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epee, foil, and sabre

by Marina Kraujalis

When you’re talking about fencing, the first question you must ask is always which weapon? This is the surest way to integrate yourself into the fencing community and to show that you know your stuff. While fencing is the general sport, there are three distinctive and different divisions—foil, épée, and sabre.

The weapon divisions in fencing are much like the divisions in other sports, such as softball and baseball or college versus pro football. While they are essentially the same sport, there are slight variations and differences in the rules, attitude and strategy. Each weapon is isolated to itself. In bouts, a foil fencer would only fence with another foil fencer. Also like many of today’s other sports, gender is isolated in competition.

All three weapons in fencing may be identified by the guard, which protects the fencer’s hand holding the base of the blade. The foil’s guard is round and small, resembling a CD. When it comes to the grip of handle of the blade, fencers have two choices: The pistol or BLANK grip, which fits perfectly into a hand with maximum point control or the French grip, which is simply a curved rod (not as popular).

The foil is the lightest of the three styles of weapons weighing in at about 1.4 lbs. The foil was originally created as a practice weapon for the epee. Its lighter weight offered the fencer more maneuverability and speed. The foil’s target area is also the smallest… which is limited to just the torso of a person’s body. In this way, a duelist would become better at aiming at his opponent’s vital organs. To win a “touch” or point in today’s fencing tournament, competitors must touch his or her opponent’s metallic vest within the proper target zone and with enough force that it registers on the electronic scoring equipment.

The “en guard” or ready position for the foil is very similar to that of the épée. It is set so that the tip is ready and able to touch the opponent as soon as the bout’s action begins.

The typical foil bout is more active than an épée bout with smaller, faster movements. Foil fencers tend to be on the compact side, though not necessarily shorter. They commonly have an acute attention to detail and perfection.

Movies where you may have seen theatrical foil: Disney’s The Parent Trap

This is an épée. You can tell it apart from the other two fencing weapons because of its large ‘cereal bowl’ guard. This weapon is the heaviest of the three, weighing in at about 1.7 lbs.

It is no double-handed broad sword, but because this is a sport, and not a war, it is a great advantage to have a light weapon for speed and accuracy, rather than fatality. Notice the tip is rounded with a button mechanism and wires running down the grooves on the side of the blade. This is how points are scored in competition. Like the foil, there are two different grips for the épée: the French grip and the pistol or BLANK grip.

The épée is the original dueling weapon - without the sharp edge. Gentlemen of the era often settled their disagreements or affronted honor with a duel, and the winner was usually decided by the drawing of first blood. The use of the épée today is directly linked to its origins. The target area is the entire body because as a dueling weapon, it did not matter where you hit your opponent, as long as blood was drawn. The tradition of épée is also why modern fencers wear an entirely white uniform. It was more honorable to wear entirely white when fighting a duel so the first blood would be seen easily, as opposed to wearing black where a duelist could try and conceal the fact he had already lost. It is easy to spot an épéeist because they wear only the pure white uniform and no mesh vest.

An épéeist is usually a deep thinker and is not afraid to spend time concocting the best move.

Épée is one of the two point weapons in fencing; this means that you score by compressing a button at the very tip of the blade. The en guard position is focused on the tip, with the blade level to the floor.

The épée has the longest bout time of all the weapons. One action in épée can take up to several minutes. Épée is all about taking the time to read your opponent by his/her blade movements and setting up the action. There is a lot of slow preparation for a very long and fast finish. It is common for an épéeist to be very tall because one of the principle maneuvers of the weapon is the fleche (a running attack), where the person with the longest arm has the advantage.

Movies where you may have seen theatrical épée: 007 Die Another Day, Propel commercials

This is a sabre. However, it is not to be confused with the type of sabre you might see in a museum. This sabre does not have a sharp edge, but the edge still holds special significance. Unlike épée and foil, sabre does not have a button mechanism on the tip of the blade to score. The tip is simply turned over to make a blunt end. You commonly hit with the full length of the blade. It creates more of the classic ‘swish’ and sweeping movement. The weapon’s most obvious feature is the guard that wraps around the grip like a hand shield.

The sabre was developed as the cavalry weapon, which was used when fighting from horseback. It would have been very difficult to use the point or finesse of a foil or épée while trying to ride a horse, so using the actual length of the blade of the sabre instead was much easier. Modern sabre fencers do not have such conditions to contend with in their battles, but they still follow the tradition of the weapon. The sabre target area today is from the waist up, drawing from the idea that when fighting on a horse it was foolish to aim for anything lower with the mounted rider. In competition, sabre fencers wear a metallic jacket.

The en guard position in sabre is different from the other two weapons because they are not as focused on their tip. The blade is upright and ready to swing away.

The action in fencing sabre is the fastest in the sport. At times, the actual touch can last less than a second. This weapon attracts very aggressive people (less technically, the ‘fighters’). Not only is it fast, but it is also considered to be the more brutal division of the sport.

Movies where you may have seen theatrical sabre: Zorro, The Three Musketeers


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