The Three Weapons of Fencing


. . . and How They're Played




Three weapons--foil, epee, and sabre--are fenced competitively today. Each weapon is a little different in terms of how it's put together, what's considered "valid" target area, and what constitutes a valid attack. Fencing bouts are played on a regulation strip and fenced one touch at a time until one fencer scores enough touches (valid hits) to win.

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How each weapon is put together

Let's see what the three weapons look like and how they're put together. Notice the picture to the right. The three weapons from left to right are the epee, the foil, and the sabre.

Each weapon is made up of three major parts: the blade, the bell (the handguard), and the grip. The epee is the largest and heaviest of the three weapons. It has a v-cut, triangular blade; a heavier, bigger bell; and a grip  similar to that of the foil. The foil--the lightest of the three weapons--has a squarish blade near the bell which tapers to a rectangle near the tip, a small bell, and a grip similar to that of the epee. The epee and foil in the picture have what are known as "orthopedic" or "pistol" grips; there are other grips that such weapons can have (e.g., italian, french, etc.). The sabre has a "y" or "t"-shaped blade near the bell which tapers to a rectangle as it nears the tip, a large wraparound bell, and a grip uniquely its own. Epee and foil blades can be up to 90 cm long, while sabre blades can be no longer than 88 cm.


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What constitutes valid target area

"Valid" target area--where a hit has to be made to be awarded a touch--is different for each of the three weapons. In epee, the valid target area is the entire body, as it would be if you were fighting a duel in the sixteenth century. In foil, the valid target area is strictly the torso, as if you were only  playing to attack or protect "lethal" targets. In Sabre, the valid target is all parts of the body from the waist up (simulating horseback combat). Valid hits are scored with the tip only in epee and foil; but, in sabre, valid hits are scored both with the tip and by slashing with the edge of the weapon.

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What constitutes a valid attack; how touches are scored

What constitutes a "valid" attack is different with each of the three weapons. In foil and sabre, to initiate a "valid" attack, you must first have what is known as the "right-of-way."  Right-of-way is often, for the spectator of fencing, hard to understand, but it's nothing more than a requirement that the fencer must be the first to attack, and, if they're not, they must push away ("parry") the opponent's attack (defend themselves against being hit) before they're permitted to counterattack. In a traditional duel to the death, lethal hits tended to be hits to various parts of the torso. Practically speaking, if you were fencing such a duel, you'd have to parry any attack to your torso before you could safely counterattack. That's what the right-of-way rule simulates. Any "off-target" hit (a hit outside valid target area) cannot score; but it can stop the action if the fencer has the right-of-way. In epee, on the other hand, there is no right-of-way; he who hits first scores . . . and simultaneous hits are valid.

All weapons fenced today are scored electrically, and all are fenced on a rectangular field of play called the "fencing strip" or "piste" or "mat," typically a copper mesh or stainless steel mesh rectangle measuring 14 meters (45' 11") in length and 1.5 to 2.0 meters (4'11" to 6'7") in width.

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How fencing is played

A "director", "referee" or "president" officiates each fencing bout. Sometimes other officials called "judges" may be called upon to watch for floor touches (invalid hits) or illegal covering of target area by the fencers.

Fencing bouts take many forms. Normal "pool" bouts involve the fencers playing until one of them scores five hits first. In "Direct Elimination" style bouts, the fencers may play until one of them scores 15 hits first. In team competitions, a "bout" involves three fencers on each team trying to see who can score 45 points first. Fencing is played one touch at a time--only one touch can be scored in any one set of fencing actions; after a touch is scored, the fencers start again at the "on guard" lines flanking center strip and play for the next point. All bouts are timed; when time runs out, the fencer with the highest number of valid hits wins.

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Last Updated:

Sunday, January 20, 2008