Fencing Match at the First Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens, Greece
Fencing Match at the First Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens, Greece

Modern fencing, for the purposes of our exploration of the history of fencing, starts with the modern Olympics in 1896, which were founded by Pierre de Coubertin. We have already explored fencing in the Ancient World in Part 1 and moved through the development of fencing as a distinct discipline in Part 2. You don’t have to read those two pieces in order to understand this next step in fencing history, but it’s highly encouraged!

It’s in this period that fencing looks like what we know of fencing today. We see the onset of modern fencing equipment and scoring. There is also the solidification of the three weapons and all of the differences that go along with each of those. The tournament system that is such a driving force behind our current view of fencing rises during this time. We’ll talk a little bit about what fencing is today in the modern world here, and we’ll give some insight into American fencing and how it came to be what we know of. 

The Olympic philosophy

First of all, we must acknowledge that the Olympics do not totally define modern fencing. They are a good place to start in our understanding, however. This is because they are universal, highly visible, and because the Olympic philosophy penetrates sport thoroughly. Or maybe it’s the other way around – the modern understanding of sport penetrates the Olympics. 

Fencing did not just fall into the lap at the Olympics. In fact, the modern Olympics didn’t just fall out of the sky. The games that we know today grew out of a movement towards sport as a means for perfecting humanity. It’s a shift that we saw happen gradually over time (again, you can see this in Part 2).

This self-growth can be keenly seen in the modern Olympic Games. It’s the spirit of challenging oneself that is the Olympic spirit. This is why, in the modern games, we see so many countries coming together with joy even as they are rivals – it’s not about beating the competitor. It’s about beating yourself. 

It’s interesting to look back then at the Ancient Olympics in Greece and see the difference. As we mentioned in A Not-So-Brief History of Fencing, Part 1: Fencing in the Ancient World, the original games were a religious festival. Those games used sport as a way to bring people together to honor the Greek goddesses and gods. What we have experienced in the last century with our Olympics is a secular festival that uses sport to bring people together from all different cultures to honor the human spirit. It is strikingly similar, a kernel of the same truth across thousands of years. 

The motto of the Olympics today is Citius – Altius – Fortius, which is Latin for Faster – Higher – Stronger. The five Olympic rings represent the five continents, with the world coming together. 

In Paris in 1924, the Olympic motto was introduced: 

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” 

This is very much the spirit of fencing in the modern era. 

Modern Fencing

As the world neared the first World War, dueling faded and eventually vanished. A dispute in the 1924 Olympics over a scoring issue led to an actual duel between the Italian foil captain and the son of the Hungarian foil coach. That duel ended without serious physical harm, but resulted in another duel over the same issue between different Italian and Hungarian fencers. 

The first Modern Olympiad that took place in 1896 marks the distinct beginning of modern fencing. It was of course happening prior to this, but that is the date that fencing and lots of modern sports became distinctly what they are today. Fencing was one of the original nine sports that took center stage in the 1896 games in Greece, where fourteen countries took part. Those first nine sports were fencing, swimming, athletics, cycling, tennis, weightlifting, wrestling, shooting, and gymnastics. We should note here that there were other competitions for a hundred years or so that sometimes called themselves Olympic, but the ones that we think of started in 1896. 

Fencing evolved throughout the Olympic era. There were events like Singlestick that we would  not recognize. Though there has been a time period in the last forty years or so that seems consistent with regards to Olympic fencing, there has always been change in what was included. It is not even static today, as it’s projected that team events and individual events will for the first time take place for all sports at a single games. The team events for all three weapons rotated out until the 2020 Olympic Games, which is set to take place this summer pending the safety concerns of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Here’s a quick rundown of events included in the Olympics over the years. 

  • 1896 – Men’s individual foil and saber
  • 1900 – Men’s epee and team foil added, Masters added, but only for this Olympiad
  • 1904 – Singlestick added, but only for this Olympiad
  • 1908 – Men’s team events for all three weapons included
  • 1924 – Women’s individual foil added
  • 1936 – Epee is electrified
  • 1956 – Foil is electrified
  • 1960 – Women’s team foil added
  • 1988 – Saber is electrified
  • 1996 – Women’s individual and team epee added
  • 2004 – Women’s individual saber added
  • 2008 – Women’s team saber added
  • 2021 – Team and individual events for all three weapons for the first time (projected)

Interestingly, fencing was the only sport that allowed professionals to participate prior to other sports opening to non-amateur athletes in recent decades. 

The history of the electrification of weapons is amazing as well. Prior to the 1936 Olympics, red chalk on the ends of swords marked the white uniforms when a touch occurred so that judges could see who made a touch. When electrification came in, it was not an easy transition. In each of the three weapons there was a tumult during the changeover. It was complicated and different, though we see it as so simple now. 

Changing rivalries

Over the course of the last hundred years, fencing has also changed as far as which countries are competitive. Early on, European powerhouses like Italy, France, and Hungary dominated the top of the podium in the Olympics and in the World Championships.

Here’s an example of how things have changed. China did not send a single fencer to the Olympics until 1984. In 2004 it sent nineteen and in 2008 there were twenty Chinese fencers in competition. This is just one example of the shift in who is showing up on the world stage in fencing. In the first Olympic Games in 1896, there were four countries competing – Denmark, France, Greece, and Austria. In 2016, there were forty-seven countries competing. The table below shows the competing countries and how many fencers they each sent.  

2016 Olympic fencing competing countries
Algeria (2)Cuba (1)Italy (14)Russia (16)
Argentina (1)Czech Republic (2)Ivory Coast (1)Saudi Arabia (1)
Austria (1)Egypt (7)Japan (6)Senegal (1)
Azerbaijan (1)Estonia (5)Kazakhstan (1)South Korea (14)
Belarus (1)France (15)Kuwait (1)Switzerland (4)
Belgium (1)Georgia (1)Lebanon (1)Tunisia (5)
Benin (1)Germany (4)Mexico (7)Turkey (1)
Brazil (13)Great Britain (3)Morocco (1)Ukraine (10)
Bulgaria (1)Greece (2)Netherlands (1)United States (14)
Canada (5)Hong Kong (3)Panama (1)Venezuela (6)
China (11)Hungary (9)Poland (4)Vietnam (4)
Colombia (2)Iran (2)Romania (6)

Of these competitors, ten of the countries medaled, including South Korea and Tunisia. Traditionally dominant countries Russia, Italy, Hungary, and France are still dominant, but seeing other countries challenging at the Olympic level is exciting. 

The way that all of this has changed over the last half century is complicated enough to write a whole book about, and in fact you can find our book about it at this link. It’s a dynamic and historical shift that is connected to world events as well as human need.

The pathways of fencing

As we explored previously, fencing was founded through the schools of fencing that rose out of military ranks. Techniques, weapons, and standards of practice all have their roots there. 

In modern fencing, there are two ways that training is funded, depending on where a person lives. In many countries, particularly Europe and Asia, fencing training is an extension of the government and is funded by the government. In the United States, fencing is almost totally a private venture. Here, individual clubs are created in an entrepreneurial manner. They are sometimes connected to other programs, but the most successful are independent. In addition, the United States has its elite fencing training intertwined with the university system. In order to get to the highest level of fencing in America, most fencers go through high ranking universities like Notre Dame or Columbia University. 

Modern fencing is also interwoven with the countries where fencers live. How a fencer trains and who they train with is based on their home country, or their adopted home country in some instances. Each country or sometimes area has a governing body that sets the rules for competition in conjunction with FIE, the international fencing governing body. FIE is the key to international competition like the World Championships and the Olympics. 

What all of this has caused is a solidification of what it means to fence. Increasingly, the sport is part of a wider international network that pushes it in a specific direction. Regulation has molded how we score points with various weapons, who is encouraged to fence, and how fencers grow through the sport. There are still differences based on school and style, however as mobility has increased we see coaches with varied styles moving around the world to teach styles of fencing that were once very closed off. 

Fencing forward and back

We are all pretty familiar with what fencing looks like today. What was once either a game or a bloodsport is now pop culture and Olympic mainstay. Fencing is instantly recognizable in its modern form, with our distinctive gear and our royal heritage as a sport.

The biggest difference between the fencing that we know today and its previous life as a tool for settling differences is the skill involved. We have to get it right not just once, but over and over in order to win against an opponent. Today in fencing, we only think of what we are doing as a fatal blow in passing or as a callback to much earlier times. You cannot win in fencing with sheer brute force, but rather you must come up with nuance in order to succeed. That’s not to say that ancient fencers or those masters of the European schools were anything less than incredible and deeply skilled, only to say that the sport is fundamentally different now than it was then. 

Fencing is continuing to change. Where it was once dominated by the French and Italian masters of the sport, other countries have brought their own spin and style to fencing and changed it up. Asian fencing and American fencing are continuing to rise and to influence the methods that fencers use. With this push forward, it is hard not to wonder what fencing might look like in one hundred years. Will it be as different then as it is now? Perhaps our great grandkids will all still be on the piste then! 

The history of fencing is long and complex, but the through line is in the challenges that the individual faces. Whether you were stick fighting in Ancient Egypt, or in the gold medal round in Rio in 2016, the challenge is still the same. Though a fencer stands across the piste from an opponent, the real opponent is themselves.