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.



Haitian machete fencing.

No mask, no padding, sharpened machete.

How is the old master still alive?


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?

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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