How to watch fencing boutWhen you watch a fencing bout, what exactly are you looking at?

For the novice fencing fan, including parents and even new fencers, it can be confusing to watch fencing. Things move fast, and the bouts only last for a few minutes. It can be a major challenge to understand what’s going on in the lighting movements, and there’s no time for explanation during the bout itself.

With these nine simple steps, you can quickly learn the basics of how to watch a fencing bout, and the bout will be much more exciting because you know!

Step 1 – Know the fencers

This isn’t always possible, but if you’re watching a fencing bout it helps to have some idea of who’s fencing. You might just be able to know what club they’re from if it’s a local match, or if it’s a national or international tournament you can find lots of information online about them. Finding fencers who you love to watch and can follow will help you learn to understand what you’re looking at over time. Plus it helps you to feel more invested in the whole process.

Step 2 – Know the weapon

The first step in watching a fencing bout is to understand that there are major differences in the weapons. Foil, sabre, and epee are all scored with an electronic touch mechanism that’s wired from the uniform to the scoreboard. That’s the biggest similarity between the weapons, the rules for scoring are different for each (more on that later). Knowing the weapon before watching the bout is essential to understanding what you’re seeing!

Step 3 – Know scoring areas

Fencers can’t just hit each other anywhere – each weapon has different areas of the body that can generate a score. Touches outside of the scoring areas don’t count. It’s not just areas of the body that differ, different areas of the weapon can be scoring or non-scoring.


  • Foil
    • Body – torso/trunk ONLY (including the front, sides, and back)
    • Weapon – point only
  • Epee
    • Body – the entire body, including the top of the head, the back, and even the soles of the feet!
    • Weapon – point only
  • Sabre
    • Body – everything above the waist, including the mask and the neck
    • Weapon – the entire length of the blade

Step 4 – Know “Right of Way”

Foil and Sabre (NOT EPEE) are subject to “right of way” rules in fencing scoring. Basically, right of way boils down to the idea that whoever attacks first gets the point, no matter who actually makes contact first.

Step 5 – Know the time

Fencing matches go by FAST! Though every venue is different, at national events and often at regional and even local ones, there will be a visible clock to time the match somewhere in the area of the bout. The clock ONLY runs between when the referee calls “FENCE!” and when she calls “HALT!” – any other time doesn’t count on the clock.

Before the bout, you’ll want to make sure that you know how long the match will be, or how many touches it will go to. Depending on the specific event in the tournament and specific stage of the tournament (pools vs. Direct Elimination, or as fencers call it DE’s), this is different. Pool bouts are always 3 minutes long or up to 5 touches and DE bouts are 3 periods of 3 minutes with 1 minute break or up to 15 touches (2 periods or up to 10 touches for Youth 10 and under categories).

Step 6 – Know the signals

The colors that light up and the hand signals of the referee let you know who’s scoring and what violations might have occurred. Here’s a simple breakdown:

  • Red/green – touch made in the scoring zone, on one side or the other (in every weapon)
  • White – touch made outside of the scoring zone (only in foil)

The referee will raise his hands to show which side scored the point.

In general, each arm goes with each fencer – the right arm with the fencer to the right and the left arm with the fencer to the left. We will write a more detailed post later about how to read the referee.

Step 7 – Know what to listen for

Experienced fencers will often yell when they score. (How fun is that?!) In foil and sabre, it’s not uncommon for both fencers to yell in order to show that they have the right of way (obviously only one does, but they’re both trying to show dominance).

The other things that you’re listening for is the buzz of the scoring machine and the calls from the referee. Perk up your ears while you keep your eyes wide open during a match so that you don’t miss anything!

Step 8 – Know the moves

You aren’t going to know all of the moves that the fencers are making, and that’s completely fine. But if you know a few, then you’re going to get a lot more out of what you’re watching. Here are a few key fencing moves to watch out for.

  • Lunge – direct attack with a forward motion
  • Fleche – basically a lunge with one foot in the air
  • Flying Lunge – a lunge with a jump (air time!), but only in sabre, as the feet cannot cross
  • Parry – a block with the blade
  • Parry-riposte – a block followed by a hit
  • Flick – whipping the blade around in foil and epee, bending in midair to touch untouchable areas (it looks really cool!)

Step 9 – Know what to do when it ends

Once a fencing match is over, if you’re watching in person then cheer heartily for the fencers. These two athletes have worked hard to get through the match! Don’t just jump up and run out, wait for the final winner to be recognized and for the fencers to step off the strip. If you’re watching on TV, hang out for the commentary and replays to learn more about what you just saw!

Understanding what you’re seeing when you’re watching a fencing bout can help you to get more out of it, to improve your own fencing, and to generally make the whole thing more pleasurable. Don’t stop learning! The more time you spend watching fencing matches, the more fun it will be to watch them in the future.