Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Can Fencing Be Used for Self-Defense?

Can fencing be used for self-defense

I recently came across an inspiring news story about self-defense that underscores the remarkable skills and courage honed by a former Italian National Fencing Team coach, Attilio Fini, who is now 93 years old. Just a month ago, he found himself in a perilous situation that required quick thinking and action.

As he was returning home one evening in Milan’s Piazza De Agostini, Fini noticed a shadow drawing too close for comfort. He soon realized that the approaching figure was pointing a gun directly at him. In that critical moment, he relied on the reflexes and instincts instilled in him during his fencing days.

Fini’s fencing background proved to be invaluable. Without hesitation, he disarmed the armed robber, striking his hand and causing the weapon to fall to the ground. He didn’t stop there; with a swift push and punch, he further incapacitated the assailant, sending him tumbling amidst parked scooters. Two brave bystanders joined in, helping to immobilize the attacker until the police arrived.

The assailant, as it turns out, was wanted for murder in Algeria, his home country, and faced charges for multiple robberies. Fini’s remarkable response to this dangerous encounter can be attributed to the fearless mindset and quick reflexes fostered by his fencing training.

While fencing is not typically associated with self-defense, it undeniably played a pivotal role in Fini’s ability to respond effectively to a life-threatening situation. His story serves as a powerful reminder of the transferable skills and attributes developed through sports, which can unexpectedly prove crucial in real-life scenarios. But also, it raises an interesting question – can fencing be used for self-defense?

Fencing is a combat sport. Much like karate or ju-jitsu, fencing is the act of facing an opponent and coming into physical contact with them in order to gain the advantage. That connection to the combat sports arena gives a lot of people the idea that maybe fencing teaches self-defense skills. 

So it’s a good question! We’re going to explore this idea, but we want to start off by being very, very clear: sport fencing is not meant for self-defense. That is not what we’re training for. We are training to get points against our opponent in a controlled situation. Period.

With that as our foundational point, we can start to explore how fencing has a legacy of self-defense and the ways that fencing could help in a combat situation. Though every kind of physical fitness activity would be beneficial for someone facing a dangerous situation, fencing does is a special case.

Dueling vs. sport fencing

We all know that fencing has its roots in dueling. Centuries ago, there was significant training in fencing for people who were in the military or needed to know how to take on an opponent for a duel or some other kind of battle. 

Our sport originated from life and death, mortal combat encounters. Dueling meant protecting your life from the opponent, and these duels were to the death. The danger was serious, and so was the need to protect yourself. Swords were sharp, and the risk of getting injured was massive. Even in training. Schools of swordsmanship across Europe taught their pupils rigorously about how they could protect themselves. The parry and riposte were developed to prevent real injuries!

The moves that we do in sport fencing today are legacy movements that are related to avoiding being struck by an opponent or actually striking and opponent. The piste is actually not that different from the narrow streets on which those classical European sword duels took place. It’s important to understand that what we do today in sports fencing has a clear track back to the wound-making realities of dueling. 

That’s another important point that differentiates sport fencing from dueling – wounds. Though sport fencing causes the occasional bruise or a stray small cut here and there, injuries are incredibly minor. Competitive fencers especially learn to push past these minor injuries to keep on going, but they are so minor.

Sport fencing is not made for self-defense

The use of weapons in fencing is particularly important, and weapons have a clear advantage in a self defense situation. That being said, is anyone really going to have their epee out with them when they run into trouble and need to use self-defense? The answer here is a resounding “no.” There is almost no chance that a fencer would ever have to use self-defense when they actually have their weapon with them.

Beyond that, there is a reason it’s called “the sport of fencing”. Whereas sport judo or sport taekwondo is still effective in a real world situation, sport fencing is much further from its original form. The techniques that we use have their history in real combat techniques, but the gear that we use and the weapons that we choose are so very different. This is why fenciing has such a low rate of injury, even though it is a combat sport. 

Focus and attention

The best way to keep from getting hurt in a fight is to avoid it. This is the backbone of almost every self-defense class and seminar. 

The basic idea here is that if you don’t ever go walking down a dark alley at night, you can never get mugged in a dark alley at night. There are all kinds of techniques here to prevent becoming a victim of a crime. Think about parking your car under a light, not going into a parking deck alone late at night, making sure you have your keys ready when you get to your car so you’re not fumbling with them.

Something that goes hand in hand with all of that is being aware of your surroundings. This is a skill that fencing teaches pretty wonderfully, because in fencing we have to be so keyed into our surroundings. Focus is a transferable skill. When you’re focusing on your fencing, you’re teaching your brain how to focus in the future. 

The essential thing here in terms of self-defense is that fencing teaches you to split your attention effectively. Listening to the ref and the coach and then also paying attention to your opponent and their constantly changing attacks and counter-attacks helps the brain deal with the cacophony of stimuli. If a fencer was to find themselves in a situation where they needed to use self-defense, either to avoid something happening or to face something that’s happening, that fencing training in focus and attention would help. 

Footwork and agility

The footwork and agility that fencers work hard to hone in practice is potentially helpful in dangerous situations. Most dangerous situations that people are in require fast reflexes. It’s not only for self-defense: a crazy road situation can be such too. Fencers by nature train to improve their reflexes so that they can have faster reaction times. It’s part of the DNA of fencing.

Bruce Lee did take some techniques from fencing, particularly footwork and stance, when he developed his Jeet Kune Do style of martial arts. His style is meant to be used for self defense in the real world, not for sport. From that standpoint, we can assume that fencing does offer some foundational techniques that can help in a real world scenario. 

The real world isn’t the movies

Speaking of Bruce Lee, let’s talk about fencing on film. Fencing in the movies, when we sometimes see superheroes pull out a foil or sabre and go toe-to-toe with an opponent in a life or death match is not accurate to real world self defense. It’s sad to realize that this is the case, but it doesn’t make fencing any less exciting. 

We often see someone in a movie or a TV show pick up some long object, like a broom handle or a piece of pipe, and they use it as a sword. This looks really cool and it’s fun onscreen, but that isn’t what it would look like in real life.

Conditioning vs. expertise

The bottom line here is that the conditioning that fencing provides is definitely going to give a fencer some skill in a self-defense situation. Both mental conditioning and physical conditioning. 

Improved awareness, agility, mental toughness, physical stamina, etc. won’t guarantee a win if someone is in a street fight, but they definitely contribute and offer some advantage. Something is better than nothing in this case. 

What fencing does teach us is how to stay present in our bodies and how to move swiftly. While we don’t carry around swords to defend ourselves, we can at least use some of the skills that we have built in fencing to make some headway in a tough situation.

While fencing can offer some advantages in terms of physical and mental attributes that may be beneficial for self-defense, it is not a complete substitute for specialized self-defense training. Self-defense programs often include techniques for escaping grabs, dealing with multiple attackers, and using everyday objects as improvised weapons, which are not part of traditional fencing training.

In the case of Attilio Fini, his background in fencing definitely contributed to his ability to react quickly and disarm the attacker, but it’s essential to remember that each self-defense situation is unique, and success depends on a combination of skills, awareness, and decision-making. If someone is specifically interested in self-defense, it’s advisable to seek out dedicated self-defense training programs that address real-life threats and scenarios.

Photo by Flickr user roanokecollege


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1 Comment

  1. R

    “Princess Bride’s” Inigo Montoya: “You’re%20using%20Bonetti’s%20Defense%20against%20me,%20huh?” 😉

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