Want to avoid fencing injuries? Don’t be lax about the safety rules. Here are some true stories of what can happen.

The Fencing Coach


In a recent study on Olympic sport injury rates, Fencing ranked among the safest sports listed. Given the fact that Fencing is a combat sport rooted in duels to the death, it should come as a surprise that such a ferocious sport would be safer than say, Badminton or Table Tennis.

Yet, our equipment is (mostly) refined enough to prevent any serious bodily injury outside of pulled/torn muscles or cramps. Rarely does one see an injury related to impact with the intact blade, and if you’re wearing quality gear, most forceful hits feel negligible in terms of pain.

The more comfortable we get with safety, the more more our attention to safety can slip away. As I’ll detail later on in this post, I’ve been guilty of this myself. Sometimes you’ll see folks bouting only wearing shorts without knickers. Sometimes the underarm protector will be forgotten. I’ve seen an instance where a…

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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.

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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