Flashing swords, lantern-lit duels, and
battles against impossible odds have been an integral part
of literary and cinematic derring-do since before Alexandre
Dumas wrote The Three Musketeers. What image of the heroic
adventurer, from Sir Lancelot to John Carter of Mars, would
be complete without a trusty blade at his side? And what
fan of such writing hasn't imagined themselves taking steel
and destiny in hand to sally forth against the world? m Still,
no matter how many times one watches Highlander, dreaming
will not make one into a master swordsman. Though the glory
days of the sword have since passed, the skills and traditions
of its use have been kept alive. For those who wish to put
in the time and effort, studying the sword can be greatly
rewarding, both physically and spiritually.
Traditional fencing offers three weapons to study: the foil,
the epee, and the sabre. The foil originally evolved as
a training tool for the epee, a 19th-century style of duelling
sword descended from the earlier "small sword." Although
the foil is slightly lighter and more flexible than the
epee and has a more limited target area, both are thrusting
weapons, only scoring touches with the tip. In contrast,
the sabre, descended from the cavalry sabre, is much lighter
and, although primarily a slashing or cutting weapon, it
can score with both the point and the edge.
All three of these sanctioned weapons are regulated by the
United States Fencing Association (USFA) which governs both
the physical characteristics of the weapon and the legal
techniques that may be used. A USFA-style fencing bout takes
place on a long rectangular strip, on which the fencers may
not step off (thus, side-stepping attacks are not possible)
and touches are recorded by an electronic scoring device.
A common complaint by modern fencers is that the formalized,
sporting nature of the art that has led to a widespread use
of techniques that would not work in a real duel, much like
a whipping "flick" with the flexible point of a
foil. For all of this, however, there is no doubt that there
is still a great deal of value left in the techniques of
The Art of Classical Fencing
For those who wish to explore Western swordsmanship as a
martial art, classical fencing is the art to study. There
are several different academies from which to choose, mainly
on the East Coast. The training is as rigorous as in USFA
sport-style fencing, but the emphasis is placed not upon
scoring points but upon safety within a duel with sharp
weapons. For instance, sparring takes place "in the
round," as opposed to on a strip. Many classical fencing
masters also have degrees in physical education and Eastern
Classical fencing uses the small sword, the rapier and dagger,
and the duelling sabre. The rapier is primarily used for
the thrust but is also capable of delivering an edge blow
(Renaissance schools of fencing often taught rapier use in
conjunction with a parrying dagger, cloak, or various sorts
of buckler). In contrast, the small sword is a smaller, lighter
version of the rapier that evolved to suit the increasingly
refined tastes of the 18th-century aristocrat. Like the epee,
it is intended for the thrust and has a similar trefoil blade.
The history behind these weapons and their use is fascinating.
Traditionally, the sword was the emblem of the aristocratic,
knightly warrior. With the rise of the bourgeoisie, however,
the old symbols of the aristocrat were adopted by the new
mercantile class. Gradually, wearing the sword began to be
seen as the prerogative of the gentleman. Schools of fence
began to emerge, teaching the use of the sword to defend
one's country and personal honor. As a record of this tuition,
a lavish handbook was usually commissioned, and these fencing
manuals helped to provide a basis for research and re-creation
of historical styles.
Classical fencing is a Western martial art that focuses
on the practical application of the sword and its use in
preparation for self-defense and personal combat. It differs
from modern fencing in which the martial aspects of the weapon
have been largely forgotten.
As a student of classical fencing, you will learn to use
a sword as it was used in the 19th century when fencing was
practiced as an art and science, as preparation for a duel,
and as a recreational pasttime.
While the focus is on realism, all modern safety precautions
are used; weapons are blunt and students wear protective
gear (glove, jacket, and mask). Classical fencing stresses
control, both of yourself and of your weapon, and it is this
focus on self-discipline and awareness which makes it similar
to Eastern martial arts.
Fencing has evolved over 800 years from a deadly combat
to a complete sport. Speed of movement and the intricate
strategy of ancient dueling are still very much a part of
modern fencing. Since dueling was outlawed, fencing as a
sport has grown more and more popular with both men and women.
Women and men compete separately, with some fencers becoming
proficient in two or all three weapons, while others specialize
in only one. Coordination, speed, agility and self assurance
are a few of the qualities this sport requires of its followers.
Because of the necessity to analyze the opponent's game and
to develop strategy, fencing is often described as an animated
game of chess. With the development of new metal alloys,
lighter and more manageable weapons have become possible.
These place a premium on speed and coordination and give
little if any advantage to sheer strength.
When the French introduced a new type of fencing, it was
neat, quiet, precise and more deadly than before. The essence
of the action was nimbleness of wrist and fingers which required
quickness rather than muscular vigor.
By fencing, we have come to mean not simply fighting for
hits, but a strictly regulated game. Its traditions have
been transmitted through generations and make fencing a truly
educational sport. Despite the evolution of fencing from
combat to sport, certain conventions have remained intact
- judges do not distinguish between accidental and strategically
thought out hits. Competitions are presently held in three
weapons: Foil, Épée, and Sabre.
In the middle of the XVIIth century a light, straight sword
was invented. It was a fine thin blade and sharpened at the
tip, approximately 110 centimeters long, having a small round
guard fit with a cross-rod at the handle. The fencing masters
used this weapon to teach their students the methods of rapier
fencing because its lighter weight made it easier to manoeuvre
and also prevented the risk of being accidentally hurt or
killed during practice. It favored actions with the point
and became a study weapon. It established the foundation
of our modern foil fencing.
The modern foil is a light weapon. Its blade is rectangular
and tapers from a relatively thick and inflexible section
at the guard to a more slim and flexible section at the end.
The tip is flattened into a small button-like end for a practice
foil or fitted with an electric point for official competition.
In foil fencing, the target area is confined to the trunk
and excludes the arms, legs and mask. Valid hits are those
which reach the target area. Hits outside this region are
invalid and are not counted.
It seems that épée fencing was started toward
the middle of the XVIth century. After the disappearance
of the two-handed broadsword and the abandonment of the complete
suit of armor, a new weapon was born in Spain. The rapier
or épée, had a long fine blade with a sharper
edge and tip that could be used to cut and thrust. The guard
looked like a small basket drilled with holes, having a long,
straight ramrod bored through it to be used in engaging and
breaking the opponent's blade and point. With the change
from heavy broadsword to lighter épée, swordsmen
were obliged to personalize fencing with trickery and artfulness.
Some fencing masters developed the secrets of nasty tricks
and the all purpose parries into a sort of philosopher's
stone of fencing. In the XVIIIth century, the small sword
with its triangular blade, similar to the one used in electric épée
today, became the weapon of choice for dueling. Since then,
the fencing techniques and weapons have been simplified and
improved and their principles have been displayed and transformed
into the backbone of the present modern épée
In modern épée, the blade is triangular in
cross-section and lacks any cutting edges. It has the ability
to flex upward and downward, but not to the sides. An electric
point at the tip is used for recording hits. Unlike foil,
the épée target area includes the whole of
the fencer's body. There is no area of the opponent's body
which is considered off-target.
The modern sabre took its origins and traditions from the
cavalry sabre. It is believed that the Hungarians introduced
sabre fencing in Europe towards the end of the XVIIIth century.
Their sabre, derived from oriental symmetry, had a flat,
slightly curved blade and was not as wide and thick as the
French cavalry sabre. At that time, Hungarian fencing had
not yet developed in depth. The Hungarians could not perfect
their sabre until they were influenced by the Italian school
which helped them to perfect their teaching.
Towards the end of the XIXth century, the Italians invented
a light sabre (Sciabota) destined to be used in dueling.
At first it was highly criticized because it had nothing
in common with the heavy cavalry sabre. With time however,
this sword was universally adopted. The basis and development
of the techniques of the light sabre are generally attributed
to the Milan fencing master Giuseppe Radaelli.
In France, since the first Empire, sabre fencing was reserved
for the cavaliers. It existed in Saumur, a School of Cavalry
Sabre. The practice of sabre movements were executed with
large twirling actions and a diversity of parries which rendered
defense very complex. In the majority of fencing books published
in France, one rarely finds a short version of sabre fencing,
that teaches the theories and practices of the sabre. It
was not until some 50 years ago that sabre fencing was fully
developed in France, after the French fencing masters gained
more knowledge of the weapon by studying and being influenced
by the Hungarian and Italian fencing masters.
The modern sabre is both a thrusting and a cutting weapon.
In the past, sabre fencing has been exclusively non-electric,
this meant that all bouts required a referee and side judges.
Recently an electrical scoring apparatus has been invented
and is now in use in all major competitions. In sabre, the
target is comprised of all parts of the body above a horizontal
line between the top of the folds formed by the thighs and
the trunk of the fencer when in the on guard position.
INTERNATIONAL FENCING FEDERATION
On November 29th, 1913 at a meeting in Paris, the national
fencing representatives of France, Italy, Great Britain,
Germany, Belgium, Bohemia, Holland, Hungary and Norway met
and decided to form the Federation International d'Escrime,
which has been the governing body of the sport ever since.
Later in 1918, the first F.I.E. rule book was published.
At present, there are over 80 countries affiliated with the
Federation. The F.I.E. is striving to make fencing more visual
and dynamic through the use of transparent masks, wireless
scoring devices and electronic scoring boards.
The first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 included
foil and sabre events. In 1900, the épée was
also admitted to the Paris Olympic program. Women participated
in Olympic foil events for the first time in Paris in 1924.
With the advance of technique has also come the evolution
of the equipment. Electrical monitoring for épée
was made mandatory for the first time in Budapest in 1934
at the European Championship. Twenty years later it was also
applied to the foil and a system was adopted at the World
Championships in Rome in 1955 and at the 1956 Olympic Games
in Melbourne. However, despite the changes and improvements
in scoring systems for épée and foil fencing,
the sabre event still depended solely on human judgment for
scoring. The first official competition using electric sabre
equipment was held in 1985 during the World Cup Finals in
Dourdan, France. The equipment used then was very different
from that used today; it was very sensitive and fragile,
but it was a satisfactory experiment. In Rome in 1987, the
F.I.E. presented a more refined microprocessor-based scoring
system for the electronic judging of hits. The F.I.E. is
now committed to the use of electrical sabre in all major
events and 1992 marked the first year that an electrical
sabre system was used at the Barcelona Olympic Games. Another
important change has been the admittance of women's épée
into the 1990 World Fencing Championship in Lyon, France.
For the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, women's épée
has been added to the fencing program without increasing
the total number of fencers in the competition. Women's sabre
is still in the process of development, but hopefully it
will one day be as popular as the present male-dominated
Modern fencing has long been in need of sophisticated electronic
scoring systems for use in judging a fencing bout to minimize
human error and make the sport more civilized, safe, and
enjoyable. Unfortunately, electric judging systems have also
contributed some disadvantages. The worst example of this
is how today's fencers are more concerned with scoring points
rather than employing finesse and grace. The traditional
forms of fencing are forgotten or ignored. They sacrifice
the elegant play of the traditional fine art in favor of
speed and power so that fencing styles sometimes demonstrate
ferociousness and bizarre form. Some new fencers use their
personal style as well as trickery, stressing the necessity
of speed to win a fencing bout; strategy and technique have
been downplayed. It no longer matters how you fence but that
you score points quickly. The quality of a hit is no longer
important, only that the hit is first.
At present, the fundamental principles and techniques structured
by the fencing masters of the classical Italian, French and
Hungarian schools as far back as the XIXth century have disappeared
and we now have in the last half of the XXth century, methods
and styles which are designed by amateurs, causing the sport
of fencing to grow into some sort of contest of personal
eagerness. Many amateur coaches are not trained by professional
fencing schools which have solid and time-honored classical
methods in their teaching. Instead, they are taught to develop
the raw, aggressive and often violent natural abilities of
a prospective champion in a manner which does not follow
a strictly standardized instruction technique. This results
in the fencer not being molded into a professional well-rounded
athlete by years of hard-learned technical skills, but rather
into an amateuristic competitor who burns-out when the rigors
of age reveal the lack of ingrained basic fencing skills.
This degradation of the art of fencing has upset the purists
who like to consider it a pristine sport. It is my hope that
despite these changes, this book will help others to better
understand the art of foil, épée and sabre
fencing and consequently preserve the traditional forms of
fencing as they have been for centuries.
The Method of Movement in French Fencing
The technique of French fencing is based on a way of movement
that significantly involves the forms, with a styled method
of making the patterns of form evolve from the movement,
and the movement emerge from the forms.
The structures are so varied as to put into play every part
of the body from the smallest joint to the largest muscle.
Harmoniously designed and masterfully patterned, they are
done with flowing continuity, finesse, smoothness and evenness.
Precise balance and calmness is the traditional French fencing
The basic qualities of the technique are exemplified by
the perfect weaving of the dynamics of movement by the weapon
hand exhibiting fine movement in circular, lateral, diagonal
and semicircular actions and by the subtle movements of the
legs in stepping, passing, sliding and hopping forward or
backward. Above all, these qualities quiet the mind and regulate
t is finesse in the style of exercise which develops energy
by never allowing one to expend oneself in a ferocious gesture
of violence. This finesse contrasts with the hard or over-energetic
force that does not permit reserve of action in the art of
fencing. Natural body behavior with a fluid and continuous
style of moving eliminates any possibility of becoming too
rigid or hard.
In learning the French technique of fencing from this book,
the fencers should keep themselves mentally stimulated as
the technique develops from form to form. The mind cannot
be anywhere but on the action, as the variation and repetitions
demand total attention. Because the structure does not evolve
correctly without this mental participation, control of the
conscious mind inevitably develops and proper concentration
is a natural result of such technique and form. Moving with
smooth actions prevents the body from becoming tense or hard
and makes the muscles more resilient and pliable. Strength
cannot be wasted or falsely propelled, because smooth movement
requires attentive control.
The entire system is warmed up gradually as the actions
accumulate. Patterns and movements in subtle succession activate
different parts of the body and never, at any time, repeat
themselves in over-concentrated units. This enables the body
to do more without causing the heart to beat unduly fast
in an effort to keep up with the body's exertions.
Breathing is natural, light or deep depending on the structure
and the positions of the fencing techniques themselves. However,
the fencer must not concern himself with the breathing process.
This aspect is developed gradually in the process of learning.
The fundamentally smooth finesse and tempo are the essence
of the French classical technique and contribute to the ability
to sustain conscious control and aid in the building of experience
in the science of fencing. With flowing alteration between
light and strong dynamics, and fluid and solid forms, the
technique allows the fencer to execute actions accurately
and freely with the mind in harmony with the body.
The method of the French classical fencing movement is,
in a deeper sense, related to the movement of the mind; the
mind must direct the body's movement in the defensive, offensive
or counter-offensive. The alertness and concentration needed
to do this are developed as the techniques are being learned
by taking lessons from the Fencing Master. One of the great
advantages of the French traditional method is that one can
never be mechanical when doing it. The benefit of this is
perhaps obvious since fencing has, as one of its goals, the
development of awareness, quickened reflexes and an alert
The coordinated aspects of movement within movement by the
legs to advance, retreat or attack and by the weapon hand
in the execution of attack, defense and counter-attack demands
complete attention; the subtle regulation of the timing of
each small part within the whole is precise coordination.
The mind moves from form to style to tempo to coordination
to plasticity to dynamics and finally to feeling and yet
seems to acknowledge all at the same time. Concentrated by
this variety, the mind's attention and awareness are one
of the major factors of the French fencing school.
The intrinsic principle of finesse in fencing is the inner
smoothness of movement that can be recognized by the fact
that there is no visible exertion in the execution of the
fencing techniques. The action of the fencer appears to be
completely relaxed; the activity is hidden inside, below
the surface. The continuous flow of movement into movement
such as from defensive to offensive or in advancing to retreating
without straining also contributes to the appearance of outer
smoothness and finesse. All the movements are performed with
centralized inner force. It is not the extent to which the
movement can be performed that matters, rather it is the
quality in reserve that determines its smoothness. These
intrinsically-stored and smooth techniques allow the body
to be held loosely and therefore unrestricted. This helps
store intrinsic energy and produces an inner elasticity of
movement which is rich in the power of resilience.
With continuity and inner smoothness as the component parts
of finesse, calmness and lightness in the precise execution
of technique are the inevitable results of the French traditional
fundamental principles of the science of fencing.
The Science of French Fencing
The principles at the very heart of this book are derived
from the theories and practices of the innovative ancient
French fencing masters schools which were concerned with
the development to full potential of a fencer's intrinsic
physical and mental abilities. In this book I have incorporated
technical ideas that have grown out of my teaching experience
to give the fencer not only an intellectual awareness of
the French traditional fencing technique, but also to create
the understanding necessary to experience their essence as
well as their physical form. We know too well that this process
cannot be hurried unnaturally; nevertheless, the way can
be illuminated by quietly studying and analyzing such that
one's body, gradually by degrees, learns to do the bidding
of the mind.
"To go a thousand miles one has to take the first step" is
a familiar saying. Each step is ostensibly like the following
but the added experience that each step brings to the next
contributes to endurance, agility and strength. The great
variety of the French fencing forms, the intensely interesting
techniques - the subtleness of which unfold with experience
- and the sheer beauty of the postures of the French traditional
style gives delight and grace.
As one develops understanding and progresses with the techniques
from this book, the French technique of fencing becomes a
richer entity, seemingly limitless in what it has to offer.
The ability to perform it at its minimum gives one good lasting
form. To perfect it and live with it as a life-long exercise
is to assure oneself of stable health, mental alertness and
equanimity of spirit.
The Personal Benefits of Fencing
The personal benefits of fencing range into virtually every
area of the participants physical and intellectual being.
The intensity of fencing, and the extreme demands it places
on the mind and body are a natural result of fencing's bloody
and noble heritage. It is perhaps the most complete union
of thought and action that has ever evolved as a sport. However
the skill, strength and self-control which were once only
by-products of this deadly art now figure amongst its highest
rewards. Aside from the sheer pleasure of competition, the
fencer also enjoys an enhanced coordination, endurance and
strength. One need only observe an accomplished fencer in
competition to fully appreciate these truths. In order to
succeed, a competitor must fence bout after bout with unflagging
stamina. To lose concentration or slacken the pace can mean
a quick defeat. Also, a successful fencer must be capable
of mounting powerful driving attacks or conversely, of making
subtle and crafty defenses, all within the space of a few
seconds. The coordination must be so finely developed that
the fencer can adapt all movements to many different opponents
of widely varied strength, skill and speed. A fencer's success
however is not purely a result of physical skill. The fencer
must also possess the acute intellect of the chess player
plus powerful concentration to guide his/her actions and
make good his/her calculations.
The pleasant exterior which masks all the scheming and violence
of fencing is that of refined gentility. Like many martial
arts, fencing is surrounded by a certain amount of courtesy
and ceremony, and of course the tradition of the genteel
fencer descends directly from the nobleman who first practiced
the art. The spirit of fair play and honor which is an integral
part of fencing is expected both on and off the fencing strip.
A maximum of politeness and consideration is always observed
while competing with others, however it would be a mistake
to assume that a fencer's good manners, strength and poise
begin and end in the gymnasium. Indeed fencing is as much
an attitude as it is a sport and those who practice the art
find that it can profoundly affect their lives.
First, and most simply, the fencer enjoys the good health
and vitality that only intense, vigorous exercise can bring.
Fencers become more attuned to their physical potential and
can thus use their strength and endurance with greater efficiency.
Secondly there is the fencer's grace and natural ease of
movement. The mid-point between the purely physical and the
purely mental is perhaps best expressed as one's poise. Of
this, the fencer is well endowed, having the good posture,
precise action and the confident carriage of the ballet dancer.
Moreover, the fencer will have developed an alert and shrewd
intelligence which easily compliments their physical presence.
Were it not for the self-control that good fencing requires,
it would be easy for a fencer to become over-confident or
even arrogant. However as sound judgment and good sportsmanship
pervade the sport this possibility is seldom realized. In
addition to its physical and intellectual benefits, it can
also be expected that good balanced fencing produces a good
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