Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Can You Die from Fencing?

Can You Die from Fencing? Sabre Fencer lunges at another, both are wearing visor fencing masks

The goal of fencing is to stab someone else with a sharp metal object. Our sport grew out of war and actual duels to the death, so it’s natural to assume that there is some danger involved and one of the opponents would die. How could there not be?

In the movies, sword fights often end with one person thrusting their opponent through the chest with a blade, a red trickle running from beneath the metal while the unlucky loser crumples to the ground and whispers a few words in hushed tones. It’s all incredibly dramatic when it plays out onscreen, and the tableau of that tragic death is so familiar that it’s almost comforting. The movies are not the real world, thankfully. 

We do all enjoy the thrill of the sport that is inherent in holding a weapon towards another human being with a weapon and seeing who can best the other person. That adrenaline rush is a big draw for everyone, and there is a bracing sense of excitement.

Fencing deaths

There are eight total instances of someone dying in modern Olympic-style fencing, which dates back more than one hundred and twenty years. 

The most well-known is Vladimir Smirnov, who suffered injuries during the 1982 World Championships that later killed him. The following account is intense, so skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to know.

On the 19th of July at the World Championships in Rome in 1982, Vladimir Smirnov was fencing foil against West German fencer Matthias Behr. Smirnov was a former Olympic champion and a star of the sport in Russia. During the foil match, Behr’s foil blade broke off, went through Smirnov’s mask, through his eye socket, and into his brain. Smirnov lived for nine days before he succumbed to his injuries. 

Though this tragic accident occurred almost forty years ago, it sends chills through anyone who is a fencer. It’s one of the saddest events to ever occur in our sport, and we cannot help but feel for his family and for the whole fencing community. He was one of the greatest fencers of his time, widely known and well thought of. He won the World Championships in 1981, and he was defending his title as he fought the match that would kill him. 

Deaths in fencing outside of this horrible incident are almost unheard of, and the action taken after this loss of life is part of the reason why. There was a major improvement in safety in fencing following this event. One is that carbon steel blades were retired and replaced with maraging steel blades, which are far less likely to break and when they do break they snap in two halves across the section and not along. Kevlar and other kinds of ballistic nylon that are used in military armor are woven into protective fencing uniforms. Fencing masks are significantly stronger than they were before. Safety rules changed too, all with the aim of preventing this sort of tragic accident from happening again. 

Usually, when there is a death in fencing, there is a level up in the equipment following that incident. Our blades get less likely to break and our protective gear gets stronger with each passing year. Vigilance continues to be important. 

Injuries in fencing are rare

Modern fencing is incredibly safe, and serious injuries are highly rare. The safety improvements that went into fencing following Smirnov’s death were significant, and it’s important to note that there were few injuries before his accident as well. 

Today, fencing is safer than it ever has been. Most injuries in fencing are things like sprained ankles and pulled ligaments. It is exceedingly rare that injuries requiring medical attention occur in fencing that have anything to do with the actual weapons we are using!  Most injuries in sports take place during practice, not during competition. 

In fact, a study of the 2008 Olympics shows that fencing is among the sports with the lowest injury rate “Even though your goal is to stab your opponent.” You can see more in the graphic below about the comparative injury rates in Olympic sports, all based on a study from the University of Oslo. Note that fencing is in the bottom ten, below badminton and table tennis. 

Compared to other combat sports like judo or boxing, fencing is even lower on the rate of injury. We exist in the same category as those sports in the respect that we are doing combat, but as far as the actual risk we are very far away indeed. 

Credit: Graphic by Jen Christiansen, Illustrations by MCKIBILLO; Source: Lars Engebretsen, University of Oslo

We practice extensive safety measures to keep anyone from getting hurt, and we very much plan to keep improving on that front. There are always improvements in the safety equipment that fencers use, and we as a sport do go the extra mile to ensure that no one gets hurt. That’s not just at the Olympic level either, but across the levels of the sport from Youth fencers all the way through Veterans. 

The whole thing is enjoyable because we can push ourselves to improve without being overly worried about getting hurt. Following health and safety best practices is something all fencers should continue to be vigilant about, no matter how long we’ve been fencing. 

So then, the short answer is no. You cannot die from fencing. Or at the very least, it’s really unlikely that you would die from fencing. Modern safety measures are incredibly reliable, so fencers and their families can feel good about practicing this sport. You’re really not going to die fencing!


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1 Comment

  1. R

    A 95 year-old Welsh sabereur died at the end of a tournament and everyone said that was the second best way to go. 😉 Hope to see you in Richmond.

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