What is Fencing?

Competition basics

Fencing takes place on a 14 metre long by 1.5 – 2 metre wide piste. The sport is extremely fast and making refereeing decisions can be very difficult.

Whether hits land is judged by the electric scoring equipment but the referee makes the decisions on who, if either, scores.

At major events, such as World Championships and the Olympics, to aid both the spectators & the referee, floor or large panel lights behind the pistes show the hits.
Video replays have also been introduced at major events. Fencers can ask for a decision to be reviewed or the referee can now check the video himself before giving a decision.

At these events, fencers no longer trail wires behind them, wearing a wifi transmitter pack instead. The system is currently extremely expensive, so restricted to the very top events, but cheaper versions are likely soon to be available.
Bouts are first to 5 hits in the early part of individual competitions, where a poule of fencers all fight each other.

This becomes 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 or be leading if time runs out. 

Let’s look at each weapon and its rules in turn…………


Foil derives from the duelling weapon, the rapier, or more specifically the short sword. Modern fencing started in the XVIth century with blunted short swords.

Then, in the XVIIth Century, the foil appeared – specifically as a sporting weapon. The lack of masks in the early days accounts for some of the foil rules mentioned below. These were intended to slow the actions for safety and encourage accuracy whilst keeping the weapon away from the face. Contrary to a still perpetuated rumour, it was not developed as a training weapon for Epée.

Target area :

 Trunk of the body, including the back,which has increasing become a realistic target with modern techniques. This is covered with a lamé (electrically conductive) jacket.  

Method :

Hit with the point only.

Rules :

Attacker has ‘Right of Way’ – i.e. if the attacker hits without the defender avoiding or clearing the point with a parry or beat, e.g. if the opponent simply counter-attacks, he scores. Once an action is parried, the right of way changes over. Hits off the target area do not count but stop any hit that follows from either fencer from scoring.


Epée too, derives from the duelling weapon, the rapier or more specifically the duelling sword of the XIXth century. It was only introduced as a sporting weapon in the XIXth century, as an attempt to return to the traditions of the duel with the real weapons. Thus, It is a heavier weapon than the foil.

Target area: 

The whole of the body. There is therefore no need for a lamé (electrically conductive) jacket like the other weapons. However, in practice, because of the danger of being picked off by one’s opponent, most épéists spend most of their time aiming for the wrist – normally the nearest point!

Method :

Hit with the point only.

Rules :​

No ‘Right of Way’ – other than being first to hit. If the scoring apparatus detects both fencers hitting within 1/25th of a second they are deemed to be simultaneous and both fencers score.


Sabre derives from the cavalry weapon – in particular the Hungarian version. It is mainly a cutting weapon, although the point can be, and is, used to score. The reason for the upper body target is unclear, perhaps being the whim of an influential Italian fencing professor at the turn of the last century.

Target area :

 All of the body above the waist, which is covered with a lamé jacket, except hands (for technical reasons) but including the head, so the mask is also conductive.  

Method :

A cutting weapon – i.e. hit with any part of the blade (Cut or point hits – but mainly cuts).

Rules :

Attacker has ‘Right of Way’ – i.e. if the attacker hits, without the defender avoiding the attack or clearing it with a parry or beat, he scores if the opponent simply counter-attacks. Once an action is parried, the right of way changes over. However, counter-attacks are more likely to be “in time” than at foil because the attacker might need an extra step to hit to body whilst himself being hit on the arm. Hits off the target area count as not landing at all.