The History of Fencing

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.


Fighting with weapons (made of wood, then stone and metal) has been documented since prehistoric times. From this point of view, the history of fencing, i.e. the technique and art of wielding bladed weapons, is very old.


The earliest known fencing competition dates from the 5th Egyptian Dynasty: a relief from the pyramid of Sahure (c. 2496-2484 BC) depicts a sporting competition with archery, wrestling and long-stick fencing. Scenes of the same type can also be found on the tomb of Kheruef at Luxor (c. 1390-1352 BC) and on the carved walls of the temple of Ramses III (c. 1186-1155 BC) at Medinet Habu. These show the stick to be a metre in length, with different types of grip. It is wielded like an Olympic sword, i.e. a thrusting and edged weapon: blows can be executed with the tip and sides of the stick. These are parried with the unarmed arm. Fencers wear forearm, face and arm guards, and the tip of the stick is protected with a piece of leather. Referees, identified by a wedge, supervise the assaults. The hieroglyphic commentary from Medinet Habu attests to precise rules. The fencers shout to each other: “En garde! And admire what my hand will do.” Spectators cheer for their favourite fighters. A scribe is tasked with keeping score.

In ancient Greece, the funeral games of Patroclus described in Chant XXIII of the Iliad include a duel with a heavy weapon, “hoplomachia” (in ancient Greek ὁπλομαχία), between Diomedes and the Great Ajax. The rules are confusing. Classical Greece does not attach great importance to the ability to use weapons. Ordinary citizens probably received only basic training. Also, fencing coaches (ὁπλομάχοι / hoplomachoi) are classified by Plato as sophists, i.e. private teachers. Xenophon considers that the use of the sword does not require any specific skill: it is enough to strike with force. Hoplomachia does not figure in the programme of the ancient Olympic Games, but is included in the public Games of Thasos and Theseia in Athens.

In the Roman Empire, the practice of fencing is linked to the emergence of gladiators. According to tradition, it took place in 264 BC on the occasion of the funeral of the former consul D. Junius Brutus Pera, as a less cruel alternative to human sacrifice. Then these performances (in Latin munera) evolve into an exhibition of skills. Gladiators undergo extensive training programmes in various fighting styles in schools (ludus). Training consists of practice with a wooden sword and a wicker shield against a wooden pole (palus). Blows are delivered according to the instructions (dictata) or ‘numbers’ (numeri) of the trainer, i.e. a set series of movements.

The teaching of fencing in the Roman army is attested from 105 BC, when the consul P. Rutilius Rufus used the services of gladiators (in Latin lanistae). Fencing instructors (often experienced centurions) were called “doctori” (doctores armorum), who themselves learned from the teachers (discens armaturarum). The training of soldiers is similar to that described for gladiators.

Since the adoption of the gladius, borrowed from the Celtiberians in the First Punic War (264-241 BC) or the Second Punic War (218-202 BC), the thrusting blow is preferred to the less lethal cutting stroke: thanks to a short, wide and solid blade, the legionary can strike the opponent hard.

Middle Ages

Contrary to common perception, Medieval fencing was not coarse and finesse-less fighting. The handling of bladed weapons – the long sword as well as the battle-axe, battle hammer, lance, mace, etc. – required technical skills and a long period of learning. In fact, fencing was an integral part of a young nobleman’s education. It was taught by fencing masters, who recorded their knowledge in technical treatises. They showed series of moves according to the weapon used and the situation. Each move is illustrated and commented on. For example, in the so-called “half-sword” or “half-sword” technique (from the German Halbschwert), the fencer holds the sword guard with the dominant hand and the blade with the non-dominant hand, for more powerful blows against opponents covered in plate armour.

Modern Period

After the advent of firearms, weapons evolve: they become lighter and the centre of gravity shifts towards the hand; heavy armour disappears. France, Italy and Spain can dispute the title of cradle of modern fencing.

At the end of the 15th century the rapier, a sword with a long, narrow blade designed for thrusting, appeared in Spain. At the same time, the French school developed, characterised by the use of the foil, a weapon similar to the rapier, but lighter, thinner and with a piece of cloth (‘knob’) at the tip. 

Fencing as a sport

The move towards fencing as a sport rather than military training took place from the mid-18th century and was led by Domenico Angelo, who established a fencing academy, Angelo’s School of Arms, in Carlisle House, Soho, London, in 1763. There, he taught the aristocracy the fashionable art of swordplay. His school was run by three generations of his family and dominated the art of European fencing for nearly a century.

Angelo was instrumental in turning fencing into an athletic sport.

He established the essential rules of stance and footwork that still govern modern sport fencing, although his methods of attack and parry were still very different from current practice. Although he intended to train his students for real combat, he was the first fencing master to emphasise the sporting and health benefits of fencing rather than its use as a killing art, notably in his influential book L’École des armes (School of Fencing), published in 1763.

The basic rules were compiled during the 1880s by French fencing master Camille Prévost. It was during this period that many officially recognised fencing associations began to appear in different parts of the world, such as the Amateur Fencers League of America, founded in 1891, the Amateur Fencing Association of Great Britain in 1902, and the Fédération Nationale des Sociétés d’Escrime et Salles d’Armes de France in 1906.

The first rules fencing competition was held at the inaugural Grand Military Tournament and Assault at Arms in 1880, held at the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington in June. The tournament included a series of competitions between army officers and soldiers. Each confrontation lasted for five strokes and the foils were painted black to help the referees. The Amateur Gymnastic and Fencing Association drew up an official set of fencing rules in 1896.

Fencing was part of the Olympic Games in the summer of 1896. The sabre events took place at every Summer Olympics; the foil events took place at every Summer Olympics except the 1908 Summer Olympics; the épée events took place at every Summer Olympics except the 1896 Summer Olympics, for unknown reasons.

Beginning with the épée in 1933, side judges were replaced by the Laurent-Pagan electric scoring machine, with an audible signal and a red or green light indicating when a stroke occurs. The foil was automated in 1956 and the sabre in 1988.

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