Updated: Mar 20
You may have guessed that knowing fencing or stage combat could help you land the role of Romeo. You may have noticed that fencers’ non-dominant biceps look scrawny compared to the muscle on their dominant arm. You may know absolutely nothing about the sport. Anyway, let's get back to the point (hehe... get it?): the secrets of fencing! We're on to the Top 5. Let's see what we can learn this week from our community. Which facts will catch you off "garde"?
5: ELECTRIFYING LOOPHOLES
Jared Rushanan (Former Student & Instructor, Class E Foil Fencer)
“There are many ways to cheat! The modern scoring system of fencing relies on electricity to tell if a fencer has been hit successfully or not. With foil and épée, this means a button at the tip of the blade has to be pressed hard enough against an opponent for the touch to register. So that means one could tamper with the spring in the button to make it go off easier. Or you could wire a body cord to make your blade go off when you twisted it a certain way. Or you could have “dead spots”—areas on your electric jacket that would not register when hit. Or you could have a weapon that was super flexible that would allow you to more easily avoid being parried.”
“For all these reasons, in competitions all equipment is inspected and tested, to meet the various regulations in the rulebook.”
“Technical malfunctions happen insanely frequently. It is honestly rare to see a modern bout without a blade or scoring system malfunctioning in some way.”
4: DIFFERENT STROKES
Samuel Chin (Current Fencing Student)
“While some fundamentals are the same across the board, you'll find every fencing instructor teaches things a little differently. It was surprising to me how subjective fencing instruction was. From the position of your sword in the en garde stance to the angle an attack should be launched and how wide a parry should be, every teacher will show you the way they have found to be most effective. This means that it’s hard to find rigid guidelines on how to fence online.”
Similarly, directing is “an art form in and of itself. Professional or even amateur directing is a tall order, and like the fencing curriculum, the way an individual judge directs their bout can vary by quite a bit. It's this subtle variance that I think lends fencing (at least foil and sabre) its excitement as a combat sport.”
3: DON'T BE SO DRAMATIC!
Ada Cooprider (Current Fencing Student)
Michael Gallant (Former Fencing Instructor & Student)
Ada astutely observed that “While fencing is objectively cool (you can't not look cool with a sword), flashy and dramatic moves are more than often impractical and dangerous. Sure, it looks totally rad to stylishly flourish your sword before attacking, but most of the time that just leaves you wide open to be stabbed. There are some great flashy moves that actually help, but the most effective ones are usually the ones that don't look over-the-top.”
That said, there are some such moves that, if done well, can be beneficial. For example, the behind-the-back flick. Michael explains how it’s done and when to use it.
He learned this move from his first fencing coach. It’s useful when you’re very close to your opponent. “Close enough that it's difficult to get your point on target, and since you can't use the edge of the foil it's difficult to score at that range. Rather than retreat which would give your opponent a chance to hit you, you step back with your front foot, pivoting on your rear foot. This brings your own foil back far enough to use the point while keeping your body too close for them to easily get the point on. You let your sword arm swing around your back, and it comes at them from the side they don't expect.”
“I used it maybe three or four times in competition. It's only situationally useful. It is slower, and harder to aim well, but it's a surprise. At various times, as the rules have changed, it has been illegal to put your non-dominant shoulder forward, so it's been in and out of use. It was legal when I did it, and it's sort of legal today, but I would have to lift my left arm to avoid blocking the target. It is also harder in electric fencing since it tends to get tangled in the cord and take-up reel behind you.”
Left: Ada Cooper (2021) | Right: Micheal Gallant (1997)
2: WOOP WOOP FOR THE OODA LOOP
Joe J. Rushanan (Student of Fencing & Historic Weapons)
Joe has always been interested in strategy. Before learning to fence, he’d heard the sport was like “physical chess.” After finding out about the OODA loop, he thought he could apply it to fencing. A recent search revealed some other fencers think so, too. So, what is it?
John Boyd, a military strategist, originally conceived this method for fighter pilots to respond to an opponent. Joe explains: “OODA is Observe (what is my opponent doing?), Orient (what ways can I adapt?), Decide (which of these options should I do?), and Act (ok, let's do this). It is a loop because your opponent will be continually changing. In fencing, there are multiple layers to the OODA loop: what are the general tendencies of my opponent? What do they do when they attack? What is their blade doing now?”
“In fencing, we talk of second intention attacks: faking the first attack to get the opponent to respond in a certain way before doing the actual attack. Good fencers routinely will do the third intention, etc., adding layers and layers. Indeed, perhaps my most satisfying moment on a [fencing] strip is to watch my opponent respond in a way that I engineered and expected and then see their surprise when I act in response.”
1: SWORD PAINTING
Elise Wiley (Former The Story School Camp Director, Current Manager of Elise Wiley Studio)
Obviously, this is not fencing per se, but we bet that unless you know Elise personally, you haven’t heard of this one.
“As an artist, I use a fencing foil to do some of my most popular paintings and drawings. I tape a brush, or charcoal pencil to the end of my fencing foil, step back into en garde and get to work!”
“I find that painting at a distance from the canvas gives more a better perspective on the piece as a whole, and allows me to play with the essence of what an image or piece means to me rather than getting bogged down in the details. That being said, it is amazing the amount of detail that you can get from painting with a sword so long as you have good tip control! It is also incredibly freeing to paint in a way in which you are SURE to make some mistakes. It takes some of the pressure off!”
Elise doesn’t know anyone else who paints with a sword. She certainly has perfected this art!
And there you have it: our Top 10 surprising fencing facts. If these tidbits intrigued you, why not follow that curiosity into a fencing introduction of your own? We're always ready and willing to help first-time fencers take their beginning steps into the sport. Check out what we can offer at https://www.thestoryschool.org/ (All classes are run virtually for the time being. Please do not stab your computer unless it strikes first.)