A Brief History of Fencing

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The history of fencing parallels the evolution of civilization, back from the days of ancient Egypt and Rome, to the barbaric Dark Ages, to the fast and elegant Renaissance, up to the modern, increasingly popular fencing of today. Fencing has always been regarded as more than a sport; it is an art form, an ancient symbol of power and glory, and a deeply personal, individual form of expression. Fencing is and always has been an intrinsic part of life, from the dueling and battle of yore to the widely captivating movies and facets of popular culture such as Zorro and The Princess Bride. Fencing originated as the practice of swordsmanship to prepare men for duels and warfare. The earliest evidence of fencing as a sport comes from a carving in Egypt, dating back to about 1200 B.C., which shows a sport fencing bout with masks, protective weapon tips, and judges , and the ancient Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, and Romans all had some form of fencing. The Greek and Roman civilizations favored short swords and light spears, and taught their warriors in schools called ludi. The collapse of the Roman civilization at around 476 A.D., however, brought the crude, heavy weapons of the barbarian invaders and signaled a regression of fencing through the dark ages. It was not until the beginnings of the Renaissance in the 14th century that light, fast weapons such as the rapier came back into use, primarily because gunpowder rendered heavy armor obsolete.

The use of armor during the Middle Ages made swordsmanship virtually obsolete. The broadsword was used against armor, but only as a crude hacking device requiring sheer strength rather than skill. The swords of that period were rather heavy, and cutting the opponent with the edge was emphasized. Further, since the sword was frequently a weapon of defense against thieves, tactics included wrestling holds and tricks designed to disarm or immobilize the opponent to set him up for the killing blow.

By making armor obsolete, the development of firearms ironically brought swordplay back into prominence during the 15th century. Soldiers once again had to acquire some skill with the sword, and fencing also emerged as a pastime for gentlemen. Fencing Masters organized guilds, which taught various moves to initiates while protecting them as trade secrets from outsiders.

The fifteenth century brought the beginnings of modern fencing. Spain had the first true fencers, and the first two fencing manuals were published there in 1471 and 1474, but swordplay guilds such as the Marxbruder from Germany began springing up all across Europe. About 1500 the Italians began extensive use of the Rapier. The right hand held te weapon while the left hand held a dagger (often called a Main Gauche) or buckler (a small shield), used for parrying blows. Italian Fencing Masters, such as Agrippa, who invented the four fencing positions (prime, seconde, tierce, and quarte), and masters Grassi and Vigiani, who defined the lunge which was first illustrated by Capo Ferro, became very prolific in this time. The 16th century also brought a large increase in the popularity of dueling. More noblemen at during this period were killed in dueling than in war.

The Queen Catherine de Médici of France had many Italian Fencing Masters come to France and develop fencing there. She was so successful that in 1567, her son, King Charles IX, officially recognized the French Fencing Academy, and awarded many hereditary titles to the new French fencing masters. These new masters were the first to classify and define fencing attacks and parries. In 1573 Henry de St. Didier was the first french fencing master to publish a treatise, and one of the first to advocate heavy use of the Épeé instead of the Rapier.

During the 17th century several major changes occurred in fencing. The "fleuret", or foil, was developed in France as a lighter training weapon for dueling. Right-of-way, a set of rules which made the game a series of alternating attacks and defense, became generally accepted. With right-of-way, duelists were unlikely to impale each other, as they did not both attack at the same time. This made fencing safer and reduced the number of casualties to dueling.

Fencing as an exercise based on speed and skill began when the longer, lighter rapier was developed in Italy during the 16th century. Because of the rapier's length, opponents had to fight at a distance and quick but controlled lunges, attacking the enemy with the point of the sword, replaced cruder hacking techniques. But the rapier wasn't a good defensive weapon, so the fencer often had to use his gauntleted left hand to parry his opponent's thrusts.

Under Louis XIV in France, a change in fashion led to a new kind of sword. The rapier simply didn't go well with brocaded jackets, breeches, and silk stockings, so French courtiers began wearing a shorter sword. The court sword, as it was known, turned out to be an excellent weapon for fencing because it was both lighter and stronger than the rapier, so it could be used for defense as well as offense. As a result, the modern one-handed fencing technique developed, with the left hand and arm used primarily for balance.

A special version of the court sword, the foil, was developed for practice. Meanwhile, another type of sword, the colichemarde , had been created for dueling. The blade had a triangular cross-section, with slightly concave sides to reduce weight without reducing strength. The colichemarde evolved into the small sword and that into the modern epee.

The third of the fencing weapons, the saber, was introduced into Europe in the late 18th century as an adaptation of the Turkish scimitar, used by the Hungarian cavalry. It was so effective that other armies began using it and another variation, the cutlass, became a standard naval weapon.

The saber was originally a very heavy, curved sword, but a lighter, more easily wielded weapon with only a slight bend was developed in Italy late in the 19th century for dueling and fencing. The modern fencing weapon is straight, like the foil and epee, but it still has one cutting edge which can be used to make hits on an opponent.

In the 18th century the heavier weapon called the Épeé became the popular weapon for dueling. The sabre, a weapon descended from the Oriental scimitar, became the national weapon of Hungary, and while the Italians helped develop the sport immensely, the Hungarians stayed the true masters of the sabre.

1780 brought an extremely important development to fencing. The French Fencing Master La Boessiere invented the fencing mask, allowing a much safer bout. This sparked a lot of development in non-fatal technique and strategy.

Fencing first came to America in the 1860’s-1870’s via immigrant French and Italian fencing masters, and the first American fencing school was founded in 1874. Fencing in America There was fencing in the American Colonies, most notably in Virginia, where plantation owners carried on the genteel traditions of England. As part of its French heritage, New Orleans had a number of fencing masters at the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. But modern fencing was brought to the United States by the German Turners in the late 1840s. While the Turners emphasized physical training through gymnastics, fencing was also part of their regimen. After the Civil War, many colleges and athletic clubs adopted fencing along with the rest of the Turner gymnastics program. [Thomas F. Bodwell did a series of fencing sketches for the Boston Herald in 1888.]

As a result, the U. S. had the first national governing body for the sport. The Amateur Athletic Union initiated national championships in 1888. However, many fencers weren't happy with the AAU, so they formed the Amateur Fencers League of America (now the U. S. Fencing Association) in 1891. The AFLA began conducting the national championships the following year. By this time fencing less resembled its violent roots and was now considered a non-harmful sport. Two other national governing bodies were founded shortly after the turn of the century: Great Britain's Amateur Fencing Association in 1902 and France's Fédération des Salles des Armes et Sociétés d'Escrime in 1906.

Dueling never completely died out until after the end of World War I, but the majority of fencers were not warriors.

Men’s Sabre and foil competitions were present in the first modern Olympic games in 1896, and Men’s Épeé joined in 1900. Women’s foil joined the Olympics in 1924, but it was not until 1996 that Women’s Épeé joined.

At the beginning of the 20th century French, Italians, and Hungarians were the masters of the sport, and thus it is not a surprise that the International Fencing Federation (FIE) was founded in France. The French, Italians and Hungarians maintained their grip on the sport until the 1950’s, when eastern European countries such as the Soviet Union and Romania came to the fore. Their style emphasized speed and mobility, relying on touches that before would have gone undetected, but now were seen with the recently invented electric scoring machines.

Today cultural intermingling and competition has eliminated the national fencing styles; there are no longer French or Hungarian fencing techniques. Instead, the sport has become more reliant on individual technique. Fencing history is still being made today.


Fencing is one of only four sports that have been on every modern Olympic program since 1896. The men's foil and saber events were on the 1896 program and the epee was added in 1900. But, because of major disagreements about the rules, France and Italy refused to compete in 1912. The Fédération Internationale d'Escrime, founded in 1913 to standardize rules, is the governing body for international fencing, including the Olympics.

The women's foil competition has been on the Olympic program since 1924. For many years, women fenced only with foils, but the epee was added to the Olympic program in 1996.

There are different sets of rules for the three weapons, reflecting the differences in technique that grew out of their historical background. In foils and epee, a touch can be made only with the point of the weapon. The entire body is a valid target for the epee, but in foils a touch can be scored only on a limited target area. In saber fencing, a hit may be made with the point, the cutting edge, or the forward third of the back edge.

Fencing is a difficult sport to judge, since it's necessary to determine, first, whether a hit was made and, second, which came first when the two fencers score hits almost simultaneously. The electrical epee was introduced at the 1936 to score hits automatically. Electrical scoring for the foil was added at the 1956 Olympics and for the saber at the 1992 Olympics.