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What is Fencing?

Fencing is a martial art in which athletes try to trick their opponent into making a mistake so they can hit them with a lightweight, flexible sword.  It is fast.  It is intense.  And it is most definitely fun.

There are three different disciplines in fencing, each attracting fencers of different physical, intellectual, and emotional characteristics. 

In foil, fencers can only score by poking their opponent’s torso with the tip of their weapon, the vestige of earlier weapons’ sharp tips.  (Modern foil tips are blunt metal, either covered with a rubber ball or equipped with electrical scoring components.)  

Foilists Peter Joppich (Germany) and Brice Guyart (France) in team finals from Shanghai World Cup, 2006.  Copyright

The foil was originally invented as a training tool and, thus, is governed by right of way rules that taught students the importance of staying alive.  Put simply, if somebody attacks you, it’s a bad idea to impale yourself to try to hit them.  Right of way encourages fencers to attack first or defend themselves if somebody is already attacking them.  In competitions, right of way is interpreted by the referee, who determines which fencer gets each point.  The difficulty of hitting the small target area makes for a very dynamic game. 

Epeeists Dorina Budai (Hungary) and Laura Flessel Colovic (France) fence at the Paris World Championships, 2010.  Copyright

Epee, like foil, only scores with the point.  Unlike foil, the entire body is target area.  This is because epee comes from dueling and the idea of fighting until somebody drew first blood.  For the same reason, epee does not follow right of way rules.  Whoever hits first in epee scores.  If both fencers hit at the same time, both get a point.  There’s a lot to defend, so these fencers tend to be somewhat more cautious, looking for just the right moment to make their move, then acting decisively.  Epeeists are often attracted to the clarity of a sport in which the winner is determined solely by who hit first, with less emphasis on the subjective judgement of the referee.

Sabre fencers Timothy Morehouse (USA) and Nicolas Lopez (France).  Copyright The sabre comes from cavalry weapons, which would have been sharp at the point and on the edge.  Sabre fencers can thus use either a thrusting or a cutting motion.  They score on any part of the body above the waist, including the head.  Like foil, sabre uses right of way to determine which fencer gets each point.  It’s easy to touch your opponent in sabre, so fencers have an incentive to initiate the attack, making for a fast, exciting game.