fencing, sport of dueling with foil, épée, and saber.
The weapons and rules of modern fencing evolved from combat weapons and their usage. The foil—a light, flexible thrusting weapon with a blunted point—was originally a practice weapon. The épée is a straight, narrow, stiff thrusting weapon based upon the dueling weapons of European noblemen. The saber is derived from the 18th-century cavalry saber and the Middle Eastern scimitar and has a flexible triangular blade with scoring edges along the entire front and one third of the back edge.
International rules stipulate that fencers must attack and parry on a strip that is 14 m (c.46 ft) long and 2 m (c.61/2 ft) wide. The strip, or "piste," is marked off by two parallel lines, beyond which the fencer may not step without receiving a warning or a penalty. Protective clothing includes vests, breast protectors, heavy jackets, wire-mesh masks (introduced in the 18th cent.), and leather gloves. A button blunts the weapon's tip, and points are scored by touching the opponent. In foil the torso is the target area; in épée it is the whole body; in saber it is the body above the hip. Winning touches are five in foil and saber, three in épée. Touches are scored electronically except in saber, where judges decide scoring. Although fencing matches are conducted between individuals, team scoring may result from a compilation of individual scores.
The Fédération Internationale d'Escrime (founded 1913) serves as fencing's world governing body and oversees world championships. Prior to the 1960s, France and Italy dominated international competition in foil and épée, while Hungary dominated in saber. Since then Russia, Germany, Poland, Sweden, and others have joined the traditional powers.
Swords have been in use since the Bronze Age, and nearly all people of antiquity practiced swordsmanship. Fencing as a contest has existed at least since 1190 BC, as shown in a relief carving in Upper Egypt from that time depicting adversaries with covered swordpoints and padded masks under the observation of spectators and judges. In the Middle Ages, swords were essential to civilians and soldiers. England's Henry VIII ordered fencing displays. Not until the 16th cent., however, when the light Italian rapier replaced the heavy German sword, did the sport become widespread and the subject of scientific theory. Fencing schools, or salles, frequented by young aristocrats, soon sprang up all over Europe, and fencing duels often settled matters of personal honor. In the late 19th cent., after many countries had outlawed the duel, fencing became an organized sport. Fencing has been a part of the Olympics since the first modern games in 1896, though women did not compete until 1924 and still compete in foil and épée only.
See E. Castle, Schools and Masters of Fencing from the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century (3d ed. 1969); M. Bower, Foil Fencing (7th ed. 1993); R. Cohen, By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions (2002).