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Modern fencing has retained the basic goal of duelling; hitting an opponent with your sword without getting hit yourself. Contemporary fencers, however, use lightweight, blunted swords to play a game of passionate, exhilarating physical chess. One of the original modern Olympic sports, fencing provides a vigorous workout, rewards mental agility over sheer strength & power, and is one of the safest sports. In fact, you're more likely to be injured jogging or playing golf.

The Fencing Piste

Fencers compete on a piste, 14 metres long, 2 metres wide. After each hit is scored the fencers stand in the centre of the piste 4 metres apart behind on-guard lines. Fencing begins when the referee calls "fence" & stops when he calls "halt".


Fencers salute their opponent, the referee, & the audience at the beginning & end of each fight; they shake their opponent's hand at the end of the fight.

Protective Equipment

One of the reasons fencing has such a low injury rate is the gear fencers wear. Fencers wear breeches to at least the knee, with long socks covering the rest of the leg.
An underarm protector is covered by a long-sleeved jacket; women also wear breastplates. The sword hand is gloved, with a long cuff to prevent blades from catching in the sleeve. Foil & sabre fencers also wear lamés, made of conductive material, covering the valid target area. A wire mesh mask protects the head; since the head is valid target in sabre, sabre masks are also made of conductive material.

The Referee

Each fight has its own referee who starts & stops the action, interprets the exchanges, & maintains order. The fencers may consult with the referee & ask for an explanation of a decision, but may not question a referee's interpretation of an action.
Occasionally, the referee must exercise his or her authority to award penalties against a fencer (or coach) for violating the rules. A yellow card is issued as a warning for a first-time or minor offence, such as arriving on the piste with malfunctioning equipment. A red card, which automatically awards a hit to the opponent, is awarded for a repeat of a yellow card offence or for a more serious offence, including refusing to salute. A black card, for the most serious transgressions, is used only rarely & means the offender is disqualified.


Confused by the flashing lights? A red of green light means that a hit has landed on a valid target area. The light on the side of the fencers who scored the hit lights up & the referee then award the hit. When both red & green lights flash, the referee decides who had the right of way in foil & sabre & awards the hit accordingly. (In épée, both fencers can score at the same time.) A white light can be an off-target hit in foil (no hit awarded) or a fault in foil or sabre.


One of the most difficult concepts to visualise in foil & sabre fencing is the rule of right-of-way. This rule was established to eliminate apparently simultaneous attacks by two fencers. In essence, right-of-way is the differentiation of offence & defence, made by the referee. The difference is important only when both the red & green lights go on at the same time in foil & sabre. When this happens, the winner of the hit is the fencer who the referee determines was on the offence at the time the lights went on. Épée does not use the right-of-way in keeping with its duelling origin - the fencer who hits first scores; if both fencers hit within 1/25th of a second, both score a hit.
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