Parents' guide to fencing, the 3 weapons & equipment
The Basics
Fencing is the fastest combat sport there is. It combines speed, agility, reflexes, stamina, and strategy. Despite this, it doesn't take long to get to a level where you can enjoy fencing others at your own level, and from there, improvement is made at whatever speed your coaching and practice will allow.
Whether we consider fencing to be an art of enjoyment or a science of weapons, a method of education or a sport, its study reveals great wealth. Wealth of a thousand-year-old history, a wide range of technical skills, a laudatory record of achievements, and above all, the values created by fencing that are still taught today through the practice of this sport.
The sword is one of the oldest of weapons and, as Egyptian frescoes circa 1200BC show, fencing is one of the oldest of sports. The history of fencing often retraces that of mankind, through that of the sword, and if we were to analyse the different features of this art throughout the centuries, we would notice that they correspond to the customs of the era in which they appear. Man has sought to invent weapons to defend himself against nature and other human beings since Cain. He has utilised his strength, resorted to materials and tools, improved his dexterity and used his intelligence. The history of fencing gives a marvellous account of all that.
Fencing was an Olympic sport for the first time in 1896 and it is one of the few sports to have always been part of the Olympic programme although fencing is one of the few sports to have acknowledged professionals prior to the 1980s. In fact, the original Olympic rules, written by Baron Pierre de Coubertin (second President of the International Olympic Committee), specifically stated that professional fencers, called masters, could compete in competitions.
The modern Olympic sport requires fencers to be of the fittest of athletes and have levels of skills which require many hours of dedicated training. In learning the skills of attacking and defending with either the Foil, Epee or Sabre fencers develop good co-ordination, balance and flexibility which makes fencing training an ideal means of keeping fit for all ages and abilities. When fencing is offered as a holiday activity or at a taster session there are always large numbers of youngsters who wish to emulate their story book heroes. Fencing for those in wheelchairs is a major sport in disabled competitions and Britain has won many medals at fencing in the Paraplegic Games. Certain disabilities prove to be of little disadvantage at fencing and those who are unable to compete in other sports find that they can compete on equal terms with able-bodies fencers.
Fencing takes place on a 14 metre long by 1.5 - 2 metre wide piste.
Hits are judged by the electric scoring equipment but the referee makes the decisions on who, if either, scores. The sport is extremely fast and making those decisions can be very difficult. To aid the referee, video replays have just been introduced at major events, such as World Championships and the Olympics. Bouts are first to 5 hits in the early part of individual competitions and to 15 hits in the later knockout stages. Team matches are now normally run on a relay system with each bout picking up the score where the last on left off. For teams of 3 the winner is the first team to reach 45 hits.
Choosing A Weapon
There are three weapons used in modern fencing. In all three weapons, the aim is to score a number of "hits" or "touches" on the valid target of you opponent. Each weapon has a different target area, and the rules for scoring hits are also different.
Foil

The first and probably most common is the foil. This started out as a practice weapon, to teach the defensive part of sword-fighting. It is the weapon on which most beginners start, because even if they eventually move to another weapon, foil fencing contains many actions which are also relevant to the other weapons.

The valid target area for foil is the trunk of the body, ending at the neck, arm and leg seams. On the back, the target goes down as far as the waist.

Hits are made with the point of the weapon only, and the fight is also stopped briefly if a hits falls off-target, although the hit doesn't count. There are rules which determine "right of way", which decide who is awarded the point if both fencers hit at the same time.

Epée

The epée is a much heavier weapon than the foil. Again, hits are scored only with the point of the weapon, but the whole body is counted as valid target. Unlike foil, there are no rules determining "right of way".

With epée, whoever hits first is awarded the point. If both fencers hit each other at the same time, they are both given a point.

Sabre

Sabre is a weapon which evolved from the cavalry sabre, and so has a few differences from the other two. Because of its origins on horseback, anything above the waist is counted as valid target area.

Also, points may be scored in two different ways. It is possible to score with the point, as with the other two weapons, but most of the time, points are scored using the edge of the sabre, in a cutting motion. "Right of way" rules similar to those in foil are used to determine who is awarded the point when both fencers are hit.

Purchasing Equipment
First Purchases

Many clubs will lend you equipment when you are doing a beginner course, they generally then like you to start purchasing your own so that their kit can be used for new beginners.

There are two options as a beginner, the first is to buy individual items one at a time until you have a full set and the second solution is to buy a starter kit.

You can either buy equipment at one of the shops in the UK, at stands at competitions or by websites or the telephone. If you are buying without trying equipment on make sure that you have your measurements e.g. chest measurement for jackets, waist measurement for breeches etc…

The first things to buy are usually:

Glove

Although you can buy non electric gloves it is almost always worth buying an electric glove with a Velcro cuff. The Velcro cuff allows you to easily connect your bodywire from under your sleeve to an electric weapon. These are either sized Small, Medium etc… or they are sized in individual UK glove sizes. Going for gloves that are individually sized will usually get you a better fit but they tend to be more expensive.

Mask

Most manufacturers make masks in 4 sizes called Small, Medium, Large and Extra Large or 1, 2, 3 and 4. If you know what size you normally borrow from your club then you are fairly safe to order the same size on line or over the phone.

For Foil and Epee you would normally buy an insulated mask (one with black or coloured mesh). For Sabre you either need a normal mask (insulated or non insulated) for non electric fencing or for electric fencing you will need a special sabre mask with a lamé bib. If you are starting out fencing sabre it is best to ask your coach for advice on whether to get an electric sabre mask or a standard non electric mask.

Jacket

Most Clubs supply back zip jackets however, when you come to buy your own you will want a front zip jacket as they are much easier to put on.

Jackets are available in a huge range of styles both stretchy and non stretchy and some even contain high tech wicking linings to make them more comfortable. 350N jackets are mandatory now in the UK for all fencing. At beginner level the only reason to select FIE 800N rated gear is for additional security.

Plastron

For non-electric fencing a 350N plastron is OK however; for a small amount more you can usually buy an FIE 800N plastron which will also allow you to fence electric. In the UK it is almost always best to go for an FIE plastron.

Weapon

This is the part that many people are keen to buy first, however it is sometimes best to wait a while. Usually people start fencing with a traditional “French” grip and many then progress on to use a pistol grip.

Although it is possible to convert a French grip to a pistol grip it is a time consuming process and involves buying new handles. It should also be noted that it is not possible to change a weapon from being pistol grip to French grip.

If you want to buy all of your kit at once then you may be best to purchase a starter kit.

Starter Kits

Some companies offer starter kits that contain all or most of the equipment you need to get started often at a significantly reduced rate from the price of the individual items.

Generally these are either electric or non electric starter sets and they come with various standard or additional items. Things to look out for when buying a starter kit are whether they contain a bag and what type of plastron they contain. It is also worth checking if the jacket and glove are the cheapest items in the suppliers range or not.

A starter kit is an easy and cost effective alternative to buying items individually if your budget can stretch to it.

What Next?

Right, so now you are not a beginner anymore and you want to compete on the domestic circuit. This section will give you some suggestions on what to get next.

Weapon

Once you have decided on the type of grip that you like, you can buy a weapon. Pistol grips come in a range of sizes and some manufacturers colour code them by size, generally French grips are one size. Some people like to have separate non electric and electric weapons but really this is down to personal preference and the advice of your coach.

If you are certain that you will be fencing a lot then it is worth considering getting a maraging FIE blade as, although they are about twice the price they last much longer and need to be straightened less often.

Bodywire

In the UK this is fairly straight forward as nearly every foilist uses the bayonet twist and push system for foil, on the continent and in the USA the two pin system is more common. Although a simple part of your equipment they are not all the same, cheap bodywires are often made with inferior parts and cable that will need replacing more often.

Breeches

Similarly to jackets breeches come in many different styles. Most people go for ones of the same style as their jacket so that they match!

Shoes

Fencing specific shoes are only essential for advanced fencers but many people by them as they provide better grip and the correct shaped sole.

In general the adidas shoes run very narrow so most people need to go a half size up and the Hi-tec ones are wider meaning you take the same size as a normal trainer. Some people like additional ankle support so go with a fencing boot however, these are extremely expensive so a good alternative to the boot is a separate ankle support.

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