About Fencing

What is Fencing?

Fencing is a modern sport derived from European training for fighting duels with swords.  The modern form uses three weapons, giving the sport three distinct events: the foil, épée and sabre. Competitions in each of these may be fenced either individually or in teams of three, in which the teams compete in a relay format.  Fencing is an Olympic sport, and has been included at every modern summer Olympic Games.

    Fencing is an exiting and addictive sport which improves fitness, coordination, speed and strength.  Its combination of athleticism, technique and tactics means that it can be enjoyed by men and women, the young or old.  Even if you are not as strong in some areas of the fencing game, the breadth of abilities used in fencing means that you can employ other strengths and tactics to compensate.

    Competitions for fencing are held at school, club, state and national levels in Australia.  Men and women fence in separate events, and there are also age events for the young (Under 13,15,17,20) and old (Veterans: over 40 with higher age categories).  Most competitions use electric scoring, where buttons on the tips of the weapons and/or conductive jackets allow a scoring box to determine whether a fencer was touched and where, though a referee still has to determine how to award the point.  Some lower-level competitions and most training bouts, however, are fenced "steam", with either a group of judges watching for touches or, at training, the fencers themselves simply acknowledging a touch.

The Three Weapons

    The three weapons of modern fencing each have slightly different rules, targets and methods of making the touch.  However, the field of play, called a piste, is the same for all, and many rules apply to all three weapons.  The differences give each weapon its own distinct character and tactics: from the rapid aggression of the sabre through the subtleties of the foil to the counter-offensive épée.


    The foil was a training weapon developed to allow safer training for duels with the rapier or smallsword.  Its name was a blacksmith's term for flattening, as this was a sword made with a flattened tip for safety.  In order to train for the smallsword, which frequently did not have a sharp edge, touches were only made with the tip of the foil, in a thrusting action.  The target that the fencer tried to touch was restricted to the opponent's torso, in training for a duel fought to the death.

    Hence the modern foilist tries to touch his opponent's torso with the tip of his foil; however, he must also take into account the priority rules, which the referee will use to determine who wins the point if both fencers have touched.  These rules essentially give the point to the attacker unless the opponent defends against the attack, at which point he can make his own attack with the priority.  These rules reflect the foil's heritage as a weapon, where the object was training to kill, but most importantly, to not be killed; so the priority rules penalise a reckless attack into an opponent's attack.

    All this makes the foil a subtle weapon, often with involved exchanges of actions, where the odds are rather equally balanced between the attack and the defence.


    The épée is the heaviest of the three weapons, and is descended from the duelling smallsword.  Indeed, the modern competition épée uses blades whose shape may have changed little in the past 200 years.  In earlier times it was not unknown for fencers to train in their clubs with their weapons "tipped" then remove the tips when fighting a duel to expose the sharp points.  Like the foil, the épée is exclusively a point weapon and only a touch with that point is counted, but the épée requires a slightly harder touch.  In keeping with its duelling origin, the opponent's entire body is the target for the épée.  However, there are no priority rules in épée, with the point being won by the first fencer to touch correctly.  Should they touch each other within a 25th of a second (40 ms), both receive a point.

    It might seem at first that the lack of rules encouraging you to defend would make the épée bout a very aggressive affair, but the effect is really the opposite.  Without the protection of the priority rules, it is much more risky for the épéeist to attack his opponent, while the counter-attack (in fencing this is an attack made into and during the opponent's attack, not after it has finished) is much more useful.  Consequently épéeists must spend more time setting up their attacks, and the odds are often better for the counter-attack.  This means that épée can appear slower when first seen, and each bout generally lasts longer.


    The third weapon, the sabre, differs from the other two in both its techniques and appearance as it is the cutting weapon.  This means that touches can be made with the edge of the blade, as well as with the point.  This in turn means that most of the techniques for attack and defence, even the guard position, are different.  The sabre came to fencing when cavalry officers took to fighting duels with their service weapons, and then wished to train to do this.  Despite the weapons initially being the same, the sabre is concerned only with the duel, as are the other weapons: military swordsmanship was rather different and generally greatly simplified, such as the British cavalry's stereotyped "six cuts".   However, its cavalry origins influenced the target area, which is restricted to the body above the hips (excluding the hands) so as to avoid the imaginary horse.

    Sabre shares the priority rules of foil, as it too was supposed to replicate duels fought to the death.  However, the ability to cut as well as thrust makes it much easier to touch with the sabre, and much more difficult to defend, so the odds are definitely with the attacker.  This makes sabre the fastest weapon, where one fencer is almost always attacking rapidly and each point is over in a couple of seconds.