Fencing Rules for the Novice Parent: Strategy differences for foil, epee, and sabre

When you attend big fencing tournaments with events occurring simultaneously for multiple weapons (foil, epee, and sabre), you will notice how different the bouts are to watch depending on the weapon. You will see epee fencers jumping in place for a long time until one suddenly flies towards the other. You will notice foil fencers moving quickly from one side of the strip to the other with much weapon beating. In watching sabre fencers, you will notice how the fencers immediately lunge towards one another after hearing “Fence!” You can see these differences for yourself at any big event, such as Summer Nationals, NACs, SYCs or RYC, and other regional competitions—or you can simply search YouTube!

This post is part of a series on fencing rules for the novice parent. Why do people fence so differently depending on the weapon? Well, as our last post introduced, the weapons are different and the rules are different, which leads to distinctive strategies and tactics. The subtle rules and nuances for each weapon can get very advanced; this post covers high-level strategy differences to provide a foundation for novice parents.

Let’s first look at foil. Foil follows the “right-of-way” concept, which means (at a very primitive level) that the last active and clear action takes priority and only that action can score a point. This action can be either an attack or a parry. While touches are assessed electronically, the action is analyzed and points awarded by the human referee who must clearly see and understand the action to assess right-of-way. Clearly seeing the action is challenging, mostly due to the speed of movement.

So, in foil fencing, the fencer is always aiming to acquire priority with attacks and defenses that are clear to the referee. This objective leads to a lot of blade work: beat attacks (when the attacking fencer contacts the opponent’s foil to designate a clear and visible attack) and parries (defending fencer essentially beats the opponent’s weapon out of the way). You will typically see multiple counter- or counter-counter parries as both fencers fight for the last clear action. In a nutshell, foil fencing is generally a combination of slow movements to prepare for an attacking action, and then many rapid movements with blades contacting blades as the fencers battle for right-of-way.

Let’s move on to epee. In epee, every touch counts because the entire body is the target area. Also, the lockout period (the minimum amount of time between registered touches) is the shortest of all weapons at 40 milliseconds (300 ms for foil and 120 ms for sabre). So you can score anywhere on the body, you can score simultaneously (no right-of-way), and you have a short lockout period: these factors combine for very fast scoring and two important strategic distinctions in epee. One, a counter attack is very effective and two, when you make a move, you want to surprise your opponent and score quickly without being touched by counter attack.

So, in epee fencing, fencers patiently wait for the right moment, like lions in a savanna waiting for the right time to pounce on their prey. An ill-planned attack is likely to result in a punishing counter attack, so timing is key. The fencers make short, threatening weapon movements to fake an attack and throw off their opponents. At some point one of the fencers will lunge or fleche towards the other. If the other fencer is ready, he may successfully counter attack or parry; if not, the lunging fencer will likely score. If the fleching fencer carefully calculates his or her distance and timing, it is very difficult to counter or stop the touch: thus, again, timing is key. (Note: Often foil fencers will train in epee as well as it helps to improve their sense of timing).

Now we’ve made it to the third and final weapon, sabre. As described in our last post, in sabre, fencers can score with both the tip and the blade of the weapon, and the entire upper body is a valid target area. With a large target area, multiple ways to score, and the whole blade available for hits, sabre is the most difficult to defend. The attacking fencer may score a touch even if the defending fencer successfully blocks the weapon because the blade may still contact the target area, and even the slightest contact of the blade with the lame will register a touch. With challenges to defense and a fairly short lockout time, it is much easier to score from attacking than from defending.

So, sabre bouts are very fast-paced. You will almost always see both fencers lunge towards each other immediately after the referee yells “Fence!” Sabre bouts always reach the final score, they are very fast and do not have a time limit. In contrast, it is completely normal for foil and epee bouts to finish based on the time allotment and not reach the final score.

Interesting to note, because sabre includes the big slashing motions with the whole arm, it most resembles the fencing you see in the movies (take a look at any episode of Star Wars and notice the light saber fencing to see what I mean 🙂 ). Frankly it is one that most fun to watch, especially in high-level competitions such as world championships or the Olympics.

Again, you can learn much more on the nuances and strategies for each weapon if this subject interests you, but we wanted to provide a brief explanation of the main strategic differences. By the way, this might also give you some hints for following the action in your own child’s fencing. We will cover this subject in one of our future posts. Also, stay tuned for the last post in this series, which will provide tips for following and enjoying bouts as you cheer on your children. If you’ve kept up with the blogs in this series, this last post will really tie things together!