By: Brian Hoerst
The classic sword fight, once a frequent means of battle, has been immortalized in film and popular culture despite its demise as a practical activity. The incredibly personal, one-on-one setting combined with tactical thrusts, parries and counter-attacks has defied the sands of time in one way: fencing. The swashbuckling sport, at a time reserved for upper-class culture, has preserved the majestic sword fight and remains relevant with a wealth of world championships and even a spot in the Olympics.
Fencing is a combination of three weapon classes: épée, foil and sabre. Each category presents a different challenge for competitors, most noticeably the targetable area on an opponent’s body. For the épée, rules are much more lax and the entire body may be touched to receive a point. In foil, thrusts to the front and back of the torso or neck may be counted as a valid action while sabre includes any section of the body above the waist. The weapons themselves are vastly different as well. The foil, the most common piece used in competition, is modeled after the small sword and therefore much lighter than its similar counterpart, the heavier épée. Considered to be more akin to pirate sword fighting than the older practices of foil and épée, sabre competitions are lightning-quick affairs with light slashing weapons.
Fencing can be traced back to Ancient Egypt more than three thousand years ago through time period artwork but declined in practice until the arrival of the Renaissance period in Europe. With the rise of usage of the rapier, a light and fast weapon from which the foil and épée were conceived, the art of fencing and swordplay in general returned.
The site of modern fencing’s creation epicenter lands squarely in Spain. A pair of manuals detailing the sport were written in the 15th century as guilds and schools began appearing shortly after across the continent. Some of fencing’s most notable developments came out of Italy, especially from legendary fencing theorists Camillo Agrippa and Giacomo di Grassi. Among his greatest contributions, Agrippa made a case for the four fencing positions used today: prima, seconda, terza and quarta. DiGrassi advocated for the thrust as the most effective attack as opposed to a slash, which takes longer to land on an opponent and is much less lethal. Along with the popularity of the thrust came the execution of the lunge seen frequently in bouts today.
Throughout the following two centuries, fencing broke free of its deadly practice and became a much safer sport. After the Italians assisted the French in spreading the competition, the latter responded with the creation of the foil and “right of way” rules to govern actions in the bouts. In the late 18th century, French fencer Nicolas Texier de La Boessiere contributed the iconic fencing mask to the sport.
Fencing traveled with French and Italian immigrants to the United States in the 19th century and the first American training school was founded in 1874. Since then, the sword fighting art form has enjoyed worldwide prominence as one of just five sports included in each modern Olympics since 1896 alongside athletics, cycling, swimming and gymnastics. Italy, France and Hungary, all considered birthplace nations for the modern sport, have dominated medal counts at the Summer Games since its beginning.
The final revolutionary development for fencing came in 1936 with the first bouts featuring electronic scoring to replace judges and grant more accurate touches.
Women’s sabre, the final competition to join the Olympic ranks in 2004, has boosted American results at the Games. Mariel Zagunis made history as the first two-time gold medalist for the USA, capturing the first two women’s sabre titles in 2004 and 2008 while she and teammates Sada Jacobson and Rebecca Ward swept the podium in the latter competition. The same year, the American men enjoyed a silver medal finish in the sabre team contest.