The Basics: Getting Started with Fencing

How material is presented in skill-learning situations is critical. The coach’s ability to demonstrate each technique is of the utmost importance. It a demonstration is good and practices well structured, it might not be necessary to give too much information at once. For example, I once asked a group to extend their arms to match mine. I was criticizing them for not extending fully when a pupil pointed out to me that mine was not extended fully either, albeit due to a permanently broken arm.

In some sports, it is the depth of knowledge of the coach that produces the champions. One gymnastic coach was riddled with arthritis, but produced an Olympic gymnast. The coach not only has to overcome his limitations, but to overcome the problems of his pupils. While the extent of the coach’s knowledge has to be considerable, the amount of information given to an individual must be the minimum necessary to cure a fault.

Well-structured practices will enable the fencer to progress at his own level in a logical way. As all individuals are different, pupils will progress at different rates and should be allowed to progress at their own speed in order to realize their full potential.

Schools and Clubs

Many factors have led to a downward trend in developments in schools. There are fewer training colleges with fencing clubs; fewer people from the Services with knowledge of fencing; and as fencing is a minority sport there is little or no funding from the education authorities, therefore, headmasters will not lay out for expensive equipment.

Fencing is not part of a PE programme. Because many teachers do not run out-of-school activities, clubs have benefited by an increase of young members. (Many children love seeing sword-fights on television and films and play sword-fighting with their friends.) However, there is little opportunity for most to develop a serious liking for fencing as there are so few fencing clubs and of those, few that cater for children; any other classes are usually held too late for them to stay up for and lastly, adults do not like working with children. Competition is also an essential part of a child’s make-up, but this should only be carefully introduced, once the basic skills have been grasped.

Basic Language

The age at which youngsters are introduced to fencing varies in different parts of the world. I would recommend starting at eight years old, but some seven year olds are big and strong enough. It is difficult, if not impossible, to say what should be taught at any age. The Russians give youngsters specific tests in flexibility, fitness, co-ordination, aggressiveness and mental aptitude. If they do not succeed, they are encouraged to try another sport.

The four stages in the learning process:

  1. The beginner
  2. The developer
  3. The improving fencer
  4. The advanced fencer

The period of time of each stage depends on the ability of the fencer to assimilate knowledge and transfer this into a quality performance based on the quality of coaching and guidance the individual receives.

Only a certain number are going to be internationals and a few Olympic stars, so basic skills must be taught correctly at first. Some might not reach beyond the first stage, but should still enjoy their game through acquiring a sound basic language.

The beginner must develop a feel for the right weapon. Children can now get size 2 and size 3 foils, which are much lighter and easier to manipulate. The coach should get pupils to work together in pairs. He should set them a specific task and should reassess each lesson he may have to adapt during a particular lesson either to a group or to an individual.

When i first started fencing, it was six months before I was allowed to cross swords. The pendulum has swung the other way and there is too much free play because coaches do not have a structured programme. When the pupil has a sound basic foundation. he can be introduced to a minor competition and encouraged to play against good players.



Shoes should be comfortable and roomy, as feet swell after a lot of activity. When choosing your shoe, it is important to ensure that the width is correct. The width of your hand is the same as your foot and so if your hand lays flat inside the shoe, it should be the correct width for your foot. The shoe should be flexible: you should be able to bend the toe to the heel. The back of the shoe should be firm and not bend over.

It is best to take both a leather-soled shoe and a rubber one to competitions since it is not always possible to know in advance the surface of the piste.


Fencing can be considered to be one of the safest sports because of the amount of ‘ protective clothing used. Patched and worn clothing should not be worn. Care should be taken in washing and the instructions on the label followed. Clothing should be hung and dried after use.

Clothing should allow free movement, especially under the armpits and also in the legs. Either in training or just as a base level, leggings are a popular option. They’ll help to absorb moisture and offer a little extra comfort under your breeches. The British Fencing Shop have a range available on their website but you can find the same leggings cheaper (without the BF logo) at


The jacket should be of cotton and zip up at the rear. Ladies’ jackets allow breast protectors to be added. When buying, make sure that the jacket is loose under the armpits, across the back, and long enough in the arms and body.


Breeches should fasten below the knees and on the opposite side to the fencing arm. They should also be loose in the legs so that they allow the fencer unrestricted movement when lunging.


Gloves should be of soft white leather and have light foam padding. It is important to try gloves on before buying.


Masks are very important. They should be comfortable and not wobble on the head. Care should be taken of the mesh and it should be examined regularly, especially if someone hits it hard. It should not be left with sweaty clothing in case it goes rusty. One should never lend one’s mask to another fencer. Everyone’s head is a different shape and it puts a strain on the back-piece, which can break (although back-pieces that are elastic are less vulnerable). The bib of the mask should be firmly attached and checked regularly. Leon Paul masks are marked with a blob of metal on the top denoting small; a letter M denoting medium (or no indication), a single disc denoting large and two discs for extra large.


You will need a non-electric ordinary French-handled sword, size 3 for under-14s. size 5 for over-14s. Paul Etoile is a satisfactory blade for beginners.

The cost of a foil is less than most other sports’ main equipment, but before you buy any equipment, discuss your individual requirements with your fencing coach who will be able to advise you. The majority of sports shops have no idea of what is what.

Maintenance of Blades and Masks

Blades should have a slick of oil applied, and then be wiped clean before use. They should be lightly burnished so as to get rid of rough edges. Guards should be inspected for rust and bent guards should be reshaped.

Blades are pre-tempered by the manufacturers and, if used correctly, will last a long time. Rough play or full lunges at close quarters will result in badly bent blades. A blade kinked in the opposite way to the natural bend should be discarded, as it is dangerous. If you get a large bend the other way, lay the foil on the floor and draw your foot several times along the blade, then use your hands to straighten it. if you draw the blade at an angle it could break.

Maintenance of masks includes regular checks to see that the mesh is not damaged. After use, they should be wiped dry as breath condenses on the wire, as does perspiration. The stitching in mask and clothing should also be checked regularly and any necessary repair undertaken by a professional.

Instructions for Rewiring Electric Foils

1. Remove blade from weapon.

2. Remove retaining grub screws, also tension spring and tip; clean tip with cleaning fluid.

3. Remove wire from blade (it might need to be prised out), a Stanley blade will do the trick. Break the wire at base point.

4. Remove the wire contacts inside the base by pushing a paper clip or similar wire into the base from the blade.

5. Clean blade thoroughly. Remove all traces of the old resin.

6. With the groove in the blade uppermost, bend the tang downwards so that the end of the tang is 2 1/2cm (1in) out of line with the blade. Also bend the blade downwards about 6cm (2 3/8 in) from the shoulder. This ensures that the blade wire will sit down at the shoulder where the blade groove is shallow. Wind some tape around the middle of the tang.

7. insert the blade wire into the point base, lay in the groove and pull taut. Apply the resin. Allow to dry for twenty-four hours. To ensure that the wire sets in the groove, bow the blade to the extent of a normal kit and allow to set in that position. When dry, unwind the wire from the tang, remove the tape and mount the blade.

8. Assemble the point.

Choice Of Weapon

There are three main weapons: foil, épée and sabre. Foil fencing is the basis of all modern fencing. Masters abroad will encourage pupils to pick up one weapon and one weapon only, but in Britain, pupils tend to have a go at all three.

The development of the foil has been largely influenced by the Italian and French schools. In the eighteenth century, the rapier was too heavy and cumbersome to wear in society. The court sword developed blade was shortened and the hilt was smaller. The lighter weapon had to be used with considerable skill and precision. Fencing can, from gymnastic exercises, become graceful accomplishment. Stress was placed more on shortness and speed of movement than on strength; and the manipulators, that is thumb and first finger, were emphasized. A famous maxim attributed to the French master Jean-Louis and in the film Scaramouche: ‘A foil should be held as one holds a bird; not so tightly as to crush it, but just enough to prevent it escaping from the hand.’ When the duel declined and fencing came to be regarded as a sport, both the French and ltalians developed their toll play. The

Italians retained the quillons within the guard while the French relied on finger-work.

The French foil is the most subtle, and in speed of blade-work excels, owing to the free play allowed to the fingers. Today, we have the orthopaedic-aid pistol grip, but my preference for beginners is to practise with the French grip and work on the dexterity of the fingers.

The foil is, split into portions. There are two main sizes of foil: a size 5 for adults and a size 3 for youngsters, much lighter than the adult’s blade. Before use, especially in cold weather, rub the blade on the sole of your shoe several times. This causes friction and warms the blade. This technique is also useful when you have hit your opponent awkwardly and caused the blade to bend the wrong way. Never stand on the end and hope to straighten it -it will snap. The reason for warming the blade is that when metal is cold it is brittle and a broken blade in competition can be dangerous.

Your own personal foil is the weapon you will use in practise and to win fights and you should get used to the feel and the balance of it. Several times. i have blindfolded a pupil, put his sword amongst others, and every time he has picked out his own. So it is essential that you should have your own as soon as possible.

When you buy a foil, press the point to the floor, bending the blade. On release it should straighten. If it does not, or if the blade bends with difficulty, do not buy it. Choose one that feels comfortable in your hand.

To test the equilibrium of the foil, place the forefinger of the hand along the blade about an inch from the guard. The foil should be equally balanced in order to project the point to the target.

The maximum length of blade from guard to point is less than 90cm (35 3/8in), maximum diameter of the guard is 12.250m (4 3/4 in). The maximum weight is under 500g (17 5/8 oz). It is best to have a lighter blade. The total length of hilt from inside of guard to pommel is 23cm (9 1/8 in).

Quite often, when buying a foil, the tang is straight and with the handle on it does not feel comfortable in the hand. Ask your coach to set it for you: he will slightly bend the handle down and to the left (if you are right-handed)

Fencers use pistol grips to withstand stronger beats and parries. They give a stronger grip and are used by fencers for tough fighting, but these grips do hinder the use of thumb and forefinger. Foil play will lay the foundation of style and style is of importance for success in sport.

The Grip

The manner in which the foil is held is all important. With the French handle the ferrule should be towards the guard, arching upwards and curved to the right. Place the handle on the second joint of the index finger, and grip firmly, placing the thumb on top of the wide face.

Lay the other three fingers along the handle so that the fingertips lay alongside the narrow left-hand edge. Make sure that the thumb and index finger are against the pad. (Some try to hold the handle by the pommel, supposedly to gain length, but a strong beat will deflect the blade and leave the target open.) Do not pinch or nip the handle. When properly gripped, the pommel is close to, but not resting on, the wrist. When you are more experienced. turn to one o’clock with the thumb on top; the fingers are on the side, the foil is in half superation.

The other positions can be mentioned. Pronation, knuckles on top; and supination, fingers on top.

The thumb and index finger, that is the manipulators, not the wrist, control the blade. They control lateral, circular and semicircular movements. The other fingers are relaxed and are called aids. They give assistance by opening and closing the handle.

There should be no gap between the thumb and handle. Many people bend the hand so there is a rounded curve between hand and wrist. This strains the tendon, causing tiredness, and keeps the blade too low to be manipulated. Look at the base of the thumb if gripped properly there should be a hollow.


The Target

The characteristics of fencing at foil are: the restriction of the target to the trunk of the body; the timing of the hit; and the distance from the target when the hit is made. Most books show the torso cut into four: sixte, quarte, octave, septime (or high inside, high outside, low inside, low outside). I do not agree with this conventional description of the target because if you are on guard in sixte and asked to parry quarte, you do not go through sixte in order to get to quarte. If you have a position of central guard, yes. Quarte is left of your blade when you are on guard in sixte and, conversely, sixte is everything right of your blade when you are on guard in quarte. This also relates to octave and septime and also applies to the position of your hand, either high or low. If you hold your hand high, everything beneath is low; if your hand is low, everything above is high.

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