En Garde! A History of Fencing

Time is limited to see the National Archives exhibit, All American: The Power of Sports, which ends its run in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery in Washington, DC, on January 7, 2024. Today’s post on the sport of fencing comes from Alyssa Manfredi at the National Archives History Office.

Fencing is a combat sport that has been around for thousands of years. The tip of the fencing weapon is the second fastest moving object in the modern Olympics, behind only a rifle’s bullet.

Fencing finds its roots in antiquity, when Egyptians practiced swordsman techniques to train for duels and warfare. During the Renaissance, Italian fencing schools began to pop up, with fencing masters teaching their distinct styles through illustrations and books. The Italian schools and styles were progressively improved upon by the French in the 16th century and once again by the Spanish in the 19th century. Fencing masters at the time each taught with distinct styles, just as different styles of fencing vary from country to country today.

While the mechanics of fencing are constantly changing, the basic rules have remained relatively the same. Two competitors step onto the playing area (the strip), salute, and begin to fence. When a player with advantage touches their blade on their opponent’s target area, they get a point. Fencers can take actions with a parry, beat, feint, remise, or lunge to attack, counterattack, or defend from their opponent. The fencer must score five or fifteen points to win, depending on the format of competition.

Today, points are registered by electrical wires that are attached to the weapon, passed underneath the fencer’s gear, hooked up to a floor reel, and attached by cables that register on the scoring machine. Before electronic scoring, touches were identified by an ink spot left on the opponent’s uniform by the weapon. That is why fencers wear white.

Two disciplines, the sabre and foil, wear an electrically conductive jacket called a lamé to register points. These two also score points depending on right-of-way, a way of determining which player scores the point based on attack.

There are three types of fencing forms or weapons: sabre, foil, and épée. Each weapon abides by different rules with different target areas and strategies.

The sabre is a slashing weapon and functions most similarly to how TV and films portray pirate swords. Their target is the entire torso, both arms, and the fencer’s mask. These bouts are the quickest of any weapon, with an entire match lasting seconds. 

The foil is the smaller of the two point weapons and the most commonly seen in popular culture (though almost never handled correctly). The target area for the foil is just the torso. Most beginner fencers begin by using foil, but it is considered the most difficult to master because of the many rules for right-of-way. Even the fencer can get confused after a parry-riposte-balestra-lunge-beat-remise-beat-double touch.

The épée is the largest and heaviest point weapon. With no lamé and no right-of-way system, épée is the easiest to comprehend for newcomers to fencing. It also means épée fencers can score a double touch, where both players get the point. It is also the only weapon in which the entire body is the target.

Foil and sabre were part of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, with épée joining the fray four years later.

In the United States, fencing became a nationally organized sport in 1891, and since the first Olympics, U.S. fencers have won more than 30 Olympic medals. More recently, the U.S. has had some fencing firsts in Olympic history. Ibtihaj Muhammad was the first Muslim woman to wear a headscarf while competing in the 2016 Olympics in sabre. Mattel launched a Barbie doll based off of Muhammad, making her the first hijabi Barbie as well as the first Barbie fencer.

At the 2020 Olympics, which took place in 2021 because of COVID-19, American Lee Kiefer became the first foil fencer to win an individual Olympic gold medal in American history. You can track her, and all USA fencers’ 2024 Olympic qualification status, on the USA Fencing website.

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