A five-minute introduction to Sword Fencing

When you were a kid did you ever run around having sword fights with your friends? Or watched some swashbuckling adventure and fancied playing the part of Jack Sparrow, Zorro or even Errol Flynn? (For those of a certain age!) How many of you are looking for a completely different type of cardio workout?

Quite possibly and most likely is that you think of fencing and immediately think of nobility, or upper classes. And of course, you’ll be right – up to the late 19th century of course. Fencing is no longer the reserve of the public schools and there are many clubs out there with more ‘Joe (or Jane) Bloggs’s from around the corner’ than ever before. “But Dave, the equipment is very specialist – isn’t it expensive?” No more so than buying a set of golf clubs or buying motorcycle protection. Like all sports you will get the top of the range equipment with the price tag to go with it, but there is a larger market for the club or recreational fencer at friendlier prices offering the same protection but without the fancy space-age fabrics or accessories.
Competitive sword fencing is one of only five sports to have featured in every Modern Olympic Games (the other four being; swimming, gymnastics, cycling and athletics) and is divided into three weapon specialisations; Foil, Sabre and Epee with each having individual rules and regulations about when and where to hit the opponent.
• FOIL. Originally used by the nobility, the foil is based on a duelling practice weapon appearing during the reign of Louis XIV where fashion dictated the weapon of choice. The target area for foil is limited to the torso and a successful attack is determined by ‘rights of way’ where, to the referee, the attacking fencer must be clearly attacking and before the defender can counter-attack he/she must successfully parry (or deflect) the attack.
• SABRE. Is based upon the cavalry sword and instead of being a pointing/stabbing weapon it is predominantly a slashing weapon where the whole upper body is the target. and like foil is constrained by rights of way to determine who scored the point.
• EPEE. Is the French word for sword and closely resembles the art of actual duelling, developed once masks become available equipment and from nobles who were becoming disillusioned with techniques taught with the foil which restricted the target area. Epee is fenced with the whole body as a valid target and he who hits first was declared the winner, a competition format that is still held at select events and the modern pentathlon called ‘One-hit Epee’. Epee isn’t constrained by rights of way and can be easier for newcomers to take part in. For beginners starting out at Cosford you will be taught techniques relating to the Epee.
The event format will normally follow the same format, whether it’s a local open competition or a national event where the fencers will fight in a ‘poule’ round (group stage) to decide their event rankings and then go on to fence in a direct elimination (knockout stage) until a winner is decided. In open events there is not usually a fight to decide third place, so the top four fencers will win medals.
The RAF Fencing Union (RAFFU) holds events through the year. Starting with the Juniors event aimed at newcomers to the sport then the seniors event usually held in May – this is where all RAF fencers are invited to decide their official RAF ranking and fence for a place on the interservices team. Selection to the team will result in the award of your RAF ‘Blue’ and you will go on to fence in triangular match against the best of the British Army and Royal Navy fencers. At the end of summer RAFFU invites fencers from across the public services and select fencing clubs to take part in the One-Hit Epee competition. This attracts a range of fencing generations and can seem to some like an impromptu fencing reunion but as a newcomer you can see first-hand how old you can get and still fence (My first One-Hit back in 2004 I lost to a 70-year-old!) Outside, the British Fencing Association has a calendar full of open events across the United Kingdom available for all fencers to take part in, and thanks to Fencing’s official status within the military, attracts travel authority to certain civilian events.
Taking up fencing doesn’t mean you will be expected to fight in every competition, there are many people that come along for the social, or to fence casually and just maintain their fitness levels. you don’t have to be have the speed of a 100m sprinter, or Olympic swimmer’s stamina, Fencing is a sport for all people of all ages and abilities.
“OK, I’m interested. But where do I go and how do I get into it Dave?” So, your first port of call, be to give me a bell or email (just so I know to expect you on a training night if anything) I’ll invite you down to the next beginner’s session which will be a Thursday evening in the wooden gym. Here you’ll be taken through the basics of Epee fencing starting from the very beginning of how to stand, how to defend and maybe more importantly, how to attack. This first session will end with a mini competition known as a poule unique – a lot like the group stages of a (insert favourite sport here!) world cup. If you enjoyed the session and return for week two, then we’ll start building up your fencing repertoire possibly even look at other weapons and preparing you for your first big competition which will most likely be the RAF Junior Championships. Generally held mid-February here at Cosford, this event is aimed at the newcomers to the sport and will pit you against other fencers of a similar standard from across the RAF.

Hopefully I’ve managed to whet your appetite and you’re now thinking you’d like to at least give it a go. Give me a call on 95561 x 7826 or email David.neve323@mod.gov.uk to find out when the next beginners course starts and I look forward to meeting you all on the piste.

Further reading can be found;
www.bladesbrand.com – club equipment supplier
www.fencing.net – USA fencing website with a wealth of information
www.britishfencing.com – official website of the National Governing Body
www.leonpaul.com – UK based premium equipment supplier