The History of Fencing Weapons


Fencing is a recreational sport of combat with bladed weapons that can be practised by people of all ages and offers a multitude of benefits.

Fencing is a dynamic and fast sport that requires a mix of power, speed, accuracy and intelligence to win. Top fencers need to be physically fit and mentally strong, as fights can be won or lost in fractions of a second.

Confidence and competitive spirit are qualities acquired through participation in fencing and extend into other areas of life. You can start fencing as a young person or as an adult – for fun, for fitness or to train for competition.

Fencing takes place on an area 14 metres long and 2 metres wide, known as a strip or piste. The two opponents facing each other use one of three weapons: épée, foil or sabre.


The foil and épée are thrusting weapons, while the sabre can be scored using any part of the blade. The three weapons also have different rules as to what constitutes a hit. Épée fencers can score anywhere on the body, and both players can score if they hit each other within a quarter of a second. In foil and sabre, if both players strike simultaneously, the point is awarded to the attacker.


The foil is developed from the training weapons of the late 16th century in France and Italy, with a blunt or folded point protected with a piece of cloth (“knob”): as the fencing mask did not yet exist, counter-attacks and forward blows were forbidden to avoid injury. In French, the weapon is called fleuret, which probably comes from the Italian fioretto, “little flower”, from its similarity to the button.

Traditionally, the foil was the weapon duelists used to train with. Because of its small target area and strict rules, if a student starts with the foil, it is easier to learn the techniques and strategies of the sword or sabre than to try the foil after being initiated into either. Foil fencing is a balance of offensive and defensive strategies and follows the rules of “right of way”. The right of way rules determine which fencer’s maneuver takes precedence over the opponent’s if both succeed in striking and triggering the scoring machine simultaneously. For example, a defensive block and a return hit, called a parry-return, has priority over a direct attack. In foil, if the fencer who has priority hits his opponent off-target, no point is awarded, even if the other fencer hit him on target. The action is stopped and the fencers resume fighting at the place on the tape where they stopped. 

The touch is awarded when one of the two shooters hit on the valid surface. In contrast, the hit that lands on the invalid surface does not earn a point. Nowadays, in competition, the materiality of the touch is determined by an electrical device: a coloured lamp (green or red) lights up when the hit is valid, and a white lamp when the hit is invalid.

Both foil and sabre are conventional weapons: any attack must be parried or dodged completely; shielding and substituting another part of the body for the valid surface by covering is prohibited.


This weapon is derived from the light sword (in Italian sciabola), created in Italy in the mid-19th century for duels. The valid striking surface comprises the upper part of the body, from the head to the inguinal fold, i.e. the torso, arms, glove cuff and mask. The first sabre defence system was created by the Hungarian master László Borsody (d. 1941); it comprises the third, the fourth and the fifth. The modern sabre style, also known as the ‘second system’, was created by the Italian master Italo Santelli (1866-1945) when he was working in Hungary; it comprises the first, the second and the fifth.

Like foil, sabre fencing follows the “right of way” rules to determine which fencer has scored a touch, but follows a more aggressive attack strategy than foil. Simultaneous attacks are common, and neither fencer receives a point in this case, but unlike foil, in sabre, an off-target hit for the priority fencer is null and does not stop the action of the fight. Movement is fast, and combat is short. You only have 170 milliseconds to hit back! Sword fencing is what children naturally imitate, clashing imaginary sword blades together.

As the movements are extremely fast in sabre, the competition might be difficult for the general public to understand. However, the movements can be very spectacular. Because of the right of way rule, attack takes precedence over defence. Olympic champion Mihai Covaliu describes sabre as “a simple and tough sport, like Russian roulette, in two minutes you can be up or down”. According to double Olympic champion Jean-François Lamour, a good swordsman is a fighter and aggressive; he must be able to make decisions quickly and have good analytical skills.

In order to avoid permanent movement from one end of the piste to the other, any forward movement of the back foot that completely overtakes the front foot, including the forward cross step and the lunge, is forbidden in sabre since 1994. So, the flunge (a telescoped word constructed from the English words flying lunge) was invented, a characteristic sabre movement that combines a forward leap and an extension of the sword arm with the intention of striking the opponent, often at the mask.


The épée is a weapon derived from the rapier, a long, thin-bladed sword that appeared in the late 15th century, originally used for duels, and most duels were fought at “first blood”, so that a blow to the hand or leg would have meant victory, not needing to hit a vital organ. Defence has the great advantage, and battles tend to involve mind games, in which each fencer avoids attacks and tries to take advantage of every little mistake of the opponent; direct attack is not the wisest way in épée.

For spectators, the épée is the easiest weapon to understand. In épée, there is no right of way: the first to strike has scored the touch. To light the lamp, the pressure on the tip of the weapon must be greater than 750 g for a period greater than 2 ms. When the two fencers are hit at the same time (in less than 40 ms, i.e. 1/25 s) it is a double strike – known, in duelling times, as the “two widows’ blow”.

Because there is no right of way rule, the pace of an épée match can be very slow: both fencers observe each other, with a long period of preparation to find the key or a break in the opponent’s game. The fencer who leads the score can “manage” the match by double touches. In order to avoid excessive passivity, the rule of “obvious lack of combativeness” or “non-combat” has been introduced: if a minute elapses without a point being scored or if an excessive distance (greater than a pass-fandom) is maintained for more than 15 seconds, the match stops and goes straight to the next half. According to Olympic champion Éric Srecki, a good épée athlete must show endurance and explosiveness; it is better to be tall, have long arms and be patient.

The épée is the only weapon in modern pentathlon. Each match lasts one minute; as in a duel at first blood, the one who strikes wins the assault.

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