Origins of Fencing

Sword fighting as sport has existed since ancient Egypt and has been practiced in many forms in various cultures since then. Although jousting and tournament combat was a popular sport in the European Middle ages, modern FIE fencing owes more to un-armored dueling forms that evolved from 16th century rapier combat.

Rapiers evolved from cut-and-thrust military swords but were most popular amongst civilians who used it for self-defense and dueling. Rapiers were edged but the primary means of attack was the thrust. Rapier fencing spread from Spain and Italy to northwest Europe in spite of the objections of masters such as George Silver, who preferred traditional cutting weapons such the English broad sword.

The Spanish school, under masters such as Narvaez and Thibault, became a complicated and mystical affair whose geometrical theories required much practice to master. Italian masters like Agrippa and Capo Ferro developed a more pragmatic school in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, introducing innovations such as linear fencing and the lunge.

By the 18th century, the rapier had evolved to a simpler, shorter and lighter design that was popularized in France as the small sword. Although the small sword often had an edge, it was only to discourage the opponent from grabbing the blade, and the weapon was used exclusively for thrusting. The light weight made a more complex and defensive style possible, and the French masters developed a school based on defense with the sword, subtlety of movement and complex attacks. When buttoned with a leather safety tip that resembled a flower bud, the small sword was known as le fleuret, and was identical in use to the modern foil (still known as le fleuret in French). Indeed, the French small sword school forms the basis of most of modern fencing theory.

By the mid-19th century, dueling was in decline as a means of settling disputes, partially because victory could lead to a jail term for assault or manslaughter. Emphasis shifted to defeating the opponent without necessarily killing him, and less fatal dueling forms evolved using the dueling sword, or pe de terrain, an un-edged variant of the small sword. Later, duels often ended with crippling thrusts to the arm or leg, and fewer legal difficulties for the participants. This is the basis of modern pe fencing.

Cutting swords had been used in blood sports such as backsword prizefights at least as far back as the 17th century. Broadswords, sabers, and cutlasses were used extensively in military circles, especially by cavalry and naval personnel, and saw some dueling application in these circles as well. Training was performed with wooden weapons, and stick fighting remained popular until Italian masters formalized saber fencing into a non-fatal sporting/training form with metal weapons in the late 19th century. Early sport sabers were significantly heavier than the modern sport saber and necessitated a strong style with the use of moulinets and other bold movements. As with thrusting swords, the saber evolved to lighter, less fatal dueling forms such as the Italian sciabola di terro and the German schlager. Hungarian masters developed a new school of saber fencing that emphasized finger control over arm strength, and they dominated saber fencing for most of the 20th century.

Dueling faded away after the First World War. A couple of noteworthy duels were fought over disputes that arose during Olympic games in the 1920s, and there have been rare reports of sword duels since then. German fraternity dueling (mensur) still occurs with some frequency.

The first modern Olympic games featured foil and saber fencing for men only. pe was introduced in 1900. Single stick was featured in the 1904 games. pe was electrified in the 1936 games, foil in 1956, and saber in 1988. Early Olympic games featured events for Masters, and until recently, fencing was the only Olympic sport that has included professionals. Disruptions in prevailing styles have accompanied the introduction of electric judging, most recently transforming saber fencing. Foil fencing experienced similar upheavals for a decade or two following the introduction of electric judging, which was further complicated by the new, aggressive, athletic style coming out of Eastern Europe at the time.

Women's foil was introduced as an official Olympic game in 1924, and Women's pe in 1996 (although it has been part of the World Championships since 1989). Women's saber made its first appearance in the 1998 World Championships as a demonstration sport, and will likely appear in the 2004 Olympics as part of a combined team event.