At Sword's Point: Musings

League City, TX

#1 Aug 12, 2009

It is early 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 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

#2 Aug 29, 2009
The fencing year has begun. 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

#6 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.

THIS WEEKEND: Sabre was the focus of this weekend's only fencing tournament in Texas, the End of Summer Sabre tournament. It was held by the Fencing Institute of Texas in Farmer's Branch, a suburban city on the northern edge of Fort Worth. Being early in the fencing year, and focusing on the weapon with the fewest adherants, it was a small affair, drawing a couple of competitors from Houston and one from Tulsa, but otherwise representing the "usual suspects" for sabre in the Dallas-Ft. Worth region. Kate Sierra, who I thought was the strongest of the competitors who had pre-registered as of last Sunday, came in second, being defeated by her clubmate Omair Ahmad (both belong to the Cutting Edge Fencing Club of Ft. Worth).

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