Foil is a point weapon, meaning that hits are scored with the tip and only on the valid target area. Developed in mid-17th century France as the sporting counterpart of the court sword, it allowed the skills of swordplay to be demonstrated in relative safety by restricting valid hits to the torso. Rules were also established whereby the attacker’s blade had to be parried before the defender could make a riposte or launch their own attack. These basic conventions still apply today and it is the referee who decides which fencer initiates the attack and therefore alone scores if hits arrive simultaneously.
Also a weapon of convention, sabre follows the same rules as foil but it is a ‘cutting’ weapon, meaning that fencers can hit with the edge of the blade as well as the point. This weapon is derived from the cavalry sword and the target is everything above the waist.
Epee is derived from the 19th century duelling sword and replaces the artificial conventions of foil and sabre with just one aim: to hit and not be hit – anywhere from head to toe. But if each fencer hits within a 25th of a second, they both score.
Fencing matches take place indoors on a special surface called a piste, 14 metres long and 1.5 metres wide. Fencer must stay within the confines of the piste to avoid a penalty.
For protection, fencers wear a vest and jacket, a mask, and a glove. They also wear breeches and special fencing shoes. Foil and Sabre fencers also wear a special metallic over-jacket covering the valid target area. Wireless fencing has been introduced in recent times so fencers at the Olympics will also wear a special t-shirt, transceiver and a mask with lights indicating when they hit.
Fencers are connected through a wireless system to a scoreboard which displays when hits are made. For epee and sabre the system is simple as coloured lights on the side of the scoring fencer show up. In foil there is also a white off-target light. When such a hit is scored the referee will stop the fight but continue it from that position on the piste.
Fencing like Tennis uses technology to allow fencers to challenge a referee’s decision. The hit will be reviewed on video and the decision can be upheld or overturned. The number of these challenges is limited to two unsuccessful in any individual fight and one unsuccessful in each fight in a team match.
Each bout consists of three rounds of three minutes each in epee and foil with one minute between rounds. Sabre is so fast that the referee calls a single one-minute break when one fencer reaches eight hits. The winner is the fencer who first scores 15 valid hits or who scores the greater number of hits by the end of the fight. If the fencers are level by the end of normal time, a final minute is fenced and a random generator indicates which fencer will be considered the winner if no hit is scored in that time.
A team consists of three fencers and the winning team is the first to score a total of 45 hits on the fencers of the opposing team or to score the greater number of hits by the end of the bout.