How does it work?
There are three types of modern fencing swords and each weapon defines the type of sparring that takes place during the three minute-long match:
'''Foil''': a foil blade is a light weapon used for thrusting and jabbing. In the foil class, valid blows are those that land on the torso, chest, shoulders, and back and double touches (where both fencers make contact within 40 milliseconds of each other and are both awarded points) are not permitted. When fencing with a foil, opponents must take it in turns to attempt to defend and land hits (known as priority rules).
'''Épée''': épées are heavy, thrusting weapons that have a valid target area covering the entire body. Double touches are allowed, fencers may cross their feet and even collide without a penalty being awarded and there are no rules about who can aim for a hit when. This makes counter attacking very important.
'''Sabre''': sabres are cutting weapons and so unlike with foils and épées, valid contact may be made with the edges of the blade as well as the point. Sabre fencing is subject to priority rules, and fencers must not cross their feet otherwise they will be penalised. The sabre target area covers all areas above the waist (with the exception of the hands and the back of the head) and this represents all accessible areas on a horse-mounted opponent. This makes footwork key and sabre swords do not touch very often.
In competitive foil fencing, electric weapons (with a wire running through their core) are used. These have a button on the tip of the blade that is pressed in upon contact with an opponent and electronically registers a hit. To qualify as a hit, the button must be subjected to a forced of at least 500g for at least 15 milliseconds (but before you panic, a computer does the calculations for you). Foil fencers also sport a conductive jacket that covers the target area so that the equipment can distinguish between on target and off-target (non-scoring) hits.
In épée contests, the required force is 750g for one millisecond and there is no need to define the contact area through the use of conductive material. The only hits that do not register as points are those which hit an opponent’s sword or any other grounded metal surface.
Sabre fencers also wear conductive clothing, but there is no definition of how hard or long a point scoring hit has to make contact for.
All fencers wear protective clothing which includes:
A form-fitting jacket (a little like a sturdy, collared leotard with sleeves) made from ballistic fabric that can resist 800 Newtons of force. A Plastron (underarm protector) that has seams that are aligned differently to those on the jacket. A glove for the sword wielding arm that has a gauntlet (to prevent blades from going up the sleeve and causing injury). Gloves also protect the hand and provide a firmer grip on the sword. Breeches or knickers whose elastic hem falls just below the knee. High socks (thigh or knee length) Flat soled shoes that are reinforced on the inside edge (on the back foot) and heel (on the front foot), to prevent wear from lunging. A mask fitted with a bib which protects the neck. Masks can usually support around 12 kg on the metal mesh and 350 Newtons of force on the bib. Some modern masks have a see-through visor in the front of the mask, whereas older style protection features a dense metal grill. Female fencers must wear a plastic chest protector. *A body cord (wire) is also necessary to register scoring. It attaches to the sword and is worn inside the sleeve of a normal fencing jacket, runs down the fencer's back and is then attached to the large external scoring box. In sabre and foil matches, body cords are attached to the conductive garments that cover isolated target areas.
Fencing is an energetic and technical sport that requires tactical planning and alertness throughout the match. Balance and hand eye co-ordination are also vital. It is an excellent form of cardiovascular exercise and the poise needed to hone technique means that fencing is often great for building muscular strength too.
Is it for me?
If you are unsteady on your feet, easily lose concentration or have trouble making your limbs move in the right direction without serious thought, then fencing may not be for you. Pregnant women cannot fence safely or comfortably, but classes are run at many age groups and children are often taught the basics with soft more flexible training swords to be extra safe. Men and women compete separately at events and you can choose to compete individually or as part of a team, so if you like a challenge and always thought of yourself as a sophisticated swashbuckler why not give it a go?
Good to know
Traditionally, fencers' uniforms are white and instructors typically wear black. This may be linked to the pre-electric practice of covering the point of the sword in dye, soot, or coloured chalk in order to make it easier for the referee to determine the placement of the touches and therefore allocate points accordingly.