About Fencing

Thank you for your interest in fencing. The United States Fencing Association (USFA) is the national governing body of the sport, and their website is a good resource for fencing news, schedules, and results for the national and international levels. Their Parents and Spectators Guide is a good place to start. The wikipedia article also has a nice overview.

If you are interested in competing, askFRED.net (the Fencing Results and Events Database) can help you find, register for, and see the results of local and regional tournaments.

If these introductions still leave you with questions, we would be more than happy to answer them in person at practice.

The following information is from the USFA’s Parents and Spectators Packet.

The sport of fencing is a uniquely classic sport. It has history, drama, romance, style, art, plus all the advantages of an active physically demanding sport. Mentally it is mind consuming, allowing not a moment’s break.


Foil, epee and saber are the three weapons used in the sport of fencing. While it is not unusual for fencers to compete in all three events, an athlete typically chooses to hone their skills in one weapon.

Foil – The Sport of Kings

The foil us a descendant of the light court sword formally used by nobility to train for duels. The foil has a flexible rectangular blade, approximately 35 inches in length and weighs less than one pound. Points are scored with the tip of the blade and must land within the torso of the body. The valid target area in foil is the torso from the shoulders to the groin in the front and to the waist in the back. It does not include the arms, neck, head and legs. This concept of on-target and off-target evolved from the theory of 18th-century fencing masters who instructed their pupils to only attack the vital areas of the body – i.e. the torso. Of course, the head is also a vital area of the body, but attacks to the face were considered unsporting and therefore discouraged.

The foil fencer’s uniform includes a metallic vest (called a lamé), which covers the valid target area so that a valid touch will register on the scoring machine. The flexible nature of the foil blade permits the modern elite foil fencer to attack an opponent from seemingly impossible angles.

Epee – Freestyle Fencing

The epee (pronounced “EPP-pay,” meaning sword in French), the descendant of the dueling sword, is similar in length to the foil, but is heavier, weighing approximately 27 ounces, with a larger guard (to protect the hand from a valid hit) and a much stiffer blade. Touches are scored only with the point of the blade, and the entire body, head-to-toe, is the valid target area, imitating an actual duel.
A full-body target naturally makes epee a competition of careful strategy and patience – wild, rash attacks are quickly punished with solid counter-attacks. Therefore, rather than attacking outright, epeeists often spend several minutes probing their opponent’s defences and maneuvering for distance before risking an attack. Others choose to stay on the defensive throughout the entire bout.
1996 was the first Olympics to feature team and individual Women’s Epee events.

Saber – Hack and Slash

The saber is the modern version of the slashing cavalry sword, and is similar in length and weight to the foil. The major difference is the use of the blade. The saber is a cutting weapon as well as a thrusting weapon; therefore, saberists can score with the edge of their blade as well as their point. The target area is from the bend of the hips (both front and back), to the top of the head. This simulates the cavalry rider on a horse. The saber fencers’ uniform includes a metallic jacket (lamé), which fully covers the target area to register a valid touch on the scoring machine. Because the head is valid target area, the fencer’s mask is also electrically wired.

If epee is the weapon of patient, defensive strategy, then saber is its polar opposite. In saber, the rules of right-of-way strongly favor the fencer who attacks first, and a mere graze by the blade against the lamé registers a touch with the scoring machine. These circumstances naturally make saber a fast, aggressive game, with fencers rushing their opponent from the moment the referee gives the instruction to fence. Athens was the first Olympics to feature a Women’s Saber event.

Object of the Bout

The object of a fencing bout (“game”) is to effectively score 15 points (in direct elimination play) or five points (in preliminary pool play) before your opponent, or have a higher score than your opponent when the time limit expires. Points are received by making a touch in the opponent’s target area. Direct elimination matches consist of three, three-minute periods with a one-minute break between each.


The right-of-way rule was established to eliminate apparently simultaneous attacks between two fencers. This rule is only applied to foil and saber and the difference is important only when both the red and green lights go on at the same time. When this happens, the winner of the point is the one who the referee determines held the right-of-way at the time the lights went on. The most basic, and important, precept of the right-of-way is that the fencer who started the attack first will receive the point if they hit the valid target area. Naturally, the fencer who is being attacked must defend himself or herself with a parry, or somehow cause their opponent to miss in order to take over right-of-way and score a point. A fencer who hesitates for too long while advancing on their opponent gives up right-of-way to their opponent. The referee may determine that the two fencers truly attacked each other simultaneously. The simultaneous attack results in no points being awarded, and the fencers are ordered back en garde by the referee to continue fencing.

In saber, the fencer who starts to attack first is given priority should his opponent counter-attack. However, saber referees are much less forgiving of hesitation by an attacker. It is common to see a saber fencer execute a stop cut against their opponent’s forearm during such a moment of hesitation, winning right-of-way and the point.

Epee does not use the right-of-way in keeping with its dueling origin. He who first gains touch earns the point, or if both fencers hit within 1/25th of a second both earn a point.

Following the Action

The fencer being attacked defends himself by use of a “parry,” a motion used to deflect the opponent’s blade, after which the defender can make a “riposte,” an answering attack. Whenever a hit is made, the referee will stop the bout, describe the action, and decide whether to award a touch. Fencers seek to maintain a safe distance from each other – that is out of the range of the opponent’s attack. Then, one will try to break this distance to gain the advantage for an attack. At times, a fencer will make a false attack to gauge the types of reactions of their opponent.

When a fencer lands a hit, the referee stops the bout and – on foil and saber – determines who was the attacker, if their opponent successfully defended themselves, and which fencer should be awarded a touch, if any.

While it may be difficult to follow the referee’s calls (not helped by the fact that the officiating is performed in French!) the referee always clearing raises their hand and on the side of the fencer for whom they have awarded a point. Watching these hand signals can make it easier for newcomers to follow the momentum of a fencing bout without understanding all of the intricacies of the rules.

Your Role as a Parent

As a parent, your primary purpose is to support and encourage your child. Parents greatly contribute to the success experienced by their children as well as other children in the youth program. Parent’s attitudes are often adopted by their children, who consult from their advice and approval. Parents, be aware of this and strive to become positive role models. Most importantly, this includes showing good sportsmanship at all times and respecting coaches, officials, and opponents.

Get your child to the club to train regularly. School obligations come first, so utilize school holidays for maximizing training opportunities. Training two months a year at a camp will yield very limited results. A consistent training curriculum is strongly encouraged.

It is important to let your child establish his own goals and play the game for himself. Help your child establish and achieve the goals he sets for himself. Avoid imposing your own goals or the coach’s goals on your child. “Success,” sometimes interpreted as “winning,” comes at different ages for each fencer. Success in youth fencing is achieved if the program helps the child love fencing. Great achievement will occur when the child loves the sport.

The best way to help your child achieve his goals and reduce his fear of failure is through positive reinforcement. No one likes to make mistakes. When your child makes one, remember that he is still learning. Encourage his efforts and highlight the successes and the things your child did well. Your child will have good days and bad ones. Help him through the bad days and celebrate the good days he is fortunate to have. Fencing is a continuous struggle to improve from first-day beginner to Olympic Champion.

At fencing tournaments, take time to meet new people, visit different cities and see what they have to offer. Many lasting friendships have been formed between fierce competitors. Enjoy the full experience of competition by taking advantage of all the opportunities for growth.

Fencing – the Game

Fencing is played on a metal strip, or piste, which measures approximately 2 meters wide and 14 meters long. Points (or touches) scored in a bout are registered on an electronic scoring machine. The machine receives an electrical impulse when the spring tip of the foil or epee is depressed or, in Saber when there adequate contact with the opponent by the blade. The strip is grounded to prevent touches being accidentally scored on the playing surface.

In the preliminary rounds, each fencing bout is fenced for five touches, with a time limit of 3 minutes. In the later rounds, for all events except the Youth events, each bout is fencing to a maximum of 15 touches. The bout is separated into three rounds of three minutes, with a one-minute rest period between rounds. In the event that the score is tied when time has elapsed, the referee will randomly determine priority (with a coin toss or equivalent) for one fencer. Fencing will continue for one additional minute. The first touch to score ends the bout. If the score remains tied at the end of the additional minute, the fencer with priority will win.

In Youth events, the later rounds are fenced best two out of three 5-touch bouts, of three minutes each, with a one minute rest period between bouts. In the event of a tie score at the end of time, the bout will proceed as outlined above.

After the preliminary rounds, the fencers who are promoted will be seeded into a direct elimination table. In some formats, the winner advances, and the loser is out. In other formats, it requires two losses to be eliminated. In the format that is most common in National competition, the direct elimination continues until 32 fencers remain, and then, two losses are required to be eliminated.

The Tournament

At an individual event, all of the entries are seeded based on past performance in USA Fencing and international (Federation Internationale d’Escrime or FIE) competitions. They are divided into pools of five to seven fencers, which are balanced for strength and club separation based on the seed. Each fencer in the pool will fence a bout against each of the other members in the pool. After completion of the pool, a predetermined number of its members will be elevated to the next round.

After the pools are concluded, the promoted fencers will be organized from best record to worst into an elimination table of 16, 32, 64, or 128 fencers. This may be fenced in a single or double elimination tableau. In a single elimination, a fencer losing against an opponent is eliminated from the tournament. In double elimination, a fencer is eliminated after two loses. The finals of an event are fenced as a single elimination table of eight fencers.

Fencing Facts (http://usfencing.org/pages/4641)

1.Fencing is one of only four sports to be included in every modern Olympic Games, since the first in 1896. Fencing was also a sport in the original Olympic Games in ancient Greece. Albertson Van Zo Post of the New York Fencers Club led our early Olympic efforts by winning 5 Olympic medals in the 1904 St. Louis Olympics including 2 gold medals (1 team, 1 individual).

2.Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic Games, was a fencer.

3. The tip of the fencing weapon is the second fastest moving object in sport; the first is the marksman’s bullet.

4. Fencing is conducted on a 14m x 2m “strip” or “piste” to replicate combat in confined quarters such as a castle hallway. The end of the fencing strip represents the line drawn in the earth by duelists’ seconds: to retreat behind this line during the duel indicated cowardice and loss of honor. Foil is the only weapon that has always had “strip” rules.  For many years, epee and saber fencers could move about with no restrictions.

5. The 750 gram weight test used to ensure a touch is scored with sufficient force is based on the amount of tension required to break the skin. In a duel, honor was done when blood was first drawn — even if from a minor wound such as a blister.

6. The target area in sabre, originally a cavalry weapon, is from the waist up because it is contrary to the rules of chivalry to injure an opponent’s horse.  The rules in saber changed for one season in 1903 to forbid hits with the point.  And from 1908 – 1915 saber fencers were awarded 2 points for a riposte.

7. There was no time limit on a fencing bout in our 1st US Championships in 1888 until 1897 when 4 minutes became the limit in foil and saber.  Epee  (then called dueling sword) had no time limit until 1915 with a 5-minute bout and a 2-minute overtime for tiebreaker.   The number of touches required to win a bout in fencing has varied over the years from 1 to 3 to 4 to 5 to 100 points awarded by a meeting of the judges. Today, the time limit has been reduced to just 3 minutes for 5-touch bouts and 9 minutes for 15 touches.

8. Fencers wear white uniforms because before the advent of electronic scoring, touches were recorded on the usually white surface with a wad of ink-soaked cotton on the tips of the weapons.  But since our first Nationals in 1888 rules on the colors required of uniforms  (then called “suits” or “costumes”) varied from “dark colors” to “white with black stitching” to “any color” from 1897 to the early 1900’s.  Our rules even required foil fencers to have buckskin or chamois covering the front of the jacket  (1900).

9. Famous Fencers: President Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill (high school champion of England), Cornell Wilde, Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer of Iron maiden – foil. Vigo Mortensen, Tony Curtis, Neil Diamond, entertainer – sabre. Jimmy Buffett, singer.  Prince Albert of Monaco – sabre. Andrew Jackson fought a duel of honor with swords. General George Patton competed in fencing in the 1912 Olympics and once owned a riding crop with a blade in the handle made by Georgio Santelli, New York fencing instructor and equipment manufacturer. Movie stars Jerry O’Connell – saber, Madonna, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Tom Cruise, Boris Karloff, Will Smith, Dennis Haysbert, and surprisingly, soccer star David Beckham!

10. The Boston Fencing Club, New York Fencers Club and New York Athletic Club all began robust fencing programs in the 1880’s.   America’s first fencing community developed in New Orleans in the 1700’s and flourished throughout the 1800’s and they failed to become a part of the United States Fencing Association (AFLA).  The USFA had strict rules about amateurism and all of the New Orleans clubs were mixing professionals from all over the world and offering cash prizes.  New Orleans stayed separated until the 1940’s.

11. The first electronic scoring machine for fencing that was approved for the Olympic Games was invented in 1936 by Hugh Alessandroni, Alfred Skrobisch and George Baker (Columbia University).

12. In April 2003, Men’s Saber Keeth Smart became only the 2nd United States Fencer to achieve a Number 1 World Ranking. He was quickly joined by Sada Jacobson, who claimed the Number 1 spot in Women’s Saber going into the Athens Games.  Joe Levis (Boston) entered the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games ranked #1 following his 1932 Olympic silver medal and the retirement of the gold medalist.

13. Mariel Zagunis (Beaverton, Ore.) is the first fencer in the world to hold four World Championships titles in one season: 2001 Cadet World Champion, 2001 Junior World Champion, 2001 Junior Team Champion, and 2000 Women’s Sabre Team World Champion.

14. Women’s Foil was added to the events at the Olympic Games in 1924. Women’s Epee was added in 1996. The 2004 Olympic Game in Athens, Greece was the first time that Women’s Sabre was an official part of the Olympic program.  United States Fencers Mariel Zagunis and Sada Jacobson won Gold and Bronze in the women’s sabre event at Athens.

15. Athens was the first Olympics in 100 years at which the United States won a gold medal in fencing.  And it was the 20 year anniversary of the last bronze medal, which was won in 1984 by Peter Westbrook- men’s sabre.  The last individual foil medal for the United States was won in 1960 by Albert Axelrod (bronze) who is also the only US foil fencer in history to achieve a World Championships final  (1958).