A fencing bout takes place on what is called a “strip” or “piste”, about 14 metres long and 2 metres wide. Each of the two fencers’ weapons is attached by a cord through the sleeve to an electric scoring machine hooked up to their opponent, and they test whether their weapons and cords are working properly by touching their opponent’s target, a piece of metal clothing called lamé (except that swordsmen, who do not wear lamé, test by touching the tip with the guard of their opponent’s weapon). They return to their respective starting lines, 4 metres apart, salute their opponent, put on their mask and stand en garde, facing their opponent and ready to take guard. The referee then announces the start of the match. The fencers remain facing their opponent and must not leave the lane during the bout.
The fencing court is a rectangular flat surface, which is called a strip or piste (from French). Its dimensions are 14 m (length) by 1.5-2 m (width). The length of the board is marked with five perpendicular lines: a broken centre line (C); two guard lines (G) at a distance of two metres from the centre line; two bottom lines at a distance of 7 metres from the centre line.
The last two metres before the bottom line (D) on each side of the board are clearly identified, often by a different colour or by hatching. The area (R) is a safe space to exit the plank.
If a fencer overshoots a side boundary with one of their feet, the match must stop and the fencer returns to the board. When they overstep a lateral boundary with both feet, the match must stop and the opponent advances one metre when returning to guard. When they cross a bottom line with both feet, they are penalized by one stroke.
The system of running competitions at the highest level has varied considerably over the years in terms of the type of event (group or knockout) or the number of strokes needed to win. At the 1896 Summer Olympics, bouts were contested in three touches, foil and sabre, in a single group round. From the 1900 Games onwards, more groups were organised and a jury was tasked with awarding victory. The épée bouts were decided by a single touch. Nowadays, senior matches are decided in 15 (individual events) and 45 (team events) touches.
In World Cup-type competitions, a mixed system is used with a group round and a knockout stage. In the group stage, individual bouts last a maximum of 3 minutes or until a fencer has achieved five touches. Each group includes four to seven fencers. Each fencer meets everyone else in the same group. The ranking is determined by the following criteria:
- number of wins;
- the difference between the number of touches given (touches données or TD) and touches received (touches reçues or TR);
- the highest number of touches given.
In direct elimination matches, 3 three-minute relays are contested, with a one-minute break between relays, or 15 touches. In the event of a tie, an extra minute is contested.
The final target is to get 45 points or the best score within the time limit. Each team includes three fencers and possibly a reserve. In the “Italian relay” formula (in French relais à l’italienne), each fencer meets the three opposing fencers; matches are shot in nine three-minute relays or until the score reaches a multiple of 5. Thus:
- first relay: the maximum score is 5;
- 2nd relay: the score resumes where it left off in the previous half, maximum score is 10;
- 3rd relay: the score is restarted where it was interrupted in the previous half, maximum score is 15;
- and so on.
In front of the referee is a signalling device with four lights: one white and one red or green for each fencer. In the case of a valid hit, the coloured light comes on on the side of the fencer who hit. The white lamp lights up in the case of an invalid shot (which lands on the invalid surface).
For this purpose, each shooter is linked to the signalling device by a complex system. The weapon is fitted inside the shell with a socket to which the body wire is connected. This wire runs under the fencer’s blouse, along the cocked arm and down the sides. The body wire is in turn connected to a reel located at the end of the board, which is connected to the signalling device. In the foil and épée, a wire runs along the blade, the tip serving as a switch: the pressure exerted on the spring of the tip closes or opens, as the case may be, the electrical circuit. In competitions at the highest level, a wireless system is used: the body wire is connected to a control unit carried by the fencers.
Each fencing match is conducted by a referee, who is responsible for:
- control of weapons, clothing and material of the fencers;
- supervision of the proper functioning of the electrical apparatus;
- match management and judging of touches;
- compliance with the rules and sanctioning of offences;
- maintaining order on and off the piste, including in the public.
The referee indicates by gestures and commands the decisions he makes. The official language used in international competitions is French. Some commands are:
- en garde ! (in guard!): fencers take guard position;
- êtes-vous prêt(e)s ? (are you ready?);
- allez ! (go!): the bout begins or restarts;
- halte ! (stop!): the bout stops;
- attaque / arrêt / contre-attaque / remise (attack / block / counter-attack / draw): describes the analysis of a weapon phrase;
- non valable (not valid): a touch outside the valid area (at sabre and foil);
- touche ! (touched!);
- point ! (point!).
In foil and sabre, the referee analyses the weapon phrase, e.g. “attaque parée, riposte non, reprise d’attaque touche” (attack parried, riposte not hit, attack reprise hit).
The penalties are as follows:
- yellow card: warning (any further offence by the same fencer results in a red card);
- red card: penalty touch;
- black card: disqualification from the competition;
- expulsion from the competition venue (applicable to coaches, athletes’ entourage or members of the public who disrupt the smooth running of the competition).
The Summer Olympics are the most important competition in fencing.
Competitive fencing is one of five activities included in every modern Olympic Games since 1896, the other four being athletics, cycling, swimming and gymnastics.
For historical reasons, the International Fencing Federation is allocated only ten events by the International Olympic Committee, even though there are twelve events at competitions that the IFF organises. Consequently, two team competitions are removed from the programme of each Olympics.
The World Fencing Championships have been held every year since 1937, with the exception of Olympic years for events on the Olympic programme.