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Modern Fencing - A Basic History & Summary of Rules

Modern Fencing - A Basic History & Summary of Rules

From its historic sword fighting origins to its status as a modern Olympic staple, fencing is known for its elegance, its white hot intensity, and a rich culture that spans countries and even continents. Fencing consists of three distinct disciplines: foil, epee, and saber. Each discipline has its own set of rules and even uses its own visibly unique weapon.

Most of today’s fencers specialize in only one discipline, but commonly begin fencing with foil. This is a tradition that dates back to the Italian Renaissance, where sword fighting schools hosted duels for the training of knights and the leisure of nobility. In order to prepare for these duels, swordsmen needed to practice in a non-lethal manner - this is where foil emerged, as a lightweight, blunt-tipped version of the dueling rapier. Opponents wore safety equipment that covered their torso and their head, early versions of the mask and lamé. Despite the emphasis on safety, early foil fencing,'s main purpose was to simulate a real duel to the death, where opponents would aim for the crucial organs in the stomach and chest. Thus, only the torso was considered valid target area. With the invention of the foil, a competitive sport was born, where opponents focused more heavily on the technique behind their actions, such as foot-work and blade-work. Over the course of the 18th century, foil fencing was refined and polished, but the main principles were never altered. The torso (the front and back) and a small portion of the mask bib are target area. Touches can only be scored using a thrusting motion where the tip of the blade makes contact with the opponent. Opponents also need to always be wary of the right of way which dictates who receives the touch if both opponents happen to score at the same time. In 1896, foil fencing was included in its first Olympics with nearly the same rules that were used in the sword fighting schools of the Renaissance.

In the sword fighting schools of the 18th century, the swordsmen practiced with foils, but dueled with heavier, more substantial blades. This dueling sword is the earliest ancestor of the epee as we know it. Modern epee fencing’s rules, similar to modern foil fencing’s rules, have not changed much since its origins. In duels during the Renaissance, fencers were allowed to hit their opponents anywhere on their body in order to draw "first-blood" and win. The same principle applies to modern epee fencing, minus the actual blood, of course. Fencers can score touches anywhere from the head to the toe, mostly commonly opting for the torso as it is the largest target. Touches can only be scored in a thrusting motion just like foil. However unlike foil, the right of way system does not apply. In other words, both opponents score a point in the event of a simultaneous touch, which reflects what would happen if two duelists drew "first-blood" at the same time: both are considered victorious.

The last of the three fencing disciplines is saber, whose history is very different from foil and epee. Unlike its cousins, which have their roots in on-foot combat, the saber was first used on horseback in European warfare. Dating back to 17th century military and heavily used during the Napoleonic wars, the cavalry saber as it was called was less technically precise and instead a more deadly and efficient weapon. Unlike foil and epee, saber did not rely solely on thrusting, instead utilizing slashes and cuts with the side of the blade, as these proved to be far more effective than thrusting hits. Modern saber fencing's main mode of scoring touches is no different now than it was then, the only difference being the absence of a horse, due to the practical (and ethical) issues that come with putting a 2000 pound horse on a fencing strip. Instead, to honor their equine heritage, modern saber fencers can only score touches above the waist, as if they were saddled above their opponent and slashing downward.

Although all three of the modern disciplines are very different, they all share the same basic  rules and principles. For example, regardless of weapon, fencing bouts are fenced to either five or fifteen touches (modern youth fencing also fence to ten touches). In addition, fencers of each weapon compete at tournaments in the same fashion. They begin with the pool round, where groups of six or seven fencers fence to five touches. Based on their pool performance, fencers are ranked for the direct elimination round. In this round, fencers fence fifteen touch bouts until everyone but one fencer is eliminated.

All three disciplines also heavily emphasize the importance of good sportsmanship. Before every bout fencers salute their opponent and the referee. After the bout, the two fencers must salute again and then shake hands. By placing this importance on honor, fairness, and humility, modern fencing hearkens back to its dueling days. Furthermore, this very unique aspect of the sport instills these values of integrity and ethics in fencers all across the globe.

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