Foil…epee…sabre, what’s really the difference?
Foil - The Court Sword
The foil used by fencers today is the modern version of the original practice weapon used by nobility to train for duels. It all evolved as fencing for exercise - based on speed and skill – (as opposed to the ability to cut someone in combat), began to emerge.
As this practice became more popular, a longer, lighter weapon was developed. The weapon’s extended length forced opponents to fight at a distance with quick but controlled lunges, attacking the enemy with the point of the sword, replacing rudimentary hacking techniques.
Under Louis XIV in France, a change in fashion led to a new kind of sword, a shorter sword. (Apparently the long sword clashed with the brocaded jackets, breeches and silk stockings). The court sword, as it was known, turned out to be an excellent weapon for fencing because it was both lighter and stronger, so it could be used for defence as well as offence. As a result, the modern one-handed fencing technique developed where the left hand and arm are used primarily for balance.
The foil is designed for thrusting. The blade is very thin, with a blunted (or foiled) tip. Foil blades are flexible enough to bend upon striking an opponent, in order to prevent injuries.
To score points with the foil, the fencer must land the tip of the blade on a valid target: along the torso from shoulders to groin in the front and to the waist in the back. The arms, neck, head and legs are considered off-target.
The concept of on-target and off-target evolved from the theory of 18th-century fencing masters, who taught their pupils to only attack the vital areas of the body (i.e. the torso). While the head is also a vital area of the body, attacks to the face were considered rude and therefore discouraged.
Because the foil was a training sword, it was important for the rules of foil to reflect the logic of combat. For newcomers to foil fencing, one of the most challenging concepts to grasp is the rule of Priority. Basically, priority rule states that the fencer who started to attack first will receive the point if they hit a valid target, and that their opponent is obligated to defend themselves. Subtle changes in foot and arm position can make the difference and are often hard to pick up for the spectator with an untrained eye.
However, if a fencer hesitates for too long while advancing on their opponent, they give up priority to their opponent. A touch scored against an opponent who hesitated too long is called an attack in preparation or a stop-hit, depending on the circumstances.
Although some foil fencers still employ the classical technique of parries and thrusts, the flexible nature of the foil blade permits the modern foil fencer to attack an opponent from seemingly impossible angles. Because parrying (blocking) attacks can be very difficult, the modern game of foil has evolved into a complicated and exciting game of multiple feints, ducking and sudden, explosive attacks, making it a lot of fun to watch.
Epee - (Almost) Anything Goes
While a special version of the court sword, the foil, was developed for practice, another type of sword, the colichemarde, was created for duelling. The blade had a triangular cross-section, with slightly concave sides to reduce weight without reducing strength and the forte was grooved to allow the blood to drain away (and to make it easier to remove the sword from the body!).
As the epee evolved, the idea was to develop epee fencing in a manner that reproduced as closely as possible the conditions of an actual duel to first blood. As a result, in epee the entire body is considered a valid target and there is no priority rule: anything goes (almost).
Epee fencers score a point by hitting their opponent first. If the fencers hit each other within 1/25th of a second, both receive a point - this is commonly referred to as a double touch.
The lack of right-of-way combined with a full-body target naturally makes epee a game of careful strategy and patience - wild, rash attacks are quickly punished with solid counter-attacks. So, rather than attacking outright, epeeists often spend several minutes probing their opponent's defences and manoeuvring for distance before risking an attack. Others may choose to stay on the defensive throughout the entire bout. As an epee watcher you also need to have patience.
Sabre - Slash and Dash
The sabre is the modern version of the slashing cavalry sword. It was quite popular (it was very effective) and was adopted by several European armies. In fact, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the cavalry of all nations practiced sabre fencing and fighting.
Initially heavy and curved, the present day weapon is extremely light and straight. To simulate a cavalry rider on a horse, the target area is the entire body above the waist, excluding the hands.
In addition, sabre employs rules of priority, which are very similar to foil, but with some subtle differences. Like foil, the fencer who starts to attack first is given priority should his opponent counter-attack. However, sabre referees are much less forgiving of hesitation by an attacker. It is common to see a sabre fencer execute a stop cut against their opponent's forearm during such a moment of hesitation, winning right-of-way and the point. Another major distinction of the sabre is that sabre fencers can score with the edge of their blade as well as their point.
The sabre fencer’s uniform features an electrically wired metallic lamé, which fully covers their valid target area. Because the head is valid target area, the fencer's mask is also electrically wired. One significant departure from foil is that off-target hits do not register on the scoring machine, and therefore do not halt the fencing action.
If epee is the weapon of patient, defensive strategy, then sabre is its polar opposite. In sabre, the rules of right-of-way strongly favour the fencer who attacks first, and a mere graze by the blade against the lamé registers a touch.
As a result, sabre is a fast, aggressive game with fencers rushing their opponent from the moment their referee gives the instruction to fence. As fending off the attack of a skilled opponent is nearly impossible, sabre fencers very rarely purposely take the defensive. However, when forced to do so, they often go all-out using spectacular tactical combinations in which victory or defeat is determined by the slightest of margins.