Did you and your friends swordfight with sticks in the backyard, imitating the fights from Star Wars, the Princess Bride, Robin Hood?
Of course you did.
The modern sport of fencing differs from these movie duels, just as any martial art differs from stage combat, but the techniques are all the same. In fact, those movie duels were all choreographed by modern fencing masters.
The basic difference? Movie duels are slow. The audience has to be able to follow the action. Real swordplay is much faster, much more subtle. The goal is to hide your intention, to touch your opponents without their understanding how you got through their defenses. All the while, your opponents are scheming how to do the same to you. This trains the fencer for intense strategic concentration: one nickname for the sport is "physical chess." It also trains strength and endurance: fencers have to be able to instantly close or widen their distance from an opponent, so their legs must be powerful engines. Finally, in the midst of this exertion, fencers learn to remain relaxed, precise, graceful, so that their hands can execute small, precise actions with the blade. It all happens faster than the eye can see: the tip of the fencing blade is the second-fastest object in Olympic sports... after the bullet. Faster than the arrow. Fencers learn to sense things their eyes can't see, make dozens of decisions within a breath.
There are three weapons in the modern sport: foil, epee, and sabre. They are described in more detail in the .pdf attached below, and on this link, which gives great video and still illustrations.
In sum, the epee is derived from the dueling sword: in duels to first blood the target was the whole body. In epee, the fencer protects his/her hand as vigilantly as his/her heart. The foil was developed as a practice weapon for combat: it is lighter and quicker than the epee, and the target is limited to the opponent's vital organs: the torso. The sabre was the cavalry weapon, so one is allowed to hack and slash as well as hit with the tip. The target is the entire body, from the waist up.
Most students of fencing begin with foil. The US men's foil team happens to be ranked #1 right now, containing four of the top ten foilists in the world... here is a feature on one of its members, which came out before the 2012 Olympics:
As fencing has grown in popularity, the US team has become better and better. Our women's sabre team is perennially the best in the world. We have medal contenders in all six weapons. Here's Lee Kiefer, one of our best women foilists, in a world championship semi-final against an awesome Italian fencer.
By the way, Race is tall and rangy, Lee tiny. Fencing is a unique sport in that it does not favor a particular body type. Anyone can do it, have fun, learn, and, if they choose, excel.
Check out these lightning quick gentlemen in the team gold medal bout at London 2012.
Want to see some great touches? check out the bout below, in which American Miles Chamley-Watson beats one of the great Italian foil fencers. Lots of slow-motion instant replays here.
Finally, here is the World Cup medal round from San Francisco, October 2014. Baldini/Nista starts at 19 minutes. Nista scores some classic touches with parry riposte and long attacks, but Baldini controls the bout with judicious countertime attacks. Cadot/Luperi starts at 42. Cadot likes to advance with absence of blade... his advance establishes right of way.... when he draws a counter-attack or a big parry, he finishes. Two lights, but his attack all the way. And he doesn't miss. Have you noticed that there are three lefties in the final four? Finally, Cadot/Baldini starts at 1:05: watch the games they play with quick closing of distance. At 1:14, Baldini executes a perfect straight fleche that beats any possible reaction from Cadot. He goes ahead with a disengage to the flank, is soon leading 10-8. And then? Cadot remains calm.
Wait!... here's one more bout, from the North American Circuit tournament in Reno 2015. Andrey Tyschenko had smoked me 5-0 in the preliminary round, and I knew I had to work very differently this time around. I stayed very active, as you'll see, and played distance games, trying to get him to bite and then either getting far out of range or very close, trying to frustrate him, make him miss. There's one riposte and a counter-riposte, but all the rest of my touches are direct attacks in countertime.
Hey, fencing is fast, right? Well, here's what it looks like in 1/8th time... each touch repeated in slow motion. (Of course, under settings, you can slow any YouTube video down to .5 or .25 speed if you want to create your own replays).
My new fencing hero is Yuki Ota, a Japanese foilist, olympic silver medalist, and world champion. Look him up on YouTube: not only does he fence in a beautiful, supple, balanced style, he also inspires his opponents to fence more classically and cleanly.
Okay, here's a bout we lost, but boy, what fun team fencing is.
And finally, check out this awe-inspiring traditional French lesson. Look at how small the movements are, and how precise! Check out the balance and relaxation that creates such quickness!
To be fair, this is a lesson for a different world of fencing. Below is what fencing looked like when I started... notice how both fencers have their blades in front of them at all times, how they extend to target, how they NEVER prepare with an absence of blade, how small and precise their footwork is. Much less theatrical! All the angles are different. The lines are direct. Fascinating, right? Some rules have changed... the timing on the machines is different, and, as the subtitles will explain, touches were scored against fencers: the lights were reversed. Bout to 10, win by two. Enjoy.