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A Beginner's Guide to Traditional and Sport Fencing
By Doug Werner
Tracks PublishingCopyright © 2010 Doug Werner
All rights reserved.
Inna Nutshell The Game
Two guys face off and try to touch the other with their weapons. The idea is to touch the other guy before he touches you. Best of five usually wins.
The playing field is a long and narrow strip, or piste (pist), 46 feet long and 6 feet, 7 inches wide. It's a forward and backward thing. You can't fence in circles or hang from the rafters like they do in the movies.
In top competition, electrical devices are used to keep track of touches and a judge or judges controls the action. Otherwise it's just the judges. When fencers fence for fun, they keep track of the hits, misses and fouls themselves as best they can.
It's a very fast game and hard to understand at first because the weapons move and hit so quickly.
In the beginning it's one darn drill or awkward foot and hand position after another. But the miracle of fencing instruction is that if you learn with conviction, it all just sort a sinks in (really!).
And then you're hooked.CHAPTER 2
A Place to Fence
Better Shop Around!
You'll need more than a mirror and a broomstick.
A good fencing school or club will provide the facility, the instruction, the gear and the camaraderie you'll need as a start-up fencer.
Get in touch with the United States Fencing Association (USFA) to find the fencing location nearest you (usfencing.org). If there's more than one option, take the time to visit and compare. Check it out before you commit!
It's very important to learn in a place that has the goods with a group you're comfortable with. It's wise to find a bunch that you really like because there's no getting around the need for camaraderie. Interplay is a very big deal in fencing. The instructor teaches you, of course, but the students always pair off and help to teach each other as well. That's how it's done unless you can afford private lessons. Even so, you'll want to fence with someone other than your teacher one of these days. Fencing is not a game of solitaire!
As you visit the clubs and schools, ask yourself these questions:
1. Is the place kept up?
A dirty joint is a turnoff and probably indicates something about the overall quality of the club.
2. Is the rental gear clean and in good repair?
You'll probably rent stuff at first so check out the gear students are wearing and using. Are the jackets grimy? Are the swords bent and beat? Do the masks smell like a stray dog?
3. Is everyone happy?
Does the instructor speak English?
Don't laugh. There are world-class fencers teaching out there who would make a New York cabbie wince.
4. Does every student stay the entire class?
Stay the course of a lesson (about an hour) and see how many "need to leave" before the buzzer. This is an excellent indicator of teaching quality.
5. Is everyone in the class occupied all the time?
If giant clumps of students are moping around doing nothing while the instructor is teaching one or two, there's a problem.
6. Is there a spirit of engagement?
This you can feel. There's a crisp feeling of endeavor in the air!
7. Do you want to be there?
The importance of finding a comfortable and friendly fencing home cannot be overstated. Fencers need other fencers. It always takes two, but to really improve you need the help of all the others, with their different styles and temperaments, in order to round out your fencing experience. You're just beginning, and there's a few months of basic training ahead of you. Choose your club or school carefully.
This is Very Important
The instructor will make it or break it for you.
Make sure you hit it off. Make sure you understand each other. Make sure it's someone you want to see at least twice a week. Make sure they know how to run a class. Make sure they know how to teach you!
Learning is a personal thing and fencing is a personal endeavor. Above all else, look for a teacher you trust and admire. A careless, insensitive instructor will make lessons seem like boot camp (and who needs that!). A good instructor who loves to teach makes learning fun and fulfilling (as it should be!).
I'd like to say that this book will teach you all you need to know about start-up fencing, but it won't. You'll need a good coach above all else!CHAPTER 3
All You Need
You don't need much in the beginning. In fact, your club or school will probably have stuff you can use or rent. Just wear sweat pants, a T-shirt and white-soled sneakers to class.
Your mask should fit comfortably and snug. No rattling around. Make sure the bib underneath your chin covers your neck. If you're interested in fencing at all, you'll buy the mask before anything else. You'll soon grow disgusted with public masks.
The jacket should also fit comfy and snug. No loose fabric. The sleeves should cover the wrists. Too long is OK. Just fold them back.
Your sword hand needs a glove. It should fit snug, fingers to the tips. The sleeve of your jacket must tuck inside the collar of your glove.
As a rule beginners start with the foil and learn foil fencing. It's the most popular form of fencing for one thing and many believe it builds the best foundation for learning. There are two other ways to fence and each has its own special sword. They are epee and saber.
Make sure your foil isn't too beat up, bent along the blade or unraveled at the handle.
I sweat up a storm in my mask. It's hot in there! I need to towel off frequently when I'm drilling or bouting and the sleeve of my jacket doesn't cut it.
There you go.
Anatomy of a Foil
The foil is light and flexible. It can have either a straight French grip handle or a fitted pistol grip handle. The French grip is longer (the length can be used to advantage during a thrust) and can be manipulated by fingers and thumb only. The pistol grip has more of a handle to it and is less likely to be wrenched from the hand.
The French grip has been the preferred handle for
All you need to bring to your first lesson are sweat pants, sneakers and a smile. Your club will have everything else.
Mask, jacket and glove. The mask sets firm on the noggin, the jacket is strapped, snug and buttoned down, and the glove fits snug over hand and sleeve.
Of all your protective gear, the mask is by far the most important. Only your weapon will mean as much to you. With a mask, you'll probably never get hurt. Without it, you probably will.
It's the responsibility of each fencer to check each other out for safe gear and proper fit.
early instruction because it demands that the fencer learn finger control. Don't sweat the difference for now. Just use what your club has to offer. Make sure you try both, however, when you have the opportunity.
The guard is small compared to the other swords in fencing (epee and saber) and separates handle and blade.
The blade has a fatter end toward the handle called the forte (fort) and a thinner end toward the tip called the foible. Obviously, the forte is stronger and less flexible than the foible and is better suited for warding off an opponent's blade.
The tip is capped by a rubber button.
The blade is ultra-flexible and will absorb the shock of even the strongest thrusts.CHAPTER 4
Don't Worry Mom
Let's deal with the Big Question up front:
If you are using and wearing the proper gear correctly, you will not get stabbed or run through in fencing! There are no sharp points or edges on fencing weapons unless they break. All weapons have a blunt tip that cannot penetrate the jacket material or mask. Fencers no longer have to bring doctors to their fencing engagements.
There aren't even any severe pokes in fencing. The blades of the swords are very flexible. When the blade strikes, it bends and absorbs most of the force of the blow. In most cases, the heavy fabric of the fencing jacket is all you'll need in the beginning. If for some reason you and a partner are extremely heavy hitters, you can purchase specially made undershirts to protect you from bruising each other. Or simply wear more clothing underneath. It's advised that women wear plastic chest protectors and men plastic cups.
OK! What you do have to be concerned about is wearing the proper gear. And wearing the gear properly.
Whenever you fence with somebody or with something (like a dummy or a wall pad), always wear your jacket and mask. Even with a wall pad the blade can still break and rebound off your face or body. It does happen.
If a blade breaks, replace it immediately.
Make sure the bib underneath the mask covers your neck.
Make sure your jacket is buttoned all the way and that there's no gap showing between pants and jacket.
Wear pants or long shorts that cover the upper leg. No speedos.
Check your mask for dents, weak spots and breaks.
Check your jacket for holes.
You are a fencer, not a thrasher. Fencing is a game of concentration and skillful maneuvering. Not brute force. The object of the sport is to touch your opponent with the tip or edge of your weapon. You don't pommel, whack or stab. There's little or no body contact. It's not a brawl.
A Special Note
In order to better show blade movement, shrouds have been used over the actual blades in most of the photos. One fencer will have a white shroud and the other a black one. Without them you simply wouldn't be able to see what's what.
In some cases Olivia and Nestor demonstrate something without their masks. Please note that this in no way condones fencing without a mask.
These demonstrations are, in fact, in accord with USFA guidelines because the fencers are merely posing. Besides, since the blades are shrouded there is no safety issue.
Happy faces are optional. However, a wise fencer will develop good cheer in order to counterbalance the intensity of combat.CHAPTER 5
The Gentle (wo)man's Sport
Fencing was bred from a violent past. Using a rough timeline, the 16th century saw the development of the thrusting sword in Europe. Until then the sword was a heavy hacking device. The lighter weapon became part of a gentleman's attire. And apparently they used it.
Guilds of fencing masters grew throughout Europe to impart the skills of swordsmanship. These schools in turn developed fencing technique and equipment. Proficiency in the art of fencing became a necessary accomplishment for the nobility and other members of the aristocracy.
Dueling became a popular method for settling legal and personal disputes because the outcome of these bouts was considered God's Will. Dueling was such a rage that at one time the gentry was in danger of dueling itself to death. Although the ritual was legally banned in England and France much earlier, it didn't altogether cease until (get this) this century.
Dueling gave fencing the traditions of courtesy, customs, officiating and tactics. This is where the concepts of self control and gentlemanly conduct originated. Brutality, lack of weapon control and poor manners were despised. A true swordsman was bound by a personal code of honor. This is where all that aristocratic and ritualistic behavior comes from.
The residue from those days of honor is evident in the modern game. Fencers still salute each other before they fence and shake hands after. Fencers do not argue over touches. In fact, in friendly, non-judged matches, fencers are obligated to personally acknowledge every touch received. Fencers cannot physically bully one another, swear or make threats. Heck, a fencer even needs permission to leave the strip, or fencing area.
The sport has manners. In this era of bellicose display, fencing seems quaint and fragile like a fine piece of china in a prison cafeteria. But it's not quaint, only a little out of time in a somewhat mediocre age. And it certainly is not fragile. Ask any fencer when their blood is up.
Before and after bouts or lessons, fencers salute to fencing partners, judges and coaches. With feet in the first position (at right angles, heels touching) each fencer holds mask in hand and brings the weapon to his face (guard to lips, blade perpendicular). Held there for a split second, the sword is then swept down and away.CHAPTER 6
Footwork is half the game in fencing and it's pretty much the same for foil, epee and saber. The movements are a lot like dancing. To move well in this sport, you must incorporate power, skill and rhythm.
OK, everybody knows this from the cartoons. It's the set up or the starting position. The following is on guard for foil. (There are some differences with the on guard for epee and saber, but we'll deal with that later.)
First you must determine which foot faces forward. The natural order of things dictates that right-handers fence with the right foot forward and lefties with their left foot forward.
Now stand straight. Face a target. Point your forward foot toward the target. Place your other foot at a right angle behind the forward foot, heels touching. This is called first position. (Feels just great, doesn't it. Like someone's trying to unscrew your back leg. OK, now look at your feet. (Oh, no! You're a penguin!)
Next, step forward about a step and a half (shoulder width) and bend at the knees. Keep your torso upright and your eyes on the target. You should feel comfortably balanced, flexed and ready to go. Check out the front foot. It's gonna wanna point back in, but you gotta keep it on line.
Lift your forward arm until the hand is at breast level. Bend your elbow and point at the target. There should be a hand span between elbow and torso. Your arm is directly over your leading leg.
Raise your back arm away from the torso and bend the elbow. Break your wrist and relax your hand at about shoulder level.
This is the on guard position, or on guard. In this position you're in balance, ready to move forward or backward and at the same time ready to attack or defend.
From on guard place the front foot forward heel- first, one step while pushing off toe-first with the rear foot. As the front foot lands, bring up the rear foot one step. Feet should just clear the ground. This is a gliding action. Watch for a bobbing head. Keep the distance between your feet. Don't end up with your feet together.
Simply reverse the advance. Rear foot glides back toe-first propelled by the forward foot heel-first. Each foot moves an equal step, thus maintaining distance. Retreating, by the way, is the number one defensive skill.
To go forward: From on guard swing your rear foot forward and place it at a right angle just in front of the other. Immediately bring the latter forward along the target line.
To go backward: From on guard swing the forward foot backward and place it just behind the other. Immediately take that foot back along the target line taking care to maintain the right angle.
And some trickier moves:
This is a jumping advance with a lunge. From on guard lift the front foot slightly as before, but this time jump from the rear foot and land with both feet simultaneously. As soon as you land make the lunge.
This is a diversionary action. Rap your front foot sharply on the floor.
A very exciting and aggressive attack. The fencer leans forward over a flexed front knee until he begins to topple. Then he pushes off the lead foot so that he propels himself nearly horizontal at his opponent. The rear leg swings forward and the fencer lands on that foot.
This is an advanced maneuver and used in very specific instances. Work on the other movements first.
How well you move will determine how well you fence. No matter how brilliant or how skillful you are with your weapon, your fencing machine needs good legs. Drill yourself through these steps until it becomes second nature. You don't wanna be thinking about your feet during a bout!
A Universal Practice Tip
Start the exercises slowly. Work on perfecting form and technique first. Then build your speed. This maxim holds true with every new fencing skill you choose to learn.CHAPTER 7BLDFencing 101
Everybody starts with foil fencing. It's universally accepted as the proper introduction to the fencing arts. It's also the most popular form of fencing. Foil fencing was designed and created for training purposes in the 18th century.
Point & Thrust
The foil is a light, flexible thrusting weapon. It's designed to score with its point on a very specific target area: the trunk of your opponent's body.
Excerpted from Fencer's Start-Up by Doug Werner. Copyright © 2010 Doug Werner. Excerpted by permission of Tracks Publishing.
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