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Fencing the Sport - Rules and Basics of Fencing

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Fencing is the art of using the small-sword or rapier. The small-sword has a straight blade, about thirty-two inches in length, outside the guard, and is fashioned for thrusting only.
Although it is an art of the greatest antiquity, very great improvements have been made in it during the last half-century, chiefly by French masters, who excel those of all other countries. This has been attributed to various causes; by some to the agility and acknowledged power of rapid physical action possessed by this nation; by others, to their natural vivacity and mental quickness. In my opinion, however, a more direct and powerful cause may be traced in the great encouragement and universal patronage which it has ever received from every grade of a chivalrous and military people.
Every regiment has its maître d’armes, and every barrack its fencing-school. Indeed, in so important a light was the proper teaching of this art held, that one of the French kings (Louis XIV.) granted letters-patent to twenty eminent masters, who alone were permitted to teach in Paris.
When a vacancy occurred, no interest and no favour could enable a candidate to obtain this privilege: he had to fence in public with six of these chosen masters; and if by any of them he was beaten by two distinct hits, he was considered unqualified to teach in the capital.
Independent of its value as the scientific use of the sword,—the gentleman’s weapon of defence, par excellence,—fencing stands unrivalled as an exercise; and it is in this sense that it will now be treated.
The most eminent physicians which this country have produced have all, in the most earnest manner, recommended it to the attention of the young.

Thus, Dr. Clive says:—
“Muscular exertion is essential in perfecting the form of the body, and those exercises which require the exercise of the greatest number of muscles are the most conducive to this end. Fencing causes more muscles to act at the same time than most other exercises. It promotes the expansion of the chest, and improves respiration, whereby the functions of the most important organs of the body are more perfectly performed.”

Sir Anthony Carlisle uses similar language:—

“According to my judgment, the exercise of fencing tends to promote bodily health, and the development of athletic powers. It is likewise apparent, that the attitudes and exertions of fencing are conducive to the manly forms and muscular energies of the human figure.”
Again, Sir Everard Home, in still stronger terms:—

“Of all the different modes in which the body can be exercised, there is none, in my judgment, that is capable of giving strength and velocity, as well as precision, to the action of all the voluntary muscles of the body in an equal degree as the practice of fencing, and none more conducive to bodily health.”

I shall give one more extract from another physician of equal eminence, Dr. Babbington:—

“I am of opinion that, in addition to the amusement which this exercise (fencing) affords, it is particularly calculated to excite in young persons a greater degree of energy and circumspection than they might otherwise possess; and it is obvious that, in respect of health, that mode of exertion is superior to all others, which, while it gives motion and activity to every part of the body, produces at the same time corresponding interest in the mind.”

Sir John Sinclair, Dr. Pemberton, &c., speak in terms equally recommendatory.

To avoid all danger in the lessons and practice, foils are substituted for real swords. Strong wire masks are worn on the face, a well-padded glove on the hand, and the upper part of the body, at which alone the thrusts are aimed, is protected by a strong jacket, the right side and collar of which should be of leather.

The first movement a beginner has to learn is the manner of placing himself in the position called


It is from this position that all movements are made, whether offensive or defensive. Let the beginner be placed with his knees straight, his feet at right angles, heel to heel; the right foot, right side, and face directed to the master. The body must be held upright and firm, the arms hanging down by the side, but easily and without constraint; the left hand holding the foil a few inches beneath its guard. Next let him bring the right hand across the body, and seize the foil-handle; by a second movement, bring the foil above the head, the hands separating as they ascend, until both arms be nearly extended upwards and outwards. Here pause. This may be called the first position of the Guard.

These movements should be frequently practised, as they accustom the arms to move independently of the body, flatten the joints of the shoulders, and give prominence to the chest.
Second position

To arrive at the second position of the Guard, the right arm, with the foil, is brought down to the front, until the right elbow is a little above and in advance of the waist; the fore-arm and foil sloping upwards; the point of the foil being the height of the upper part of the face; then, by a second movement, the learner must sink down, separating the knees, and stepping forward with the right foot fourteen or sixteen inches; for, of course, the guard of a tall man will be wider than that of a short one. However, his own comfort in the position will direct him as to the distance; and the general rule is, that the knee of the left leg will jut over the toes of the left foot, and the right leg from ankle to knee be perpendicular. It is in this position that he will receive all attacks from an adversary, and from this position will all his own attacks be made. Also in this position will he


upon an adversary, when beyond hitting distance. The step in the advance is usually about that of the width of the Guard, although of[201] course this would vary with circumstances. The step is made by advancing the right foot the distance I have named; and on its reaching the ground, the left foot is brought up, and takes its place. To


the reverse of the above movement is made. The left foot takes the lead, stepping to the rear about as far as the right had stepped to the front; the right occupying its place on its taking up its new position. The next movement,


is a very important movement, and is rather difficult to make properly, and fatiguing to practise. Indeed, the first movements in fencing are the most trying to the learner; and he must not be discouraged if he fails to do them correctly at first—practice only will give him this power. The Longe is that extension of body which accompanies every attack, and is thus made: The right arm is extended straight from the shoulder, the arm and blade being on the same level; by a second movement, the right foot is raised from the ground, and a step made forward, about eighteen inches in length, while the left remains firmly planted in its place. At the instant that this step is made, the left hand is allowed to fall within a few inches of the left thigh, and the left knee is stiffened back until the leg is perfectly straight.


The thigh of the right leg will now be in a position nearly horizontal; from the knee downwards, perpendicular. Having executed the Longe, the next movement to be made is


that is, to return from the position of the Longe to that of the Guard, and is thus effected: The left arm is nimbly thrown up to its place, the right arm drawn in, and the left knee re-bent. These movements must be made at the same time, as it is their united action that enables a person to recover from so extended a position as the Longe quick enough to avoid a thrust if his own attack has failed.

These movements must be frequently practised before any others are attempted—the Guard, the Advance, the Retreat, the Longe, and the Recover; and when the learner has attained some proficiency in them, he may begin the more delicate movements of attack and defence. Of these I will now speak.


It is customary for adversaries, on coming to the Guard, to Engage, or to join blades, on what is called the inside, that is, the right side; although there are occasions on which it is advisable to engage on the outside, or on the left; otherwise called the Quarte or Tierce sides.

Two men thus opposed to each other will at once perceive that there are two lines of attack open to them, i. e. the line inside and the line outside the blade—these, and no more. But these may be, and in fencing are, subdivided into inside above the hand, and inside under the hand, and the same subdivision for outside. This gives four lines of attack—or, to speak more simply, gives four openings through which an adversary may be assailed. Now, to protect each of these assailable points, are four defensive movements, called


Each opening has its own parade or defence, and each parade will guard its own opening, and, strictly speaking, no other. The opening inside above the hand is defended by two parades.


As its name imports, the first and most natural parade is that of Prime. The action of drawing the sword from its sheath is almost exactly the movement made use of in the parade of Prime.

In this parade, the hand is raised as high as the forehead, so that the fencer can see his opponent’s face under his wrist. The blade of the foil is almost horizontal, but the point is rather lowered towards the ground. As this parade will throw the right side of the body open to the adversary’s sword, it is good play to disengage from left to right, and deliver a rapid thrust at the adversary, in order to anticipate him before he can bring his own sword round for another thrust. His point will be thrown far out of line, so that he is behind-hand in point of time.
This is a very useful parade for fencers of short stature, as they can sometimes get in their blade under their adversary’s arm, after they have parried his thrust.
The other parade is that of


It is thus formed. On the approach of the point of an adversary’s blade (and how these approaches are made I will presently explain), the right hand is moved a few inches—three or four will be enough—across the body on the inside; the hand being neither depressed nor raised, and the foil being kept on the same slope as in the Guard. This guards the body on the inside above the hand, but (and here comes an important law in fencing) the very movement which has guarded the body on one side has exposed it on the other: this is the case with all the simple parades.


Suppose, now, that the exposed part outside above the hand were assailed, then the defence for it is the parade of


It is formed by turning the hand with the nails downwards, and[204] crossing to the opposite side some six or eight inches; the hand and point at the same elevation as before: this will guard this opening. If, however, the attack had been made under instead of over the hand, then the proper parade would have been


There is another method of parrying, called Quarte, over the arm, which is executed by making almost the same parade as in Tierce, with this exception—first, the hand is retained in its original position, with the nails upwards; and, secondly, the point is not raised above the eye of the adversary.


It is rather more delicate than tierce, but wants its power and energy. The Ripostes, or reply thrusts, are made, as they would have been had the parade been that of Tierce.


is formed by turning the hand in the same position in which it was turned for Tierce, but the point of the foil slopes as much downwards as in Tierce it did upwards; the direction and distance for the hand to traverse being the same. Again, had the attack been delivered at none of these, but at the inside under the hand, then the proper parade would have been



which, as its name expresses, is a half-circle, described by a sweep of the blade traversing the under line. Next comes the parade of


In this parade the hand is held as in Quarte; the hilt of the foil is kept lower than that of the opponent; the blade is almost horizontal, the point being only slightly lower than the hilt, and directed towards the body of the adversary.


Octave is extremely useful when the fencer misses his parade of Demi-cercle, as there is but a short distance for the point to traverse, and it generally meets the blade of the adversary before the point can be properly fixed. Moreover, it brings the point so near the adversary’s body, that he will not venture to make another thrust until he has removed the foil.

Thus I have enumerated, and partly explained, the forms and uses of these four parades: they are called Simple Parades, to distinguish them from another set of defensive movements, called


I have said and shown that a man standing foil in hand, in the position of the guard, is exposed in four distinct places to thrusts from an adversary within longing distance. I have also shown that he has a defence for each of these exposed places; but if a man has but one defence for each assailable part, then his adversary, knowing beforehand what the defence must be, would be prepared beforehand to deceive him. But if he has a reserve—if he has a second defence for each part, then the adversary cannot tell what the defence will be, until his attack, false or real, is begun.

To meet this contingency, a second series of defences have been devised, which are of an entirely different nature from the Simple Parades.
Again, as each of the simple parades is framed to guard only one opening, it was found desirable that the contre-parades should be of a more comprehensive character. They are therefore devised so that each is capable of protecting the entire front. It is evident that this object could not be attained without the sacrifice of quickness, because a larger space must be traversed, and therefore more time is occupied with a contre than a simple parade.

To know one contre-parade is virtually to know all, as they are all formed on the same plan. They are all full circles in the position of hand and direction of foil of the different simple parades; or more clearly speaking, each simple parade has a contre-parade; there are, therefore, four simple and four contre-parades, which may be thus arranged:—
Quarte     Contre de Quarte.
Tierce     Contre de Tierce.
Seconde     Contre de Seconde.
Demi-cercle     Contre de Cercle.

I have said that a contre-parade is a full circle in the position of hand and direction of blade of its simple; thus, contre de quarte is made by retaining the hand in the position of quarte, while the foil describes a circle descending on the inside, and returning by the outside to the place of its departure. So with all the others, the foil following the direction of the simple parade, of which it is the contre. These complete the entire system of defences.

I now come to movements of an opposite nature, namely, the


and shall begin with the most simple of them. I will again suppose two adversaries standing, en guard, within longing distance of each other: now the most simple movement that the attacking party could make would be,


to the outside or inside, according to his line of engagement. I have, in describing the longe, in effect described the straight thrust; it is but a longe in a straight line, taking care, however, to feel firmly the adversary’s blade, but taking care also not to press or lean on it during the delivering of the thrust.

Next in character comes


This attack is made by dropping the point of the foil beneath the adversary’s blade, and raising it on the opposite side, at the same time, rising with the arm fully extended; on the completion of the extension the longe is made and the thrust delivered.


is but a double disengagement, the first being but a feint or false attack, to induce the adversary to form a parade to cover the part threatened, for the covering of one part of the body exposes the opposite: the second disengagement is made to take advantage of this exposure. The arm is extended halfway on the first, and then wholly on the second, to be immediately followed by the longe.


This is another variety of attack. Supposing the adversary’s blade to be firmly joined to yours, when you wished to deliver a straight thrust, there would then be danger of your falling upon his point. This danger is avoided by giving a slight beat on his blade the instant preceding your extension of arm, of course to be followed en suite by the longe.

The companion attack to this attack is


The beat here takes the character of the first disengagement in one-two, i. e. becomes a feint, and is intended to induce the adversary to return to the place he occupied when the beat was made. You then immediately pass to the opposite side of his blade in the manner described in the disengagement.

It will be seen that all these movements pass under the adversary’s blade. However, there are certain situations in the assault, as a fencing bout is called, when an adversary is more assailable over the point than under the blade; for this purpose there is what the French call the coupé sur point, or


It is thus made: By the action of the hand, and without drawing it back at all, the foil is raised and brought down on the opposite side of the adversary’s blade, the arm being extended during its fall to the horizontal position, on attaining which the longe is delivered.


is on the same principle as the one-two and the beat and disengagement. On the adversary opposing the first movement (the cut) with a parade, the second movement (the disengagement) is made to the opposite side, to be followed of course by the longe; the extension of the arm being divided between the two movements.

These attacks are called simple attacks, because they may be parried by one or more simple parades, according to the number of movements in the attack. In fact, every attack can be parried, and every parade can be deceived: it is the additional movement last made which hits or guards.

Thus, you threaten by a disengagement to the outside; your adversary bars your way effectually by the parade of tierce; you make a second disengagement to the inside, which is now exposed from the very fact of the outside being guarded (for both lines of attack cannot be guarded at the same time), thus converting your attack into one-two; but if your adversary parries quarte on your second movement, your attack would be warded off. This can be carried much further, but the above will, I think, be sufficient to explain the nature of simple parades and attacks.

To deceive a contre-parade, a separate movement, called a doublé, or


has been invented; it is very simple in principle, and admirably answers the purpose. For instance, if you were to threaten your adversary by a disengagement to the outside, and if, instead of tierce, he parried contre de quarte, the double is then made by your making a second disengagement to the same side as the first, for it will be found that his contre de quarte has replaced the blades in the positions they occupied previous to your disengagement. You will then have an opening, and may finish the attack by the longe.

As all the contre-parades are on the same plan and principle, so are all the doubles. Of course, it is understood that you will make all the movements of the double en suite, and without allowing your adversary’s blade to overtake yours.


The foregoing movements having been well practised in the lesson, the next step is that of all feints and all parades, and may be practised either with a master or fellow-pupil. The practice consists of one pupil standing on the defensive entirely, while another assumes the offensive, and attacks him with all the feints of which he is master, the other, of course, defending with all his parades. It is excellent practice, as it accustoms the pupil to think for himself gradually, he having thus but one set of movements to think about. He is therefore enabled to make them boldly, without having to encounter unknown movements from his adversary.

It also enables him to see the extent of his resources, both for attack and defence. When he can both attack and defend with some presence of mind, he may then begin


that is, he may encounter an adversary, to attack or defend as occasion presents. He is then left to his own resources entirely. The following


given by a very eminent fencer and excellent teacher, cannot fail to be of use:—

“Do not put yourself on the position of the guard within the reach of your adversary’s thrust, especially at the time of drawing your sword.

“If you are much inferior make no long assaults.

“Do nothing that is useless; every movement should tend to your advantage.

“Let your movements be made as much within the line of your adversary’s body as possible.

“Endeavour both to discover your adversary’s designs, and to conceal your own.

“Two skilful men, acting together, fight more with their heads than their hands.

“The smaller you can make the movements with your foil, the quicker will your point arrive at your adversary’s body.

“Do not endeavour to give many thrusts on the longe, thus running the risk of receiving one in the interim.

“If your adversary drops his foil by accident, or in consequence of a smart parade of yours, you should immediately pick it up, and present it to him politely.

“Always join blades (if possible) previously to another attack, after a hit is given.”

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