This edited article about fencing originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 704 published on 12 July 1975.
Many fencers call their sport “high speed chess” because you cannot win a proper sword fight without thinking out your moves several steps ahead of your opponent.
The dashing film actor Errol Flynn, who did as much as anybody to popularise fencing with his many exciting swashbuckling roles, once said he felt more like a ballet-dancer than an actor when rehearsing a fight sequence for the screen.
“Every move you make has to be according to a plan,” he said. “It’s worse than remembering lines – that’s why nobody ever speaks in the course of a fight.”
Duelling with swords – outlawed in Britain since the early 19th century – has a very long history. The Ancient Egyptians of over 3,000 years ago made temple carvings of men fencing.
Originally, of course, it was developed as part of the training soldiers needed to remain alive in the heat of battle and set “moves” taught to them were still being used by cavalrymen in training drills in the Victorian era.
No man armed with only a sabre could have hoped to have lived long in the Battle of Waterloo or survived the Charge of the Light Brigade without being so efficient at what is called the “Cut, thrust, parry” of swordsmanship, that he could do it in his sleep.
The same rule applies in modern fencing. It is not until the basic moves become automatic that one can forget about them and concentrate on the “chess” strategy of thinking ahead to outwit one’s opponents.
Bill Hoskyns, a Somerset fruit farmer who in 1958 became the first Briton ever to win a world fencing title, once compared it with learning how to drive.
“When you first try to adjust speed, operate the clutch, remember which foot to put on the brake, use the signals, look in the mirror, watch ahead and do the hand-signs all at the same time, it seems an impossible task,” he said.
“But gradually, and particularly after you have passed the Driving Test, these things become automatic. You don’t have to think about them and can concentrate upon anticipating what the person ahead – or even two cars ahead – is going to do. That’s what it is like in the basics of fencing. You can’t begin to win until you master the technique and begin to think ahead.”
Three different types of sword are used in competitive fencing – the foil, epee and sabre. The foil is the lightest, and the one with which most people learn; it is also the only weapon used by women in competition. Foil fencing is a very popular but complex art. The person attacking has the initiative for scoring – which is allowed only with the point (or ‘button’) of the sword on the trunk of the body. When an attack is parried, the initiative passes to the defender’s riposte, or counter-attack.
The epee corresponds more to the duelling sword beloved of the Three Musketeers and other fictional fencing heroes. It is the same size as the foil, but with a stiffer blade and fighting rules with this weapon are much more simple than with foil.
The epee developed as a training weapon for actual duellists in the 19th century, the men who slapped each other across the face with their gloves and then met at dawn in some misty wood to settle their differences – usually with a doctor in close attendance.
Obviously, with such a deadly history, the object of epee competition is to score a hit without being hit yourself. Modern electric timing apparatus enables the difference in time between hits – which can be made on any part of the body – to be accurately recorded. If both opponents strike each other simultaneously it is recorded as a double hit unless one was made more than 1/25th of a second before the other.
The sabre is a heavier duelling weapon with which scores can be made with the edges as well as the point of the blade, but only on the upper part of the body and the arms. The rules are more complicated than for epee fencing, and a number of judges – usually five – are needed to decide the sequence of hits or cuts.
In all competitive fencing bouts the first to score five hits (four in the case of women) is the winner, but victory must be achieved within a time limit of five or six minutes of actual fencing for each bout.
Fencing as an artistic pastime developed rapidly after the invention of the wire-mesh face mask by a French master fencer named Le Boessiere towards the end of the 18th century. With the addition of padded protective clothing, the less dangerous it was the more popular it became.
In Britain, the sport had been banned for several centuries as a “ruffianly, brawling exercise” before Henry VIII revived it about 1540 by granting fencing teachers a coat of arms and starting the organisation now known as the Amateur Fencing Association – the ruling body in this country. It is to commemorate the benevolence of Henry VIII that British fencers are awarded a Tudor Rose badge when they reach international status.
Mass fencing contests, held in public, were very popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. A number of experts would gather together and offer to fight all-comers, either one at a time or all together until only one was left. The winner was termed ‘Master of the Stage’. It was at this type of contest that James Figg, the first British boxing champion, introduced bare-knuckle prize-fighting as a diversion. By the end of the 18th century the boxing contests had almost entirely usurped the fencing fights in public popularity.
Arranging sword fights for films or theatres is a specialist job only undertaken by experts. In the days of the great film epics at least one major Hollywood studio, Paramount, employed a full-time “Master at Arms” whose job it was to work out every step and blow of a fight to make the actors look like professional swordsmen. As Errol Flynn said, “If you forget to duck, your career can come to a quick end.”
Working out an exciting fight routine in which the actors slash and thrust at each other up and down stairs, jumping on and off tables, sometimes fighting several opponents at once can take weeks of painstaking work. One film fight-arranger has recalled how all his preparatory work for a long duel was undone when he arrived on the set and found that one of the actors was left-handed.
Because of the constant training required, the speed and agility needed and the heavy clothing used, they say that you never find an overweight fencer. It is also a sport you can practise until well into middle-age; in fact one Hungarian was nearly 50 when he became world champion.
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