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Epee fencing swords in action at the 2005 World Championships in Leipzig:

An example of some superb Epee duelling between Verwijlen (Netherlands) and Kolobkov (Russia) from the Mens Epee Semi Finals. It’s a fairly long video at nearly 6 minutes but well worth a watch.

I’s interesting to see the different fencing styles and techniques of each opponent even if the fencing swords themselves don’t show up too well in the video.

If you’re new to fencing then you may be surprised to learn that there are different types of fencing swords and different competition rules for using them.

I used to think that fencing was fencing and that the swords were all alike. Now I know better, of course!

Types Of Fencing Swords

There are in fact three different sword types:

  • the Foil
  • the Epee, and
  • the Sabre

In fencing, you always duel against the same type of sword.

Foils

These are light-weight swords with a blade that is thin and rounded, so very flexible. They were originally made from rolled steel foil (hence the name).

Foils are the most common sword to start learning with. However, that doesn’t mean they are just for beginners. But the discipline and skills developed by training first with a foil can be transferred to the other two swords.

Foil Fencing Target Area (Torso Only)When duelling with foils, only the tip of the sword may be used to strike your opponent and score, and only the torso may be used as a target.

This is a hangover from the origins of fencing in the 16th century where it was used to train pupils in the art of duelling and sharpen their skills by forcing them to target areas that had lethal consequences. That way, their opponents were less likely to recover and kill them instead!

Fortunately, modern sporting swords have a round button that covers the otherwise sharp tip to prevent it from doing any real damage.

Because opponents may have advantages over each other (such as height), special “Right of Way” rules have been developed to even the odds and reward technical and tactical skill. Points can be scored by defending as well as attacking.

If an attack results in an off-target strike then the action is stopped and resumed from the initial ‘on-guard’ position.

Epees

Epee Fencing Target Area (Full Body)These are similar to Foils but generally heavier. Again, points are scored by striking your opponent only with the tip of the sword.

But unlike in Foil fencing, you can strike any part of the body and there is no “Right of Way” rule. If both opponents make a strike at the same time then both score a point.

So Epee duels are very fast and furious, and very popular, probably because almost anything goes!

Sabres

Sabre Fencing Target Area (Upper Body Only)Ah, now we’re talking! While Foil and Epee blades are thin and round, Sabres tend to be wider and flat, and therefore less flexible except towards the tip.

With Sabres, you can attack with a cutting action and score with a strike from either side of the blade, not just the tip as with Foils and Epees.

Sabre fighting originates from the late 17th century. It was the weapon of choice for cavalrymen on horseback.

For this reason, when duelling with Sabres, the target area is restricted to just the upper body since a cut below the ‘saddle’ line could hit the horse. However, unlike with Foils, that does include the arms and head.

Sabre duels also follow the same “Right of Way” rules as for Foil duels but an off-target hit does not stop the action.

So what about Rapiers?

You may also see references to Rapier swords. These are the heavy, original 16th century swords that Foil and Epee swords were based on.

So most of the Rapiers being sold are reproductions for collectors and for use in re-enactments. Probably not something you would actually want to fence with!

Grips

Exploded View Of Foil Pistol GripFencing swords can often be highly customised for personal preference.

Sabres nearly always have a straight ‘French’ style grip with a rounded bell guard to protect the fingers.

But Foils and Epees are available with many choices of grip including a strange ‘Pistol’ grip that is designed to make the sword more comfortable, reduce wrist injuries and offer finer control.

Sword Sizes

The blade of an adult sword will typically be between 85 cm and 96 cm (33″ and 38″) in length with the grip extending a further 18 cm (7″). Smaller swords are generally used by children and various sizes are available.

Electric Swords

When you’re just practising, getting the scoring exactly right is not so important. It’s all about learning the skill of fencing.

But in competition, it’s vitally important to know who struck who, where and when, especially with Foil and Sabre duels. Because fencing is such a fast sport, electronic systems were introduced to help out.

All competition swords have electrical connections and many practice swords can be upgraded to include one.

I hope this has helped to give you a better understanding of the different types of fencing swords and how they are used in competition.

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