Final of the Challenge Réseau Ferré de France–Trophée Monal 2012, épée world cup tournament in Paris.
|Olympic sport||Present since inaugural 1896 Olympics|
Contemporary fencing is the word used for modern sport fencing which is very different from the martial use of the sword (also known as western art of combat with the small sword); Sport fencing is also called Olympic fencing which began in the end of the 19th century, with the Italian school having modified the "classical fencing", and the French school having later refined the Italian system.
Modern fencing uses three weapons, and so is divided respectively into three competitive scenes: foil, sabre (spelt "saber" in the United States) and épée. Most (but not all) competitive fencers choose to specialise in one of these only.
Fencing is governed by Fédération Internationale d'Escrime or FIE. Today, its head office is in Lausanne, Switzerland. The FIE is composed of 145 national federations, each of which is recognised by its country's Olympic Committee as the sole representative of Olympic-style fencing in that country.
The FIE maintains the current rules used for FIE sanctioned international events, including world cups, world championships and the Olympic Games. The FIE handles proposals to change the rules the first year after an Olympic year in the annual congress. The US Fencing Association has slightly different rules, but usually adhere to FIE standards.
The ancestor of modern fencing originated in Spain, where several books on fencing were written. Treatise on Arms was written by Diego de Valera between 1458 and 1471 and is one of the oldest surviving manuals on western fencing shortly before dueling came under official ban by the Catholic Monarchs. In conquest, the Spanish forces carried fencing around the world, particularly southern Italy, one of the major areas of strife between both nations. Fencing was mentioned in the play The Merry Wives of Windsor written sometime prior to 1602.
The mechanics of modern fencing originated in the 18th century in an Italian school of fencing of the Renaissance, and, under their influence, was improved by the French school of fencing. The Spanish school of fencing stagnated and was replaced by the Italian and French schools.
Development into a sport
The shift towards fencing as a sport rather than as military training happened from the mid-18th century, and was led by Domenico Angelo, who established a fencing academy, Angelo's School of Arms, in Carlisle House, Soho, London in 1763. There, he taught the aristocracy the fashionable art of swordsmanship. His school was run by three generations of his family and dominated the art of European fencing for almost a century. 
He established the essential rules of posture and footwork that still govern modern sport fencing, although his attacking and parrying methods were still much different from current practice. Although he intended to prepare his students for real combat, he was the first fencing master to emphasize the health and sporting benefits of fencing more than its use as a killing art, particularly in his influential book L’École des armes (The School of Fencing), published in 1763.
The first regularized fencing competition was held at the inaugural Grand Military Tournament and Assault at Arms in 1880, held at the Royal Agricultural Hall, in Islington in June. The Tournament featured a series of competitions between army officers and soldiers. Each bout was fought for five hits and the foils were pointed with black to aid the judges. The Amateur Gymnastic & Fencing Association drew up an official set of fencing regulations in 1896.
Fencing was part of the Olympics Games in the summer of 1896. Sabre events have been held at every Summer Olympics; foil events have been held at every Summer Olympics except 1908; Épée events have been held at every Summer Olympics except in the summer of 1896 because of unknown reasons.
Starting with épée in 1933, side judges were replaced by the Laurent-Pagan electrical scoring apparatus, with an audible tone and a red or green light indicating when a touch landed. Foil was automated in 1956, sabre in 1988. The scoring box reduced the bias in judging, and permitted more accurate scoring of faster actions, lighter touches, and more touches to the back and flank than before.
There are three weapons in modern fencing: foil, épée, and sabre. Each weapon has its own rules and strategies.
- Foil: a light thrusting weapon, with a maximum weight of 500 grams. The foil may target the torso (including the back), neck, and groin, but not the arms or legs. The foil has a small circular hand guard that serves to protect the hand from direct stabs. As the hand is not a valid target in foil, this is primarily for safety. Touches are scored only with the tip; hits with the side of the blade do not count, and do not halt the action. Touches that land outside of the target area (called an off-target touch) stop the action, but are not scored. Only a single touch can be scored by either fencer at one time. If both fencers land valid touches at the same time, the referee uses the rules of "right of way" to determine which fencer gets the point. If both fencers begin their attack at the same time, or the referee is unable to determine who was first, neither fencer scores a point.
- Épée: a thrusting weapon like the foil, but heavier, with a maximum total weight of 770 grams. In épée, the entire body is valid target. The hand guard on the épée is a large circle that extends towards the pommel, effectively covering the hand, which is a valid target in épée. Like foil, all hits must be with the tip and not the sides of the blade. Hits with the side of the blade do not halt the action. As the entire body is legal target, there is not the concept of an off-target touch, except if the fencer accidentally strikes the floor, setting off the electric tone. Unlike foil and sabre, épée does not use "right of way", and allows simultaneous hits by both fencers. However, if the score is tied in a match at the last point and a double touch is scored, the point is null and void.
- Sabre: a light cutting and thrusting weapon that targets the entire body above the waist, except the weapon hand. Like the foil, the maximum legal weight of a sabre is 500 grams. The hand guard on the sabre extends from pommel to the base of where the blade connects to the hilt. This guard is generally turned outwards during sport to protect the sword arm from touches. Hits with the entire blade or point are valid. As in foil, touches that land outside of the target area are not scored. However, unlike foil, these off-target touches do not stop the action, and the fencing continues. In the case of both fencers landing a scoring touch, the referee determines which fencer receives the point for the action, again through the use of "right of way".
Fencing outfits are made of tough cotton or nylon. Kevlar was added to top level uniform pieces (jacket, breeches, underarm protector, lamé, and the bib of the mask) following the Smirnov incident at the 1982 World Championships in Rome. However, Kevlar breaks down in chlorine and UV light, complicating the cleaning process.
In recent years other ballistic fabrics, such as Dyneema, have been developed that resist puncture and which do not have Kevlar's issues. FIE rules state that the tournament outfits must be made of fabric that resists a force of 800 newtons (180 lbf) and that the mask bib must resist double that amount.
The complete fencing kit includes:
- Form-fitting jacket with strap (croissard) which goes between the legs. In sabre fencing, jackets that are cut along the waist. A small gorget of folded fabric is sewn in around the collar to prevent an opponent's blade from slipping under the mask and along the jacket upwards towards the neck.
- Plastron, an underarm protector, which goes underneath the jacket and provides double protection on the sword arm side and upper arm. There is no seam under the arm, which would line up with the jacket seam and provide a weak spot.
- One glove for the weapon arm with a gauntlet that prevents blades from going up the sleeve and causing injury, as well as protecting the hand and providing a good grip.
- Breeches or knickers which are a pair of short trousers that end just below the knee. The breeches are required to have 10 cm of overlap with the jacket. Most are equipped with suspenders (braces).
- Knee-length or thigh high socks which cover knee and thighs.
- Shoes with flat soles and reinforcement on the inside of the back foot and heel of front foot, to prevent wear from lunging.
- Mask, including a bib which protects the neck. The mask can usually support 12 kilograms (26 lb) on the metal mesh and 350 newtons (79 lbf) of penetration resistance on the bib. FIE regulations dictate that masks must withstand 25 kilograms (55 lb) on the mesh and 1,600 newtons (360 lbf) on the bib. Some modern masks have a see-through visor in the front of the mask. These have been used at high level competitions (World Championships etc.), however, they are currently banned in foil and épée by the FIE, following a 2009 incident in which a visor was pierced during the European Junior Championship competition. There are foil, sabre, and three-weapon masks.
- Plastic chest protector, mandatory for females. While male versions of the chest protector are also available, they were, until recently, primarily worn by instructors, who are hit far more often during training than their students. These are increasingly popular in foil, as the hard surface increases the likelihood that a hit fails to register, as well as with youth competitors.
- Lamé is a layer of electrically conductive material worn over the fencing jacket that entirely covers the valid target area. It is worn only in foil and sabre, and serves to distinguish hits on target from those that are off-target. In épée, the entire body is a target, so it is not necessary to have a lamé. In foil the lamé is sleeveless, while in sabre the lamé has sleeves and ends in a straight line across the waist. A body cord is necessary to register scoring: it attaches to the weapon and runs inside the jacket sleeve, then down the back and out to the scoring box. In sabre and foil the body cord connects to the lamé in order to create a circuit to the scoring box.
- Fencing masters often choose a heavier protective jacket, usually reinforced by plastic foam to cushion the numerous hits an instructor has to endure. Sometimes in practice, masters wear a protective sleeve or a leg leather to protect their fencing arm or leg.
Traditionally, the fencers' uniform is white (black for instructors). This may be due to the occasional pre-electric practice of covering the point of the weapon in dye, soot, or colored chalk in order to make it easier for the referee to determine the placing of the touches. As this is no longer a factor in the electric era, the FIE rules have been relaxed to allow colored uniforms (save black). The guidelines also limit the permitted size and positioning of sponsorship logos.
Techniques or movements in fencing can be divided into two categories: offensive and quickly defensive. Some techniques can fall into both categories (e.g. the beat). Certain techniques are used offensively, with the purpose of landing a hit on your opponent while holding the right of way (foil and sabre). Others are used defensively, to protect against a hit or obtain the right of way.
- Attack: A basic fencing technique, also called a thrust, consisting of extending the sword arm to declare an attack and attempt to land a touch upon the opponent's valid area. In sabre, attacks are also made with a cutting action.
- Riposte: An attack by the defender after a successful parry. After the attacker has completed their attack, and it has been parried, the defender then has the opportunity to make an attack, and take right of way (foil and saber).
- Feint: An attack with the purpose of provoking a reaction from the opposing fencer.
- Lunge: A thrust while extending the front leg by using a slight kicking motion and propelling the body forward with the back leg.
- Beat Attack: In foil & sabre, the attacker beats the opponent's blade to gain priority (right of way) and continues the attack against the target area. In épée, a similar beat is made but with the intention to disturb the opponent's aim and thus score with a single light.
- Disengage: Beginning an attack in one direction, then quickly moving the point down in a semi-circle to attack a different location. This is used to trick the opponent into blocking the wrong direction. For example, the fencer could target the left side of the torso, and begin the lunge. As the opponent moves to the left to parry, the fencer disengages and finishes the attack on the right side of the torso. Commonly countered with a circle-parry.
- Continuation of Attack: A typical épée action of making a 2nd after attack after the first attack is parried. This may be done with a change in line; example, an attack in the high line (above the opponent's bellguard, such as the shoulder) is then followed with an attack to the low line (below the opponent's bellguard, such as the thigh, or foot); or from the outside line (outside of the bellguard, such as outer arm) to the inside line (inside the bellguard, such as the inner arm or the chest). A second continuation is stepping slight past the parry and angulating the blade to bring the tip of the blade back on target.
- Remise. A second attack immediately after the first has missed or been parried. In foil or sabre, a remise is considered to have lost right of way, and the defender's riposte will always score instead of the remise.
- Flick: a technique used primarily in foil. It takes advantage of the extreme flexibility of the blade to use it like a whip, bending the blade so that it curves over and strikes the opponent with the point. This technique has become much more difficult due to timing changes which require the point to stay depressed for longer to set off the light.
- Parry: Basic defence technique, block the opponent's weapon while it is preparing or executing an attack to deflect the blade away from the fencer's valid area and (in foil and sabre) to give fencer the right of way. Usually followed by a riposte, a return attack by defender.
- Circle Parry: A parry where the sword is twisted in a circle to catch the opponent's tip and deflect it away. It is commonly used to counter a disengage.
- Counter Attack: A basic fencing technique of attacking your opponent while generally moving back out of the way of the opponent's attack. Used quite often in épée to score against the attacker's hand/arm. More difficult to accomplish in foil and sabre unless one is quick enough to make the counterattack and retreat ahead of the advancing opponent without being scored upon, or by evading the attacking blade via moves such as the In Quartata (turning to the side) or Passata-sotto (ducking).
- Point In Line: Extending the weapon and arm against the opponent's target area. In foil and sabre, this gives one priority if the extension is made before the opponent is approximately advance-lunge distance away. When performed as a defensive action, the attacker must then disturb the extended weapon to re-take priority; otherwise the defender has priority and the counter-attack like action will win the touch if the attacker does not manage a single light. When performed as an offensive action, the intent is usually a means for the attacker to draw a defensive action that can be deceived and the attack continued. In épée, there is no priority; the move may be used as a means by either fencer to achieve a double-touch and advance the score by 1 for each fencer.
The attacks and defences may be performed in countless combinations of feet and hand actions. For example, fencer A attacks the arm of fencer B, drawing a high outside parry; fencer B then follows the parry with a high line riposte. Fencer A, expecting that, then makes his own parry by pivoting his blade under fencer B's weapon (from straight out to more or less straight down), putting fencer B's tip off target and fencer A now scoring against the low line by angulating the hand upwards.
Whenever a point is scored, the fencers will go back to their starting mark. The fight will start again after the following sentences have been said by the referee: "En garde" (On guard), "Êtes-vous prêts ?" (Are you ready ?, to which the fencers have to answer yes), "Allez" (Go).
Universities and schools
Fencing has a long history with universities and schools for at least 500 years. At least one style of fencing, Mensur in Germany, is practiced only within universities, notably at Heidelberg. University students compete internationally at the World University Games. The United States holds two national level university tournaments including the NCAA championship and the USACFC National Championships tournaments in the USA and the BUCS fencing championships in the United Kingdom.
Equipment costs and the relatively small scale of the sport limits university fencing to a small number of schools. National fencing organisations have set up programmes to encourage more students to fence. Examples include the Regional Youth Circuit program in the USA and the Leon Paul Youth Development series in the UK.
In recent years, attempts have been made to introduce fencing to a wider and younger audience, by using foam and plastic swords, which require much less protective equipment. This makes it much less expensive to provide classes, and thus easier to take fencing to a wider range of schools than traditionally has been the case. There is even a competition series in Scotland – the Plastic-and-Foam Fencing FunLeague – specifically for Primary and early Secondary school-age children using this equipment.
The UK hosts two national competitions in which schools compete against each other directly: the Public Schools Fencing Championship, a competition only open to Independent Schools, and the Scottish Secondary Schools Championships, open to all secondary schools in Scotland. It contains both teams and individual events and is highly anticipated. Schools organise matches directly against one another and school age pupils can compete individually in the British Youth Championships.
Many universities in Ontario, Canada have fencing teams that participate in an annual inter-university competition called the OUA Finals.
Other variants include chair fencing, one-hit épée (one of the five events which constitute modern pentathlon) and the various types of non-Olympic competitive fencing. Chair fencing is similar to wheelchair fencing but for the able bodied. The opponents set up opposing chairs and fence while seated; all the usual rules of fencing are applied. An example of the latter is the American Fencing League (distinct from the United States Fencing Association): the format of competitions is different and the right of way rules are interpreted in a different way. In a number of countries, school and university matches deviate slightly from the FIE format.
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