Art of Fencing, Art of Life

New Epee Fencing Rule Aims to Makes Epee as Aggressive as Sabre

new epee fencing rule addresses non combativityChange is coming to the world of epee.

A recent meeting of the FIE rules committee saw a proposal that will drastically affect epee fencing. The proposal was accepted and will begin to be integrated into international competition starting this coming January 2018 through the Senior World Championship in Wuxi, China next summer. The temporary adoption of this rule change will allow the new rules to be tested, to see whether these should be permanent changes and what tweaks might need to be made for these new rules.

It’s a massive shift for epee fencers, but one that promises be positive for the long term.

In a nutshell, the major change in how non combativity is going to be treated. Per the current rules, which are applicable only to the DE bouts, if there are no touches scored in the course of about 1 minute, the referee stops the bout and advances it to the next period without a 1 minute break, or to the full priority minute if this non-combativity happened in the last period.

The new proposal makes a rather dramatic change to this. The referee alternates priority with each touch between two fencers. If there is no touch scored within 45 seconds, then the fencer with the priority is awarded a point and the bout resumes.

This change is rather extremely dramatic and will change the way epee fencing is done.

Epee Fencing Periods Get Longer

We’re not talking periods that will be just a little bit longer, we’re talking about a drastic change. Epee Direct Eliminations periods will go from being 3 minutes long to being almost 7 minutes long!

The reason is that the new rule makes a period break not timed at 3 minutes as before, but after 5 or 10 touches.

Let’s break it down a little more and see one scenario in which very long first period happens. For example, 1:0 in 45 sec, then 1:1 in 45 sec, then 2:1 in 45 sec, then 2:2 in 45 sec and so on, until 5:4. Total it is 9 times of 45 seconds, which is 6 min 45 seconds! Then there’s a 1 min break. Then they fence in the same way till 10 minutes expire.

So what happened here is following:

  • The periods might become very very long!
  • In such cases, there is a good possibility that there will be only 1 break during the bout, meaning less opportunities for the coach to help during the break.

Using similar scenarios, the second or third periods can be even longer – up to 7.5 minutes!

This epee fencing rule change amounts to doubling the time epee fencers spend fencing in the DE periods. Talk about endurance and stamina!

You can read the rules for yourself by checking out this link. You can also go directly to the FIE website, click “documents”, then “rules”, then “report 2017”.

Why did this rule change happen?

I believe that the big reason that this epee non-combativity rule change is happening is to address the issue of TV viewing. One of the biggest issues that we face in fencing is that in order to watch the sport and really enjoy, you’ve got to understand the rules. Fencing is a high energy, fast paced sport that isn’t easily understood from the outside. Think about sabre and foil – you can see a hit happen, but unless you’re a fencer you don’t have any idea whether it’s a valid hit or not if two lights are lit. The fast pace certainly makes for beautiful matches that go on at a high tempo, but they are also difficult to tease out if you don’t know what you’re looking at. Viewers who are unfamiliar with the sport can quickly lose interest if they have to spend a long time trying to understand what’s going on.

Epee is more straightforward in terms of touches and points scored. A touch is a touch, and in most cases that touch equals a point awarded. When the touch is not worthy of a point, it doesn’t really affect the viewability for non-fencers as the commentators can easily explain the reasons behind there not being a point awarded. In this way, it’s very much like other sports that have wide viewerships that aren’t made up of people who play the sport. Think about American football – it’s fairly easy for people to understand when something isn’t a touchdown, even if it looks like it should be. The commentators simply explain the situation, and since it doesn’t happen frequently it’s easy to understand.

The issue that epee suffers from in terms of viewability is that it’s relatively slow going (well, compared to foil ad sabre anyway). There are lots of preparations for the touches, but from the perspective of a viewer who’s watching without any concrete knowledge of the sport there is relatively little actual action. A lot of epee fencing is built around a defensive strategical perspective. They often use parries or counterattacks rather than offensive actions.

A while back we actually wrote an entire post on this subject, comparing epee fencing bouts to lions hunting. It’s a significant thing, and has long been a marker of the way that epee was viewed and understood in the world of fencing. All this is very interesting to epee fencers, coaches and their parents, but might not be so exciting for regular sport fans.

How Non-combativity in Epee Fencing is Addressed

It seems that FIE has decided to address the issue of spectator viewability by forcing epee fencing to be more offensive. That’s happening specifically through addressing epee non-combativity in rather radical way as we explained above.

I expect this rule will change epee fencing in a dramatic way. Passive games will now be essentially impossible. If an epee fencer is passive and does not have a priority standing, then he or she will simply lose the point. It’s just that simple. The game itself is going to change significantly, as is risk taking. Epee fencers will need a whole new set of strategies. What we now think of as epee fencing will morph into something that’s new.

Non-combativity in epee fencing is about to be the center of the conversation and the center of the match. Epee fencers should be ready to pay attention to what’s happening during this trial period in order to ensure that they’re prepared for how epee is going to change.

What happens next in epee

After the trial period is over, FIE will evaluate whether the new rule helped the game to be more watchable by those outside of the sport and whether this change makes sense in a broader view without destroying the essence of fencing.

At least theoretically, on paper, my opinion is that this should definitely create a much more dynamic and interesting game that will better draw in viewers. Epee bouts will be more understandable, easier to explain, faster paced, and in general more dramatic and interesting to viewers who are outside of the traditional fencing market. Making drama a priority in fencing matches will create an experience that’s more engaging for people who are passively watching, which will help them to get more interested in the sport, which will help our sport to grow.

Fencing purists are probably groaning at this change, since it takes the “real” fencing out of the epee. I’m not saying that they’re wrong to say that. In my opinion however, this change is a good one if it increases the popularity of fencing. We want people to enjoy fencing. More TV time is just good for everyone! Even if it results in some changes for fencing. I don’t think that these changes remove the spirit of epee by any means. If anything it will force fencers to sharpen their offensive and defensive skills, since in every match they will equally need both.

The USFA typically mimics the FIE rules and regulations for domestic tournaments, though of course not necessarily immediately. This was the case with the recent sabre “Russian Box of Death” rule, and it well might be what happens with this epee non-combativity change. We can’t know when or whether the USFA will adopt this change, which could come to the USFA right away or after the conclusion of the FIE trial, assuming it successful. Thus far, the USFA hasn’t made any comments either way about the rule change, so for now it seems they’re planning to wait and see how it goes on the international scene.

No matter what happens, it’s certainly going to be fun to see those first World Cups next year with this major change to epee fencing! My bet is that this change or its modification will be adopted, as it’s going to make for a very dynamic change. That’s just needed for TV, and video in general online.

What are your thoughts on these epee fencing rule changes? Are you excited or frustrated? Let us know in the comments!

Update 9/28/2017: Apparently, as many fencers pointed after this article was published, in the FIE Congress Meeting they withdrew this proposal until further notice and analysis, as stated on the Italian Fencing Federation site.


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  1. R

    No longer being promoted per Italian site.

  2. Vlad

    In my opinion epee is the easiest weapon to understand if you’re trying to watch fencing. Everthing is a target and there is no right of way in epee. Saber and foil is very confusing because of the right of way which makes it difficult to understand not only for the average person but those most experienced as well.

  3. Ron S

    This seems like a disservice to epee fencers. One of the best parts of epee is the work that goes into setting up the touch. Changing to this approach would help the spectators and do little or nothing for fencers. Hopefully it will never be raised at the DUE Congress again.

  4. Jeff Spellerberg

    Please take this REPLY in the (hopefully) humorous way it is intended. You say the heck with the purists and make it more fun for people who don’t care about the sport, but want to be entertained: “In my opinion however, this change is a good one if it increases the popularity of fencing. We want people to enjoy fencing. More TV time is just good for everyone! Even if it results in some changes for fencing. I don’t think that these changes remove the spirit of epee by any means.”
    I’ve got a better idea! Let’s get ratings! Let’s make everyone fence Epee naked! How about a naked contest on an island? Whoever loses has to swim back to California! We’ll dose every fencer with a speedball of Oxytocin and Pure Amphetamines and Purdue Pharmaceuticals can sponsor it!
    Oh, sorry, too crazy? OK, OK, but let’s add right of way, require that every attack is a fleche, put the combatants in a round cage, limit the target to the head and belly, and let them carry a dagger in their free hand for infighting. AND men always fight women. And Naked! HEY! How about FAKE BLOOD rigged to squirt out of the fencers to show every touch?? WAIT, I got it, I got it… REAL BLOOD!!!! Now we’re talking ratings!!!!
    I’m sure people who think that marketing trumps tradition have had long discussions about shortening the Major League Baseball fences to 200 feet, giving the batter 15 strikes, moving the pitcher back to second base, limiting every team to 10 minutes an inning, and make the bases 50 feet apart, right? That would speed up BASEBALL, make sure hundreds of runs are scored, and really make it entertaining! – but… that wouldn’t be baseball would it? Why on earth would you want to ruin Epee that way, too?
    In the last 40 years Epee went “sabre”, in a way – now it’s full of completely unnecessary screaming adolescent gestures and drop to the knees theatrics, and isn’t that enough?
    The changes would absolutely remove the spirit of epee – It ain’t sabre, and it ain’t foil, and any attempt to speed things up so its easier to watch ruins the entire concept. The idea of non-combativity is built into Epee – the entire body is a target (you have to keep distance!), there is no right of way(your attack can’t rely on a judge!), the first to score is awarded the point – the reason it’s slow is because it is the purist form of fencing, the most like a real bout. In the real world, you’d get once chance to die, so you wouldn’t be tempted to rush in and wait for a judge to tell you to forget about being hit.
    If your only goal is more viewers, then add chainmail… and horses… and broadswords… you see? There I go again…. ust the smell of horse manure would ruin the fun for everybody. Let people watch WWF if its viewers that you’re after… or HEY – let WWF add broadswords… now we’re tawkin!
    And the other posters are correct – Epee is easy to see and understand – it’s like a “gateway drug” for fencing fans to learn how it all works…
    Maybe a better answer to your problem is for them to record the Epee match and cut out the “dull stuff”, and that way Proctor and Gamble can sell more soap during the commercials. And… HEY!!! make the screaming, fleching, slap-happy Sabre fencers fence in SCARY CLOWN OUTFITS – AND carry a dagger…. That’s not too much of a change, you’d get TONS of new viewers, and this old epee guy would be first to tune in and give his full support!
    I’m glad saner heads prevailed – next thing I’ll hear is that they’ll want to speed up cricket…

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