Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Referees and Right of Way/Priority

Referee judging a foil bout, looking who has a final Right of Way or Priority

We can learn everything about right of way or priority, as it more often called, we could master every aspect of its understanding, and yet we would not be the final word on it. The referee is. Always. 

Some people say that right of way is subjective. It is not. But since it is up to the referee to decipher the fencing phrase, some referees might see it differently than other referees. In their head, the referees are shaping the actions of each fencer into these phrases. They are looking at the actions of the fencers with a keen eye that is clued into this specific and important point of right of way, because it is so essential. 

To understand right of way, you need to understand the referee’s perspective. It’s so incredibly important for fencers, because without understanding this you will always be stuck. Let’s dig into some specifics of referees and right of way. 

Good referees – consistency, feeling and listening

Being a good fencing referee is hard. 

Good referees are always consistent. For example, in two cases of the same phrase they will award exactly the same touch. No matter when this phrase happened, not necessary even in your bout. It can happen in another bout, for example with your pool opponents. 

Lets forget the physical, mental, and stress aspects of this craft and focus only on the technical side. The actions in fencing are really fast, especially when it comes to a more advanced level. There are many phrase exchanges between fencers. They continuously go from attack to defence and their blade action is lightning fast. The craft of the referee is to really decipher what just happened.

It is often said that referees judge the attack based on the feeling and the defense on the hearing. What does this mean? A good referee hears how many beats were made on a blade. Is that one? Two? Three? More? When they cannot see with their eyes (which happens more often than not), they can clearly hear with their ears. One beat – the attacker beat the blade of the defending fencer. Two beats – the defender took a parry, three beats – the attacker went for a counter parry. That’s the value of listening. The feeling is another thing – the referee “feels” the intention of the attacker. They see it in so many clues – the hand movement, the footwork, the whole body language that create this “feeling” of commitment to score in an attack.

You also see it quite often (I would dare to say that definitely in every sabre bout and quite a lot in foil bouts) that both fencers will yell in a triumph when they go for some touches (for example, in a simultaneous attack). This is usually done to indicate to the referee that it was their intention to attack and score. Remember from the definition of the right of way how important is intention of the last action? Since referees “feel” the phrase in addition to seeing it, it wouldn’t hurt to add a bit of assurance to their feeling, right? 🙂

Referees and a video replay review

In high level tournaments, for example, starting from top 8 or 16 at USA National level tournaments (e.g., NACs, Nationals) and at International level competitions, you will see a video replay. The bout is recorded from touch to touch and the last phrase can be reproduced by the video. Oftentimes the referee will either retreat to the video review and analyse the last action, or there will be an appeal from one of the fencers on the last call that referee made. 

What happens during the video review is the referee, with the help of another referee who is responsible for the video part of officiating the bout, will review the action. This additional referee not surprisingly called video-referee. Sometimes main and video referee will review the last phrase several times to see how they can correctly apply the definition of the right of way. Sometimes what the main referee thought she saw on the strip will be clearer in a video review. Then she will make her final call, which cannot be appealed, based on that review. 

How fencers can adapt to the referee

An essential part of fencing is understanding how the referee sees the phrase. 

It is very important to understand how the referee sees the phrase and thus decides on it. What they can separate and what they cannot. How they see the interruption, continuity, intent. While they all have “objective” definitions, referees might see them differently. One can separate and count in their head three blade beats in a secord, and another can do that with only two blade beats. One can see the difference in a start of attack that happen in half a second earlier than that of an opponent, and another in one quarter second. There are many more things that can be seen differently by the referees. These things might decide the winner for that bout! One might have focused her attention on legs and another on the arms, for exactly the same action! Referees are humans and their feelings, attention and tiredness are the same as that of any of us. 

As I said before, a good referee will always be consistent. You need to adapt to that consistency. How?

Look at things as opportunities instead of obstacles. For example, suppose you go for simultaneous attacks time and again. You think you start first but the referee consistently calls it quits. She clearly cannot separate your actions and your opponent’s actions. Instead of growing angry at the referee for not being “fair”,  adapt to her! Change your action! Go for a beat instead of step-lunge, or do a fake attack and hit your opponent with a parry. By changing an action, you not only win the next point, but you will get a few other “intangible” points from your coach, teammates, referees and opponents that will see in you a smart person that knows how to change in the heat of the bout

Also, in high level fencing you will also witness a “strange” situation. In some action there was only one light and thus the point is clearly awarded without any dispute. Yet, oftentimes good fencers will ask the referee what was the phrase. This is not to argue about the point (nothing to argue in this situation!) but about to learn how the referee sees the phrase, so next time they will be able to adapt to the referee.

Ability to adapt is an important quality for successful fencers.

Young referees

I’ve written a lot about the importance of young referees, because it is critically important for fencers to ref. Being a referee changes the way that you understand right of way, among so many others things. What changes dramatically is your perspective. You start to see phrases and actions differently, you start to be able to feel them and hear them like a ref does. And an additional great side benefit – you learn what annoys referees and what earns their respect.

Fencers who referee start to realize why certain calls are made “against” them or “for” them. It will totally change the way that you think about fencing in this way, giving you a totally new dimension. I don’t know if you can fully understand right of way unless you have been a referee at some point. At the end of the day, a fencer has to make an impression on the referee in order to be awarded right of way. You have to show the referee that your action was intentional, started first and went uninterrupted. 

What usually happens when young fencers start to ref, is that they are able to decipher actions that happen in front of them for the first time. It is truly a lightbulb moment. 

I should be clear here that I do not necessarily mean a paid job of being a referee. I mean being a referee at every possible occasion – in a class, in open fencing, during the warm up pre-competition bouts. 

Most coaches will start teaching their students to be referees. This is important. Without ability to be a referee, young fencers will have a very hard time really internalizing the concept of priority in right of way weapons. It is only when they see the phrase, voice their explanation and interpretation, hear the arguments of their peers and classmates (which will be plenty!), that it all solidifies. Refereeing can be an act of humility in a good way. Young fencers have to learn why their understanding of a phrase was wrong, why and how they misinterpret who and do something about it in that or next touch. They have to hear the correction of the phrase from the coach or more experienced friend. It’s only then, with this kind of time, that the concept of the right of way will sink in their heads.

Referees are the heart of the issue of priority. They are the keepers of its complexities. The more you think about the referee’s perspective, the better you will be able to really internalize and understand the concept! 

If you want to learn even more about priority and right of way, read our two companion pieces to this post – Right of Way or Priority for Dummies and How to Learn Right of Way or Priority. It’s a massive concept, so it takes a lot to parse it all out!


A Dummy’s Guide to Right of Way or Priority in Fencing


How to Learn Right of Way/Priority


  1. R

    You wrote “Since referees ‘feel’ the phrase in addition to seeing it, it wouldn’t hurt to add a bit of assurance to their feeling, right?” Social economist Malcom Gladwell wrote in “Blink” that our reptilian brain discerns before our conscious, and sends a signal via our vagus nerve to our gut. Refs rely on gut feelings. “Adding a bit of assurance” can be annoying, especially if done when obviously false. You also describe how refs “…see the interruption, continuity, intent.” I slice time finer than coaches, thus seeing interruptions they don’t – leading to disagreements.

    • Igor Chirashnya

      I don’t advocate to yell at every touch, but describe a common situation and one of the reasons behind it. And I agree – one of the ways to adapt to a ref is to know when she or he is annoyed 🙂

  2. Alan Buchwald

    Again, Igor- thanks for a nice article. I find it helps in tournaments, especially pool bouts, when you have an opportunity to watch the director of your opponents’ bouts, it allows you to see how accurate they will be; it also allows you to see what actions they might miss. Then you can plan your strategy for the bout to come, adjusting to the director’s viewpoint.

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