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A Short History of Sword Fighting
From the Bronze Age to the Olympics
Egyptian Sword Fighting The earliest evidence of the use of swords dates from the Bronze Age - a time when man needed to hunt for his food and had to be prepared to fight to defend his possessions and family. It is likely that the same weapons would have been used for both hunting and combat at this time.

The first images of sword fighting as a sport appear in an Egyptian temple relief at Medinet Habu near Luxor, which dates from about 1190BC and features the use of masks and referees. The ancient Babylonians, Greeks, Persians and Romans also appear to have used some form of fencing to prepare men for battle.

The sword was the principal weapon of war for centuries and it was not until the development of armour in the Middle Ages that it lost much of its effectiveness. Only certain heavy weapons such as the broadsword could injure a man in armour and even these required a crude hacking action which meant that the skills of swordsmanship went into decline.

The spread of firearms during the 15th century made armour obsolete however and soldiers found that they needed to be able to defend themselves with a sword once again, in addition to using the new weapons. The use of swords was not restricted to warfare as the streets were often unsafe and men had to be able to protect themselves against thieves. A gentleman would also be expected to be able to handle a sword should he be called upon to defend his honour in a duel.

Early 17th Century Fencing Fencing masters organised guilds at which they taught their pupils the skills of swordsmanship and often had techniques that they protected from outsiders like trade secrets. The weapons of that time were still heavy and relied mainly on cutting actions. It was not until the 16th century that the emphasis shifted to the use of thrusting movements for attack with the development of the rapier, an edged weapon with a long blade. The rapier was not an easy weapon to use in defence however and fencers often had to parry attacks using their gloved left hands or a matching dagger (a main-gauche) which was carried for this purpose. It was quite common for pairs of implements to be used: not only the rapier and dagger but also rapier and cloak (which could be used to impede the opponent’s blade) and the swash and buckler (the latter a small round shield).

 18th Century Fencing By the 19th century, the rapier had evolved into a shorter, lighter design that became popular in France as the shortsword. Fencers would attack with the point of this weapon using thrusting movements and it only retained its sharp edge to aid penetration and to deter opponents from grasping the blade. Its shorter length also meant that it was more effective in defence.

The shortsword proved to be an excellent weapon for fencing and the French masters developed a style that featured subtle blade movements and complex attacks. Together with the “right of way” rule that emphasised the need for both offensive and defensive technique (see The Modern Sport of Fencing - Foil), the shortsword was to evolve into modern foil. Indeed, when the shortsword was used with a leather safety point that resembled a flower bud, it was called le fleuret, the name that is still used for the foil in French.

By the middle of the 19th century, duelling was in decline as a means of settling disputes mainly because fighting to the death had been outlawed in most countries. The practice continued, however, with modified rules: it became usual to fight until a significant injury was suffered or until first blood was drawn, when honour was deemed satisfied. The duelling weapon was typically an unedged version of the smallsword, which later became the modern epee. The modern rules of epee adopted the “first blood” principle by allowing hits to be scored on any part of the body and a fencer has only to make contact first, without the need to establish the right of way for his attack.

The third of the modern fencing weapons, the sabre, has its origins in the Turkish scimitar used by the Hungarian cavalry. Other armies copied this successful weapon with its heavy, curved blade and cutting edge. One variation, the cutlass, also became the standard naval weapon. As with the foil and epee, the sabre evolved into a lighter weapon during the 19th century and the modern sporting weapon now also uses a straight blade, but has retained the protective hand guard. The sabre retains the distinction of being the only weapon that can be used to score hits by cutting with the edge of the blade as well as by thrusts with its point. The target area, the whole body above the waist, is still based on the cavalry sword as it represents the visible target on a man on horseback. Interestingly though, the target excludes the legs, even though they would have been vulnerable on horseback, because cavalrymen would avoid the risk of injuring the enemy’s horse which would have been part of the spoils of war. Horses were also considered to be of greater value than men because they took longer to train!

 Early 20th Century Fencing The main developments in fencing during the 20th century concerned the codification of the rules and the introduction of electronic recording apparatus. Although fencing has featured in all the Olympic Games of the modern era since Athens in 1896, and is one of only four sports to have done so, the rules were not formally standardised until 1914. The major changes since that time have involved the modifications required to accommodate the use of electronic scoring, first for epee in 1936, then foil in 1957 and finally for sabre in 1988. There has also been a continuous improvement in the materials used to make fencing equipment: special types of steel have been developed for blades, protective jackets are reinforced with Kevlar and similar fabrics, and the lame overjackets used for foil and sabre are made with lightweight stainless steel thread. Competitions are now also invariably run using computer programs written specially for the purpose.

The sport has generally been dominated by the European nations where its historic roots lie. France, Italy and Germany, together with Hungary at sabre, all featured prominently in World and Olympic championships throughout the 20th century. The break-up of the Soviet Union and the development of the sport in the United States and China have, however, increased the number of countries challenging at the top. Indeed, the ten gold medals at the London Olympics in 2012 were split between six different countries with 13 countries winning medals of all colours. Britain can claim just one Olympic champion, Gillian Sheen at Women’s Foil in Melbourne in 1956, and two senior World Champions, Bill Hoskyns at Men’s Epee in 1958 and Alan Jay at Men’s Foil in 1959, but for a while in the early 1960s the country was rated the third strongest in the world. Successes in recent years have been few, but there are promising signs that British fencers, assisted by lottery funding and a move towards full-time training at the top level, are beginning to make an impact on the international scene once again.

This article can only scratch the surface of this fascinating subject: a simple search of the internet under “fencing history” reveals tens of thousands of sites.

Sites worth a visit
General Reading
FIE history of fencing
Olympic fencing history

Worth a visit in person
Royal Armouries
Specialised Reading
Elizabethan Fencing and the Art of Defence
The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts
Wiktenauer directory of martial arts resources

For more information, contact Stephen Hodges by e-mail at

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