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Stabbity, Stabbity, Whack – Weapons

Oh gosh, I just love sharp things. I have a collection – from a classic medieval long sword to a short Zulu spear. However, in fencing I have limited myself to a single weapon (event). The three weapons are foil, epee, and sabre, and each one has different rules, target area, and equipment. Today I’m going to talk about fencing equipment from the weapon side of things.

I have fenced sabre for almost fifteen years, and before that I fenced foil for three. I have picked up an epee on occasion, but it’s not my style. So this discussion of fencing weapons will be needfully slanted toward sabre. Perhaps I’ll interview a foil or epee fencer and get their take on weapons in a later post.

An electric sabre, in pieces.

As far as fiction goes, this post would be most applicable if you’re writing about a character that is a fencer. Fencing weapons could be used as a primary weapon in a story, but only in a limited fashion. The edges and points are not sharp. Sport fencing weapons are made to be modular, whereas a real sword is forged to withstand battle. Fencing weapons break but can be taken apart and reassembled.

There are two types of sabres – dry and electric – but the differences are minor. A dry sabre consists of a blade, guard, grip, pad within the guard, and pommel. The dry weapons are also sometimes referred to as practice weapons. The electric sabre is outfitted for the electric scoring systems. It will have a socket where the body cord plugs in, and there are extra precautions taken to insulate the inside of the guard and the pommel. For foil and epee, the electric versions of the weapons have a tiny wire that runs down the length of the blade. This ends in a miniscule button assembly, so that when the fencer hits the opponent with the point, the tip is depressed and the scoring box lights up. For my purposes, I don’t even own any dry sabres. All of my weapons are electric because the differences are minor and all competitions are scored with the electric equipment. For a beginner, the dry equipment may make more sense, but most clubs even have the electric scoring systems available to use during practice.

The S-2000 blades are stamped at the base. You can also see that this is a Y-blade because the edge on the left is scalloped.

The blade on a sabre is flexible, but prior to a rule change in 2000, they used to be more flexible. If you search online for sabre blades, many of them specify that they are S-2000 blades. This means that they meet those new regulations. Most sabre blades that I see being used are Y-blades, meaning that the lower two-thirds of the blade is Y-shaped in cross-section. This makes the blade lighter. The other type of blade is just rectangular in cross-section. The tip on a sabre is curled over and blunt. Some blades look like steel. Others have been treated to give them a blue or gold sheen. Historically, I saw claims that these were more durable, and these were more expensive blades. Now it looks like they’re just fashionable, and the prices are similar to the plain blades.

The tip of a sabre.

The blades of all the weapons break after some time. The sabre blades most commonly break in the top one-third of the blade, where it is the most narrow. This area of the blade is stressed from making attacks and from certain blade actions. When the blade breaks the fencers almost always realize it – there is a characteristic pinging noise, and the broken tip goes flying across the room (or at least a few feet away). On a handful of occasions, I have seen a blade break into three pieces rather than two.

The broken end of a sabre blade.

Another common location for a blade to break is at the top of the guard. I have seen this happen when the fencer takes a parry (blocks an attack with the blade), or when they make an attack. When this part breaks, the weapon almost falls apart. The pommel is threaded onto the end of the tang of the blade, and the blade above the guard is wider than the opening in the guard. When the blade breaks in this manner, the tension between the guard and the blade is released, and sometimes the socket and the pad under the guard will fall out.

When a blade breaks, it is supposed to leave a flat surface that is less likely to injure an opponent. There could still be some sharp edges, but I have never seen any blade break off that was truly jagged.

Another odd fact – when I buy new blades, they have oil on them to protect the metal from rusting. This can be messy. As a blade ages, it will rust, but I don’t notice this building up as much on the weapon that I use the most frequently.

The guard of a sabre curves around the front of the weapon and attaches at the pommel. They are shiny when they’re new, but quickly become scraped up and dingy. I have seen guards eventually break at the point where they attach to the pommel, but this takes quite a while. The edges also become dented from making parries. Electric sabres have a plastic piece that covers the lower section of the guard near the pommel. If any part of the metal from the weapon comes in contact with the fencers target area (covered with conductive metallic material), this electrically connects the entire blade of the sabre to the target area. If an opponent happens to tap their blade to your blade, this will register as if the opponent actually touched the blade to the target area. To prevent this, the electric sabres have paint or plastic insulation on certain areas. Many fencers add tape to their weapons to also protect against this, especially as the weapon becomes more worn. Different guards are needed for right-handed and left-handed weapons and are not interchangeable.

Assembled electric sabre. The inside is painted red for insulation purposes. The black tape covers the pommel to make sure no metal there is exposed. The strip of tape on the inside of the guard covers up places where the paint has flaked off. You can also see how the edge of the guard is slightly deformed and the red grip is worn down to the underlying plastic.

There are several different grips in fencing. Sabres have the fewest options, with only the material for the grip varying. The options are usually leather or rubber. For foil and epee, there are French grips which are nearly straight, and many ergonomic grips that are fitted to the hand. They go by names like pistol (Visconti), Russian, Belgian, or Italian. The rubber sabre grips that I use develop definite wear patterns.

The pommel is a short piece that is threaded to attach to the tang of the blade and hold the entire weapon together. The electric pommels that I use are a plastic sleeve with a metal piece on the inside. Sometimes these pieces separate and I have to tape them together around the grip and the attachment point for the guard. Eventually, the threads on the inside can become stripped and the pommel needs to be replaced.

This pommel slides off of the underlying metal piece. I don’t use this sabre often and I probably need to add some tape so that this plastic piece doesn’t fly off during a bout. You can also see that this grip is not very worn.

Most pads under the guard are felt or plastic-covered padding, but I have fancy ones that are made out of patterned car upholstery material and are sold by one of the fencing equipment companies.

There are two types of sockets – Bayonet and 2-Prong. I used to use the Bayonet type, but I had repeated problems with those. Almost all sabre fencers that I see use the 2-Prong sockets. Whatever type you have, the body cord must match. Since I have been using the 2-Prong sockets, I don’t think I’ve had a single one break or develop problems. There was a rule change several years ago that required an insulating washer to be removed from the 2-Prong sockets, but this was an easy fix. The body cord plug sometimes requires minor maintenance, but the sockets are quite durable.

For next time, we’re going to play a game. It’s called: What’s In That Bag? Until then, does anyone have questions about sabres? Have you ever held one? Was it heavier or lighter than you expected?

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Iulian
    Jun 11, 2012 @ 12:19:29

    I never held a sabre, to my shame… It’s so awesome that you have a collection. When are you going to throw a party? 🙂

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  2. Lee-Anne
    Jun 11, 2012 @ 17:10:59

    The Society for Creative Anachronism holds fairly regular practice bouts and “serious” tourneys with (usually) rattan mockups of real military-style weapons, although I’ve also seen blunted serious swords. I highly reccommend attending them, if one seeks verisimilitude in descriptions of such battles.

    It’s a completely different experience to foil fencing (which is more like modern dance), and terribly difficult to accomplish without testosterone-enhanced muscles, especially in the upper body. At one time, I was a fairly serious foil fencer, and often beat the then-captain of the Ohio State fencing team, but was a miserable failure with weighty weapons and with serious attacks with weapons weighted to approximate the real deal. Think about a man beating one with a wooden baseball bat, whilst one is wearing a hat made out of the bottom of a welding tank and heavy woolen armour that makes one reminisce for the cool breezes off the Great Salt Lake in summer. Trés, trés chic.

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  3. Cindy Lynn Speer
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 09:37:03

    Actually, the SCA fencers don’t use rattan mock ups…there are two different sword wielding groups in the SCA (grins) one that practices knightly/armored combat, and one that practices with unsharpened rapiers. Here are some examples…I picked a page with sabres on it for our host: http://www.jamesthejust.com/Rapiers.htm

    Lee-Anne is right. It is a very different animal. I fought with an epee for awhile, and then started on rapier. It feels different, the rules are different…for example, we fight in the round and we don’t have right of way.

    You’ve inspired me to consider writing a post on what SCA rapier fighting is like…if I do it, I hope you won’t mind.

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  4. Ann Gimpel
    Jun 17, 2012 @ 22:14:37

    Thanks for such an interesting an informative post, Clare. Fencing is something I know next to nothing about, so it’s good to enhance my knowledge base. It also makes it more likely for me to use in my writing which is a huge plus!

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  5. Clare
    Jun 18, 2012 @ 14:24:48

    Yes, sport fencing is much different from SCA and re-enactment swordplay. The fencing weapons are all very light. This makes them very fast, and I will talk about this type of thing more in an upcoming post. The heaviest of the fencing weapons is the epee – the blade is wider and the guard is also large, lending it more weight compared to a foil or sabre. However, even with the light weapons, fencers will build up a little muscle in their weapon arm. Most fencers are also stronger in one leg, but I’ll also talk more about this in another post.

    I was waiting for right-of-way to come up, Cindy. It’s this confusing rule that applies in foil and sabre and it’s easier to explain when you’re watching a bout. Epee has no right-of-way rules, so whichever fencer’s tip lands first scores the touch (point). If both fencers land within a specified short period of time, both fencers get points. In foil and epee, there is a referee that determines who is awarded the point in cases in which both fencers strike valid target area. Ok, I could go on and on, but I’ll post more on that later as well. And Cindy, if you decide to write about SCA rapier fighting, that’s fine by me – I’d love to read that too!

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