At Sword's Point

League City, TX

#1 Aug 20, 2009
It is August and the new fencing year has begun. You will notice I did not say "fencing season." The closest thing fencing has to off-season, is a snippet of time from (more or less) mid-July to mid-August... and that is not absolute.

Being an indoor sport allows fencing to be a year-round endeavour. That is only one of the differences between fencing and so many of the more popular sports: baseball; basketball; football; soccer; bowling and tennis, among others.

Fencing, you see, does not use a "ball." It uses, for want of a better word, swords. Actually, fencers rarely call their sporting implements "swords." For the most part, we call them "weapons." There are three weapons used: the foil, the epee and the sabre, but more on that next time.

Although they do not have pointed tips or sharp edges and could not cut cheese, we call them "weapons." It's just our term. It's tradition. It is also one reason why your typical public school is stark staring terrified of allowing fencing onto their campus. Weapons. Danger. Death. Fear.

As so many such agencies charged with our welfare are apt to do, the schools make rulings about fencing while being wholly ignorant of any specifics of the sport. It is to be expected, though. We use "weapons." What else is there to know?

When in doubt, ban it.

Another difference between fencing and the more popular school sports, is that it is an individual effort. The fencer is called to the "strip" or "piste" (fencing's field of play is an area 14 meters long and 1.5 to 2 meters wide) and faces their opponent. Save for the referee (formerly called the director), there is only the two fencers.

They are alone.

They may each have a coach in their corner and friends and family to cheer them on, but on strip it is only the fencer and his or her opponent.

While there are certain types of competition called "team fencing," they are really more of a relay. So even in the team events, it comes down to one fencer versus one fencer.

This really plays havoc with much of the basic high school PE coach's repetoire on team work and performing as a team/group/machine. Fencing is an individual effort, pure and simple.

Fencing, in spite of its almost complete absence in sports news is very much alive, well and, indeed, thriving in my area (Houston/Galveston). In fact, fencing is active enough throughout the state of Texas that it is a rare weekend that has NO fencing competitions.

Over the next few posts I hope to introduce those of you curious enough to keep reading to catch a glimpse of Texas' and America's best-kept athletic secret. There will be current events, snippets of history, anecdotes and foibles. I hope you will keep reading.

League City, TX

#4 Aug 31, 2009
The fencing year in this region has begun and by next week the preliminary competition schedule will be determined, and posted. It seems a good time to discuss a bit about fencing and the traditional "first weapon" taught to a beginning fencer.

Nine times out of ten, if you are talking with someone and they mention that they "used to fence" or "took fencing in college" (and there really are quite a lot of them out there), what they mean is that they took lessons in FOIL fencing.

Modern Olympic fencing has three different disciplines, or "weapons": foil, epee and sabre. In EPEE, while all touches must be scored with the tip, the entire body is target, literally from head to toe. It also does not have those bothersome rules of right-of-way. SABRE does have rules of right-of-way, and there is less valid target than epee: basically everything from the hips up is fair game. What sabre has going for it is that you can score with the tip or the edge.

Foil is a tougher nut. It has the tiniest target, basically the torso. You hit your adversary's head, arms or legs and the referee may call "halt!" but no points are awarded. Even then the referee won't even call a halt if you just hit your opponent with the edge or side of the foil. You are only awarded a point if you land a touch on your opponent's valid target (torso) with the tip of your foil...

and maybe not even then.

You will recall I said something about RIGHT-OF-WAY.

The foil was created in the late 1600s/early 1700s as a training tool for those who might expect to find themselves in a duel with the primary dueling weapon of that age in England, France and their colonies: the smallsword.

Barely 30-32 inches long, the smallsword had no edge (in fact, the blade's cross-section was a trifoil) but a needle-sharp point. If you impaled your opponent's thigh or arm, it would hurt him, but he could still kill you.

Therefore, foilists were taught to target the torso, infliciting the kind of injury that would, at least, give your adversary pause.

As to right-of-way, in a tournament or classroom situation, it works like this. Two fencers are en garde, facing each other. Inevitably, one attacks. The attack is defined as the INITIAL offensive action, caused by extending the point at your opponent and threatening valid target. If my opponent does exactly that, and my response is to do the same, and we both hit on valid target... only my opponent gets a point.


My opponent attacked. A perfectly reasonable thing. I, on the other hand, did not defend myself. I threw myself on their point while trying to hit them. In essence, I just committed suicide.

In foil, we do NOT award points for suicide. Instead, once my opponent attacks, I have two options (well, more, but for now...)

If I counter-attack (which is what I did in the paragraph above), I can win a point ONLY if: 1.) I land my tip on their valid target; and, 2.) they completely MISS me.

My other option, once they launch an attack is to PARRY their attack (that is, deflect their blade with my own blade) and launch an IMMEDIATE "Riposte" (an offensive act after parrying their attack).

Foil was created to teach an 18th Century gentleman what to do in oder to get home once he had begun a duel. Thanks to two hundred years of adapting it into a sport, it can also be one of the fastest, most difficult, most athletic and most intellectual of sports.

It is also how we instruct beginners: learn the hard stuff first.

League City, TX

#5 Sep 13, 2009

Now for sabre.

Sabre is the only one of the three modern fencing weapons that allows the fencer to score with the edge as well as the point. It makes sabre somewhat less linear, more multi-dimensional.

Like foil, sabre has a restricted area that is considered valid target, but it is less restricted than foil. In foil, only the torso is considered valid target. In sabre, everything above the forward curves of the pelvic bone is valid target: belly, chest, back, arms, head.

Because of this expanded valid target area, and the fact that even simple contact by any part of the blade on that target is seen as a "hit," sabre becomes a very fast game. Like foil, sabre employs conventions of "right-of-way" or "priority."

One fencer attacks. Their opponent must either avoid the touch or parry it (with an IMMEDIATE riposte), As with foil, once the first fencer attacks, if their attack is not parried and lands on valid target, only they are awarded a touch, even if their adversary also hit them. If attacked, you must defend or successfully evade. As with foil, sabre does not reward suicide.

Because of the large amount of valid target and the ease with which an attack may be subtly altered (a verticle stroke that appears to be a cut to the head can easily shift in mid-extention to a lateral cut to the flank), sabre can be more difficult to parry. Thus we see many actions where the defender retreats just out of range then, as the attacker's cut/swing misses, leaps forward to deliver an attack of their own. All in seconds... or less.

Sabre is a very, very fast game. It is also, at the higher skill levels a very nuanced game. The number of people qualified to referee sabre is much smaller than with either foil or epee.

Even at the elite level of Olympians the unexpected can happen: ...

League City, TX

#6 Sep 13, 2009
The 3-day Labor Day weekend included exactly one fencing tournament in Texas, a Super Youth Circuit (SYC) in Houston. Some 300 fencers participated. They came from Orange County, California and San Francisco and Portland Oregon. They came from Long Island and New Jersey and Jacksonville, Florida. They came from Canada, Chicago, and Denver.

They had three things in common. They were fencers. They were competitive athletes. They were between 8 and 14 years of age.

Last time I also mentioned sabre competitions and how fast they were.

Here are clips of the Youth-10 & Under men's epee gold medal bout (broken into 2 parts). ... ...

People sometimes argue with me and tell me they think our students should not take up fencing in high school. I agree. They should get their first instruction in the elementary grades.

The SYC in Houston, Texas was the only one of the eight SYC's sanctioned by the United States Fencing Association (USFA) for the season that runs from August 2009 to July 2010 that would not be (more or less) an East Coast or West Coast event.

As the Dallas Morning News recently observed, "Each fall, many kids start the school year dejected about being rejected for the too-few spots on school sports teams. And that doesn't include the many who don't try out because they've been told they're too short for basketball or not big or broad enough for football or haven't been playing select volleyball since they were 5."

More introverted (but no less able) students shy away from team sports where the attention, adulation and (don't even try to to deny this) money focus on the one or two extroverted, accomplished superstars.

Others are also simply more individual-oriented than team-oriented.

Then, there are the smart students...

Fencing probably attracts a significantly and disproportionately higher percentage of honors students among it total competitive population than any other sport.

It does have drawbacks, however. Public school traditionally have a difficult time getting a handle on individual sports as opposed to team sports. For all of our blather about individual rights, Americans mostly want to know what "team" you're on. Football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer... They are about teams and they are about chasing balls.

Fencing is personal and lonely. On the piste (fencing strip) there is only you and your opponent and the referee. Your victories are yours and yours alone, but so are your defeats.

Additionally, while it is an athletic endeavour, it is also a mental game. You seek to decieve your opponent and lead them astray, in about half a second. You seek to divine you adversary's intent (attack or merely a feint) in the 1/5 of a second you have to decide and act. It is a martial art but it is also chess at 300 mph.

It is an anachronism in a world chasing instant fame, groupies and the almighty dollar.

Yet every year, more and more young people pick up a foil, an epee, a sabre. A decade and a half ago the USFA boasted but 10,000 dues-paying members of all ages. Today the number is closer to 25,000-30,000 (and that does not even take into account the purely "recreational fencers" or classical fencers, who do not compete in USFA-sanctioned events and, thus, do not join).

The jokes about pirates, swashbucklers, Zorro and the Three Musketeers are all very cute, trite and tired. Fencing, however, is a serious sport... and it is growing.

League City, TX

#8 Sep 17, 2009
There are three weapons in modern, competitive fencing: foil, sabre and epee. The first two have already been covered so we now turn to every crossword puzzle fiend's favorite fencing weapon, the epee.

At first blush, the epee seems the simplest of the three weapons. It may score only with the tip like foil, but all similarities end there. First of all, forget that blather about "valid target" from foil (torso only) and sabre (everything above the hips). It epee, the entire body is valid target: head, toes, knees, pinkies.

Epee also dispenses with conventions of "right-of-way." If two epeeistes attack at the same time and both land a touch, the score is now tied at 1-1. It is said that foil teaches us how a duel should be fought and the epee teaches us how it would be fought.

In the 1800s smallswords and colichemardes were the early duelling sword of choice in France, England and America. Both weapons had a trifoil cross-section (thus no edge) and a devasting point. Duelling began to change, however. Men stopped wearing swords as a matter of civilian dress. At the same time, a movement began that allowed for duels "to first blood" to satisfy matters of personal honor.

Two men would agree to meet and fight until either one bled. At that point they had proved their honor. The matter was settled and both could adjourn for a pleasant breakfast together.

Because swords were no longer worn as a matter of dress, the guard got larger, to protect the hand. Especially important since that "first blood" movement took hold. The closest part of my opponent to me is the hand holding his sword. There is my first target.

Thus, the duelling sword (or epee... simply French for "sword") was born. The large guard covered the hand. The trifoil cross-section allowed more metal (and, thus, weight) to be removed without reducing strength or flexibility.

Sorry, that stuff about "blood-grooves" is a myth. It's all engineering and metallurgy.

At the first Modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, only the foil and sabre were used. In 1896 the epee was not considered a "sporting weapon." Epees were still being used for duels. The epee was not for sport. It was a serious weapon for "frank encounters." As a point of fact, even in America, once the epee joined the ranks of the other two competitive weapons, from the 1900s to the 1930s, it was more often called the "duelling sword" than the "epee."

Even now we have a saying in fencing. "Sabre is theatre. Foil is art. Epee is truth."

While foil is still the weapon most fencers learn first, in Texas, the epee is so popular that it is not uncommon for epee events to pull more competitors than foil. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the one Texan on the US Olympic fencing team fenced... yes, epee.

Here is a trivia point I will answer in my next post. When was the last duel with epees fought?

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