Fencing is categorized into three separate weapons: foil, épée and saber. Historically, each weapon had a different purpose. These differences have carried over into the modern sport and affect how each weapon is used.
Regardless of the weapon, fencing can simply be described as one opponent trying to find an opening to “touch” the other. The one about to be touched must get out of the way or, more often, block the attack (referred to as a “parry”). If the defender were to successfully parry the attack, they will quickly launch their own attack (referred to as a “riposte”). While the tactics may have changed over the millenia, the actions themselves are much like those first illustrated in Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Deliberately designed by Renaissance fencing masters to be the lightest of weapons for handling by young nobles in training, the foil has a small guard protecting the hand and a 35-inch flexible blade weighing about 1 lb. Modern foil fencing continues the tradition of learning to hit where the vital organs are. Electric foil fencers wear a conductive lamé to define the scoring area, which includes the entire front and back of the torso. The foil’s appeal to a fencer like Chris Craig is the “right of way (see below) element which establishes a specific set of rules for hitting the opponent. Because of that, it is very cerebral and the most tactical of weapons.”
A descendent of the cavalry sword, this is a slashing weapon in which the entire blade’s edge can be used to score a touch. It differs from the foil and épée, which require the tip of the weapon to land on the opponent. The target encompasses the entire body above the waistline, excluding the hands, with electric saber fencers wearing a lamé covering torso and arms and holding a guard that sweeps over the weapon hand to protect the knuckles. Sabreur Luis Alvarez notes: “Saber has faster weapon movements and footwork leading to a better workout. Your hand eye coordination is greatly improved as well as your decision-making ability. With the tip of the weapon traveling at just under the speed of sound you must make decisions quickly and confidently or you will be hit."
A direct descendent of the rapier, épée continues the tradition of dueling with the entire body, from head to toe, as the target. While a foilist is not concerned about hits to the head or the extremities (they do not count), an épéeist must guard the entire body. Hence, the guard is much larger, allowing for protection of the hand and wrist. As épéeist Stan Westrick puts it: “The épée fencer must be more calculating than the other weapons. More often than not the épéeist is always looking for the tiniest mistake in the opponent that can be exploited.”
A word about “right of way”
Perhaps the most difficult to comprehend among casual observers of fencing, right of way is a keystone in the scoring of foil and saber bouts. In its simplest form, a fencer initiating an attack has the right of way, while the opponent on the receiving end must successfully parry the attack to end the right of way and score his own touch. Even if both fencers’ swords land on target, only one touch is awarded by the referee, the ultimate authority, who decides the person in possession of the right of way at the time of the touch. Épée does not have right of way rules, hence, both fencers can be awarded a touch during the same encounter.