The Common Law: How sabre refereeing really works, and how to make it better


Let’s start with a statement that’s both dangerous and self-evident:

At professional level, sabre is not refereed according to the rule book. It hasn’t been for decades.

So what’s going on?

It’s worth noting that this essay is not about the first and last sections of the rule book, the procedural stuff. These parts cover an extensive and very clear set of written rules about things like equipment, the field of play, tournament organisation, conduct of bouts, penalties and appeals. That stuff is basically fine.

Even the bulk of “Part 4: The Conventions of Sabre” is perfectly straightforward, and any competent referee should have memorised the content on technical faults and how to deal with them.

Then comes the “Validity or Priority of the Hit”, and at this point the wheels fall off.

4. An attack with a step-forward-lunge is correctly carried out: a) in a simple attack (Cf. t.8.1) when the beginning of the straightening of the arm precedes the step-forward and when the hit arrives at the latest when the front foot hits the piste…

This definition of the attack has not been followed by a professional referee at FIE level in the decade we’ve been involved in this sport.


It does not reflect the way the modern game works.

So what’s taken its place?

A set of conventions, unwritten rules,  handed down from the top professional referees to their junior colleagues, and which then propagate out through the sport by observation and discussion. We’ve already written about some examples of this before at some length, but let’s revise.

Some of the conventions govern simple and easily codified things, which are presented at pre-world cup referee briefings as direct orders, eg:

A fencer who starts before the command “Allez” should receive a yellow card.

The majority of these conventions, though, relate to the always-prickly problem of allocating priority.

The Common Law

Allocation of priority in sabre is about recognising two things: Intention and Execution. It’s a subjective exercise.

Unfortunately, the formal rules do not provide anywhere near a comprehensive description of priority. Indeed, the concept of priority on the march which is universally followed in modern Olympic sabre does not appear in the rule book at all.

Yet the game largely works, even at professional level where careers are on the line. Why?

Sabre refereeing can be best understood as functioning like a Common Law legal system. There is legislation (the written rules of the game) which provide a relatively stable framework. Then there is precedent (or interpretation) which allows a more adaptable and nuanced implementation of the written framework to the infinite complexities of real situations.

Common Law systems have governed societies with much more complex and important disputes than sabre priority for centuries. Essentially, what has happened in sabre is we’ve developed our own ad-hoc version.

This is why you can’t solve most sabre refereeing questions by looking at the rule book, any more than you can expect to win a court case by representing yourself based on reading the legislation. You’re missing out on an enormous body of critical understanding and information. But where can you get that information from?

The Missing Link

The weakness of the comparison to a Common Law system lies in the documentation.

In a legal system, decisions are published, allowing interested parties to read and understand the existing interpretation.  In sabre, there are obviously no written decisions, and more broadly there is no system for publishing updates on the current interpretation. Indeed, there is no formal acknowledgement that such a thing even exists.

Luckily for everyone involved, the advent of complete video streaming of major tournaments is going some way towards closing the gap. A sufficiently motivated sabre nerd can sit down and examine the patterns of decisions across a season and figure out what the current interpretation is. We now have data.

At Sydney Sabre, we have been attempting to streamline the process by publishing compilations showing the trends. We can make things like this:

It would be a lot more elegant for the sport, though, if it wasn’t up to people like us to figure this out in our spare time.

Allowing Progress

Formal recognition of the situation will require no small amount of courage. It will mean public acknowledgement of the fact that the sport has not been refereed according to the rule book, at professional and Olympic level, for some time.

But leadership on this issue would have enormous benefits. If the reality of refereeing by convention is openly recognised by the international federation, it will free the leaders in professional sabre refereeing to begin to formally and publicly discuss the way the rules of the game are evolving. It would open the door to dramatic improvements in education, understanding, consistency and professionalism at all levels.

So let’s get it done.