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The anatomy of a fencing sword

The Anatomy of the Fencing Sword - Everything you need to know about composition, materials and qualities and differences of the modern fencing swordsFencing as a distinct form of combat goes all the way back to the 12th century when fencing schools started to spring up in Europe. Even to those first fencers the sword was seen as extension of the body. Fencing swords are more than just pieces of metal, they are pieces of us.  

To the uninitiated, a fencing sword is a long piece of thin metal with a handle and a guard. It looks quite simple on the outside, but every piece and part of the fencing sword has a name and a purpose. These weapons were developed over the course of centuries of consistent use, and let’s just say that fencers have become detail oriented about their weapons.

New fencers might not know the names of all of the parts of their weapon, but it’s knowledge that helps fencers to become true masters of this art. So let’s review the parts of the fencing sword! We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up.

Though there are three different weapons in fencing – epee, foil, and sabre – the parts of the sword are basically the same, though we’ve noted where there are differences between weapons. We aren’t going to go into detail into body cords here and the electric aspects of the fencing sword, only the fundamental anatomy of a basic fencing sword. There are some differences between electrical and practice weapons, so we will note which is applicable to which.

The fencing sword is broken down into three major parts – the grip, the guard, and the blade. These constitute the entirety of the weapon.

Then there are additional elements which are very important to the function of a fencing sword, and while these are important they are nevertheless “helping” parts. These are the point (for electric foil or epee) or the button (for the practice version of these weapons), the pad, the pommel (only for the french grip), and the socket (only for the electric version of the weapon).

Main parts of the fencing sword

The Grip

The place that a fencer’s hand holds onto is called the grip, and it’s designed for the best performance and most comfort as it’s where the sword attaches to and becomes an extension of the fencer.

The grip is perhaps the most personal part of the fencing sword, and grips come in a wide variety of possibilities in terms of materials they are constructed from and specific shape. Within regulation fencing, there are huge possibilities for personalization in this part of the fencing sword.

There are many types of grips that have been developed over the long history of fencing, but there are two that are legal for use in sport fencing.

French grip

The French grip is straight or slightly curved. It offers flexibility because a fencer can choose to either hold the grip near the pommel to allow for longer reach while decreasing the potency of parries and beats, or closer to the guard for more force and a shorter reach. In competitive fencing, only epee fencers use french grip, while foilists transition to the pistol grip for better maneuvering of the blade. There are many different types of french grip and each epee fencer eventually ends up with using a single type which better fits their style of fencing.

Pistol grip

A pistol grip is called such because it’s got a handle that protrudes from the main shaft of the grip. This grip allows fencers to more directly control the blade for stronger movements. This grip fixes the hand into one position. There are many different pistol grips which fencers chose based on their individual preferences and even those standard ones are being customized by fencers all the time to reach the highest comfort level for these fencers.

All foilists eventually use a pistol grip, while epee continues to have a mix of the two grips.

The Guard

The guard is the curved piece of flat metal that goes around the blade and protects the fencer’s hand. Foil has a smaller bell guard that’s centered on the blade, where epee has a larger bell guard that’s offset. Sabre guards have knuckle guards that wrap around the fingers to protect from blows to the hands.

Guards come in many styles and sizes that are within regulation for epee, foil, and sabre. Fencers generally develop a preference for the kind of guard that they prefer, based on weight, feel, protection, hand size, etc.

The Blade

Foils, epees, and sabres all have blades made from low-carbon steel. This composite metal bends when the opponent is struck in order to minimize the physical impact. Injuries in fencing are uncommon compared to other sports, even non-combat sports, and even then almost all the injuries are from twisted ankles or pulled muscles, and never from the blade itself. That’s got a lot to do with strides in the construction of fencing swords, which have been developed specifically to prevent injury. Protective gear is obviously plays a major part of keeping fencers safe as well. The “curve” is the gentle bend that every fencing sword has to ensure that it bends in the proper direction when it strikes an opponent.

That same low-carbon steel also makes fencing swords lightweight, which helps to prevent fencers from getting too tired too quickly. Long days of practice can be exhausting anyway, so a blade that’s less heavy allows fencers to work longer. Not only that, fencing blades that are lightweight move quickly and allow for fast touches!

Metallurgy played a huge role in developing a safe, light and durable blades and a modern fencing enjoys from these advances in the science.

The blade is arguably the most important part of the sword – after all, this is with what we hit with and defend against. Professional fencers will spend a lot of time going thru many different blades until they find a blade that they like, They’re looking from the perspective of its weight, stiffness, bendability, balance, and feel in the hand. This is their most important tool and nobody takes choosing the right one lightly.

Blades themselves differ in two major aspects (in addition to being electric or practice):

  • size
  • category (FIE or Maraging or non-FIE).

Fencing swords have a maximum blade length, depending on the weapon. For foil and epee, that’s 90cm with the total weapon being no more than 110cm. For sabre that’s 88cm for the blade with the entire weapon no longer than 105cm. In sport fencing the youngest fencers are required to compete with shorter blades.  

FIE blades have been developed to an international standard of what blades should be from the perspective of manufacturing and quality in order to satisfy the strictest international safety standards.

Helping parts of the fencing sword


Pommel

The pommel is the bottom end of the fencing sword, holding the whole thing together. A pommel is generally made of metal and is screwed to the blade. As with handle itself, there are a lot of different types of pommels. This part of the sword is especially important to those epee fencers who fence with a french grip, and the pommel oftentimes matches the handle itself. Pommels mainly differ from the perspective of size, material, form, and weight. In the hands of professional epee fencer, the pommel balances the shape of the handle and the weight of the entire weapon, thus it is an incredibly important piece.

Pad

The pad is simply a lining inside the guard. It exists only for the comfort of the fencer, to prevent knuckles and fingers from getting hurt on the metal bell guard during a match. Pads can be made of cloth (felt),  leather, or plastic. When the pad is made of plastic it can can also be made transparent so that referees and fencers can see thru when they are examining the weapon.

Point

The uncovered end of the weapon’s blade is known as the point. Back when these weapons were used primarily for dueling lethally intended weapons had points that were sharpened as much as possible. Today in modern fencing, points are blunted and are  flattened into a shape that looks like the head of a nail, then covering them with a button.

Points aren’t even pointy!

Basically there are two types of point – electrical and practice. The practice point (aka the button) is a plastic piece that’s worn on the end of the blunted blade and provides even more cushioning during the stubbing. The electric point is a whole mechanism of barrel, springs, screws and point that connect electrical wire from the point thru the narrow channel on the blade to the socket under the guard. The electric point is moving and under pressure on the target will move in such a way that it creates a contact with the wire inside the barrel that closes the circuitry and registers the touch. This is quite a delicate mechanism and sometimes it breaks and requires repairs, so careful care of it is needed whenever possible.

Socket

The socket is nothing more than a piece where the body cord can plug into the electrical mechanism connected to the point. It sits between the guard and the grip, and while there are some variations in style, this part of the sport fencing weapon is simple!

Same sword, new century

Most of the anatomy of a fencing sword has remained exactly the same over the course of centuries. There are tweaks in materials and construction. We’ve seen the addition of electro-mechanical elements in the modern fencing swords to register the touch.  Yet for the most part the weapons that we fence with today carry the same parts that fencing weapons have carried for hundreds of years!

Modern fencing blades and guards  have been specifically designed with safety in mind, so even where there are differences they have almost always been made in the name of safety.

Now that you know all of the terms for the parts of your fencing sword, why not go grab your sword out of that fencing bag and see which parts you can identify!

[You can download the pdf version of the infographic here]

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2 Comments

  1. R

    m.5.2. “For foil and épée, inside the guard there must be a cushion (padding) sufficiently wide *to protect the electric wires from the fencer’s fingers*. The padding on the inside of the guard must be less than 2 cm thick and must be arranged in such a way as *not to increase the protection* which the guard affords the hand.”

    • Igor Chirashnya

      Thanks for the additional technical information. This definitely adds to the post 🙂

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