Fencing is a game played with swords. The aim of the game is to hit the other person first. Everything else is detail.
Sabre fencing grew out of military sabre combat. What started as sword fights to the death gradually became the modern sport we see today, with non-lethal blades and bulletproof clothing. But the sabre remains at its core a military weapon, and sabre fencing a military combat sport.
This might sound like I’m stating the obvious. But, as it happens, the sabre is the only weapon of military lineage left in the sport of fencing. The other weapons, foil and epee, derive from civilian weapons; fashion accessories for duels and bar fights between aristocrats, rather than a soldier’s tool.
The version of the sabre used for modern fencing is either Hungarian or Italian by design — my coaches had differing and strident opinions — and largely unchanged from its lethal origins. It is a light sabre, developed from lightweight (and usually ceremonial) sabres worn by officers as a sidearm rather than the heavy sabres wielded by rank-and-file cavalry. The version used in fencing keeps the guard and grip and most of the other attachments of the original, only crafted from modern materials.
The main difference is in the blade, now rendered blunt, with its edges ground off and the tip rolled over, and bendy, so that the impact of the hits are absorbed by the sword and not by the fencers’ bodies. These modifications allow sabre fencers the freedom to hit properly and still be friends with their sparring partner afterwards.
Why should you care where the fencing sabre comes from, aside from historical interest? I find it helps to dispel some pre-conceived ideas about sabre fencing from the outset, ideas which make it difficult to learn how to wield a sabre properly and play the modern game.
Above all, the sabre is not, and never was, a duelling weapon.
A duel is a contrived affair to settle a point of “honour” between two men. A person today reading contemporary accounts of duels would probably find the whole thing bizarre. Two men in a field, cordially chatting to each other for an hour beforehand, their seconds and their surgeons with field medical supplies doing the same on the sidelines, all watched over by a bunch of spectators in the distance. The duellists eventually face off and fight, but stop every time one of them lands a hit, to get their wounds dressed and their weapons sterilised again, before resuming the duel.
Because duels were illegal, and death by duel considered murder, the participants rarely fought with any gusto. Rather, the idea was to score some hits, look good while doing it, then retire for a nice glass of champagne with your second or even (former) adversary.
Sabre bouts, even the purely sporting version we play now, bear little resemblance to a duel, or the bouts played by the other weapons in fencing. Sabre is fast, ridiculously fast, each exchange over in seconds. The hits are viscerally brutal. Sabres cut and thrust, hack and slash, anywhere above the waist — every hit a crippling blow, save only for the safety equipment worn by both fencers. Sabre fencing echoes the desperate moments when a soldier, unhorsed, has to draw his sidearm and fight on the mud.
There are no horses in modern sabre, or mud, or blood for that matter. But the original spirit remains. Two fencers, armed and armoured, awaiting the signal to hurl themselves at each other for the kill. The aim of the game is to hit the other person and not get hit. Everything else is detail.
To be fair, there are a lot of details.
For starters, there’s the weapon you use and the armour you must wear to not get killed — swords are, or were, lethal weapons after all. Then there is the field of play, the surface on which you fence; these days it is on a metal piste, a surface that an objective observer might think an odd choice to conduct a sword fight upon. Then there are the rules for what you can do, and can’t do, and should do to score points to win the game. The official ruleset for fencing spans four volumes, dozens of supplementary decisions, and thousands of pages.
Add to that the years of unwritten conventions that govern how actions are judged, and the decades of tactics to exploit them, and you may well find yourself in the same perplexed state I was when I first walked into a club with the simple desire to hit someone in the face with a sword.
Relax. The core of the game is anything but perplexing.
A game of sabre fencing is called a ’bout’. Two fencers face off against each other on a long and narrow ‘piste’, awaiting ‘on-guard’ at their ‘start lines’, 4 metres apart, for the referee to start each ‘exchange’.
The aim is to hit the opponent to score a point. Each exchange (or assault, in French), can result in either a single point awarded, or a draw in which neither fencer scores.
The bout is over when one fencer accumulates the number of points that they need to win, either 5 or 15, depending on the format they are playing.
Under normal circumstances, there are only three ways to score in sabre.
The first way is to hit and not get hit. Modern sabre fencing uses electronic scoring equipment to detect hits anywhere above the waist and along their arms to their wrist. The detection mechanism is basic: the moment a sabre touches the metal jacket (the lamé) of the opponent, an electric circuit closes, and the scoreboard lights up.
Fencing has a precise definition of what it means to hit and not get hit. From the moment the scorebox detects the first hit, it measures the elapsed time; after a set period, it prevents a second hit from being detected. These days the period, or cut-off time, is 180 milliseconds — about the same as a trained athlete’s reaction time.
The second way to score doesn’t involve any hitting at all. You can score a point by compelling your opponent to retreat over their end of the piste — the ‘back line’ — with both feet. There are various ways you can do this, short of physically shoving them over the line. Trickery is often involved.
The third, and last, way to score is to hit with ‘priority’ (or ‘right-of-way’). If both fencers hit within the cut-off time, the referee awards the point to the ‘attacker’. The attacker is the first fencer to launch their attack at the start of the exchange. But if they miss or the attack is blocked — ‘parried’ — their opponent becomes the attacker with priority. If the opponent’s attack subsequently misses or gets parried, the first fencer regains priority to become the attacker again. And so forth, until one of the fencers lands a hit.
That’s all you need to know to play a game of sabre. Suit up. Hook on. Come on-guard. Fence. Score. Halt. Keep fencing — until the bout is over.
The comments I hear most often from people who see sabre for the first time are all about how fast the fencers move.
The reason is because the sabre is optimised for the attack. Sabres thrust, and cut and hack and slash. You can hit with the front edge, the back edge, either flat sides, and with any part of the blade from tip to guard. The hits are brutal, made more so by the rule of priority which allows the attacker to kamikaze themselves to score the point. Sabres are hard to defend against, and hard to defend with. The very nature of the weapon pushes you to attack, for self-preservation, if nothing else.
Hence why sabre fencers launch themselves at each other at the start of the exchange. They must attack, or at least threaten to attack. The attack is so overwhelming in sabre that to defend from the outset is either a sign of foolishness or supreme arrogance; such is the advantage that sabre fencers routinely elect to attack into an attack, Akira Kurosawa-style, in the hope of making ‘simultaneous actions’ for a draw, rather than risk the defence.
When they do defend, they tend to do so by making their opponent’s attack ‘fall-short’ rather than attempting to parry. Or to counterattack their opponent first, by surprise, then evade the subsequent hit. This is what drives the speed and agility that sabre fencing is known for; mobility is far more important than bladework.
While it takes years of practice to move the way that top sabre fencers do, it only takes a few minutes to learn how to move well enough to fence sabre respectably. The main thing to remember is to move naturally.
The starting point is the on-guard stance. This is the position you adopt at the beginning of each exchange. It is designed to put you in the best position to sprint forwards off the start line while retaining enough balance for you to change direction and defend.
At this point, many textbooks and coaches show you what the on-guard stance looks like and get you to copy it. But my experience has been that this is usually unsatisfactory. Different people move in different ways, with different joint angles and body dimensions, and thus different stances. So, instead, I will guide you through a series of exercises that should guide you into your version of the on-guard stance, rather than specifying a template for you to mould yourself into.
First walk forwards and backwards. Then jog forwards and backwards in place. Notice your ankles flexing and extending, your weight on the balls of your feet, and your heels lifting up from the ground first and landing back down last. Some people don’t put down their heels at all. This is fine.
Now turn your sword arm side forwards so that your front knee is pointing forwards. Your back knee should be directly behind and pointing somewhere off the side, usually at about 45 degrees. A line drawn between your ankles should point straight forwards.
That’s it. You are now in on-guard stance.
A cautionary note before we proceed.
Some textbooks and coaches advise you to turn your back leg out exactly 90 degrees from your front foot, so that your feet are at right angles to each other. These are usually the same textbooks/coaches that teach you to put your heels (rather than your ankles) in a straight line, lift your toes up first when you step, land your lunges into a perfectly grounded pose, to bend your knees low, and generally move like a clockwork crab.
Don’t do this. If you are lucky, you will gradually develop chronic arthritis in your knees. If you are unlucky, you will dislocate one of them — usually the back one.
Strictly speaking, the on guard position your referee expects you to adopt at the start is on-guard in tierce, or ‘3’. This is one of eight or so standard guard position in sabre. Guard 3 places your blade upright on your sword arm side, shielding your arm, flank and cheek.
Before you move your sabre into the on-guard position, you need to know how the sabre is put together, and how to hold it.
The modern fencing sabre consists of only six components: the blade, the guard, the grip, a pommel, a socket and a guard pad.
The blade is made of carbon steel or maraging steel. They come in a few different designs, all of the same length, but differing in profile, weight and stiffness. The main things to note is that the blade has a front edge, a back edge, two flat sides, and that it tapers from a thick forte section near the guard to a thin foible that ends in a rounded tip. Other than being a little thinner, a little bendier, and a lot blunter, the modern fencing sabre blade is much the same as an actual sabre blade.
The same goes for the guard, which takes the form essentially one of two standard “shell” designs, with a wider lip on the outside edge and a narrower one on the inside edge — this determines whether the guard is right or left handed. Most guards are made of steel and reasonably heavy. Some fencers favour a lightweight guard of aluminium or something more exotic; others favour a heavier guard than normal with thicker flanges. The choice is largely a matter of personal preference.
The grip is usually made of plastic or metal, and covered with rubber or leather, though some old wooden ones still bob up every so often. The vast majority of grips follow a single design: a rectangular column with smoothed edges, bent in the middle, with a flat surface on top for the thumb and a rounded tail end for the fingers to grip around.
The rest of the parts hold the weapon together. The socket clamps onto the guard next to the grip, and connects the weapon to the scorebox. The pad lines the inside of the guard to cushion the thumb during guard clashes. The pommel screws onto the tang of the blade and binds every other component together — under significant tension, so sabres occasionally explode in a clattering shower of bits during bouts when a blade breaks.
To hold a sabre, wrap your middle finger around the bend in the middle of the grip. Place your thumb on the flat top. Make a fist.
The best way to tell whether you are holding your sabre correctly is to write your name in the air, in cursive, with the tip of the sabre. Whatever your fingers do at the end of this exercise is the way you should hold your sabre.
Ignore all other advice you may have heard or hear about putting this finger here, or that thing there, “holding it in your fingers”, or imagining that the grip is a softball or a baby bird or an egg or any other analogous object/creature/foodstuff. A sabre is a sabre. Hold it like a sabre, not like something else.
Some people hold the sabre up the top near the guard, with their knuckles against the guard pad. Others “pommel” by holding their sabres down the tail end of the grip for extra range. Do whichever feels more comfortable. The sabre feels lighter and more responsive if you hold it up the top. It feels weightier and more accurate when you hold it down the bottom.
However you decide to hold your sabre, enter the guard 3 position by placing your sabre blade upright on your sword arm side. If you’re right handed, this is to your right; left-handers hold it up to the left.
The exact position varies from person to person, and from coach to coach. But the purpose in every variation is to protect as much of your body as possible from hits to your flank, and make it as easy as possible to move the sabre to protect your other, exposed, parts.
Imagine a triangle in front of your body. The triangle’s apex is above your head, one corner is next to hip on your sword arm side, the other corner reflected on the other side of your body. Make the triangle big enough to cover every part of your body above the waist. Put your sabre guard at the corner next to your hip, blade pointed towards the apex. Your blade should now be in the path of potential hits to your sword arm and your cheek on that side. This is guard 3.
Once you are in position, make sure your sword arm elbow is tucked inwards from your sabre guard. Otherwise you look like a chicken, and your opponent can hit you on the elbow around your sabre.
Your sabre guard, thumb, and forearm should also be in a straight line. This braces your sabre against any incoming hits with your body. Do not bend your wrist to make your sabre turn out further; if you must, do so from the shoulder. You can test whether you are in alignment by doing a one-handed pushup on your sabre guard: this should be easy if everything is in position, and impossible if it is not.
Hitting is easy with a sabre. It is designed to hit, after all.
The secret to hits in sabre is the same as with any other sword: the pointy end goes that way. Don’t get ideas about hacking and slashing from the arm. You will only open yourself up to being counterattacked or worse.
Move the tip of your sabre first. Imagine an arc from the tip to your opponent. Then trace that arc with your sword as quickly as you can.
The closest target you can hit is usually the head. It is possible to hit the wrist or forearm, which are closer, but those targets are also partially obstructed by your opponent’s sabre and easy them to yank out of the way. The head is easier to hit, followed by the ‘flank’ on the sword arm side, and the ‘belly’ or ‘chest’ on the off side.
A hit to the head, from the on-guard stance in 3, is a ‘direct hit’, because you take the most direct route from where your sabre is to the opponent. A hit from the same position to the opponent’s flank or belly is an ‘indirect hit’. There are always two possible paths for an indirect hit: a ‘short arc’, and a ‘long arc’. The short arc hits earlier but is easier to parry; the long arc hits later but is more vulnerable to being counterattacked. Pick whichever best fits your opponent: do they prefer to parry or counterattack?
When you make a hit, lean in. This gives you more power from the momentum of your body, and more range so you don’t fall short. Aim the hit through your opponent, and leave your sword in position afterwards — allowing for recoil — before returning to on-guard position. This is a good habit to cultivate now so you learn to deliver hits with all your force, and so you can later learn more advanced techniques like opposition, extension and counter-parries.
Don’t keep your torso upright when you hit, or snatch your blade back after impact. It hurts, looks bad, and it’s embarrassing when you miss.
Opponents rarely oblige you by staying still long enough, or close enough, for you to hit them from a standing start. So you will need to go to them.
Remember how we moved earlier when getting into on-guard stance? The same movements can be used to move while in stance.
Start by jogging up and down in place, then forwards and backwards without crossing your feet. Each time you jog forwards — front foot steps forwards, back foot follows — you have made an ‘advance’. Each time you jog backwards — back foot steps back, front foot follows — it is a ‘retreat’.
Link them together: one advance, one retreat; two advances, two retreats; three advances, three retreats. You can make advances or retreats as large or small as you need to, depending on your circumstances. The movements are like those of a tiger, only done with two legs, and for much the same reasons: little padding steps when stalking your opponent, a canter to cruise into distance, and a massive gallop before you pounce to hit.
You can move backwards with retreats and by simply walking or running, crossing your feet. But you are not allowed to cross your feet forwards. There is no physical reason for this rule; it was introduced by the international fencing federation (the ‘FIE’, or Fédération Internationale d’Escrime) after 1988 to stop some enterprising Germans from charging down their opponents and beating them into a pulp. Or so the rumour goes.
When you want to hit your opponent, advance into range, then hit them at the same time that you make a forwards ‘step’ to close the distance. A step is not the same as an advance; it is made with just the front foot, whereas an advance is a front step followed by a back step.
What range should you hit at? The range is however close you need to be to land the hit. Where possible, this is where you can hit your opponent with the biggest step you can launch, with a small error margin in case they move back. The ideal range is where you can comfortably hit without being so close that your opponent to counterattack you or pre-emptively hit your blade away, a ‘beat’. For most people this is about 2 metres away.
Against opponents who are fast or have long arms, you may not be able to reach them with your normal step. You can make your step fly further by adding a fast advance beforehand, to gain the momentum that extends your step by another half metre or so. If you make a huge step, and stay in an extended pose after you land, it is called a ‘lunge’. Add a preceding advance and it is an ‘advance-lunge’, the staple attack move in fencing.
And that’s it. That covers all the basic moves you need to fence sabre. There are, of course, thousands of other moves — skips and skitters, feints and flunges, disengages and cutovers — plus every variation and tactic and strategem that people have thought up in at least the last century since fencing stopped being a martial skill and became a martial sport.
But you now know everything you need to know to fence good, competent sabre. The rest of the sport is just detail.