The nuance of fencing becomes automatic to people who have been in it for a long time, but to newcomers, whether fencers or parents, the terminology can sound very unfamiliar. The detail can be challenging to master for those who are new to it. Epee grips are one of these instances.
Often it just takes a clear, simple, high level explanation of what these things mean to facilitate mastery of the concept. A newbie might still not totally understand the intricate differences, but it lays a solid foundation that can inform fencing in the future.
The grip is simply the part of the fencing sword that the fencer holds. Think of it as being the other side of a handshake, the place where the sword unites with the fencer to become an extension of their own body. How that interface happens is important, and over the years there have been many various grips developed by fencers. It is one of the most important parts of the fencing sword because the comfort, agility, mobility, strength, reach, and many other factors are affected by how the hand holds the weapon.
Over the centuries, grips have been developed by master sword makers to to uniquely address different facets of fencing and different styles adopted by fencers. In modern fencing there are two primary grips, namely the pistol and the french grip. Those two are actually broad categories however, and there are variations on each of the grips. Eventually each fencer chooses her or his own style, or modifies an existing grip to suit their own style.
Almost every fencer will start fencing with a french grip, whether they are a foilist or an epeeist. This is because the french grip handle “forces” a new fencer to correctly hold the weapon and to work with their fingers. Those novice mistakes in holding technique are much more visible to a coach with a french grip and thus this grip provides a better mechanism for a coach to correct such mistakes.
Eventually with experience, foil fencers will transition to the pistol grip, while epee fencers will split into two major camps – french grip fencers and pistol grip fencers. It means epeeists have the luxury of choice, and neither is strictly correct or incorrect. That choice can be challenging if you don’t understand the good and the not so good of the two mainstream epee fencing grips.
Let’s break down the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Epee fencing – french grip
The french grip may look extraordinarily simple, but looks are deceiving. Dozens of years of research, trial, and error have come together to create this seemingly “simple” part of the fencing sword. There are a myriad of french grip variations, and each manufacturer offers their unique style. People continue to experiment with french grips (and of course with pistol grips as well) to make them friendlier to fencers, more balanced, light or orthopedic, and to try to preserve their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. The basic structure of a french grip is a straight piece that ends in an enlarged piece, known as the pommel. It is the oldest style of fencing grip, the most straightforward, and it’s one that many fencers continue to stand by as the best.
Advantage – reach.
French grip fencers can easily hold the grip at the end, at times even just by the pommel. These fencers are known as “pommelists”. This can give them an additional five or six inches of length in their sword, which is a huge amount in competition.
That additional length makes counter attacking very effective. Epee fencers who do it well can learn to rely on that reach to build an entirely effective skillset for tackling opponents.
Disadvantage – strength.
An extra 6 inches/15 centimeters of reach sounds like a pure advantage, doesn’t it? And yes, it does give a great advantage. But like everything in life that comes at a cost.
Without that firm hold on the handle of the sword, pommelists lose the strength. Think about all of those times in movies when a character is hanging off the edge of a mountain with someone trying to pull them up by their fingertips. There isn’t strength in that little bit of grip, so they keep pulling until they have a hold on a bigger surface area.
Disadvantage – bladework.
Holding a blade over the grip end makes the hold much weaker, and the blade work much less efficient. The longer reach also means less efficiency in close combat because obviously the tip of the blade has the potential to be too far to score effectively. That weaker blade makes it much more difficult to strong parries, more difficult deflect the opponent’s blade, and more difficult to release the hold of the opponent blades in attacks. All around, blade work is a major challenge that french grip epee fencer have to overcome.
Epee fencing – pistol grip
The pistol grip is molded to the hand, with fingers fitting in tightly around the curves of the grip. There are different varieties of pistol grip, each with their own benefits and drawbacks, but the broad strokes are the same.
Advantage – dexterity.
The strong hold on the grip translates to strength in the blade. Epee fencers using the pistol grip are able to have an incredible hold on their weapon, which means effective parries and confidence. The dexterity with the pistol grip is remarkable, making blade work very efficient. An epee fencer using a pistol grip is able to accurately control their blade from hilt to tip, and that tip control is vitally important in scoring.
Disadvantage – reach.
However it’s not all sunshine for the pistol grip. There is no additional extra reach with a pistol grip, absolutely none. However the fencer holds the grip, the length is what it is. There is no latitude for a fencer to choose at all. As the blade length is regulation, a pistol grip fencer is simply sacrificing some of that length that an opponent with a french grip will have. There’s no way to make up for the length advantage!
Advantage – strength.
The strength of the blade work for an epee fencer using the pistol grip is a real advantage. Their stronger hold on the grip allows them to fend off close in attacks more easily and thereby to potentially dominate it. The fencer using a pistol grip is akin to what happens with a hammer in terms of leverage. The fencer holds the grip with the whole palm or hand and thus it increases their leverage, which makes it easier to deflect or hold off the opponent’s blade, to press on the opponent’s blade, or to release the opponent’s hold when they are pressing in.
Differences in pistol grip/french grip technique
Given the sweeping differences in both positive and negative aspects of the pistol grip and the french grip for epee fencers, vastly different techniques have developed for each of these weapons.
French grip fencers naturally rely more on distance and relatively simple, timed attacks in their offensive techniques. They focus less on parries in defence and more on counter attack, as this allows them to utilize and leverage the length while minimizing their exposure. They also try to keep an even longer distance, as long as their additional reach will allow them. This makes the work of their pistol grip opponent more difficult and dangerous in attacks. A french grip fencer will try to avoid any unnecessary contact with opponent’s blade in order to minimize the weakness of their own grip.
The pistol grip fencer on the other hand will leverage their strength in the hold with detailed blade work that pulls their opponent in close to compensate for the reach. Obviously the pistol grip fencer will rarely go directly to a long distance out of a real fear of being caught on the counter attack. Instead pistol grip fencers rightly try to initiate every attack with a flurry of intense blade work to try to get a hold of their opponent’s blade, neutralizing it to make up for their opponent’s advantage in reach and distance.
Naturally, the french grip fencer is going to do the opposite. In their attacks, they will try to minimize the blade work that they’re doing, instead relying heavily on the reach advantage. In defensive settings, the majoring of their actions could be counter attacking and not parrying, as parrying might be more challenging to execute and thus more dangerous in terms of points lost.
Tactically, the pistol grip fencer will try to trick the opponent into committing to an action in which they “give” their blade, thus allowing the pistol grip fencer to get a hold of it and execute their strong blade action. The french grip will try to trick their pistol grip fencing opponent into going into direct attack, allowing them to proceed with counter attack and leverage their longer reach.
Which is better? Pistol grip or french grip?
What is better, french or pistol? There is no better, it’s all down to preferences and personal traits.
In most cases coaches see who fits more what profile. Some people are more comfortable with totally avoiding blade contact. Some people have a naturally great sense of distance and timing for entrance into combat and so it is very natural for them to fence with a french grip.
On other side some people cannot execute an action without first going thru the blade. Their sense of timing and distance is somehow gauged by the feeling of the opponent’s blade, the physical contact between the two blades that you can feel when you’re on the strip. Those types of fencers would rely more on parrying than counter attack, they would organically engage most of the time, they would prefer the intensity of close combat and the great deal of weapon control. For such people it is beautifully natural to fence with the pistol grip.
It’s notable that every fencer is different and can leverage one or the other of the grips in order to make the most of their own strengths and weaknesses.
What any fencer needs to know are weaknesses and strengths of each technique and what to expect from a specific type. It’s all down to your strategy for the bout against this type, and your ability to decide how to minimize your weaknesses while at the same time exploring the weaknesses of your opponent. This is general for all fencing, but specifically with epee fencing these details matter in for which fencing grip a fencer might choose to fence with.
There’s no a right answer no matter how you look at it! Which in truth is the beauty of fencing. We have these many tools at our disposal, and it’s up to us to make the most of them.