We all know that fencing is a cool sport, but how up to date are you on the outlying, and honestly super weird facts of fencing?
To help you expand your horizons in fencing, we’ve put together forty-two fascinating and (sometimes) obscure facts about fencing.
- Fencing is one of the five sports that have been featured in every modern Olympic Games since their inception in 1896. The other four were Track and Field, Gymnastics, Swimming, and Cycling.
- The term “en garde” in fencing comes from the French phrase meaning “on guard” or “ready.” (that’s an easy one!)
- The weapon used in foil competitions weighs approximately 500 grams. In epee, it’s 770, and the sabre is 500 gram. The weight used to check the minimal pressure needed to be applied to the epee to score a touch is 750 grams, foil is 500, and there is no weight in sabre as the sabre is not a poking weapon.
- Fencing’s roots date back to ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Rome. The earliest evidence we have of fencing comes from the reign of Rameses III in 1190 BCE. Illustrations from the Temple Madinat Habu show people wearing masks and competing in the earliest bouts.
- Fencing was one of the first sports to introduce electronic scoring equipment, which replaced the traditional scoring system. That’s before the first telegraph was sent! French magician Robert Houdin (yes, Houdini named himself after this guy), made the first attempt at an electronic scoring system with a metallic jacket and a metal pointed sword. He’d later give the patent to fencing master Augustin Cabin, who would later patent it and promote it. Electronic scoring came into the Olympics in 1934.
- The target area in foil fencing is limited to the torso, including the back, while the arms, head, and legs are considered off-target. Saber is everything above the waist and the legs are off-limits. Epee is the only fencing discipline where the entire body is a valid target, including the arms and legs.
- Though fencing schools in Europe were focused on actual combat through the 19th Century, sport fencing goes back 1500 years. The first recorded competitive sport fencing match took place in the 6th Century in the Byzantine Empire. Fencing manuals from Europe date back to roughly this same time period, with various competing first manuals of fencing going back to the 14th and 13th centuries in Italy and France. Most early fencing manuals included other combat types, like knife fighting and wrestling. Fencing schools in Europe devoted to sport wouldn’t come until later.
- The concept of right-of-way, which determines who scores a point in foil and saber, was introduced in the 18th century to add structure to fencing bouts. Right of way basically means that the point doesn’t count unless you clearly meant to get it. While it sounds simple, right-of-way is actually quite challenging concept to understand. I wrote a whole series of posts explaining this concept.
- Only men participated in fencing in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Actually, only men participated in all the sports in the 1896 Games. Women began participating in 1900 in equestrianism, golf, croquet, sailing, and tennis. Women’s fencing was added to the Olympics in 1924. Fencing was still one of the first sports to introduce women’s competitions at the Olympic level, though it would be 80 years later that women were included in all Olympic fencing when women’s saber was added in 2004. Fencing was one of the first to include women, but also one of the last to be completely gender inclusive. Women’s boxing wasn’t added till 2012, which is when all sports were offered for both men and women.
- Fencing bouts take place on a strip called a “piste,” which is 14 meters long and 1.5 meters wide. The piste can be made of rubber, aluminum, or metal. They’re regulated by both the governing body of each country and FIE.
- Fencing gloves are specially designed to protect the hand while allowing the fencer to maintain a firm grip on the weapon. Just any glove won’t do!
- Fencing terminology is predominantly in French, reflecting the sport’s historical origins and its strong tradition in France, but people yell in every possible language. Sometimes people even yell during matches in made up words that don’t make sense in any language. Most fencing terminology is in French because so much of fencing started in France. Though it’s spread around the world, fencing’s language stays the same no matter who is competing. This is part of the reason fencers can compete against one another even if they don’t share the same language – the ref is still calling it in mostly the French fencing terminology speak!
- Fencing is not just an Olympic sport but also has a rich history of international competitions, including World Championships, World Cups, and regional championships. Though we’re all most familiar with the Olympics, the other large international competitions are still highly prestigious. International fencing competition is fierce and governed by the FIE. It’s a completely different level from domestic fencing in the United States, and many fencers who compete at the international level from the U.S. are also competing for the NCAA, the college athletic organization. How fencing works on the international level is complicated and every country does things differently – so differently that I wrote and entire book about it.
- The first Fencing World Championships took place in 1921 in Paris, France. The World Championships aren’t held in Olympic years now, but when the Olympics didn’t have all events included, the World Championships would hold just those events. Prior to 2020, after women’s epee and sabre was included in the Olympics, fencing team events were on a rotating schedule, so there was always some team event that didn’t have a top level international competition at the Olympics. Now that all events are held in each Olympiad, the World Championships doesn’t have to hold extra events.
- Fencing has a long-standing tradition of saluting opponents before and after a match as a sign of respect. Handshakes used to be the norm, but the pandemic pushed everyone to bump elbows, tap blades or just salute from a distance. Now handshake returned to be a norm.
- The distance between fencers at the beginning of a bout is called “en garde distance.” In the beginning of the bout or after every scored point, strips have lines to show where the opponents should stand, but when there aren’t lines (for example, if a bout was halted), fencers stand far enough apart that their weapons can’t touch when each person’s weapon is extended.
- Fencing blades are made of steel and can bend significantly without breaking. The art of picking a good blade is really an artform, something that experienced fencers and coaches can be very particular about. A stack of ten blades made in the same factory at the same time will each have a slightly different “feel”, and you might prefer something slightly more bendy, slightly stiffer, and have a different balance. While for most beginner fencers this difference is too subtle to notice, highly competitive fencers will spend a lot of time choosing ‘their’ blade.
- The grip of a weapon can be coated or covered in various things to enhance grip and prevent slipping. It can be coated in a special liquid rubber that will enhance the grip, or it can be wrapped in leather to enhance the grip. All of this, including which of the many kinds of grip a fencer uses, is very much up to personal preference.
- The sport of modern pentathlon includes epee fencing as one of its five disciplines. Competitors must go through two rounds. In the first pool rounds, the fencer who scores the first hit in under sixty seconds wins, and they both lose if no one scores. The second round consists of 45 second direct elimination rounds that are seeded by the previous pool round. Athletes then go on to a 200 meter freestyle swim, a show jumping 12 obstacle course on a horse, and a combined running and shooting event. There’s a point system to add all of this up, and it’s all now done in a single day. Sounds pretty exhausting but fun!
- Fencing uniforms are designed to be form-fitting to minimize the risk of opponents’ weapons getting caught. No one wants that epee to be stuck.
- Fencing was included in the first Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960 and has been a part of the Paralympic program ever since. Also previously known as wheelchair fencing, the combatants’ wheelchairs are stuck to the floor, but they can pivot back and forth as they score points. USA Fencing governs wheelchair fencing in the UA, and you’ll see it at different national events.
- Fencing weapons undergo regular inspections at the beginning of every bout to meet their specifications. You wouldn’t be allowed to fence with a weapon that a referee disqualified during this check and will be punished with a card. This is why fencers come to competition with more than one weapon – you never know when one won’t pass inspection or when it might break during competition.
- The first fencing club in the United States, the New York Fencers Club, was established in 1883, and was also the first fencing club in the Western Hemisphere. It had 200 members by 1892, and by 1914 fully one third of the fencers in this Manhattan club were women. It’s home to the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a non-profit formed by Fencers Club alum Westbrook to provide fencing opportunities to underserved populations in NYC that’s become a model for expanding fencing to communities who are normally outside the sport.
- Many fencing masks have removable padding to allow for easy cleaning and maintenance. Don’t attempt to remove the padding if it’s not removable, but definitely take it off to clean your mask if it is. DO clean your mask either way. Here are some ideas on how.
- The sport of modern Olympic fencing is often referred to as “sport fencing” to distinguish it from historical or theatrical forms. It also distinguishes us from the kind of fencing that will keep your dog from running away.
- “Flynning” is exaggerated or theatrical swordplay, typically seen in movies, television shows, or stage performances. It refers to highly choreographed and acrobatic sword-fighting sequences that prioritize visual spectacle over realistic combat. Flynning often involves intricate sword movements, flashy spins, elaborate footwork, and dramatic flourishes. It’s derived from Errol Flynn, an Australian actor known for his roles in swashbuckling adventure films like “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938). While flynning can be visually impressive and entertaining, it’s nothing like the real thing.
- Fencing was once used as a form of physical therapy for patients with mental illness primarily in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has been used more recently, though, as it was part of a program at The University of Michigan Medical Center to help pre-teen and teen boys.
- The longest recorded fencing match took place in 2016 and lasted for 11 hours and 40 minutes. It occurred in Serbia, where 188 fencers took turns stepping into a bout that went on for almost a half day. Everyone from fencing coaches to the general public participated, and the event even drew Olympic Silver Medalist Claudia Bekel as well as several officials within the IOC. People who didn’t even know what epee was and had never seen it in person before stepped in and took part. It was wild and weird.
- The longest competitive match took place in 1897 at the Paris International Epee Tournament and was 2.5 hours long. This was a time before there were time limits on the matches, and the bouts were one hit long. There were obviously lots of really short bouts during this time, but someone usually got someone else in a reasonable time limit – not this time! They bouted for five minutes long followed by a two minute break, then went another five minutes and kept going until someone scored. In this instance, the match between two Frenchmen went for an hour and a half, then they took a lunch break, then came back to fencing for a total of two and a half hours including the breaks.
- In 1956, the Australian Olympic fencing team wore their competition uniforms during the Opening Ceremony to save money on additional outfits. In America, we always seem to have the cash for fancy opening and closing ceremony outfits. Team USA will take nothing less than Ralph Lauren.
- Mensur or academic fencing was once popular in countries like Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Latvia, Estonia, and other nearby countries from the 15th Century through World War II. It has a bizarre and sorted history, but it consisted of two young men in student organizations (think fraternities) who battled with sharp epees. They stood just far enough apart for their swords to clash but didn’t move during the bouts, wearing various levels of protection. Medical personnel were present, but scars (called smites) were often a proud outcome of the matches, even though there were no clear winners. The point of the matches was to build character, not to win. There are references to these fencing duels in everything from James Bond to the writings of Mark Twain to the science fiction classic Starship Troopers.
- In the 1977 United States Court of Appeals case ruling on S.E.C. v. Bausch Lomb Inc., Judge Irving Kaufman compared “an encounter with a financial analyst to a fencing match conducted on a tightrope; he is compelled to parry often incisive questioning while teetering on the fine line between data properly conveyed and material inside information that may not be revealed without simultaneously disclosing it to the public.” That doesn’t sound pleasant at all. The concept of “fencing on a tightrope” is apparently a thing in the legal world thanks to Judge Kaufman.
- The world’s largest fencing lesson was conducted in 2017 in the United Kingdom, with three hundred people thanks to the Premier Education Group and British Fencing. The goal was to promote National Fitness Day.
- The FIE once considered adding “lightsaber” fencing as a demonstration sport, inspired by the Star Wars franchise, but the proposal was not accepted. However it’s not over yet – in 2019, the French Fencing Federation officially recognized the sport. May the force be with them.
- In Hungary, fencing is hugely popular – think soccer in the United States. Italy and France are also centers of fencing where it’s very popular among kids. However there are reports of fencing clubs in China with as many as 6,000 members, though these are unconfirmed as there is no reliable data about fencing training in China (or at least I didn’t find one.)
- Renowned British photographer Cecil Beaton took a series of portraits of Salvador Dali and his wife Gala Dali in 1936 with fencing gear. Dali also famously wore a fencing mask on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1961.
- If you’ve ever been curious about what fencing would look like underwater, check out The Royal Arts Fencing Academy’s short film. Perhaps this is the next wave in Olympic sports?
- The record for the most generations of the same family winning a Fencing Olympic medal is three. This remarkable feat was accomplished by two different families.The first family consists of Aladár Gerevich, Erna Bogen-Bogáti, and Pál Gerevich, all hailing from Hungary. Their remarkable achievement spanned from 1932 to 1980.Equally impressive is the second family, comprising Aldo Montano, Mario Aldo Montano, and Aldo Montano, all representing Italy. They achieved the same record between 1936 and 2020. Collectively, these two families have amassed an incredible total of 23 Olympic medals in the sport of fencing.
- Before the advent of electronic scoring equipment, it took five people to officiate a match. The president of the jury relied on the assistance of four judges in fencing matches. Positioned behind each fencer, with two on each side of the strip, these judges closely observed the actions of the opposing fencer to determine if they were hit. This particular system is commonly referred to as “dry” fencing in the USA or “steam” fencing in the United Kingdom and Australia. Whenever a judge believed they witnessed a hit, they would raise their hand. Subsequently, the president of the jury, who acted as the referee or director, would pause the bout and review the relevant sequences of the action. At each stage of the review, the president would consult the judges to ascertain if a touch occurred and, in the case of foil and sabre, whether the touch was valid or invalid. The judges would respond with “Yes,” “Yes, but off-target” (in foil and sabre), “No,” or “Abstain.” Each judge held one vote, while the president had one and a half votes. As a result, if two judges were in disagreement with the president, they could overrule their decision. However, if the judges were divided or if one judge abstained, the president’s opinion would prevail. Many sabre coaches still remember these glory days.
- In 2016, a Guinness World Record was set for the most fencers in a single match, with 63 participants competing simultaneously at the Leicester Fencing Club in Leicester, UK. The goal was to promote fencing ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympics and to dispel the myth that fencing is an elitist sport.
- In the early days of fencing, duels were fought with real weapons, and bloodstains would be highly visible on white clothing. Therefore, to ensure fair judgment of hits and avoid disputes caused by obscured or concealed marks, fencers began wearing all white attire. This practice continued into modern sport fencing, even though the use of real weapons has been replaced by electronic scoring equipment.
- Fencing has its own unique soundscape, with the clash of blades, the buzzing of scoring machines, and the shouts of fencers and coaches. When you’re in a fencing competition in a big hall, it’s like a symphony of music to a fencer’s ears! To some people it might just sound like noise, but to us it’s something really fantastic and extraordinary.
Fencing is strange and wonderful
Our sport has a sorted and sometimes strange history, but one of the reasons that it’s great is because there’s so much history here. Fencing is baked into Western culture, and we’ve got the cultural capital to prove it.
Which of these fascinating tidbits was your favorite? How many of these facts did you know already?