Art of Fencing, Art of Life

A Dummy’s Guide to Right of Way or Priority in Fencing

A Dummy’s Guide to Right of Way or Priority in Fencing

One of the most difficult concepts in all of fencing is the concept of right of way.

This concept and the understanding of it are key to making sense of fencing, no matter if you are a fencer, a coach, a parent, a referee, or a fan. This post is long. It’s long enough that we’ve broken it up into sections to help make it easier to follow. This is a mega post, so get comfortable, or better yet –  bookmark this post so you can come back to it!

First, we’ll break down a new way of seeing priority. Then we’ll go through a dozen detailed examples to go even further and let you really get a deep understanding of what it’s all about. Coming at the concept from different angles is so important!

During a match, one that’s going quick as lightning already, it’s almost impossible to understand for non-fencers why the touch was not awarded. Even more difficult to understand is why the decision not to award the touch was the right one. 

Before we go any further – priority and right of way are the same. They’re synonyms, and you’ll see them used as synonyms here and in the real world of fencing. You have “right of way” or you get priority. Same thing. 

For a lot of people, the whole thing is so confusing, so unclear. This goes especially for newbies in fencing and for parents. It’s not just parents and fencing fans who don’t get it, epee fencers often don’t understand right of way if they didn’t start out with foil before they take on epee! Though they may have a cursory understanding of the concept, they usually don’t really get it. They might have an idea that they know that one action precedes the other, and obviously they can see parries and riposts, but often they cannot decipher complex foil or saber phrases. 

The thing is, learning right of way is something that you have to do intentionally. You’re not just going to pick it up by kind of half looking at foil and saber matches. The best way to really learn right of way is to fence it, but naturally that’s not really possible for parents or epee fencers or fans of the sport. That’s why we’re sharing with you a detailed understanding of right of way in fencing, and hopefully by the end of this article you’ll get that wonderful “click” in your brain that we all want to have!

Here, I’m going to break it down in a simple way that makes sense for non-fencers. The most important point is that this post is not explaining the rules or redefining the rules. It is laying out a different way to understand who has gotten priority and thus who wins the point in foil or sabre.

The conventions of right of way have stayed more or less the same through the last century. What’s changed is the commonly used interpretations by fencing referees, pioneered first at the FIE level and then propagated down to the FIE-member countries and their domestic tournaments. Also, the explanation and examples will not cover the whole spectrum of fencing, but it will give you an ability to understand at least 80% of what happened and why a specific call was made. You definitely will not be able to understand the other 20%. Heck, there are calls that even experienced referees argue about! But, guess what? You will be able to understand and comprehend what they are arguing about these calls! Isn’t this cool?

This post is long, complicated, and it took me a few months to write and rewrite it. (Well, the pandemic did hit in the middle!)  I suggest you read the first two parts till the end, preferably in the same sitting, and if you do I can guarantee you will acquire some deeper understanding of the concept. Enough that you will be able to see the phrase on Youtube matches and decipher it quite accurately, particularly if you have some training. 

Part 1 – Understanding Priority

For foil or sabre fences, referees and coaches, this is the kind of language that we speak. It’s not a language like other languages though, not like learning English or Chinese or Russian. It’s not even a language like math or the language of science.  We almost never learn through the language of theory, through talking about it. It’s not practical, and it’s not easy. 

Right of way is mostly learned through a step-by-step, kinesthetic process. Kinesthetic learning is learning through the body. For most of us, it is a way to hardwire our understanding. In fencing, it has everything to do with the doing. The body learns it, not the mind so much. 

I would tend to say that it’s very much how babies learn grammar and language from us. It’s not that mom and dad sit down with a grammar book and go through how to structure a sentence with a twelve month old child. You don’t explain to your baby very complex grammar rules. You talk to them in very simple language, and initially it’s all very concrete. 

The same with foil and saber fencing. A beginner fencer starts with very simple phrases, very simple concepts, then as they progress to a more complex understanding they continue to build on that foundation. At some point, you are able to say “I speak this language fluently,” but true mastery comes with years and years of time. There is always some new phrase or word to learn even then – there is no such thing as knowing everything there is to know. It’s evolving all of the time. The same thing happens with right of way learning – it’s an evolving thing. 

No matter how fluent you are in fencing and the rules, there is always a fluidity and an interpretation to learn. Of course, right of way is not as complex as language, but it’s a good way to look at it.

Why simple priority rules are so difficult to grasp

Here are my 3 major reasons why right of way is such a complex concept. 

Reason #1 – Focus on a clean action

The rules focus on a clean action, which is the final one. 

The problem with that is that it is easy to understand this idea in a fencing demo when two partners do the action in relatively slow motion, but once we transpose it to a real fencing bout it tends to look totally different. The exact same actions look totally different! The reason for that? Everything changes – the speed of movement, the distance between opponents, the viewing angle (sometimes totally blocking the view), the cleaness of the action (a nice and clear parry in a demo versus just a slight touch on a blade in a bout), and of course the timing of actions. In a demo, an attacker visibly starts first and a defender visibly delays his or her response.

Reason #2 – Focus on discrete action

Even more than that – it is almost never a single discrete action. A real fencing bout consists of hundreds of actions. These actions can change very fast from one to another without scoring. They change from offence to defence  and back, sometimes simultaneously. There might be multiple actions that precede the final touch. For the “uninitiated” observer, all these actions look like a cacophony of clashing metal. Many have a difficult time really separating the dozens of actions that happen in a few seconds. 

Reason #3 – Difficult language

Another problem with official fencing rules is that they are written in a bit of a complicated way. When I read them, I feel like I am reading a kind of ‘archaic’ manual. It takes me more than my usual amount of focus to go through the rules. In some cases, I think that I understand the text because I know the rule, and not I understand the rule because I understand the text… 

Yes, the truth is that it is a complicated concept and describing the rules in a fully comprehensive way that covers 100% of all possible situations is challenging, to say the least. But that makes reading them difficult for non-fencers, and definitely makes the sport even more challenging for non-fencers who decided to watch it during big event broadcasting on main TV channels, like during Olympic Games.

Clarity is the goal

This guide focuses on exactly that – trying to define the concepts of right of way based on everybody’s intuitive thinking, then providing a way to see how to separate the actions, hear the “music” in the abovementioned cacophony, and understand the priority of the touch. 

I like breaking things down into smaller parts. Big concepts become digestible. This explanation doesn’t replace rule books and it certainly does not replace your conversations with coaches, fellow fencers or referees. My only purpose is to help “uninitiated” people to get a better understanding of the right of way rules, especially in more complex situations when the priority is transferred from one fencer to another in the sequence of just a few actions that happen so fast that it is easy to miss everything. Of course, once you believe you have a good initial understanding of right of way, or priority as it is often called, reading a book of rules will be much easier and things will make sense.

Safe Harbor Statement

What you will find below is my explanation of right of way that works most of the time and for the majority of the situations.

To publish this post, knowing that fencing coaches, referees and experienced fencers will immediately jump in to criticize my definition and explanation, I did a mental exercise deliberately applying this definition to each and every technical rule in the fencing rulebook (FIE Technical Rules from December 2019, rules t.83-89). Almost all rules can be explained and viewed directly using this definition, as I show through numerous examples in part two of this post. There is one exception that I did not find a good way to describe using my method, and it is a stop-hit on a compound attack, rule t.88. 

Even if I miss some situation in either explanation and examples, and you or your coach find a hole explaining it using my definition, I want you to let me know about this situation so I will be able to re-examine it. If there is a hole indeed and my definition does not sufficiently explain this situation, then I would say that this is as with any rule – an exception.

This way of explaining the priority will teach you to look differently at foil and sabre fencing. If you understand the phrase, even if you make some misjudgements first, you will learn the principle. You may think that some rules explained by this definition are a bit too “stretchy”, and that’s exactly the goal. That means that you really learned the concept. The best way to view this post is not as an explanation or definition of the rules, but as a learning tool to be able to follow and understand the action and calls in foil and sabre, fencing weapons of right of way.

Again, to emphasize my goal here – I want to find a way to help right of way be clear to people who have no clue about fencing. If, after a slow reading through this monstrous post, you understand 80% of the actions and calls in right of way weapons, and thus start enjoying the sport more, I could not be happier. The other 20% will come with experience of watching more and more fencing matches.

A new explanation of right of way

Here is the explanation of right of way that we’re going to be working with. It’s not the explanation that you’ll find anywhere else because actually this is a SINGLE concept versus many different rules. Again, it is ABSOLUTELY different from anything you have heard from your coaches or referees. It is intentionally so, not to confuse you with the rules, but to see how you can look at the rules and the situation differently and decipher complex phrases to easy ones and thus understand them.  

One paragraph that explains the whole Right of Way concept:

“A fencer who first starts an attack gets a priority. Priority transfers from one fencer to another as they attempt to hit each other. The last certain, uninterrupted, and continuous action gets the final priority” 

That’s it! That is the only thing to remember in order to understand who got priority or right of way!

What follows below is how you can apply this single simple lense to every situation in fencing and understand the right of way. Every word has meaning. We will explain each word and its importance below.                

What do each of these parts mean?

Let’s start with a simple thing, the definition. We are going to then break it down in detail, allowing you to get as clear an understanding as possible. 

Attacks and Defences

First of all – let’s define two simple but central concepts: attack and defence, and the most important concept of the Right of Way explanation – the certain part of it. I have intentionally simplified these ideas to bring them to an intuitive level.

  • Attack – an offensive, intentional attempt to score a touch. It typically results either in a touch landed on an opponent, a touch blocked by an opponent, or a touch missed.
  • Defense – an intentional attempt to avoid being hit by the attacker.

Let’s go a bit further and introduce a new concept – a certain action and its opposite, an uncertain action. By certain action (being it offensive or defensive action), I mean an action that “guarantees” its success as intended.

Let’s explain and also exaggerate a bit. We’ll start with defense.

Certain defense is when a defender makes a certain attempt to deflect the blade by parrying or blocking it – this means the defender “knows” that the attacker’s blow is blocked. An uncertain defense is when the defender does not attempt to deflect the blade and tries to precede being hit by a faster and earlier counter attack, or by trying to avoid a touch with a body movement (e.g., ducking or twisting sidewise). They are mostly relying on luck to not be hit rather on a clear intention of avoiding the touch. 

So “certain” defence means that the defender really created a situation that, when executed correctly and fully, the defender would not be hit. So “a parry”, “a point in line” and “opponent beat the strong part of the blade” would be active defenses (last two will be examined in the examples in Part 2). Any type of counter-attack or body twisting will not be. However, if a defender did not succeed to execute the active defence correctly and fully, situations might arise such as the arm bent in “point in line”, or “parry in the same line of attack”, or “malparry”. We will get to these situations later and clearly explain them.

What composes a defense? There are three basic defense actions:

  • Parry
  • Point-in-Line
  • Counter-attack

The first 2 are very certain defences. When executed correctly, I know that I can successfully prevent an opponent’s hit.  However, the counter-attack is not a certain defence. I cannot guarantee that I will not be hit by trying to be faster or twisting my body and not actively blocking and deflecting my opponent’s blade.

Let’s repeat, defence is “certain” when I “guarantee” to avoid being hit by my defensive action, and defence is “uncertain” when I rely on luck to not be hit. 

What is a certain attack in my definition?

An attack is certain when the attacker attempts to score and the defender does not destroy it with his/her certain defence. In other words, when the opponent’s blade is not a real threat.

When is a defender’s blade a real threat?

Well, now it is easy. If my opponent executes a parry on an attack, has a fully extended arm (point-in-line) before I start to execute my attack, or successfully avoids his/her blade to be taken hold of or been beat – all this means it is a “suicidal” mission to continue because of imminent threat of the defender’s blade!

So certain defence destroys uncertain attack, while certain attack penetrates uncertain defence. 

Think about priority in the following way: in old times, when you called your opponent an enemy, didn’t have a safe fencing protective gear, were dueling with sharp and cutting weapons, you would commit to an action only when it was a certain bet. Otherwise you were risking your life.

This was “simulated” in the right of way fencing rules for foil and sabre – the last “certain” action gets priority over “uncertain” one. Otherwise you lose a point. 

Actions and Phrases

The other concept that is central here is the idea of an action or a phrase. Here we use the term “phrase” and not “fencing phrase” only for the sake of brevity. This is the concept that is most challenging to delineate, so this section is detailed!

An action is a series of fencing movements that start with the intent of the fencer to score and it does not stop until the attempt of a touch and is not interrupted by an opponent.

If a fencer attacks, the action is from the moment a fencer intends to attack till the moment when they complete an attempt to score or are stopped. The point is to attempt to score. Sometimes, when a fencer attempts to score, they miss and pull the touch. If the fencer misses, then that’s the end of the action. If the fencer completes the touch, then that’s the end of the action. If the fencer is stopped or stops by herself, then that’s the end of the action. If a fencer took a parry, the action is from the moment she took the parry till she attempted to hit in a ripost.  A phrase is a series of closely connected in time actions which starts with one fencer’s intent to score and finishes either when a touch or hit is made or missed, the action is stopped or interrupted. Some call it a conversation between the fencers or exchange of the actions from one fencer attacking and another defending.

This is essential to understand. The action is from the moment of initiation to the attempt. The moment of initiation can well be the moment of last interruption, and the initiation can be performed by both or one of the opponents.

There can be many consecutive actions or phrases. For example, the fencer may attempt to score, they may miss and try again. Let’s say it’s an attacking action, and the fencer attacks and misses. Then she realizes she missed and attempt to attack again. Those are two actions – one is the attack missed and the second that will start the moment that she realized she missed and choose to continue and score is a second action. It’s called remise and it composes one phrase – attack/no hit, remise/touch.

Another example of the phrase is when one fencer attempts to attack, beats the blade and lunges, the opponent steps back, takes a parry and lunges with the final touch. There were two actions – attack with the beat is one, and parry/riposte the second. The phrase will be attack/parry-riposte.

Phrases can be even more complicated. They can be composed of multiple actions, as long as they “belong” to the same initial intent and reaction. For example, if Fencer A attacks, Fencer B might parry and attempt to riposte, however the first fencer succeeds to recover from the failed attack and blocks the touch by counter-parry, tries to score again but misses, and the Fencer B then succeeds in scoring a touch. This is quite a complicated phrase that involves many actions, namely: attack, parry-riposte, counter-parry with no hit, and remise. Sometimes you will hear it a bit differently, and sometimes even the whole first half is omitted, and it will be explained like: counter-ripost from A – no, attack from B – touch. This phrase was initiated by Fencer A and resulted in Fencer B succeeding to score a touch. [And here we just learned another concept in fencing – remise is the renewal of the same action that failed in a previous attempt]

One of the distinguishing characteristics of a phrase is that the actions are close in time and a result of an intent from one fencer. For example, let’s say Fencer A initiates an attack, but does not score and does not get hit, and then retreats a few steps out of danger. A few seconds later there is another attempt to score by one of the fencers. These are considered two separate phrases. The first one is not interesting anymore in any regard to how the second phrase will be interpreted. These two phrases are not close in time and not a result of the same initial action intent.

Have you had that “aha!” moment yet? I hope so!

Bringing it all together

So now we understand what a certain action is . 

Two other important parts of the right of way definition are uninterrupted and continuous.

Their meaning is quite straightforward:

  • Uninterrupted means that the opponent did not succeed to perform any “certain” defensive action to interrupt the certain offensive action, and vise versa – the opponent did not succeed to perform any “certain” offensive action to interrupt the certain defensive action.
  • Continuous means that the action is immediate and seamless. For example, if I take a parry, I immediately ripost in a single continuous movement. If I attack, I don’t stop. Like in music, the notes are continuously connected and played without a pause between them.

So let’s repeat the definition:  “A fencer who first starts an attack gets a priority. Priority transfers from one fencer to another as they attempt to hit each other. The last certain, uninterrupted, and continuous action gets the final priority”  

It is easy to understand now. If two fencers hit and both lights go on, the fencer whose certain, uninterrupted and continuous action was the last one before the final hit, wins the priority.

In sabre it means this fencer will be awarded the point. In foil it means that this fencer will be awarded the point if his/her light was colored (red or green), or no point is awarded and this touch is considered off target if his/her light was white or yellow (depending on a scoring apparatus type).

It might take some slow and thorough reading to understand what all of this means! It’s a good idea to go over this information a couple of times, especially if you don’t get it at first. Think of it like your math classes back in school, when you might have to review a concept a few times before the “aha!” 

Once you have grounded yourself in the concept of right of way via this definition, it will be time for you to move on to the examples in Part 2 and eventually to the referee’s role in a follow up post. By the time you’ve gone through all three of these pieces, you should have a clear understanding of right of way. 

Part 2: Right of way examples – in detail

Let’s take a closer look at right of way through examples. This is truly the best way to get a deeper understanding and to internalize the concept. We’ve already established that fencers learn about right of way by doing it, and unfortunately that’s not an option for you if you are a parent or a novice fencer! 

There are several examples that follow, starting slowly and growing in complexity as you keep reading. Walking through examples is in the same vein as practice, the closest we can get anyway, so let’s jump in. 

Right of way example 1

  • Fencer A initiates an attack against Fencer B. Fencer B counterattacks. Both fencers light up. How does the referee determine priority?
  • Fencer A initiated the attack so he was the first to start. From the beginning of the exchange, there was a continuous action. 
  • Fencer B resorted to “uncertain” defence which did not interrupt the attack. He did not try to parry or block the attacker’s blade, instead he relied on his luck with a counter-attack. 
  • The phrase is: attack from A, counter-attack from B. A wins priority. Referee will decide on either award A the point, if colored light for A, or consider this hit attack off-target in foil, if the light of A is white, regardless of the light for B. In the rest of the examples we will skip this long description of lights, as it is always like this.

Right of way example 2

  • Fencer A attacks without any action on an opponent’s blade and before she scores, Fencer B makes a parry and now both hit. Both lights are on, whether it’s a colored light or a white light. 
  • Fencer A attacked, but unlike the first example, this time Fencer B did interrupt the continuous action with “certain” defense, which is a parry. This is a moment the new action starts, which is parry-riposte and the priority is transferred from A to B. Since there was a hit in that action, this is the last action. 
  • Fencer B gets a priority because in this case she had chosen to go for a certain defense, and her opponent did not interrupt her. The action that meets the definition of right of way is of Fencer B. 

Let’s complicate it a little bit. 

Right of way example 3

  • Let’s start with the same action as in example 2. However, this time when Fencer A felt that Fencer B took the parry, instead of continuing she took the counterparry and hit only after that. Let’s deconstruct the full phrase: Fencer A attacks, Fencer B blocks the attack by parry and tries to riposte. Fencer A parries this ripost of B and tries to counter riposte. Both opponents score. 
  • So 1st action – attack from A was interrupted by the parry of B who tries now to score in a riposte. Priority started with A, but due to certain defence from B is transferred to B.
  • However this time A is smarter and she understands that continuing the same action of touch or doing another repetitive attempt to touch would not do any good – she must be certain in her counter-defense. So she takes a counter parry (i.e., interrupts the ripost of B) and hits B with counter-ripost. 
  • So attack from A was interrupted by parry from B. Priority temporarily goes to B. However, B’s attempt to riposte is interrupted by counter-parry from A who goes for a counter-riposte and hits B. This counter-ripost gives A a priority and B did not interrupt it to claim it back. So the final certain uninterrupted continuous action is on A and she gets a final priority and wins this phrase

That’s clear right?

Let’s keep making it more complicated. If we follow the same logic, the same definition, it will be very clear. 

Right of way example 4

  • Fencer A makes an attack. Fencer B blocks that with a parry and tries to riposte but misses. Then Fencers A and B continue and both touch in the second attempt. 
  • What is the last uninterrupted action? Both lights are on, doesn’t matter colored or white. Who has the priority? 
  • The first attack of A  has the initial priority. Was he interrupted? Yes. Definitely his action was interrupted by B’s parry and thus ended and the priority was moved to B. Fencer B tried to parry, but missed in riposte. His action was completed and with the miss he lost his priority. So the priority goes back to Fencer A as for the next action. Fencer A tried to score the second time and Fencer B also tried to score and both scored at the same time. Who has the last action? 
  • The last action goes to Fencer A. Fencer B attempted to riposte and missed and he finished his action. Fencer A initiated a “new” attack by continuing to attempt to score, and in fencing we call that a remise. He continued to attack and was he interrupted? No. Instead of actively defending by parry, Fencer B had chosen to “passively” score the touch, not interrupting the renewed attack (or in professional fencing terms remise) of the Fencer A. 
  • Basically, it will be an attack of Fencer A, missed. Parry/riposte of Fencer B, missed. Remise (or attack from A), awarded. The remise and the priority of the call will go to Fencer A. Oftentimes you will hear referee explaining the phrase like following: “Attack, parry/riposte – no, remise  -touche”

Right of way example 5

  • Both fencers touch. Let’s say they both do step-lunge and they both score. Who would be awarded the point? 
  • From the perspective of the referee, both fencers started at the same time and did exactly the same action – both attacked. The referee cannot determine who made the first action (oftentimes they say they cannot separate the actions). The referee will not award the priority to either of the parties. They will not be awarded a touch. The action will be called a simultaneous attack and no point is given

How can we make it a bit more complicated?

Right of way example 6

  • Both do step forward/lunge at the exact same time. Both score. But – Fencer B twisted the body to avoid the touch. Fencer A initiated the attack. Fencer B dodged the attack by twisting their body. Did she interrupt the last action? She did not. Instead she had chosen an uncertain way to defend and relied on luck to avoid the touch. Well, bad luck – the certain attack from A will award her a priority
  • The referee sees this as attack/counterattack. Priority to A 

Right of way example 7 

  • Both opponents step forward. Fencer A does the lunge, but Fencer B is a little bit delayed. Maybe there is just a fraction of a second of delay. But enough in the eyes of the referee that the referee registers the delay. How can they do that? Well, that’s called experience and especially in sabre the referees have a very sharp eye on such beginnings.
  • The most important thing is who initiated the action. Who started when? What the referee will see is that Fencer A started and Fencer B hesitated with his action by a split second. Who has the action? Who has the priority? 
  • Fencer A’s start was clear, uninterrupted action. Fencer B didn’t start the attack, he waited a little bit. Enough for the referee to register it. And he did not interrupt the flow of the attack. The referee is able to see the attack from A and counter attack from B
  • Fencer A is awarded the priority.

Right of way example 8

  • Fencer A starts the attack. She goes forward for three seconds, then she stops, maybe because B spooked her or because she was a bit uncertain about how to score. Fencers A and B at this moment both step-lunge and score  
  • The referee sees the attack from the moment Fencer A starts to the moment she stops, and this completes the action. The stop of Fencer A might be for a split second. Enough for the referee to see her stop her attempt to attack. The first action finished. Continuous, complete, intentional action, finished in void. Priority from her is transferred to B
  • Fencer B started her attack and A renewed her attack. At this point, B has a priority in her attack. A resorted to uncertain defence, did not interrupt the B. Who gets the final priority? Fencer A starts and stops, so her action is completed, priority transferred to B. The B then starts, and even if A continues in the same direction, this is considered a new action, not a continuation of the previous attack. That means that this time after the stop, Fencer A did not interrupt B’s attack and thus priority stays with B
  • Let’s deconstruct the phrase: Fencer A attacks, stops. Fencer B attacks. Fencer A counter-attacks. Both hit, B is awarded the right of way, or “Attack from A – stop, Attack from B – touche”

Right of way example 9

  • This is an example of point in line. In the first moment, it is a bit of a weird action, but if we apply the same definition to it you will see it is not that weird at all and actually meets the criteria. Point in line is when a defending fencer fully extends the arm in a defence.The best way to think about “point in line” is like in ancient times defending with a spear. You stick it out, and if the attacker is not taking the spear out of their way completely, they will just run with their chest towards the pointy end and die! The spear is basically an active defence, even if the defending side does nothing but stays the ground with the spear out! If it remains in front of your chest the spear will pierce through you. 
  • Fencer A attacks when Fencer B stands with the arm fully extended, or point in line.
  • Fencer A does not beat or take a hold of the blade of Fencer B (i.e., leave the “spear” on the level of his chest), and both fencers score. Fencer B did a certain defense and thus gets the point. Had Fencer A beat the blade (in our medieval army analogy – took the spear out), then the last continuous uninterrupted action is on him, and so he is awarded the touch if both score.
  • Pay attention to the “continuous” part. For example, if during this scenario Fencer B retracts the arm (even a bit!) and then extends it back, the phrase changes to his counter-attack, since the moment he retracted the arm ends his first action.

Right of way example 10

There are two basic types of beat on a blade during an attack – a beat on a “weak” part of the blade, which is the last ⅔ of the blade, and a beat on a “strong” part of the blade, which is the widest part of the blade close to the guard. 

In case of a beat on the weak  part of the blade, everything that we discussed before applies as is. The beat on the strong part of the blade of the defending opponent is very similar to the “point-in-line” concept. The idea is that the reason you beat the blade is to deflect it from your line of attack. Beating on the weak part makes you deflect it. However, when you beated the strong part of the blade, the part which is close to the guard and the arm of the opponent, it is often almost impossible to deflect the blade and for that reason it is considered that you simply got caught in the opponent’s certain defense. In which case if the opponent just extends their arm and scores this considered as parrying the attack, and essentially we can apply the same rule – attack was interrupted. 

Right of Way example 11

  • Suppose Fencer A goes forward and tries to deflect or hold the blade of opponent. Usually it looks like he is doing wise circle movements with his arm or hand. Why does he do this? Well, he wants to be “certain” to execute his attack and guarantee the hit.
  • However let’s suppose that Fencer B is fast and every time he succeeds to avoid his opponent’s blade. Unsuccessful to find the blade (i.e., there was no blade contact), fencer A finishes his attack and scores and at the same time Fencer B scores as well. Whose priority is it?

I think I gave you a hint in a description of the case. Fencer A was “uncertain” in his attack, thus he was searching the blade. So he executed an “uncertain” attack. So the defense of B gets the priority. Again – you must do “certain” action that “guarantees” your success.

Right of Way example 12

  • Fencer A is attacking and Fencer B searching the blade (again, imaging circular movements of the blade). A is doing a certain attack – she clearly goes to score.
  • However in that case B is trying to defend in a certain way by finding the attacker’s blade and getting it out of a dangerous zone.
  • If she finds a blade (even a slight beat on her attacker’s blade is enough) – hooray, she certainly succeeded to defend and if both score the priority goes to her.
  • However, if she did not succeed in her attempt to find a blade, her execution of a defence was not certain. The priority will remain with A.

BTW, this last example shows why fencers often attack with raised foil – this is to prevent the defending fencer from succeeding in finding a blade. Oftentimes the defender needs to give away to some distance between him and the attacker to touch the blade and this might be very dangerous or an unsuccessful attempt to find the blade the defender might resolve to a “uncertain” defence by counter attacking, which might be dangerous too.

These are the basic things. The most important thing is to understand what the last uninterrupted action is, and that’s hard! The thing to take away from this is that it is very subjective because it relies on a referee to see and correctly interpret the action. It’s all about how the referee sees the action and whether they can differentiate it or not. That is where the “clear” part of our definition comes in. If the referee can separate the action and divide it like I just did, then the actions are clear and they will call the way we just discussed. If the referee is not able to separate them, then they will not call a point. More about this later in our next post.

Last note: The examples above are applicable to foil and sabre. However sabre has additional nuances of what is considered to be correct attack from the perspective of arm-foot timing. If you are a sabre parent or fan I would recommend doing the same exercises that I did applied to sabre while reading rules t.99-t.106 of the official rule book.

If you want to learn even more about priority and right of way, read our two companion pieces to this post – Referees and Right of Way or Priority and How to Learn Right of Way or Priority.


Keeping it Moving with Epee World Champion Max Heinzer


Referees and Right of Way/Priority


  1. R

    Most excellent! I *love* your “certain, uninterrupted, and continuous”. Eagerly anticipating your follow-ons. In the meantime, you wrote: “It’s called remise and it comp*o*ses one phrase” when I think you meant “comprises”. Also later you wrote : “it will be explained like: counter-repo*r*t from A – no” versus “counter-repost”

    • Igor Chirashnya

      Thanks as always R! I hope this post will contribute to how the sport is explained and understood and bring more fans to it.

  2. Alan Buchwald

    Dear Igor: Nice explanations of a very complex topic. In fact, we hardly realize how much more detail we can understand because we are experienced in fencing actively. And then it still can take a long time to get the nuances of directing. For example in competition, I have seen many times how some directors will totally miss the light click and sound of my parry and award the touch to the opponent inappropriately; in that case you must change your approach because you know they are not likely to pick it up the next time, so you must change your defense or simply make it one light on the box. Thanks, AB 8/13/20

    • Igor Chirashnya

      Thanks Alan for the feedback! The concept of how to adapt to the referee is one of the points of the follow on post. Stay tuned!

    • R

      You wrote “directors will totally miss the light click and sound of my parry.” We Vets have to adjust our subtle actions to accommodate younger refs’ perceptions. 😉 If your ref doesn’t see or hear your action, it didn’t happen. :-O

  3. Caline Chew

    Very helpful for a beginner like me . Many thanks

    • Igor Chirashnya

      Hi Caline, Glad you found it helpful! +1 in the guild of fencing fans 🙂

  4. Ned Reiter

    As “a gentleman of advancing years” returning to sabre after many years absence, I wish I had had such a clear explanation when I first started fencing some 55 years ago! When I fenced through school and University, there was no electronic equipment, and in addition to actual fencing, all students were expected to take turns as judges and presidents: you can imagine the confusion ( not to mention tantrums). that ensued. A clear outline such as you give here would have been very welcome. I will download some videos of competitions, replay them in slo-mo, and apply your analysis. Thank you.

    • Igor Chirashnya

      Hi Ned,
      Happy New Year and wish you good health and happiness and I am glad you return to fencing! Thanks for sharing your experience – I have seen a lot of similar cases, and continue to see every day. Hopefully this explanation will help more people to understand the right of way, at least at the level to really enjoy watching fencing.

  5. doe john

    Thank you for this very illustrative explanation. My kid is doing sabre. In a tournament a ref keep awarding all the simultaneous to his opponent. When asked ref pointed to his front foot. It seems if you are starting off the line and doing an attack, if your front foot lands before your blade makes contact with your opponent’s target area, the ref will think your attack is finished and award the priority to your opponent. is this true? My kid is used to swing his blade from lower position up and strike in the chest or arm of his opponent. This way he often lands his foot first which make him lose most of the simul. Should he change his attack to a higher target so that his lunge is higher and foot lands later? Please advise. Thanks!

    • Igor Chirashnya

      I recommend talking to your kid’s coach and analyzing how he does an attack and how his foot/arm are moving. Based on your description the ref considers the attack to be finished indeed without your child making a touch and so his consecutive touch is considered as a counter-attack. But the most important is to really talk to the coach and see what’s really wrong and why and then make changes to fix the mistake.

  6. JM

    Congrats for making someone quite simple so complicated.

    What makes priority a challenge, as I see it in other fencers, is not how to do it, it is how it’s refed. The vast majority of refs find it hard to read the fencing phrase because no one teaches them and they don’t spend time reading and understanding the quite simple albeit not totally straightforward fie sabre rules.

    But if one thinks of sabre fencing compared to épée as you do figure skating vs hockey, then it’s much simpler and easier. In essence you fence 2 people in sabre: your opponent and the ref.

    The solution: read the fie regulations in depth. Watch videos in slow motion. Drill each fie regulations at different speeds. And stop worrying about the ref and priority.

    Most importantly your opponent faces this challenge just as you do. So make it their problem as you fence clean and tactical. And as it makes them hesitant and come short, capitalize on being relaxed and seek single hits. Then always contest hits judged against you. No matter what

    Et voilà. Hahaha. I love priority you see. Because it so messes with peoples’ heads it gives me at least a 2 to 3 point advantage. Me I never worry about priority.

  7. JM

    Congrats for making someone quite simple so complicated. 😉

    What makes priority a challenge, as I see it in other fencers, is not how to do it, it is how it’s refed. The vast majority of refs find it hard to read the fencing phrase because no one teaches them and they don’t spend time reading and understanding the quite simple albeit not totally straightforward fie sabre rules.

    But if one thinks of sabre fencing compared to épée as you do figure skating vs hockey, then it’s much simpler and easier. In essence you fence 2 people in sabre: your opponent and the ref.

    The solution: read the fie regulations in depth. Watch videos in slow motion. Drill each fie regulations at different speeds. And stop worrying about the ref and priority.

    More importantly your opponent faces this challenge just as you do. So make it their problem as you fence clean and tactical. And as it makes them hesitant and come short, capitalize on being relaxed and seek single hits. Then always contest hits judged against you. No matter what

    Et voilà. Hahaha. I love priority you see. Because it so messes with peoples’ heads it gives me at least a 2 to 3 point advantage. Me I never worry about priority.

    Tx for the opportunity to comment.

    • R

      You wrote “always contest hits judged against you”. You can not appeal a judgement of fact. In the least, your ref will view you unfavorably. Continuously can lead to a Group 1 Yellow Card for “Unjustified Appeal” or “Delay of Bout.” If you had a Yellow Card, such contention will penalize you a touch.

      • JM

        You’re right. By contest I mean ask for video replay. That being said, I suggest communication should be done strictly through simple hand gestures: that’s the referee’s language. Specifically, you would indicate your opponent didn’t extend their arm properly, or executed a riposte or a counter out of time. No words: fencing sign language only. Otherwise, absolutely, you wouldn’t want to argue with referees.

        Contesting, properly that is, won’t only earn you a couple of points: it will sway the way the referee judges the bout, and earn you more points. You will facilitate the referee’s job of reading the fencing phrase.

        And obviously my comments were intended tongue-in-cheek. In my opinion, your article is one of the best on the subject.

        There is something that does make sabre fencing complicated indeed: it’s the fencing phrase. As I see it, once you get the fencing phrase, priority takes care of itself. And after all, reading the fencing phrase is, as per the FIE regulations, the mandate of the referee. What makes it difficult is that it’s a French thing. Bearing in mind that French is to fencing what Japanese is to judo. For example, a fente is not a lunge: a lunge unbalances you forward, whereas a fente, which means a split, keeps you balanced for both forward and backward follow up. And that affects fencing time. And in turn, priority.

        I want to thank you for posting my comment in the first place. The humour was not intended to be critical, and I can see you get it. Thank you.

        • JM

          First of all thank you so much, Igor, for making me think. And I mean really think.

          And what I’m thinking is that in the entirety of the FIE Saber regulations from t101 to t106, there is one word that never appears: the word “Priority”.

          So, and if you really deeply read those regulations, there is no such thing as priority. Strictly Validity of Hits within the Fencing Phrase.

          How’s that for a kick in the pants!

          Thanks Igor.

          • Igor Chirashnya

            No wonder Sabre got so many scandalous exposures recently 🙂

    • JMB

      I just had a long discussion on “Simple”. Here goes:

      There are only three ways to score a hit: Attack, Counterattack, Riposte. You aim for one light. In case of two lights:

      To be valid the Attack must be executed with a straightening of the Arm that touches “in time” that your Opponent did not parry.

      To be valid the Counterattack must stop hit a Compound attack “in time.” Which means it must hit in the Step Attack. And which means a Counterattack hit into a Lunge is not valid.

      And to be valid the Riposte must follow your Parry “in time.”

      And your Attack is not valid on a Straight Arm with a Blade pointed at you if you don’t first attack the Blade.

      To determine “Time”:

      Your Front Foot starts it when it leaves the ground but your Arm must initiate it, and the Front Foot again ends it when it meets the ground and the Arm must have touched by then.

      The Front Foot meeting the ground at the end of the Step in the Step-Lunge is what determines the Compound Time.

      On top of that you build your Bladework in between Front Footbeats: Attacks, Blade Attacks, Guards, Parries.

      I’d say that’s pretty much it, with a few nuances. Interesting thing is, if you play with sharps, then that’s especially very much the playbook you want for yourself.

      And to make it really simple …. don’t think “Priority. ” But that’s just me.

      • JMB

        Finally, I think I know why I have such an issue with even thinking of Priority.

        Priority is not a Fencing Action.

        There are only Four Fencing Actions: Attack, Counterattack, Defense and Preparation.

        Most people typically do a Fifth one: they do Nothing. That’s when you Attack them.

        So in addition to getting stuck wondering what to do next, standing with lead limbs in front of your Opponent, day dreaming about the meaning of fencing, you now confuse yourself with Priority. And not only do you fall behind your Opponent, now you switch your focus on the ref. Not a winning move.

        “Our method is to win” – Miyamoto Musashi, 1645

        PS. After a life-long interruption from Fencing, I was delighted when, after seeing a Korean series on a female Sabre team, in February 2022, my nine-year old daughter asked to Fence. We decided she’d make Sabre her competition sport. I applied what I just wrote. We focused on Attacks with Redoublement. And Defense by Retreat. No Parries. And Engagement Distance in between, Just that. Explosive. Call it “Anti-Fencing”: defeat Fencing in your Opponent. Once their moves don’t work, they don’t know what to do. So you attack them.

        On June 30, two and a half months later, she was the Provincial Bronze Medal in Sabre U17. She stood on the podium with 17 year olds.

        Put that in your pipe and smoke it! Hahaha. Thanks for the opportunity to share.

        • JMB

          Ah! “Anti-Fencing.” Mmmm… Where did we hear that? Oh yes I remember:

          “Your Coach Might Be Wrong – But It’s Your Responsibility”


          Miyamoto Musashi calls it the Book of Wind. Defeat the Master in the Student. Defeat the School in one Student. You defeated all the Students.

          Don’t strive to be the Student, the Master or the School.


          Miyamoto Musashi calls it the Book of the Void.

          • Igor Chirashnya

            Congratulations with your daughter success! I wish she moves up beyond Provincial success into the big stage events. And thank you for reading my blog and providing your opinion. That’s invaluable for me and others. Thanks!

  8. Igor

    Let’s say I initiate the attack which results in no parries, no touches. Opponent does not move or moves a step back. Then we both attack and both score. At what pause length after the first action the renewal of the same action becomes the remise (i.e. I lose priority)? Or the other way around, how fast do I need to “renew” the second attempt so it can be considered a continuation of the same attack? Is it even quantifiable or just a referee’s judgement call? My coach says if after the stop less than a second pass, and then we both attack, the priority is opponent’s. But if we wait the whole second and do it then, it’s considered simultaneous.

    • Igor Chirashnya

      If you missed in the first attempt your attack finished. What happens next depends on how fast you/your opponent resumed. If you continue you either remiss (and then if the opponent scores then it will be his touch), or if you both wait “long enough” and then start together it will be simultaneous. How long is long is hard to say without watching the bout, as it’s measured in fencing tempo and then it also depends on the speed of actions and the distance that preceeded this action. The referee, officiating this bout would have a “feel” for when it’s a totally new action (simultaneous) or continuation of the previous one (remise), as well as fencers. And because it’s measured in fencing tempos, I wouldn’t say it’s 1 second. Sometimes it is shorter, sometimes it is longer as the tempo by itself is a changing from phrase to phrase. To understand why the duration between actions is not a standard 1 second, think about the same phrase in a bout between two 8-years olds versus in a bout between two Olympians. Obviously the first might have a full stop of a few seconds before they resume while Olympians will have the same action resumed after a split second. Makes sense?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén

%d bloggers like this: