Sabre fencing FAQ: What it’s all about

Sabre fencing is fantastic and we love it (obviously). But it’s not a well-understood sport, and there’s a lot of misconceptions out there. In the spirit of The Big Tournament In Rio this week, here are some answers to questions we get asked a lot.

What’s the basic aim of the game?

Hit and don’t get hit.


Seriously, though, at its heart it is about the control of distance. Sabre is a game of movement, timing and acceleration to hit. Everything else is built on top.

What is the value of of fencing as a sport? Does it actually teach you to sword fight? and/or I saw this one YouTube video/read this one essay by an angry old Italian man that said that modern sport fencing is totally stupid and doesn’t train The Art Of True Swordsmanship. What do you say about that?

You may as well ask the value of competitive archery to bringing down an elk with a compound bow, or biathlon to fighting Nazis in the Finnish winter, or sprinting 100m on a track to fleeing from a lion. Sure, it’s not the same thing, and a hardcore specialist will probably do it better, but the Olympic athlete will still have pretty solid skills and will be able to take on most random chumps in the real-world variant should push ever come to shove.

If you don't believe us, try having a sword fight with this dude and report back. We'll wait.
If you don’t believe us, try having a sword fight with this dude and report back. We’ll wait.

It’s a way to take a messy, chaotic and dangerous real-world undertaking and turn it into a game, where skills can be both safely explored and rigorously and consistently assessed.

 What’s with the scoring rules? Why is it so complicated?

The modern sport uses a set of scoring rules derived from the original training drills used back when this was actually about winning a life-or-death fight. At their core, they’re fundamentally pretty pragmatic. Over time, they’ve evolved into a standardized way of determining who controls the initiative in the fight.

If you want to know more about the basic scoring rules of sabre, we’ve made a video guide:

It can be roughly summarized as:

  •  When you hit your opponent anywhere above the waist, your light on the scoring system turns on and the fight stops.
  • If only one person hits, that person scores.
  • If both people hit, the person with the initiative in the fight scores. This initiative is called “priority” or “right of way”. The ref has to decide who has priority based on a set of rules:
    1. The first person to decisively attack at the start takes priority.
    2. Once they take it, they keep it until the make a mistake. If they stop, or miss, or get blocked, their opponent can take the priority away from them. It flows back and forth in this way until someone hits.
    3. If both people do the same thing at the same time, it’s a draw, but the refs are trained to look for pretty small hesitations in the attack. This is where it gets technical, and there’s a fair bit of debate about it within the sport.
  • The scoring system is rigged to reward speed: after the first person hits, their opponent has 120ms to hit back, otherwise they’re locked out and their light can’t be turned on.
  • If you chase your opponent off the end of the strip, you score.

If you’re watching the Olympics, fights will be first to 15 points with a 1-minute break when the first fencer gets to 8. Team matches are a relay to 45 points.

Then there's a bunch of this kind of thing.
Then there’s a bunch of this kind of stuff.

We’ll admit it’s more complicated than “the person who runs 100m fastest wins”, but it’s really not that hard. Come on, guys, cricket is a thing.

Why is it so freaking fast? What’s with the whippy car antennas you guys use instead of proper swords? Why don’t you just wear protective gear and fight with a real sabre?

First off, the blades aren’t nearly as whippy as they look in the TV replays. They’re made of steel, and they certainly don’t feel like a car antenna. The top athletes are very, very strong, and are hitting very, very fast, hence the flex.

Metal bends in truck crashes, too.

Generally, top sabre fencers prefer stiffer blades as you have more control and accuracy, but some flexibility is necessary to allow full-power hits to be done safely.

This is going to break someone's ribs.
Nobody is walking away from this one without some epic bruises.

There’s always going to be a trade-off in any combat sport between the ability to fight at full-speed and power, and the risk of injury, both catastrophic and chronic. There’s also a trade-off between mobility and protective gear. Sabre fencing has thrown everything towards the philosophy that if you use a light weapon that bends, you can get away with minimal armour and move naturally, and you can also hit as hard as you like without doing too much damage.

Most of the danger is to your pride.
When you run up against the big dogs, most of the damage is going to be to your pride.

Most HEMA fencing, by contrast, throws the balance the other way, and emphasizes the use of realistic weapons, but the trade-off is that you can’t move as much, and full-power sparring is severely limited by the amount of damage you take every time you do it. In training, HEMA fencers have to pull their hits. We don’t.

All aboard the pain train.
Particularly not the guy on the right. All aboard the pain train.

Fencing sabres are derived from training weapons for fighting someone who isn’t wearing armour, and is moving very fast. The focus is on mobility and control of distance, and in the modern game there is an emphasis on agility and athleticism. This is descended directly from the original nature of the weapon.

Also it means we get to watch this guy, and that's the best thing ever.
Also it means we get to watch this fast little bastard, and that’s the best thing ever.

 Why don’t you just block?

Sabre fencers routinely lie about the target they’re going for (this is called a feint), so blocking is tricky. That said: parries, or blocks, are definitely a thing. They’re easier to see on slow-mo replays, because they’re seriously fast. They’re also usually done in combination with movement: either stepping out of the way, or stepping forwards into the attack, or ducking down, or jumping up.

moar prime
Or you can try more than one at a time.

Standing there and trying to make Big Dramatic Hero Block Like In Movies doesn’t work too good, because your opponent will usually disengage around it.

How this guy gets all of his hits. He always lies, about everything.
How the guy on the right gets all of his hits. He always lies, about everything.

Are there weight categories?

Nope. Just men’s and women’s. Within the current open men’s events at international level, you’ve got athletes who are well over 100kg of power, and athletes who are 60kg dripping wet. When they fight each other, it’s not a foregone conclusion either. Weapons are the great equaliser.

Put it this way: the one standing on tippy-toes just won that fight.
Put it this way: the guy standing on tippy-toes just won that fight.

What’s with all the French?

All of the official refereeing and much of the coaching terminology in fencing will be in French. Historical legacy issues. Sorry, not much to be done there. If it makes you feel better, there really aren’t that many terms to learn and most of them are fairly similar to English.

In contrast, the best arguments usually happen in Italian.
Fencing French is a strange beast with a heavy emphasis on body language.

So what’s the point of it all?

It’s crazy fun to do, it can be super exciting to watch, and if you’re lucky it can be superbly beautiful.

Also you get to yell a lot, and that's pretty great.
Also you get to yell a lot, and that’s pretty great.

Really, what else is sport for?