Inside the World of Longsword Fighting

This video from the New York Times has been making the rounds on Facebook, but I thought that it also may be of interest here.

Inside the World of Longsword Fighting

If you are writing a story with this style of fighting, this group may be able to give you some invaluable practical tips about what it is like to practice this style of sword fighting. I didn’t know that this existed, and while the clothing and armor are not intended to be historically accurate, it sounds like they are trying to faithfully recreate the techniques out of the fencing manuals that we still have.



Fencing Travel and Fiction Research

This past weekend, I had the fortunate opportunity to combine both fencing and fiction research together in one trip. I traveled to St. Louis, Missouri for a North American Cup (NAC) event. This is a series of tournaments run by the United States Fencing Association (USFA), held all over the United States, and on occasion elsewhere in North America. From October through April, these events are held once a month. Each NAC is comprised of different levels of events and age groups. This year’s schedule can be found here. The final event of the season is a combination of Division I National Championships and Summer National Championships. This is held over about a ten day time span from the end of June through the first week in July. It is a massive affair, with events for every age group and level.

St. Louis – Gateway to the West.

The October event was a Division I, Division II, and Cadet event. Division I is the highest level of national competition. If a fencer finishes in the top 32 of a Division I event, he earns points that go toward a national ranking. The Cadet event is for fencers under sixteen years of age and is also a point event, but with a separate tally for national rankings. I fenced in just the Division II event. This level restricts entrants to those with a C, D, E, or U rating (leaving out A and B fencers). If you missed my earlier post on ratings and rankings, you can find more of an explanation here. The Division II event awards no points, but rather awards new letter ratings depending on how high you finish.

Fencing venue. For most of the day, these strips were full of fencers. But earlier in the day, I was busy fencing so this was taken toward the end of the day’s events.

A NAC is an immense and overwhelming thing to a first-time competitor. The venue is usually a large convention center exhibit hall. Fencing strips stretch as far as the eye can see. Scoring machines buzz and beep, fencers scream and shout, and blades clash together on all sides. The bout committee runs the event and is sequestered on an elevated platform in some central location. Equipment vendors, merchandisers, equipment check-in, equipment repair services, and stenciling services can be found around the periphery of the hall.

The bout committee. The section to the left is for referees to gather and rest.

When I first arrived at the event, I had to check in. Everyone has to pre-register for a NAC event. Walk-in competitors are not allowed. At the posted time, the competitors for a given event line up at a booth which is usually in the hall outside the venue. They scan your USFA membership card and then you’re confirmed for the event.

Instant replay station.

The next step is the equipment check. This is within the venue and the line can vary from non-existent to a 45 minute wait. This is where your mask is checked for safety, and the conductive pieces of equipment are verified to be working.

This tournament had several instant replay stations, more than I’ve ever seen before at an event. But despite all the technology, each fencer has to cluster around a simple bulletin board to find out which strip her bouts will be fenced on.

One of several bulletin boards around the venue where important details are posted.

Overall, it appeared to be a well-run event. If you knew where to look, you could even glimpse some of the recent Olympians in action.

At the end of the day, I did not fence as well as I had wanted to, but after my injury and surgeries I was happy to be able to even compete again. I’ll likely enter the Division II NAC in the spring.

The Missouri Historical Society Research Library.

The rest of my trip was spent working on research for my novel, Badge of the Black Dragon. Since this story is set in St. Louis, I figured that this would be a great opportunity to explore the city’s history. The first day of research was spent at the Missouri Historical Society’s research library. I delved through old photographs and books, taking notes on a variety of topics.

This was the type of library where you need to come in with a specific area of interest. I had to request specific files of photographs, and a little research about this ahead of time had at least prepared me as to what was available. The librarians were very helpful when it came to my other topics. They suggested several approaches to search for what I was looking for and brought me about a dozen books. My favorite item was a reproduction of a map of St. Louis showing which blocks were destroyed in the fire of 1849. The library also had newspapers from the mid-1800’s which were filled with fascinating headlines and advertisements.

A section of the map showing the extent of the fire’s destruction in 1849.

On the last day of my trip, I traveled to a local cave system and then returned to the city to explore the St. Louis arch and the Missouri History Museum. These excursions were less specific for my novel research, but sparked some ideas that I hope will add to the depth of my worldbuilding.

I finally returned home with some additional books for study. My favorite is The Prairie Traveler: A Hand-book for Overland Expeditions – a reprint of a guide to pioneers that was originally published in 1859. I’m not sure that I would have found this small publication if I hadn’t investigated the local museums.

Also this week, I was interviewed by Michelle Carraway over at Reality Skimming about my writing process, ideas, and influences. Please go check out her page here. I’ll even tell you a little more about Badge of the Black Dragon in the interview.

Are there any readers out there who are thinking about taking a trip to research for a novel or story? Have you already done this? If you could do it again, would you prepare any differently?

Fictional Fencers – Conditioning and Athletics and Zombies

Oh hey, it’s time to return to a post about fencing! Today, I’m going to talk about what types of athletic activities a fencer might participate in outside of regular practice. Or another way to look at it would be – what athletic feats might your character be good at if he has done some fencing? What would he struggle with? And most importantly, would he be able to effectively run from zombies?

First off, any character has motivations and goals. How often is she fencing and why? If your character is obsessed with swords and uses every opportunity to train at fencing or other martial arts, this person will have a different physique and abilities than one who runs daily, trains for marathons, or perhaps picks up a fencing weapon only once a month. Maybe your character used to fence ten years ago, but hasn’t picked up a blade or made a lunge since then? What skills would this character retain?

What other types of exercise would a fencer do?

I think it’s easiest to group our fencers into three types. First off, you would have the novices. This group would include those beginners that may have aspirations for competition, but are still trying to figure out the footwork, rules, and proper blade positions. You could also put those who fence more as a hobby than a sport in this group. These fencers would have some degree of fencing skill, but since they either have not been working at it for long, or perhaps pick up a blade once a week or less, their physical condition can vary greatly. Fencing alone at this novice level is unlikely to give this character much additional strength or endurance for other sports, running from zombies, or trying to fight off a serious threat.

The second group of fencers will be those who have the basics down and attend practice regularly (or at least seasonally). This type of character will have more muscle development in the legs and the weapon arm. She will also have some degree of cardiovascular conditioning from footwork drills or bouting practice. However, since fencing uses a lot of fast-twitch muscle fibers, this character may have limited endurance for a long day of competition or running further than a few miles from those zombies.

The last type of fencer is the elite athlete. This fencer will be attending regular practices, but will also work out in other arenas. Weight-training and conditioning are critical to a fencer who wishes to compete and win in anything other than a local tournament. This article gives a great overview of the types of exercises that are helpful. Some competitive fencers may work with a trainer to maximize the benefits of training and to minimize the risk of injury. This type of fencer may be able to lift heavy objects, run several miles, or sprint short distances faster than an average person. Any athlete that has done cross-training in multiple types of activities will be more coordinated and could tackle unexpected obstacles with more success than the average person. One caveat to this would be that the elite athlete would be more likely to have sustained injuries due to the intensity of the training. So while your athlete may have the cardiovascular fitness, coordination, or mental toughness to survive that run from zombies, at the end of the day, she may also have caused an old knee injury to flare up to limit her activity the next day.

The elite athlete cannot be good at everything, and fencing is still more similar to a boxing match than a marathon. If you need your character to be able to run a marathon for your story, then the training associated with fencing will contribute less to this and he had better be doing a lot more running than fencing.

An additional category of fencer that could be involved in a story would be the character that used to fence, but has not done so much as a lunge or a parry in several years. I have seen many high school and collegiate fencers that stop training and competing once they have graduated. What if one of these fencers picked up a sword after a long absence from the sport? What would he remember and what would be tough?

Unless this former fencer was physically active in other sports, his footwork would be awkward and clumsy after such a break. He might remember how to do a lunge, but his legs and core would not cooperate in the same way that they used to. The bladework would be more easily remembered. The muscle groups there are more localized to the fingers, wrist, and elbow, and there is less overall balance and muscular strength needed for these motions. Of course, if he fences for very long at all, he will certainly have muscle soreness afterward. This would be most pronounced in the legs, but could also involve the forearm or back.

Lastly, for a specific example. What do I do for my training and conditioning? I practice specifically fencing three times a week, for an average of two hours each practice. I lift weights at the gym at least twice a week, although on occasion I manage it three times. Cardiovascular conditioning is split between short runs (1 – 3 miles) and cycling (5-11 miles). I throw in interval training and sprints, yoga classes, other cardio (elliptical machine, rowing machine, etc), jumping rope, and footwork drills, depending on my energy level, schedule, and any soreness or injuries.

Could I outrun the zombies? I don’t want to find out, but I think I’d have a better chance than others.

So, what type of feats have your characters performed when forced to it? Have you written a zombie chase scene? You don’t have to outrun the zombies, right? You just have to outrun everyone else.

Ouch! Fencing Injuries

When someone mentions fencing and injuries, probably the first thoughts that come to mind involve bloody stab wounds. In sport fencing, actual stab wounds are rare, even though we’re playing with swords. However, there are many other injuries that can happen to a fencer. The goal of today’s post is to discuss the common injuries, aches, and pains that happen almost every day to fencers, as well as some of the more debilitating injuries.

My injured ankle. No, I wasn’t stabbed. It was a bad sprain.

If you’re writing fiction that involves a fencer, it would be good to keep in mind that this person will likely have all types of bumps, bruises, calluses, and other minor afflictions that can annoy them on a regular basis. Fencers have a different level of tolerance for these things. While one fencer might whine about any small bruise, others will show off their scars. What type of character are you writing about?

I think that bruises have to be the most common minor injury in fencing, so much so that I can’t even consider them to be anything unusual. It’s just part of the sport. You’re going to get hit and sometimes it will hurt a little. Sometimes it will sting. Sometimes it will leave a mark. Other times it will make you suck in a deep breath and have to stop to shake it off. Blows on the hand or the elbow can hit a nerve and cause you to drop your weapon. This can make your arm tingle or not respond correctly for a few moments.

The types of bruises vary with the weapon that is being fenced. Since foil and epee are point weapons, most of the bruises will be round. Sabre is a slashing weapon, so most of the bruises will be linear and will fall on the shoulders and arms. Sometimes a sabre attack will have more of a stinging sensation to it. Of all the weapons, I have seen the worst bruises in epee. The epee has a stiffer blade than a foil, so it is less forgiving on impact. I have seen bruises from epee in which not only was there a bruise as large as my hand, but the central part of the bruise was more of a bloody scrape (through the protective equipment). Sometimes novice sabre fencers can get too…enthusiastic. A beginner tends to swing the sabre and to put more of their shoulder strength into the attack. This also makes for more bruises when they land, and will quickly cause the more experienced fencers to show the novice how to lighten up their attacks.

The off-weapon hand has no protection below the wrist. A fencer is supposed to keep that hand back and out of the way, but sometimes it will still get struck. With no glove, it is more likely that the skin will take the brunt of this blow. I’ve often had my knuckles or the back of my hand scraped up, but at least for me, these injuries have never needed more than a few band-aids. On both hands, you can also get your fingernails smashed and bruised.

Oddly enough, the hand seems to be a common place for stab wounds to occur. I know of three fencers that have had a blade go through their hands. I know of another fencer that had a blade go up the sleeve of her jacket and into her arm.

Blisters and calluses are commonplace. As a sabre fencer, I have calluses on my weapon hand – on the thumb and along my palm at the base of my fingers. I’ve had blisters in the same places. Foot blisters and calluses are inevitable for anyone that engages in athletic activities regularly and I’ve had my share of these too. I’ve also slammed my toes against the front of my shoe in an overzealous lunge. A few weeks to a few months later, my toenail fell off.

Fencing is an asymmetric sport. Fencers have one arm that is larger than the other. Fencers will also have a disparity in the size of their legs. Even though both legs are used strenuously, the front leg will tend to be the more heavily muscled one. With all of the quick footwork and lunging that is involved in fencing, it is very common to suffer minor muscle strains in the hamstrings or quadriceps muscles. Some fencers will also get cramps in those muscles or in the calves.

One hazard of sabre fencing is that when an opponent is making at attack with too much of a swinging motion, the blade is flexible and can whip around the weapon’s guard, the shoulder, or the mask. This will sting and can cause more bruises, but one special type of unpleasantness happens when the blade whips around the mask and hits the back of your head. There was a rule change in 2000 that made the sabre blades stiffer, so this is not as common as it used to be.

After being used for some time, the blade of any of the fencing weapons will break. If it breaks near the tip, there is a small piece of metal that is launched out at great speed. I don’t personally know of anyone being injured by this fragment, but I suppose that it is possible. Once the blade breaks, it isn’t sharp, but it is sharper than the unbroken blade. There is a greater chance that this piece could be driven through the opponent’s jacket or mask, but even so, this is rare.

The broken tip from a sabre blade.

A fencer’s mask fits tightly around the chin. If the fencing action becomes too close, sometimes one fencer will inadvertently slam the guard of his weapon into his opponent’s mask. This force can be transferred to the chin and can cause a scrape or bruise there, depending on the exact style and fit of the mask. I don’t know of any fencer that has been knocked out by this.

The non-electric masks (used for foil, epee, or sometimes in practice in sabre) have a painted coating on the mesh surface. When the mask is struck by a blade, sometimes pieces of this paint chip off and can pass through the mask. I have had bits of this go into my eye. It has never been more than an annoyance to me, but I know of one fencer that had to see an ophthalmologist because of a piece that went into his eye.

While I don’t know if there is something officially known as “fencer’s elbow”, the motion used in fencing is repetitive and there is a risk of having various overuse types of injuries like in other sports. I have had tendonitis in my elbow, and I know of other fencers that also have dealt with this.

My foot in a cast. Ow!

As far as serious injuries go, it is much more likely for a fencer to injure a knee or ankle than it is for her to be stabbed. Anything that results from overextension or twisting of a joint could happen. Some of the specific injuries may include a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament, meniscal tears, ankle sprains or fractures, or Achilles’ tendon rupture. I’ve also heard of fencers falling and breaking a wrist or arm. My own ankle sprain involved torn tendons and cracked cartilage, ultimately leading to three surgeries, but was also a bit of an unusual case.

So, are there any fencers out there that have had your own experiences with injury? How did you deal with it?

For the writers, do you need to give your character a weakness – why not an old fencing injury? Or if you’d like to add more realism to a fencing scene, you could use some of the details above.

Competition – Formats, Rules, and Oddities

For anyone who has been watching the Olympic fencing events over the last couple of days, if you’re not already familiar with fencing, you may have found it rather confusing. I thought that this would be a good time to talk about tournament formats and some of the rules. This might be useful to urban fantasy authors if you’d like to sneak a fencing tournament into your story. Even if you’re writing an alternate world fantasy, elements of the tournament format could be extended to your own world’s version of a tournament or duel.

There are so many details and rules – the ninja is confused.

First off, the Olympics are different than any other fencing event. I’ll mention the typical format used in most local, regional, and national tournaments in America and then I’ll go over some of the exceptions (Olympics, collegiate, team events).

Each tournament is categorized by weapon, age group, and skill level. In a smaller event, the women and men will compete together. If the event is larger, separate men’s and women’s events will be held. Most fencers are awarded letter ratings to indicate their skill level. These ratings run from A to E (also U = unrated) and are earned by winning or placing highly in competition. An “Open” event is open to all skill levels. Some tournaments are limited to lower rated fencers, others are restricted to higher rated fencers. For example, if a tournament is listed as a “D and under” that means that any fencer with a D, E, or U rating is eligible to compete.

For national events and some regional tournaments, the terminology can be different. A Division III event is a “D and under” while a Division II event is a “C and under”. There is little practical difference between calling a tournament a “D and under” versus a Division III event. The same fencers can compete. At the national Division II and III events, the ratings that are awarded to the winners are strictly defined, while for a local Division II or III event, the number and level of ratings awarded will be determined by how many fencers competed and where the top rated fencers in the tournament finished.

For tournaments restricted to higher rated fencers, there is Division I. This event is only for A, B, and C fencers. I suppose that someone could hold an event for only A’s or only A and B’s, but I have not seen this done.

A fencer’s rating also has a year. So one fencer could be a B11, meaning that she earned her B rating in 2011. If she re-earns that B rating the following year, it becomes a B12. After four years have passed without re-earning a rating, it drops to the next lowest rating.

Fencers can also earn points. There are National and International points – these are what determine the national rankings and teams and are earned at Division I events or World Cups. There are also regional (ROC) points – these are used to determine who qualifies for some of the events at National Championships. The point system becomes very complicated and more information can be found here.

As far as age groups go, there are Youth events and Veterans events. These are further subdivided into brackets like U19 (under 19) and V50 (Veterans 50+).

For your average fencing tournament, there are two rounds. In the first round, the total number of fencers are divided into small groups called pools (usually 5-7 fencers in each). Each fencer in a pool fences each other fencer in that pool. Bouts are fenced until 5 points. When all of the pools have been completed, the results are lumped together and the fencers are seeded into the second round. In some national events, only 80% of the fencers make the cut to the second round.

This second round is called direct elimination. Most fencers will say something like, “I just fenced DE’s,” or, “This is my second DE bout.” In this part, the bouts are fenced to 15 points. Once you lose, you’re eliminated from the competition (but of course, there are some exceptions. I’m not getting into that here). There is also a time limit to the bouts. A DE bout consists of three 3-minute periods with a one minute break between each one. Even if there is time remaining, the bout is over once 15 points is reached. In sabre, each point is over so fast that it would be exceptional for the first 3-minute period to even expire. In sabre, once one of the competitors reaches 8 points, there is a one minute break.

There are penalties that can be doled out by the referee. A fencer can receive a yellow card, red card, or black card. Yellow cards are for minor infractions and the first one has no effect on the score. A second yellow card penalty becomes a red card and the opposing fencer receives one point. For more serious infractions, a red card can be given right away. In egregious cases of misconduct the referee can give a fencer (or coach or onlooker) a black card. This means that the fencer is thrown out of the competition, or sometimes the building. There is a list of the type of actions that will result in each level of penalty here.

If the speed of the Olympic fencing causes your eyes to cross, don’t worry – there is instant replay! Most of the online coverage shows each touch in slow motion, although there isn’t any commentary beside the referee’s hand signals or final call. Each fencer can request two video reviews of a point in each bout. The fencer draws a rectangle in the air with her index fingers to indicate that she would like the touch reviewed. If the call is upheld, the fencer uses up one of her video challenges. If the referee changes his call, the fencer does not lose one of her video challenges. The video review process is partially used in the national level events (Division I – III) in America, but may be restricted to one strip or the final bouts of an event.

Some fencers may use a variety of delaying tactics during their bouts. There are some situations where a fencer may request a video review even if he knows that the referee was correct. If the bout is nearly over and the fencer still has two video challenges, he may wish to use the time of the review process to catch his breath, stretch a tense muscle, or rethink his strategy. Many other delaying tactics exist and I have seen about half a dozen already in the Olympic coverage. A fencer can stop to re-tie her shoe, fiddle with her weapon, change her weapon, change her glove, remove her mask to wipe sweat from her eyes or to fix her hair, walk to the end of the strip and back, or fuss about a potential injury. The referee will call the fencers back en garde but if the athlete already has untied her shoe or walked down the strip, it will take a few more seconds to be back on the line. If the fencer is not making some movement toward resuming the bout, she can be penalized. If a fencer claims to be really injured, a trainer is called to the strip. If the trainer thinks that the fencer was not injured, there is a penalty. If the trainer concurs on the injury, the fencer has ten minutes to deal with it and to decide if she can return to fencing.

There is another odd thing that you may notice if you watch a few bouts. Sometimes one fencer will hold up an index finger after a touch. This is an acknowledgement that the opponent scored. It is used more often in practice when there is not a referee or when the fencers are being courteous and are helping out a fellow fencer that is trying his best to make the calls. In competition, it is more like saying, “Touche.”

The ninja acknowledges a touch.

International fencing competitions are refereed in French. Tournaments in the United States are refereed in English, although you may sometimes hear French. The referee will say things like, “On guard,” followed by, “Ready,” a little pause, then, “Fence.” In French this is, “En garde. Prêt, aller.”

Now for the Olympic stuff. There is no pool round in the Olympics. All of the fencers are just seeded into the DE round. Also – in most other fencing tournaments, there are two third place winners. In the Olympics, the two fencers that lose in the semi-finals have to fence off for third. There can only be one bronze medal.

At some competitions, there are also team events. The team is made up of three fencers and one alternate. Each (of the three) fencers fences each one of the opposing team in a set rotation. The scoring from one bout to the next is cumulative. In the first match up, the bout is over when one side reaches 5. In the second bout they start with the score from the first bout (let’s say it was 5-3), but then the bout runs until one side reaches 10. So from that 5-3 bout, if the leading team reaches 10 and the other team doesn’t score much, you could have a score like 10-4 at that point. Or, if the trailing team rallies, you might end up with a score of 7-10. As the match continues, you could have scores that stay close (35-33) or one team could stay clearly ahead (40-22). The last bout will bring the score up to 45 for the winning team.

In the Olympics, there are also team events, but not every possible event (out of men’s/women’s foil/epee/sabre) is fenced every year. Historically women only fenced foil, but in more recent years the epee and sabre events were added to Olympic competition for women. To accommodate the extra numbers of fencers, only two men’s and two women’s team events are held at each Olympics. This year the men’s epee and women’s sabre team events will be left out.

There are other formats for some local tournaments or collegiate events. The NCAA team events are scored a bit differently.

So hopefully that provides a little more information about tournaments to anyone that is interested. Coming up next time – what types of injuries are common among fencers?

If you would like to watch any of the individual Olympic fencing events, there’s not much time left. Wednesday 8/1 is the final day with women’s sabre and men’s epee. The team events begin on 8/2.

And if all this talk about fencing makes you want to try some yourself, check out this video that explains the basic footwork.

The Most Important Thing

What makes one fencer better than another?

Is it the speed of their blade or the strength of their attack? What about hours of practice and drills? Is it their strategy and mental toughness?

The answer to all of these questions is: sometimes. But in all of fencing, there is one aspect of the sport that can always override these other factors. What is this nebulous factor that allows the experienced fencer to out-maneuver the novice? It lets the skilled fencer execute their blade work and attacks against a weaker opponent. It makes the strategy possible.

What is this amazing thing? It is the ability to judge the proper distance and to manipulate that distance. By extension, this also relates to footwork and athleticism, but even the most fit fencer’s game will falter if their sense of distance is off.

Please bear with my ninja artwork.

In the movies, sword fights are flashy and dramatic. The focus is on large sweeping moves and the clash of metal as multiple attacks and parries are exchanged. In a real fencing bout, most actions are simple and blade actions are brief exchanges. Especially in sabre, it is MUCH easier to hit your opponent than it is to block the attack. This blocking action is called a parry. If you parry your opponent’s attack and then return the attack, that is called a riposte.

A fencing point is over quickly because it does not take very long for someone (or both fencers) to get hit. The referee will call a halt and will award a point to one fencer, neither fencer, or both fencers (only in epee). Whether or not a particular hit translates into a point in the match is a separate discussion.

So how does distance become important to this? In a simple attack (one fencer advances, the other runs away), the attacker must close the distance and strike the target area. If the attacker judges the distance correctly, he will score the point. If the defender is a better judge of distance and can manipulate that distance, he can trick the attacker into falling short. Once the attacker has missed, he loses the advantage and the defender can take over. Or even worse, the attacker may be off balance and will be unable to defend after missing his attack.

At the next level of complexity, the defender is no longer going to let the attacker simply hit her. She is going to take a parry (block). In order to do this, she must do two things. First she must pay close attention to her distance. If she fails to keep enough distance from the attacker, she will not have time to see where the attacker’s strike is aimed. In this case, she may still try to parry, but it is more risky and can become a guessing game. If the defender can use the distance properly, she may even throw out feints or stutter her footwork to entice the attack. As a result, the attacker may decide (wrongly) that she has the proper distance and timing to finish her attack. The second part of the parry is the physical movement of the blade to block the attack. If the defender has judged the distance correctly, this is the easy part.

So if the defender just scored that last point, what will the attacker do if he wants to still make an attack? He might think that the defender will try the same move again. If it worked once, why not twice? The attacker does not want to lose this next point, so he must adjust his strategy. Let’s say that the attacker starts out the same way and chases the defender. The attacker thinks that the defender will try the same parry-riposte strategy. This time when the defender makes those feints and stutters his footwork, the attacker ignores it. The attacker is patient and advances more smoothly. When he sees the defender hesitate to attempt those feints again, he takes a larger step and finishes his attack with a quick lunge. The defender has overcommitted and does not have enough distance (which translates to time) to see where to parry. Unless he makes a lucky guess and can get his blade there in time, the defender is struck.

This can become much more complicated and is part of the reason why fencing has been called physical chess.

The use of distance by itself can be best demonstrated by watching an experienced fencer bout against a very new fencer. When someone first starts fencing, they can be a dangerous opponent. This new fencer does not attack smoothly, moves unpredictably, parries strangely, and does not react to feints or other body language. She is so awkward that it can make it tough for another fencer to figure out what to do against her. The best strategy for me when bouting against someone very new is to just keep my distance. I will stay away until the new fencer makes enough of a mistake that the way is clear for me to attack. If I choose to attack, I make sure that I’m extra patient. I will advance, but I’ll stay just far enough away that the new fencer cannot reach me with any surprise attacks (which would not necessarily make sense to do when retreating, but a new fencer will do them anyway). Once the new fencer is off balance or stops moving her feet I will close the distance and finish my attack.

I would venture to say that distance is critically important in many other martial arts. However, this may be a difficult detail to translate into your writing. It will be tough to describe and it may be tedious to read. I think the take home messages should be: 1) a real sword fight will be over fast, 2) it is more risky to parry with the blade than to just jump back, 3) inexperienced fencers can occasionally do something bizarre that will catch an experienced fencer by surprise.

Oh, and the London Olympics start July 27th. Fencing at this level can be tough to follow, but if you’d like to give it a try, here is a guide that might help. The fencing events begin on July 28th.

This is NBC’s Olympic fencing page.

And here is the schedule for the online broadcasts of fencing.

Does anyone out there practice a different sport or martial art? Is distance important to your sport? Or are there other things that play a bigger role in the game?

What’s In That Bag?

This week, I thought that I’d step back from the official fencing equipment and play a fun little game. It’s called: What’s In That Bag?

Here’s the idea. Suppose you are writing about a character that fences, knows fencers, stumbles upon a fencing tournament, or even finds a closet of old fencing equipment. I’ve mentioned the types of protective equipment and the weapons that would be used. I’ll get to scoring boxes, reels, and strips later. But what other interesting tools and equipment might be found alongside fencing gear? Let’s go take a look.

First off, there are several types of fencing bags. I’ve been through three or four different ones. The bag that I own now is a bit of an unusual design, but it works for me. Most bags are of two types: a teardrop shaped bag carried on a single strap over the shoulder, or a wheelie-bag which is usually a larger rectangular bag with wheels on one end. For routine practice, I carry a separate duffel bag for the sweaty stuff.

Plastic jump rope.

On an average day, I only carry those pieces of equipment that I need for practice. That means that I probably have one mask and an older lame. I don’t routinely use my newest mask and lame in practice because the conductive material will wear out after too much abuse, and these are expensive pieces of equipment. Eventually all kinds of detritus finds its way into the pockets and recesses of my bag. Those are the corners that I’m going to explore today and here’s what I found:

1) A jump rope – I use this to keep my heart rate up between bouts on days at practice when I’m feeling extra-motivated. If your characters have a situation that requires a rope, a stash of fencing equipment might be reasonable place to find at least a short one. I also found a pair of extra shoe laces in a side pocket of my bag – another item that might be useful as part of a trap, magic device, or hey, just to use as shoe laces.

Extra shoe laces, a frighteningly old energy bar, and a roll of tape.

2) A water bottle and an old energy bar – The water bottle in my bag today was empty, but sometimes I leave a partially full one in there. Perhaps your character needs water. Or perhaps your wizard needs a container for a potion. Or a poison. The energy bar may have been in that side pocket for years. I’m not going to eat it, but a desperately hungry character might.

3) Vise-grips – This is the primary tool that I use to assemble a sabre. The pommel needs to be tightened a little more than I can do by hand. Many foil and epee fencers use pistol grips which require a hex tool to tighten. A larger pair of Vise-grips would probably be able to hurt an enemy if your character used it like a club.


4) Electrical parts – This consists of extra pieces of wire from defunct body cords, electrical tape, soldering iron, and an Ohm meter. I no longer carry the soldering iron or Ohm meter, but when I had the patience to repair body cords, they were useful. If you’re writing a science fiction story, there could be numerous uses for these items.

Two rolls of foam underwrap, Biofreeze, and an elastic knee support.

5) Medical supplies – Today I found a roll of foam underwrap, a few Biofreeze packets, and an elastic knee support in my bag. I’ve never used the Biofreeze. I think it was a free sample and claims to be a pain-relieving gel. At other times, I have carried those instant ice packs and various other supports and braces. I think that I own every type of ankle support in existence. I don’t think that it would be unreasonable for your characters to find bandaging materials or simple pain-relieving medications (Advil, Aleve) among fencing equipment.

6) USFA Card – This is something that currently lives in my wallet, but it used to be in my fencing bag. It also used to be a flimsy piece of paper, but now it is a hard plastic card that could probably be used to shimmy open an easy door lock.

7) The rest of it – I also discovered a notification that TSA had searched my bag at the airport, assorted pieces of plastic and packaging, and spare and broken pieces of fencing equipment. Maybe a survivalist could figure out some practical uses for these things. At least the packaging material would burn. I have hung a banner using broken sabre blades as supports.

So for any fencers out there, is there a non-equipment item that you absolutely MUST have in your fencing bag that is not listed here? Does anyone carry something odd for luck?

If you missed my last post, follow the link in the next older post to see the interview with two-time Olympic gold-medalist Mariel Zagunis. AND today’s goodie: Here’s another link to an interview with a member of the US Olympic Fencing Team, Tim Morehouse.

For the next few months, I should be back to posting every 2 weeks. Next time – THE MOST IMPORTANT THING in fencing, and likely other martial arts and combat sports.

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?

What’s That Smell?

So last time, I started to write about fencing. Today, I’m going to expand upon that with the first of several discussions about equipment. This time, I’m going to cover the protective equipment. Your characters in a fantasy story may wear various types of armor, depending upon what weapons they are likely to face, their socioeconomic status, or their own strengths and training. However, if they’re doing anything related to modern sport fencing, I hope I can provide some useful information about the equipment – its idiosyncrasies, odor, and wear and tear.

While injuries can be incurred in fencing, most of the time they involve the joints and muscles. Minor scrapes and bruises are also very common. Stab wounds are not so common. But this is because there are strict rules about the gear that is worn and the durability of the weapons. While it is rare, sometimes fencers do get stabbed. I know several fencers that have had a blade go through their hands or into their arms. The most well-known death of a fencer in modern times was that of foilist Vladimir Smirnov in the 1982 World Championships. As a result, stronger safety rules for equipment were enforced.

This is one of my lamés. I had a blade go through the shoulder. The lame material is not intended to stop a blade, but this type is particularly thin and breathable. The red arrows are where the blade went in and out. I sewed the holes up so they are a bit tough to see. The green arrow is where the thin fabric is ripping at a point of stress.

The basic pieces of a fencing uniform are the jacket, plastron (underarm protector), chest protector (for women), knickers, mask, glove (one), shoes, and socks that overlap with the knickers. For electric scoring, there may also be a lamé, overglove, an electric mask, body cord, or mask cord. What nearly all of this equipment has in common is that it is made of fabric that will absorb sweat. I believe that most fencers do not wash their equipment after every practice. The wash instructions on my jacket specify that it should not go into the dryer. That just makes it extra annoying to have ready for the next practice. The conductive material on the electric mask, lamé, and overglove must maintain a minimum level of conductivity. At most tournaments, there is a “weapons check” area. The conductive pieces are examined to make sure that they will conduct enough electricity to register a touch. This fabric is a mesh of metal wires which can break with rough handling (like washing). Cleaning is restricted to a soak in water or a water-ammonia mixture. There are some masks that have removable padding which can be washed. But still – there is an odor of sweat that can be especially ripe when the equipment is bundled into a bag, thrown into the trunk of a car, and left there in warm weather. I keep my sweaty equipment in a separate bag. It gets hung up to dry and air out between practices. It does get washed once when the other laundry in the house gets washed. Also, if you leave your sweaty fencing whites in the same compartment of the same bag that contains the weapons, the blades will rust and the rust will leave long red-brown stains or splotches on the whites. It can look like blood. But if you’re a fencer, you’ll know that it’s just rust.

As far as the different weapons go, they all use different electric scoring equipment. The underlying whites are the same (jacket, plastron, +/- chest protector, knickers, shoes and socks). Epee is the simplest – no additional layers of equipment are added. Epee fencers only use a body cord that runs beneath the jacket. Foil fencers have a body cord and a lamé that covers the torso. Either a plain mask with no added conductive material OR an electric mask with a partially conductive bib are used in foil. Which mask rules are valid will depend on whether you are fencing domestically, internationally, or in a qualifying event for international competition.

My current sabre glove/overglove combination. The marks on the back of the hand are from weapons check.

Sabre fencers use a body cord, a lamé that covers the torso from the waist up (including both arms), an overglove, a fully conductive mask, and a mask cord. The purpose of the overglove makes more sense when you look at the order that the pieces are worn. The lamé is worn over the basic fencing whites and the glove is pulled on over the forearm of the lamé. By doing this, the glove blocks the conductive target area of the forearm. The overglove is a thin piece of lamé material that is pulled on over the glove. I prefer to use a glove that has the overglove built in.

Stamps on the back of my lamé.

The electric scoring equipment is marked with a tag or stamp after the weapons check. Many fencers will have a collection of stamps on the lower back of the lamé, the back of the hand on the overglove, and the side of the mask. At tournaments, the masks also must pass a punch test to evaluate the integrity of the metal mesh. If you ever doubt your mask’s strength, whether or not it passes the punch test, replace it. The attachment points for the bib at the sides of the mask can also weaken. If there is any chance that a blade can slide through this area, do not use that mask.

Stamps on the side of an older electric sabre mask. This is where much of the wear and tear happens on a mask.

Fencing equipment also contains a lot of velcro. However, the velcro wears out before the rest of the material, except for on my gloves. There is a small patch of velcro on the neck of the jacket and lamé, and on the waist of the knickers. I have also had zippers consistently break on the lamés and jackets. Sometimes the D-rings on the jackets and lamés rip off. Straps on the chest protectors, plastrons, or knickers lose their elasticity over the course of many years. My original chest protector had the longest lifespan of all my equipment, lasting about twelve years before I gave in and replaced it. The metal hooks (like a bra closure) rusted and all fell off. Sometimes children or men wear a flat chest protector (more common in epee).

This is the velcro at the collar on my jacket. It no longer sticks at all.

Additional wear points are the fingers and palm of the glove. I have worn holes in countless gloves. They can be temporarily repaired with duct tape, but you’re probably better off just buying a new one. Socks are socks. The toes and heels wear out. I’ve seen foil and epee fencers get holes in the shin portion of the socks from taking hits there. How your shoes wear is probably more of an individual thing based on whether you drag your hind foot when you lunge, the frequency of training, the surface of the gym or strips, and the shoes themselves.

This is the bottom edge of my lame. The tab has broken off of the zipper, so I have to pull it up with my fingertips. This has happened to me on three separate pieces of equipment of different brands.

You may have noticed that there is only one glove. The non-weapon hand is unprotected. It is supposed to remain by the hip or back, out of the typical area where attacks land. Most new fencers will instinctively bring this hand up when they are hit and it will get struck frequently. Even when it is held properly out of the way, it can be hit by a particularly fierce or wild attack.

I’m sure there are plenty of things that I haven’t covered here. Just remember, it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Leave me any questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them. Next time – weapons (with a necessary emphasis on sabre, since that’s what I know best).

Swords, Swords, Swords

One of the activities that I participate in regularly is fencing. Since a lot of fantasy literature is either set in a pseudo-medieval setting, or at least involves some swords, I thought that I would write a series of short articles on modern fencing, and how that can be applied to crafting those fight scenes.

This first article is just going to cover the basics – the different weapons, rules, and a little about the equipment. I don’t intend this to apply to all different weapons and styles of sword-fighting, just what my fencing has taught me. I’ll have articles on strategy, mind-set, competition, and injuries. There isn’t a lot in this article about how to apply this to fiction, but I think this will outline the basics so that the later posts will be easier to understand.

So to start with, there are three weapons in modern fencing: foil, epee, and sabre. Most of the time, an athlete will train and compete in only one of those. There is some crossover, but each weapon requires different equipment and has its own style. Some fencing clubs focus on one weapon more than the others, but any large enough club will have all three. When I started fencing (almost 18 years ago), I began with foil because the members in that club fenced foil. The equipment also dictated this to some extent. The scoring boxes (more on these later) were expensive and many at that time did not allow for sabre. This was also a college club, so there was a limited budget to purchase equipment. In some traditional schools of thought on training, foil is always taught first. Once a fencer develops the basic footwork and coordination, then the fencer can transition to a different weapon. This isn’t always the case, and I think it is becoming even less common now. Once sabre equipment and training became available to me, I switched – I think sabre is just more fun.

In regular conversation, fencers do sometimes refer to their equipment as their weapons. As in, “Yes I’d like to fence. I just have to get my weapon.” OR “I’m in the line at weapons check.” OR “I need to put together some more weapons.” Just beware at the airport. When the baggage security personnel ask, “So, what’s in this bag?” Don’t tell them, “Oh, those are my weapons.”

In practice, fencing can be done either “dry” or “electric”. Competitions are essentially all electric now. What this means, is that for any of the weapons, the fencer has a “body cord” that attaches to the inside of the guard on the weapon. This cord runs under the glove, beneath the protective jacket, and plugs into a socket on a “reel”. More wires run to the end of the long and narrow fencing strip, and then back along the side of the strip to a central scoring box. Lights go off when someone gets hit. Dry fencing is just fencing without being hooked up to the electronic scoring system. A lot of practice is done dry because there may be limited scoring boxes at the club. A fencer (particularly someone new to the sport) may have the basic protective equipment, but may not have invested in the additional pieces needed to fence electric. Or, a fencer’s equipment, or pieces of the electric set up may be broken. And a few more examples of how fencers talk about this: “Do you have your electric stuff today?” OR “Let’s just fence dry. I don’t have a body cord.”

So, here is the breakdown on each weapon, as far as basic rules:


Foil is a point weapon. If you hit your opponent with the flat of the blade, it will not count. If you hit your opponent with the point, then it might count. The target area for foil is the torso, not including the arms, and maybe including the bib on the mask (the rules keep changing on this). There is a nice illustration of the target area from wikipedia here. If you hit your opponent off-target, it will not count. If you hit the target and your opponent does not hit you, then you get the point. If you both hit on-target, then there are more detailed rules about “right-of-way” which determine who scores a point. The referee will decide this.

Here is an example of a foil bout from the 2011 World Championships. The bout starts about 2:20 into the video.

Each weapon looks a little different. This is a foil.


Epee is also a point weapon. The difference between foil and epee is in the target area and the rules that follow from that. The epee target area is the entire body. If you hit anything, it counts! There is also no “right-of-way” for epee. Whoever hits first scores the point. If both fencers hit within a certain small time period, then both fencers score a point.

Here is an example of an epee bout from the 2011 World Championships. The bout starts about 1:15 into the video.

This is an epee. The guard on the epee is larger because your hand is part of the target. The blade on an epee is also heavier and stiffer than the foil.


Sabre is a cutting weapon. This means that you can hit your opponent with the point or the flat of the blade. The target area is from the waist on up. The entire head counts, as well as both arms. The hands do not count. Wikipedia again has a helpful illustration here. Having the option to hit with the flat of the blade makes it much easier to hit your opponent in sabre, so the style of sabre fencing is generally faster and more aggressive than the other weapons. Sabre has a “right-of-way” rule like foil, so when both fencers hit, the referee makes the call on how to award a point.

Here is an example of a saber bout from the 2011 World Championships. The bout starts about 1:25 into the video.

Here is a sabre photo. The fencing sabre resembles a cavalry sabre, with the curved guard to help protect the fingers and to make it possible to parry (block) an opponent’s slashing attack.

Well, I think that’s enough for this post. Look for the next one in 2 weeks. Everything you ever wanted to know about the practical side of fencing equipment – what will wear out and fail, how blades break, and what is that smell?

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