Fencing, in general terms, can be defined as the use of a weapon to defend oneself and to attack an armed opponent. Usually, the weapon would be a sword. The sport of fencing is much more complex than a one sentence definition. It stems from a long history and has continually changed over time.
Fencing has been a part of the Olympics since the first modern events held in 1896. While fencing is an extremely fast, action-packed sport, it can be difficult for the uninformed to follow. However, the use of an electronic scoring box that lights up when a fencer scores a touch has gone a long way to making the sport more appealing to spectators.
Surely, as long as men have used weapons to combat each other, some form of fencing has existed. However, fencing as a sport is itself very old. The earliest historical reference dates back to ancient Egypt (2000 B.C.) where hieroglyphics depict two men fighting with wooden swords before a crowd. As warfare tactics developed so, too, did fencing.
Fencing evolved from the ancient tactics of the Greek and Roman phalanxes to the heavily armored styles of the medieval age. Much of this style of fighting relied on armor and shields for defense, and complex blade work was not yet common. Ironically, it was the rise of the gun that made fencing into what many today think of it. With the advent of the gun, heavy armor became useless. As armor grew lighter so did the sword. The lighter swords, such as the rapier and the European smallsword, led to the development of new tactics where the sword performed an equal role as an instrument of both attack and defense.
What are the three weapons of fencing?
Today there are three weapons in modern fencing.
The foil is the only weapon used that does not have a real steel counterpart. It was invented solely for the purpose of teaching and learning fencing. In its earliest form, the foil was nothing more than a sword that had been rendered safe or "foiled". Often, foiling a sword was achieved by putting a piece of cork or a ball on the tip of the blade. This process made fencing lessons much safer and more successful. Later, specific practice weapons were developed, and they were given the name "foil". The foil's target area consists of the body's torso excluding the arms, the legs, and the head. The foil's target area is considered to be deadly, meaning a single hit could kill an opponent. When fencing was still taught for dueling practices, fencing masters thought it best to assure their students the easiest and earliest possible victory in hopes that they would have a repeat customer. The foil is a thrust only weapon, if it were a real weapon only the tip would be sharp and hits could only be made by thrusting your opponent with the tip. The foil is also considered a conventional weapon. Being a conventional weapon means that the foil is governed by a rule called "Right of Way". Right of Way is explained below.
The epee is a light dueling sword characterized by its large bell guard. Like the foil, it is a thrust only weapon, and its real steel counterpart would only have a sharp tip. Its large bell guard is designed to assist in protecting the weapon hand and arm. The epee differs from foil in its target area. The epee's target area is the entire body from head to toe. The target area of epee is intended to reflect the nature of a real duel where anything goes, and your opponent will attack any open target area. The epee is an unconventional weapon and has no Right of Way. As a result double touches can be scored in epee. The epee is unique as a sword because it was only intended for use in duels. Unlike other swords, it had no role in war or self-defense.
The saber is believed to have descended from the Middle Eastern scimitar. Historically, it came in three forms: the dueling saber, the cavalry saber, and the naval saber (cutlass). Each type of saber was specialized for a specific type of combat. The dueling saber was lighter and more closely resembles the form of saber fencing practiced today. The cavalry saber was much heavier and was used from horseback. The naval saber (cutlass) was shorter so that it could be more easily maneuvered in the close quarters of fighting at sea. It was also thick like a machete allowing it to be used to attack the enemy's vessel as well as the enemy. If the rigging on the enemy's ship was destroyed, victory could be attained by sailing away and coming back with cannons firing on the immobile ship.
The saber target area consists of everything above the hips (including the arms and the head). There are two theories for the purpose of the saber's target area. Some believe it is leftover from when saber was practiced on horseback. From the waist up is the only accessible target on a mounted opponent. Others say it is a matter of practicality. Attacking an opponent's legs leaves you open and does nothing to stop your opponent from attacking you. The saber is both a thrusting and a cutting weapon. Its real steel counterparts have a sharp tip, a sharp edge down the front, and a sharp edge a third of the way down the back. The saber is a conventional weapon and is governed by Right of Way.
Right of Way
In foil and saber fencing, a fencer may only attack if he/she has Right of Way. A fencer may get Right of Way by making a creditable threat on the opponent's target area. Right of Way can be lost in one of three ways: the attack (credible threat) is parried, the opponent removes his target area from the threat, or the attack is executed and fails to land. Since the weapons used are practice weapons and the fencer is in no real danger, Right of Way forces fencers to consider attacks in the same manner they would a potentially fatal attack in a duel.