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 Indianapolis Fencing Club
Supporting fencing in the greater Indianapolis area since 1978.

The History and Evolution of Fencing

by Chris Frost, Former IFC President

Fencing is a modern sport, which evolved from the ancient martial art of swordplay. Originally developed as a training tool for lethal combat, fencing has evolved into a safe, exciting sport that is part of the modern Olympics.

Fencing offers a great workout for both body and mind. It helps to develop strength, stamina, dexterity, poise, discipline, and control. It is also unique in that it can be practiced for a lifetime; active fencers range in age from 10 to 80, and even higher.

Fencing pits two opponents against each other in bouts of either five or fifteen points, or touches. In scoring a touch, the fencer must touch his opponent in the proper target area while preventing the other fencer from doing the same. To accomplish this, the fencer must use both physical and psychological skill to outmaneuver and outwit the opponent, creating the necessary opening for a successful attack.

The weapons used in fencing are quite different from actual swords. They have been designed to emulate certain characteristics of their lethal cousins yet be completely safe. All edges and points are blunt, and the blades are extremely flexible. This allows them to bend and absorb the shock of a hit rather than transmitting that force into the fencer’s body. There are three different types of weapons: the foil, the epee, and the sabre. Each has different rules for attack and defense.

Foil is the training weapon of fencing, and was originally developed as a tool for teaching rapier technique. Practicing swordsmen would wrap their blades in leather or place balls over the tips to “foil” their weapon’s true purpose (to kill). Eventually, a special non-lethal practice weapon was invented just for training. This evolved into the modern practice foil.

The rapier was primarily a thrusting weapon. In keeping with its history, the foil can score a touch only with its point. Because the foil was a teaching weapon intended to perfect technique, only the torso, the most vital part of the body, is valid target area — arms, legs, and the head are considered off target. Foil also employs the concept of right of way, which requires a fencer to first interrupt an opponent’s attack before initiating his own. This evolved from the practical swordfighting wisdom of protecting oneself before attacking one’s opponent.

The Ă©pĂ©e evolved from the rapier of the classical duel, made famous by Alexander Dumas. Contrary to popular belief and Hollywood dramatics, duels were not generally fought to the death. Most insults were just not dire enough to risk one’s life. Instead, the typical duel was fought to “first blood,” meaning that the first combatant to wound the other, however slightly, was declared the winner. Accidents still happened, but generally both duelists would live to insult and fight again another day.

Reflecting this dueling tradition, the target area in épée includes the entire body, from the top of the head to the tip of the toe. There is no right of way in épée: the first fencer to hit scores a touch. If both fencers hit simultaneously (within 1/25 of a second in electric fencing), each receives a touch.

Sabre fencing evolved from fighting on horseback. In such fighting, it was common to find oneself “saddle to saddle” with an enemy. At such close quarters it was not practical to hit with a thrusting action. The common technique in sabre was to swing the weapon in an attack called a cut. Thus, sabre is the only weapon in modern fencing that can score with the edge of the blade as well as the tip.

In keeping with sabre’s equestrian origin, the entire body above the waist, including the head, is valid target area. The legs are off target, as a cut to the legs would not significantly hinder a mounted opponent. The horse is no longer used in modern sabre competition, but the conventional target remains the same. Like the foil, sabre fencing employs right of way.

The Bout
The fencing bout is fought on a 46-foot strip, or piste. Lines on the strip mark the center point, the fencer’s starting positions, and one-meter warnings from each end. If a fencer is forced off the back of the strip, his opponent receives a touch.

The bout is controlled by a Director, or referee. The Director manages and controls the bout. He or she starts and stops the fencing action, interprets right of way, awards touches and issues penalties when the rule are violated.

There are three types of penalties, the Yellow Card, Red Card, and Black Card. A yellow card is a warning and can be received for covering target area, jostling one’s opponent and other infractions. After one yellow card, all further penalties are red cards, which award a touch to one’s opponent. A black card may be given for unsportsmanlike conduct and other gross violations and results in immediate ejection from the competition or fencing venue.

Modern competitions are fenced with electronic scoring equipment. This gear automatically registers touches both on- and off-target for each fencer, thus simplifying the Director’s task. However, much non-competitive fencing is still done sans electronic equipment, or “dry.” Competitions range in size from small local events to regional, national, and international competitions involving hundreds of competitors.

History of Modern Fencing
The true origins of fencing begin, ironically, with the invention of the firearm. The first primitive muzzle-loading weapons were invented in the 16th century. Prior to this, soldiers and knights fought each other encased in heavy metal plate armor and used massive swords to smash through the armor of their opponents. Because of the tremendous mass of both the sword and the armor, medieval swordplay was slow and ungainly. It was simply not possible to employ specialized moves for either attack or defense.

However, the first single-shot firearms were powerful enough to pierce this heavy armor easily. Suddenly rendered useless, heavy armor was soon dropped from the martial inventory. Soldiers, having lost the defense of armor, began desperately inventing new techniques to use the sword for defense as well as attack. This began the study of the sword as a practical, scientific art. In fact, the word “fencing” is derived directly from “defense.”

In time, fencing schools were established which set forth rules and techniques for fighting. They were relatively primitive and violent by today’s standards, but these were the beginning of a codified set of rules regarding the use of the sword.

The 16th century also saw the invention of the rapier, a relatively streamlined, long-bladed weapon designed exclusively for a thrusting attack. Prior schools of thought taught that edged cutting weapons provided the greatest effectiveness. However, the rapier’s efficiency and economy of movement eventually caused it to dominate the world of the sword. The rapier continued to evolve over the next two hundred years, gradually becoming a lighter, shorter, ever more efficient weapon.

The early 18th century saw the invention of the foil. This blunt-tipped practice weapon finally made it possible to learn the art of fencing without risking one’s life to accident or misstep. The foil also made it possible for fencing to become a game of skill, rather than a life or death contest.

By the 19th century, dueling had fallen out of fashion, and advances in the design of firearms had rendered swords useless in military combat. However, the disciplines and techniques developed for the sword lived on to become the modern sport of fencing.


Upcoming Fencing Classes

To register for a class, go to indyfencing.net

Fencing 1 (beginning foil)

- March 2 Monon Community Center:
** 9:00 am, 18 years +
** 10:00 am, 8 years +

Fencing 2 (beginning epee)

- March 2 Monon Community Center:
** 11:00 am, 8 years +

Beginning Epee (NEW*, learn to fence using the epee)

- February 25 Abundant Life Church gym
** 6:00 pm, ages 9+ (youth and adult)

Note: All classes are 6 weeks long and all equipment is provided. Go to the Classes pull down menu for more information.
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