Modern fencing dates from the late 15th century when civilians began carrying swords for the first time. Their weapon of choice was the rapier, which was essentially a thrusting rather than a cutting sword, something that could be used to settle matters of honour relatively quickly. It was introduced in Spain and then Italy before spreading across the rest of Europe. But during the first half of the 17th century fashions changed and the long cumbersome rapier gradually became obsolete.
By the mid-17th century the rapier had been superseded in France by the lighter and more manoeuvrable small sword. This was a highly dangerous weapon and even practice versions with buttoned tips could cause serious accidents to the face in the days before masks. What was needed was a way of demonstrating the skills of swordplay in relative safety, and so the flexible foil with conventions governing its use emerged. This new sporting weapon could be manipulated with great precision. Rules restricted the valid target to an area of the body between neck and waist and established ‘right of way’, whereby the attacker’s blade had to be parried before the defender could make a riposte or launch his own attack.
For some 200 years, fencing masters focussed on teaching the genteel art of foil fencing, a stimulating academic exercise that soon became an essential part of a gentleman’s education, along with dancing and music. Those pupils called upon to fight a duel would be briefly prepared for a real combat by learning the techniques of small sword play where the whole body was the target and there was no ‘right of way’.
In the second half of the 18th century, the wire mask was invented. This revolutionised foil technique, allowing the instant parry-riposte and making fencing much more mobile. Although experiments with various electrical systems took place from the late 19th century, it was not until 1955 that the foil events at the world championships were fenced electric for the first time.
Epee fencing was introduced in France in the 1860s as a reaction against the artificial conventions of foil. Many fencers wanted to recreate the conditions of a duel, but without the potentially fatal consequences, and masters responded by teaching pupils how to concentrate on hitting the hand and arm rather than the body. The difficulty of judging whether a hit was good or not led to the development of the pointe d’arrêt, initially a single sharp tip protruding 2 mm from its cord binding and later the safer triple point.
Since the whole body was target, there was no need to differentiate between valid and non-valid hits. As a result epee became the easiest weapon to electrify and, when this happened in the 1930s speed became of paramount importance. The weapon’s golden rule changed forever from “hit without being hit” to “hit 1/25th of a second before your opponent hits you”.
Sabre fencing is derived from military swordsmanship. But the practice swords used in the army were heavy weapons and in the late 19th century an Italian fencing master developed a lightweight sporting sabre that could be manipulated with the speed and accuracy of a foil. By the early 1900s, Italian masters had introduced the principles of the lightweight sabre to all fencing countries. Hungary in particular took to it and quickly established itself as the most successful country at this weapon. Initially, because sabre was regarded as essentially a military weapon used in preparation for combat, the whole body was the target, but after WWI the FIE adopted the modern target area. In 1986 it became the last fencing weapon to be electrified.
All these electrical systems involve connecting the weapon to the scoring machine via wires and reels. But the connections easily develop faults and for years engineers tried to develop a reliable wireless scoring system. In the late 1990s, a Ukrainian company perfected a system for sabre. It was used at the world championships for the first time in 2001 and at the Olympics in 2004, then applied to epee at the 2007 world championships and finally to foil at the 2008 Olympics. Since then it has been used in the final stages of all major tournaments.
It is said that the tip of a fencing weapon is the second fastest object in sport … after a bullet! These days weapons are manipulated so quickly that top fencers don’t really have time to watch an attack developing and decide how to deal with it – they react instinctively, parrying and hitting with movements that come automatically from thousands of hours of practice.
Credit: Malcolm Fare
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