Fencing, the martial art of European sword fighting, originated from the training routines used when swords were commonly carried as personal weapons in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. Over time, fencing has become a legitimate sport and was among the first to be featured in the modern Olympics. Along the way, specialized equipment has made the sport safer, more accurate and more enjoyable for participants and spectators.
As fencing progressed from a form of fighting to a sport, safety features needed to be added to reduce the risk of injury from an errant sword thrust. Specialized protective clothing was first used. Later, protective head gear was implemented, further reducing the risk of injury. Scoring systems that helped eliminate errors in judgment on the part of fencing judges also were adopted. Now, newer technologies, such as wireless scoring and higher visibility masks, help to further improve the sport.
There are three different swords types in fencing: the foil, the epee and the saber. Each weapon is designed for a specific style of fencing.
The foil is the lightest and most flexible of the swords, with a square cross section and smaller guard. It is used primarily as a thrusting weapon. The foil requires a light touch and considerable finesse to strike the relatively small target area of just the torso.
The epee, a stiffer and more substantial sword, is used in a more direct manner, with scoring possible on any part of the body. It has a V-shaped cross section and the largest guard of any of the swords.
The heaviest sword type is the saber. Sabers are used not only as a thrusting weapon, but they also can score by slashing the opponent. The saber’s guard typically shields the entire hand.
Because of its dangerous nature, fencing requires that protective gear be worn at all times. The fencing uniform consists of lightweight athletic shoes, socks, breeches, padded jacket, a guard called a plastron—used to protect the chest and underarms—and gloves. The clothing items can be made of synthetic or cotton material and are frequently reinforced with Kevlar.
A fencing mask is also necessary. The traditional mask is a helmet with a steel wire mesh cage mounted to it that covers the entire head and face and a padded cloth bib to protect the throat and neck. The mask has recently undergone a change to incorporate a transparent visor, allowing for better eye contact between opponents and a higher level of protection.
Scoring in competition fencing, at one time done by judges with the naked eye, is now accomplished electronically. Each sword contains a spring-loaded button at its tip. This button is connected to wiring that leads to a cable attached to the participant, which in turn is connected to a long retractable cable spooled on a drum. As the fencer moves forward and back along the scoring area, the cable will spool out or retract. The cable connects to the electronic scoring system. When a the tip touches a valid target on the opponent, the circuit is closed and the touch is registered. Newer wireless devices have eliminated the need for a cable connecting the participants to the scoring system.
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In Jacksonville, Fla., Frank Whittemore is a content strategist with almost a decade of experience as a Navy Hospital Corpsman and licensed paramedic and more than 15 years writing for several Fortune 500 companies. Whittemore writes on topics that include medicine, nature, science, technology, the arts, cuisine, travel and sports.