Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Non-Combativity in Fencing: The Reasons and The Rules

Non-Combativity-in-Fencing-The-Reasons-and-The-RulesIn the recent Arizona SYC, I witnessed a situation when in a pool bout an inexperienced referee called “HALT” and moved the bout to 1 minute due to non-combativity. Of course both coaches jumped in and explained the rule to the referee, who needed to verify with the head ref the nuances of it.

And of course, if even some referees are confused about the rule, what should we expect from the novice fencers that oftentimes have never  even heard about the term “non-combativity” prior to their first competition and their referee’s call?

An easy to understand explanation of non-combativity

So what is non combativity in laymen’s terms?

The best way to understand what non-combativity means is think about a situation when two fencers did not make any touch in their bout for a “long” time or show a “total apathy” to each other for some time.

In the rule book this “long” time is defined to be approximately 1 minute.

By “total apathy” here I mean they stay too far away from each other and do not make any blade contact for about 15 seconds.

When Non-Combativity Happens

There are several reasons for non-combativity in fencing. Here are the 3 major reasons:

  1. The most common non-combativity reason happens in the bouts of beginner fencers. This happens unintentionally most of the time. A typical situation that you have probably witnessed many times is when two novice fencers (usually kids) are just afraid to make a move, hesitating to start first, and in general are making no headway in the bout.
  2. This happens mostly with experienced fencers (or at least when one of them is experienced). A fencer decides for some tactical or strategic reason to go to non combativity and the other fencer accepts it (or was deceived and followed the game). There are many reasons why a fencer might decide to go to non-combativity, and sometimes even elite fencers use this strategy.
  3. Bad luck. Fencers do not intend to go to non combativity, they do try to score but the bout just goes this way without any of them succeeding to touch.

Most often non-combativity happens in epee bouts, since in epee it is much more dangerous to attack for the offensive player – the counter attack might land faster. So fencers tend to prepare longer and might hesitate on the chance that they are risking an attack and thus it is easier to move to the non combativity zone.

Now that you understand what non-combativity is and how it can happen, let’s move on to explaining what a referee does in different bout situations.

How Referees Treat Non-Combativity Situations

Almost any fencing tournament is divided to two stages – pools and direct eliminations. Non-combativity is applied ONLY to direct elimination (DE) stage. Which means that if in the pools two fencers (from whatever reason) behave non-combatively, the referee will just continue to spend these boring 3 minutes with them until the end of the bout, and then will go on to a priority minute.

However in DE bouts, non-combativity will get a real treat from the referee:

  1. If the referee detected non-combativity in first or second period of 3 period bouts, or for the first period in 2 period bouts (e.g., Youth 10 or Veterans) they will call “HALT” and will immediately move the bout to the next period without a 1 minute break. During this time coaches are not allowed to approach their fencers.
  2. If non-combativity happens in the last period, the referee will move the bout to the priority minute, but in that case this minute will be fenced in whole. If there is a tie at the end of this minute, the fencer with the priority wins.

A few important notes on non-combativity

Just to clarify a few further things:

  • The rule states “approximately 1 minute”. This means that the referee is the only person that will judge whether the situation is non-combative and warrants a call and whether he/she should wait for the whole minute, a bit less or a bit more. The judgment that the referee applies is based on what happens in the bout and whether the referee feels that the bout is non combative indeed. Sometimes a referee will call it after 50 seconds, and sometimes after 90 seconds.
  • The rule by definition is formulated quite subjectively and it gives the referee a flexibility to apply his or her own judgment.
  • One last point – in team competitions non-combativity is quite a typical tactical decision, and you can see it at any level of competitions, from local to the Olympic Games.

As any team match is fenced in 9 bouts, if non combativity happens in any of the first 8 bouts, the referee will stop the bout and will call the next bout with 2 other fencers. If non-combativity happened in the last 9th bout the referee will halt the bout and move to the priority minute, which will be fenced in its entirety like in individual competition. The team who has a priority wins in case of tie at the end of this minute.

Now you know what non-combativity is and when it is applied! So the next time a referee suddenly stops your child’s bout you will not be surprised by what has happened. It’s really very common!



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  1. R

    A ref who doesn’t understand non-combativity shouldn’t be reffing an SYC bout unsupervised.

    • Igor Chirashnya

      This happens quite often as there are lack of referees compared to the amount of qualifying competitions. But the post is not to criticize the ref or organizers, but to explain the novice fencers the rules.

  2. Denis Bregille

    Our sport is becoming more and more disconnected with the art of fencing in the past. It has become an electronic game which is illegible, incomprehensible both for confirmed fencers and common spectators.
    Pierre Lacaze, the eminent French fencing master used to say in despair: “We do not interest anyone.”
    Top competitions have no spectators. Fencing does not generate any money and has few sponsors. Fewer competition organisers are willing to host a “grand prix”.
    Fencing with the foil and the sabre has become particularly difficult to referee as the conventions are not at all respected. The show is interrupted at regular intervals when the referees resort to the pictures of the video being totally lost before taking a decision.
    Epée fencing was the only weapon which was legible and comprehensible and you are simply killing it by adding lights and all sorts of ridiculous cards obliging the manufacturers to reprogram their score boxes and redesigning their remote controls. it’s still time to give up such a ridiculous change.
    You are going to turn épée fencing into something as incoherent as sabre fencing.
    Becoming a referee is soon going to become almost as difficult as being admitted to a top engineering school.

    Jacques Rogge,the president of the CIO from 2001 to 2013 had the right solution. He always thought that turning fencing into a legible sport was an absolute priority.
    And he added: “ fencing is the only combat sport which has an objective system at its disposal to record hits. We should use it fully and program the machines in order just one lamp be lit… “
    All the best,
    D. Bregille

    Denis Bregille

    • Igor Chirashnya

      Hi Denis,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
      Every sport evolves and it’s impossible to stop the progress. Technology evolves and athletes too, both in their athleticism and their technique, as they build upon generation of fencers before them to master the skill. So you cannot stop it turning the sport to what it’s been several decades ago. It does not work this way. We need to continue thinking and improving on the areas of sport marketing and watchability, but not by erasing half century of advancements.
      Now, I believe in your comment you referred to the new unwillingness to fight rule. Actually judging from the last couple of events – one epee WC in Vancouver and another Junior Olympics in Denver, it is a general consensus that epee fencing became to be more dynamic and more interesting to watch. There will be few adjustments here and there, but overall impression that it was quite a positive change.
      And last, if a scoring machine will lock up with one light only, then foil and sabre fencing will become redundant.

  3. Denis bregille

    Fencing is seriously sick. Yet, fencers and reporters commenting on fencing events are rarely bold enough to say that the King is naked for fear they might appear as systematic protesters or backward-looking spirits.
    The concept evolution does not necessarily imply improvement. It may also be a cause of regression.
    Sabre fencing reached a height of ridicule in a recent past when, after a series of half a dozen simultaneous attacks, the referee would toss a coin to decide who had gained the sacrosanct priority, foreseeing a simultaneous fleche attack which almost unmistakably followed.
    How on earth can anyone today defend the image of fencing with the foil and the sabre when these so-called conventions or rules of the game are unilaterally baffled by the fencers with the tacit approval of the referees and international officials alike?
    The eminent Me Raoul Cléry pointed out the impact of this cataclysm in numerous articles. He wondered if it would be conceivable that soccer players might abrogate the off side rule in order they all may flock around the goal with no reaction from the referees as well as international officials?
    I still persist in thinking that we should listen to the pertinent diagnosis of M. Jacques Rogge and program our score boxes in order only one lamp may be lit.
    Why don’t we conduct tests in this direction according to the principle of the first one who hits? Isn’t it high time to try it considering the mediocre show so often offered by so many fencers?
    Denis Bregille – France

  4. Jacques Boulogne - France

    Today fencing with the three weapons is unquestionably more offensive, more athletic and faster but I agree with Daniel that fencing has essentially evolved into an electronic game.
    With the foil most attacks are launched with a short arm and are no longer “conducted”. And yet, the rule which is still valid requires that the extension of the arm should precede the lunge. Foils with orthopaedic handles have become dangerous fist weapons. The foilists attack with their elbows close to their waists and often stab their opponents, a violent move also called “punch hit”.
    In that respect, Me Claudius Wackermann in his Histoire des Maîtres d’Armes, mentions that “after the death of Wladimir Smirnov during The World Championships in Rome in 1982, The Medical Commission of the FIE suggested to suppress all orthopaedic grips, recommended maraging blades and stronger masks. On the other hand nobody questioned certain absurd teaching ways of fencing.”

    In this book Me Claudius Wackermann also reminds us that “the rules which were adopted on June 1914 literally sabotaged fencing with the sabre, restricting its very function. It became a conventional weapon without enabling sabre bouts to be a warlike fight… “
    A sabre is a combat weapon par excellence and by no means a weapon depending on conventions.

    If the score boxes were programmed in order only one lamp be lit, the use of video systems during top competitions would be useless. It would also avoid protests and frustrations from the fencers, apart from frequent interruptions of the bouts which spoil the show. Why haven’t we listened so far to the prophetic recommendations of Jacques Rogge mentioned by Daniel above?
    It is true that it would enable the audience, the referees and the fencers to know instantly who was hit. Refereeing would then be so easy.
    The principle of “the first one who hits” might also be pertinent with the épée to suppress double hits, called “the trick of the two widows” during the duelling period.
    Such are possible therapies among others which might take care of the patient, presently in a desperate state…

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