a new type of Sabré was invented during the 19th Century in Europe. Sabré fighting was perhaps the most dangerous of the three. This is not surprising considering the origins of the weapon. The Sabré evolved from a weapon described as the Turkish scimitar, used by the Hungarians. Sabré fencing was formalized into a ‘non-fatal’ form of the fighting in the late 19th Century.

Before the French revolution took place another important item was invented. La Boessiére invented a new fencing mask, which was made from netted wire. This new item led to a dramatic change in fencing.  Fencing was now a lot safer and fewer casualties occurred when fencing.

Duelling for anything other than sport faded away after the First World War. Most fencing occurs only in a sporting form now, with competitions being held at many levels. The Olympic Games and the Commonwealth Games are the highest platforms of fencing achievement.

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