In a nutshell – it’s complicated! Fencers can (and do) fence for years without knowing all the rules and the rules change, so you have to make an effort to learn and keep up to date. So if you’ve arrived at this page we are pretty impressed with your dedication already!
There are some rules that are common to all weapons, and some that are weapon specific.
If you are reading this, chances are that you know the basic difference between the three weapons (foil, epee and sabre) and hopefully you have started fencing at least one of these. If you haven’t and you want to Explore: The Weapons click here.
Stuff that’s common to all three weapons: So, there are rules around the size of the piste, the position of the lines, penalties when you do something wrong (there is a penalties sheet here, a really good place to start before your first competition), the structure of a competition (poules, direct eliminations – more info in Explore: A Competition) and so on.
Then there is stuff that is weapon specific – rules about the different equipment, target area, interpretation of moves.
Epee is often seen as the easiest weapon to understand what is happening – you have to hit your opponent before they hit you to score, and if you both hit each other at the same time it’s a point each. Except if you break a rule and do something that makes the hit invalid – eg you parry (fencing word for block) the blade with your back arm, you are off the piste when you scored the hit (note that your opponent can still score a valid hit on you if they are still one foot on the piste), you turned your back, you physically body checked your opponent (a special word for this in fencing – corps a corps), and more.
As foil and sabre are ‘right of way’ weapons this means that the person who attacks first has right of way and the opponent must make them miss (block/parry, step out the way so they ‘fall short’) before they gain right of way and can try to score a hit. This means that even when you see two coloured lights come up on the box, only one fencer will score a point.
Sometimes fencers will go precisely together and if both coloured lights come up, no points will be awarded. When you are just starting out watching fencing it can be a bit difficult to work out who started the attack first. Even when you are fencing in a match you can also be convinced that you started first, not everyone watching would agree! This is why in competition it’s the referee’s job to interpret the rules about what is an attack (it’s not just who moves first!).
Referees are super important people in fencing, they will have studied, trained (often for years) and achieved qualifications so they are best placed to decide whether hits can be awarded. They are also human as well so mistakes can happen especially when top class athletes are moving incredibly quickly! This is partly why in top competitions we now have video replay.
In fencing we have penalty cards which are given
Whilst black cards aren’t that common there are a few things that you might not realise can get you a black card.
Importantly though it’s not really ever OK to start yelling at/arguing with the referee in fencing. You can politely ask for clarification of a decision and if you think they have misapplied a rule you can appeal to DT (more on who DT are can be found in Explore: A Competition). However, do remember appeals to DT should be on fact, not opinion and you are unlikely to win an appeal (there are some rules around using video refereeing but if you are reading this you will probably be a few years away from needing to know how this works!)
The rules of fencing are set by the World Governing Body of Fencing (the FIE) and almost every year the rule books will be updated with minor changes. There are a set of books which make up the rules:
British Fencing adopt pretty much all of the FIE technical rules – this is so that when our fencers travel abroad and fence internationally they are competing in the same sport!
Where we differ:
If this is all sounding a bit complicated don’t worry. You will be taught the rules by your fencing coach and there are some great videos on YouTube where you can see examples of rules being correctly applied. If you aren’t learning to fence yourself (maybe one of your family members has just started) then the best advice when watching is to sit back, leave the decisions to the referees/coaches and just try to enjoy it for what it is – people having fun with swords!
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