The point at which the fencer and the sword connect is the grip, and it is an important starting point for fencers.
In fencing, the French grip is the simplest. It is a straight or slightly curved piece of metal, wrapped in some kind of cushioning material, with an enlarged piece at the end called a pommel. It’s old, but it’s been around for centuries for a reason – it’s effective.
Other kinds of grips, like the pistol grip, are molded in various ways to fit into the hand, but the French grip offers no special finger support. It is up to the fencer to create the structure of the hand. Because of this, the French grip is the most malleable and gives the fencer the most latitude in use.
Epee fencers use the characteristic adaptability of the french grip to create a very distinctive fencing style. An epee fencer can hold close to the handguard or further down at the pommel. How the fingers wrap around the grip is also variable, with fencers able to hold the grip any number of ways. With this grip, a fencer can “post”, or hold at the bottom of the grip in order to extend their reach, which can give a slight advantage if used in the right way during a bout.
That flexibility is the hallmark of the French grip, and it’s why it’s been consistently a favorite one of many epee fencers. Those are the basics of the French grip, but why is it so popular at the beginning of fencing training for both foil and epee fencers?
Coaches need to see the wrist and fingers
How you begin with anything sets a baseline for what you will do in the future, which is true for all areas of fencing. We want to create good habits that can stick with a fencer throughout their career. Otherwise, a fencer will have to come back and re-learn things, which is far more difficult than starting off well.
The French grip allows the fencing coach to see at any moment what a fencer is doing with their fingers, something that is not so easy with more complicated grips. In fencing, the index finger and the thumb are the most important in weapon manipulation, and thus establishing the correct way to hold and move the blade is very important.
Is the fencer using their fingers for a touch, or are they using their whole wrist and hand? What is the angle that they are holding the grip at? What opportunities is the fencer missing that they could take advantage of if they were to change their hand position?
What we don’t want to see is a fencer crossing their fingers over one another, holding the weapon too tightly, or twisting their wrist at an awkward angle. Even a slightly bad habit of stacking the fingers can lead to cramping or a lack of dexterity with the blade. When a fencer learns on a French grip, with the help of their coach they get out of the bad habits and are then less likely to carry them on into the pistol grip if they move on to that.
All grips are there to allow the fencer the maximum amount of control, and an experienced fencing coach will know how this can be accomplished. One quick glance at the fencer’s hand will allow their coach to see whether the fencer holds the french grip correctly, due to the protruding pommel. With a pistol, it’s not easy for the coach to see that those things are happening. Keep in mind that a fencing coach knows what to look for thanks to their long experience working with fencers, so they can see things that a novice fencer or a parent would not be able to see.
One of the best things about the French grip for beginners is that it helps coaches to correct them to use their fingers correctly when working with the blade while learning to leverage their dexterity. Fencing is a sport of nuance. The slightest change of the degree position of the blade can make a difference in getting a point and losing a point. A fencer cannot understand that nuance as well if they are holding their weapon wrongly. The fingers and wrist become powerful tools in this way, tools that allow the fencer to move, to disengage, and to get that touch.
Early on in fencing training, we are laying a foundation of understanding. The best fencers learn to sense what their blade is doing as well as learning how their blade is interacting with their opponent. The fluidity of movement and the organic nature of control are keys to fencing naturally and easily. We don’t want to be firm and unyielding! A pistol grip will conceal mistakes that are easily visible with the French grip.
Moving on from the French grip
Only your fencing coach can tell you when you are ready to move to the pistol.
Of course, some coaches and clubs start everyone on a pistol grip in foil right away, because eventually, all foil fencers will move to the pistol. That’s a solid philosophy, and it’s understandable why a coach would choose to do it that way for foil.
For epee, this is very different. The reasons for starting with the French grip are the same as with foil. The difference is that an epee fencer might choose to stay with the French grip, depending on their personality and individual style. (You can read more about French grip vs. pistol grip in epee in this post.) With time, epee fencers who choose to use the French grip develop their own technique that suits them best.
What matters most is not which grip a fencer uses, but establishing good techniques from the start. This is what any fencing coach is going to be most concerned with, because it is their job to guide the fencers in the right direction. The fencing grip is our essential tool for controlling the weapon and thereby for controlling the match! Learning it the right way is what it’s all about.