Fencing has evolved over 800 years from a deadly combat to a complete sport. Speed of movement and the intricate strategy of ancient duelling are still very much a part of modern fencing. Since duelling was outlawed, fencing as a sport has grown more and more popular with both men and women. Women and men compete separately, with some fencers becoming proficient in two or all three weapons, while others specialize in only one. Coordination, speed, agility and self assurance are a few of the qualities this sport requires of its followers. Because of the necessity to analyse the opponent’s game and to develop strategy, fencing is often described as an animated game of chess.
With the development of new metal alloys, lighter and more manageable weapons have become possible. These place a premium on speed and coordination and give little if any advantage to sheer strength.
By fencing, we have come to mean not simply fighting for hits, but a strictly regulated game. Its traditions have been transmitted through generations and make fencing a truly educational sport. Despite the evolution of fencing from combat to sport, certain conventions have remained intact – judges do not distinguish between accidental and strategically thought out hits. Competitions are presently held in three weapons: Foil, Épée, and Sabre.
An Incomplete History
How did fencing originate?
Sword fighting as sport has existed since ancient Egypt, and has been practised in many forms in various cultures since then. Although jousting and tournament combat was a popular sport in the European middle ages, modern FIE fencing owes more to unarmoured duelling forms that evolved from 16th century rapier combat.
Although rapier combat had a nominal military role (for thrusting into the chinks of heavy armour), it was most popular amongst civilians who used it for self-defence and duelling. Rapiers were edged, but the primary means of attack was the thrust. Rapier fencing spread from Italy to Spain and North-West Europe, in spite of the objections of masters such as George Silver who preferred traditional cutting weapons such the English long sword.
The Spanish school, under masters such as Narvaez and Thibault, became a complicated and mystical affair whose geometrical theories required much practice to master. Italian masters like Agrippa and Capo Ferro developed a more pragmatic school in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, introducing innovations such as linear fencing and the lunge.
By the 18th century, the rapier had evolved to a simpler, shorter, and lighter design that was popularized in France as the small sword, or court sword. Although the small sword often had an edge, it was only to discourage the opponent from grabbing the blade, and the weapon was used exclusively for thrusting. The light weight made a more complex and defensive style possible, and the French masters developed a school based on subtlety of movement, double-time parries, and complex attacks. When buttoned with a leather safety tip that resembled a flower, the small sword was known as le fleuret, and was identical in use to the modern foil (still known as le fleuret in French). Indeed, the French small sword school forms the basis of most of modern fencing theory.
By the mid-19th century, duelling was in decline as a means of settling disputes, partially because victory could lead to a jail term for assault or manslaughter. Emphasis shifted to defeating the opponent without necessarily killing him, and less fatal duelling forms evolved using the duelling sword, or epée de terrain, an blunt-edged variant of the small sword. Later duels often ended with crippling thrusts to the arm or leg, and fewer legal difficulties for the participants. This is the basis of modern epée fencing.
Cutting swords had been used in bloodsports such as backsword prizefights at least as far back as the 17th century. Broadswords, sabres, and cutlasses were used extensively in military circles, especially by cavalry and naval personnel, and saw some duelling application in these circles as well. Training was performed with wooden weapons, and stick fighting remained popular until Italian masters formalized sabre fencing into a non-fatal sporting/training form with metal weapons in the late 19th century. Early sport sabres were significantly heavier than the modern sport sabre and necessitated a strong style with the use of moulinets and other bold movements. As with thrusting swords, the sabre evolved to lighter, less fatal duelling forms such as the Italian sciabola di terro and the German schlager. Hungarian masters developed a new school of sabre fencing that emphasized finger control over arm strength, and they dominated sabre fencing for most of the 20th century.
Duelling faded away altogether in the early 20th century. A couple of noteworthy duels were fought over disputes that arose during Olympic games in the 1920s. According to E.F. Morton (A-Z of Fencing) the last widely publicized formal duel occurred in France in 1954, ending with a scratch to the arm. German fraternity duelling (mensur) persisted longer, and may still occur with some frequency.
The modern sport
The sport of fencing developed out of the formalized sword duel. The duel of honor, which first became prevalent in the early 16th century, may have had roots in both the single combats of the medieval tournament and in the notion of ‘trial by combat’, which dated to Norman times. The weapon most commonly associated with early duelling, the rapier, also originated in the 16th century. The rapier had a narrower blade than the medieval broadsword, and was optimized for thrusting attacks (although it could also be cut with). Contrary to popular conception, rapiers were not any lighter than broadswords, as they tended to be very long (sometimes 4 feet or more), and usually required the wielder to have some additional device (like a small shield or parrying dagger) in the off-hand to use for defence. With changes in technique and fashion – the swords were essentially gentlemen’s sidearms, worn as much for style and status as for defence– the rapier was gradually lightened and shortened into the smallsword of the 18th and 19th centuries. The smallsword was quick enough to be used for both attacking and parrying, eliminating the need for a separate parrying device. The fighting styles developed for the smallsword are the direct ancestors of modern fencing techniques.
Killing in a duel had long been outlawed by the beginning of the 1800’s, and by the 1820’s the wearing of swords had passed out of fashion– fencing was moving into the realm of sport. Sport fencing was originally done only with the foil, the blunted practice sword used to teach the basics of swordsmanship. In the second half of the century, the lightweight dueling sabre gained acceptance as a sporting weapon. The practice of duelling continued to be found through the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, though by this time duels were rarely fought to the death. The thrusting sword often used in these duels was heavier and stiffer than a foil, and the nature of the weapon and the duel required a somewhat different set of techniques and tactics than used in bouts with the foil. This weapon eventually became standardized into the fencing epee. These are the three weapons used in modern fencing.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were two dominant schools of fencing, the French school and the Italian school, each using it’s own type of sword grip and emphasizing a different style of fighting: the French favoring deft deceptions of the blade, the Italians stronger, more forceful blade actions. Over the course of the last 60 years styles which merged aspects of the two schools (along with new techniques) have become dominant, although a few more tradition-minded masters continue to adhere to the classical schools. Fencing is one of the few sports to have been in every Olympics since the first games of the modern era in 1896.
When the French introduced a new type of fencing, it was neat, quiet, precise and more deadly than before. The essence of the action was nimbleness of wrist and fingers which required quickness rather than muscular vigor.
The first modern Olympic games featured foil and sabre fencing for men only. Epee was introduced in 1900. Single stick was featured in the 1904 games. Epee was electrified in the 1936 games, foil in 1956, and sabre in 1988. Early Olympic games featured events for Masters, and until recently fencing was the only Olympic sport that has included professionals. Disruptions in prevailing styles have accompanied the introduction of electric judging, most recently transforming sabre fencing. Foil fencing experienced similar upheavals for a decade or two following the introduction of electric judging, which were further complicated by the new, aggressive, athletic style coming out of eastern Europe at the time.
Women’s foil was first contested in the 1924 Olympic games, and Women’s epee was only contested for the first time in 1996, although it has been part of the World Championships since 1989. Women’s sabre has a small amount of uptake and only recently began to impact on the national and international scenes.