Why Can’t Johnny Pick a Fencing Weapon? Part One: My Three Weapons

In the dark ages, before my first child was born, I tried fencing and fenced for a couple of years until parenting changed my schedule to my kids’ schedule.  In those less enlightened times, the common thought was children should not start fencing until the age of 10 or 12 and should always, always start by learning to fence foil.  The theory went that only after having fenced foil for a time should your child explore fencing épée or sabre.  Today, fencing coaches are starting fencers at ages as young as 5 to 8 years old and children are starting with any one of the three weapons. They do not have to first learn foil and only then try épée or sabre. This seemingly makes things easier for a parent, since they only have to buy one type of weapon for their child. However, with such a choice, how can a parent be sure that they have the right weapon for their child?

This has led to the parental dilemma of “weapon, weapon, do I really have to buy him a different weapon?”  As a parent with two children that fence two different weapons but own at least two of all three types of weapons, usually in both size 2 and size 5, (and don’t even ask me about how many more weapons with different type grips) I know how maddening it can be to fit the weapon to the child.  Unfortunately, you probably should familiarize yourself with the three different types of fencing in order to help your child pick a weapon that he may stay with.

First, the foil is a thrusting weapon that requires the fencer to hit with the tip of the weapon hard enough so the point is fully pushed in.  The target area is the front and back of the torso.  Arms, legs, and the head are not target areas.  For competitive electric fencing, you will need to buy, in addition to the basic fencing uniform used for all three weapons, a specialized (electrically conductive) foil jacket, called a lamé, which shows the torso as the target area.  This is a timed bout of three minutes and may have time run out before either fencer scores the bout winning touch (usually the fifth touch). You should also know, the foil action stops, and begins again from the point at which it stops, if an “off target” touch or simultaneous touch occurs.  Additionally, foil requires the fencer to be on the “offensive” to score when hitting his opponent’s target area.  Being on the offensive, indicated by having the weapon arm extended and threatening the target area, is called “right of way” or “rule of priority.”  This last rule may be something to consider in determining the correct weapon for your child.

Second, the épée is similar to the foil in that it is also a thrusting or hitting with the tip only weapon.  The only rule differences for épée are that the target area is the whole body and there is no “rule of priority.”  Hence, no lamé is required and the fencers may both score a hit simultaneously, called a “double touch.” The fencer does not need to think about being on the offensive to score a point. These are also three minute timed bouts.  Since there is no stoppage for off target hits or determinations of right of way, it may seem suited to having quickly resolved bouts.  However, since it actually “easier” for either of the fencers to score a touch, these bouts are fought more cautiously and also may have time run out before the final touch.

Third, the sabre is different than the foil and the épée since the fencer can score not only by thrusting, but also by cutting.  It is similar to foil in that it requires the fencer to be on the offensive to score.  So, “right of way” applies in sabre.  Like foil, this weapon requires a lamé but unlike foil this lamé has arms since the target area is from the waist up.  Also, the mask is different than foil or épée since it is a valid target area.  Hence, it must be conductive and is connected by a mask cord to the lamé.  Further, unlike foil, the bout does not stop for off target hits.  These bouts are quicker than épée or foil.  They are so quick that unlike either foil or épée these bouts are not timed.

Knowing the differences between the weapons is a great starting point in helping your child choose a weapon.  Parents who are new to fencing usually have not been exposed to fencers competing with the three different types of weapons.  Once you have a basis of how each weapon operates, physical and mental characteristics can be examined in deciding which weapon to choose. So, next time we will look at the physical and mental aspects that are unique to each weapon.

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