The official language used in international competitions is French. Much of the sport’s vocabulary comes from French or Italian, and more recently from English. In fencing jargon, fencers are also called shooters (in French tireurs). They don’t play, they shoot. Not points, but touches (in French touches). The blade of the weapon is also called the iron. A fencer specialising in foil is a foilist; one specialising in épée is a swordsman and one specialising in sabre is a sabrer. The fight between two fencers is an assault. When the score counts, it’s a bout. In teams, it is called a match.
The guard position
Guard is the basic position where the fencer is ready to attack, defend and counterattack. The fencer stands upright. The front foot is placed towards the opponent. The back foot is placed at right angles, about two feet (60 cm) apart. The knees are slightly bent to keep the centre of gravity down. The torso is in the same plane as the sword arm, the front leg and the heel of the back leg to reduce the target offered to the opponent. The unarmed arm functions as a balancer. The guard position depends on the weapon: knee bending is reduced in épée rather than foil to maintain mobility. The extension of the sword arm is greater in épée, to protect the “avancées“, i.e. the hand, forearm and sword arm, knee and front leg. The weapon is held in the six-pronged position for foil and epee, and in the third position for sword.
The assault begins with the warning. The fencer called first must sit to the right of the referee, unless he is the only left-handed fencer. Re-guarding is done after each “Stop!” command.
Lines and positions
Fencing lines were first defined by the Italian Giacomo di Grassi in Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l’arme si da offesa, come da difesa (Reasons for using weapons in a safe manner, in attack or in defence). In the French fencing school, eight positions are differentiated (at foil), based on which parries and blade holds are made. They are defined in relation to the fencer’s body (to the left or right), the direction of the touch (higher or lower than the hand) and the grip of the handle (in supination: palm downwards, or in pronation: palm upwards).
The top line (ligne du dessus) is defended by:
- the third, pronated grip (normal sabre guard position)
- the sixth, supinated grip (normal guard position for épée and foil)
The inside line (ligne du dedans) is defended by:
- the fourth, pronated grip (in sword, the quinta protects the head)
- the fifth, supinated grip
The outer line (ligne du dehors) is defended by:
- the second, pronated grip
- the eighth, supinated grip
The bottom line (ligne du dessous) is defended by:
- the first, pronated grip
- the seventh, supinated grip
As the fencing board is narrow, the movements are mainly back and forth.
The step forward or backward is the basic movement. In the forward step (in French marche), the front leg (the dominant leg) is advanced, then the back leg, two feet (60 cm) apart. The feet do not cross. This is “gaining the measure” (i.e. the distance). In the reverse movement (in French rompre, literally: to break), the fencer moves away from the opponent, either to defend himself, to prepare a riposte, or simply to “break” the opponent’s measure.
In the forward cross step (in French passe avant), the back leg is advanced before the front leg, then the front leg is returned to the original distance, crossing the legs. The crossed step forward is forbidden in sabre and is penalised by a yellow card; any cross-over of the fencer’s legs is cancelled. The cross step can also be executed backwards (in French passe arrière). In both cases, the cross step implies an imbalance and is only done at a sufficient distance or in an emergency.
The lunge (in French fente) is one of the most characteristic fencing movements. From a guard position, the fencer launches the front leg forward while pushing hard with the back leg, propelling the body forward. The goal is to gain acceleration and amplitude to strike. Extending the sword arm followed by a lunge is a development (in French développement). In the past, it was recommended that the non-dominant leg stay as flat as possible on the board. Nowadays the splitting often ends with the sole of the non-dominant foot off the board.
Unlike the lunge, which is performed from a balanced position, the flèche (from French, literally arrow) is done in a loss of balance. The fencer transfers his weight to his front leg and at the same time extends the cocked arm towards the target. The thrust is given from the tip of the front foot and the legs cross in the course of the flèche. The aim is to strike forward or at the same time as the non-dominant foot returns to the board. The success of the attack is based on surprise and speed: the fencer starts “like an arrow”. In épée, an insufficiently fast slash often triggers a stop from the opponent, resulting in a double touch. Like the forward cross step, the flèche is forbidden in sabre. The flèche ending in corps-à-corps is not forbidden in foil or épée, but may not be ended by a shock or a bustle.
Attack is defined as “the initial offensive action, executed by extending the arm and continuously threatening the opponent’s valid surface, preceding the initiation of the fandango or fleche” (t.7 of the IFF Rules of Evidence). This action gives priority to conventional weapons.
Riposte is the offensive action that follows a parry; counterriposte is the offensive action that follows a riposte. When the attack is made during the opponent’s attack and attempts to get ahead of it, it is a counteroffensive action.
The attack can be simple (in a single beat) or compound (preceded by one or more lunges).
- straight thrust: a simple and direct attack, carried in the line left open by the opponent, by extending the sword arm in a straight line towards the target;
- by disengagement: a simple, indirect attack, carried in the opposite line by the opponent’s blade being deflected below (in the upper line) or above (in the lower line), executed by the action of the fingers before a development;
- by cupé: a simple and indirect attack, carried in the opposite line by the opponent’s blade being passed over (in the upper line) or under (in the lower line), executed either by sliding along the opponent’s blade (in French coupé à la mouche) or by a flexing movement of the forearm on the arm followed by extension, without contact with the iron.
The attack may be preceded by preparations, i.e. body or blade movements. Preparatory body actions are displacements, calls (the action of striking the board with one of the two feet) and foot slides. Blade preparations are:
- Attack by prise de fer in order to open the way, move the opponent’s blade, or draw it elsewhere;
- pressure: lateral pressure on the weak part of the opponent’s blade, with permanent contact;
- battement (from French): pushing on the weak part of the opponent’s blade;
- forcing (in French froissement): sliding along the opposing blade, from the weak part of the blade to the hard part;
- feint: movement of the sword arm, torso or lower limbs to provoke a reaction from the opponent.
Defensive actions aim to avoid the opponent’s blows. The fencer can:
- move back (retreat);
- dodge sideways (Italian inquartata), downwards (Italian passata sotto) or upwards (jump);
- parry, either by blocking or by deflecting the blade.
Retreat and dodging are also called “exits in time” (Italian uscite in tempo). Parades take their name from the finishing position: parade of sixths, parade of firsts, and so on. Defensive actions can be combined with offensive actions: these are called counter-offensive actions.