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by

Nick Evangelista

Nick Evangelistabio

Over the last thirty years, I've heard just about every excuse you could think of as to why this fencer or that fencer decided to begin his or her fencing career with a weapon other than foil.

1.) "Sabre is so flashy. It fits my personality." (Blames psychology. National Enquirer headline screams "Fencing Weapon You Choose Key to Your Personality".)

2.) "My coach said I looked like a sabre/epée fencer, so that's what I went with." (This is akin to the famous "My dog ate my homework."--blame someone else.)

3.) "Epée/sabre is the only real weapon." (The existential answer. Of course! Everything else is imaginary.)

4.) "I just decided to start with sabre." (The "accidental" explanation.)

5.) "My club mostly fences sabre, and I wanted to fit in." (Blames circumstances and/or consensus.)

6.) "I started with sabre/epee because sabre/epee is a man's weapon." (The hormonal explanation.)

7.) "Foil is for girls." (Does this mean that foil is a sissy weapon, or is the problem somehow genetic? Maybe a foil has too many X chromosomes.)

8.) "I'm aggressive. I need to really mix it up out there on the fencing strip. Sabre gives me that." (Blames inner drives. Watch out, here comes a budding serial fencer.)

9.) "I could never understand conventions. So I went with epee." (Blames those dumb rules. They just get in the way, don't they?)

10.) "I just like epee/sabre." (Hasn't a clue.)

11.) "What difference does it make which weapon you start with. Fencing is fencing, isn't it?" (Aggressively Ignorant, and proud of it.)

12.) "I tried foil, but it just wasn't my weapon." (The regretful response. Really means "didn't do well with foil; hopes sabre or epee will be easier".)

13.) "I liked the foil, but sabre--whoa!" (Who can argue with something so obviously superior?)

14.) "My teacher specializes in sabre." (So? Good for him. What about your learning experience?)

15.) "I was in a hurry to get to sabre, and I had no plans to study foil seriously. Foil was just slowing me down." (An honest, but wrong, approach.)

And finally

16.) "Foil isn't realistic. All those rules. You couldn't use foil rules in a real fight. You'd be killed." (The "practical" explanation.)

A lot of "answers"--a lot of excuses. Only the last one comes close to being a logical reply, the rest being lame excuses and self-delusion. The lack of practical application is, in fact, the oldest, and most frequent, denunciation of foil fencing; but even this misses the point (antiquity doesn't count for much if it's mistaken).

So what is the point of foil fencing? What is the compelling reason for beginning your fencing career with the foil? Here's a hint: It has nothing to do with whims, magnetic anomalies, or space alien abduction.

The foil was designed to be a teaching tool, and what does it teach? Here's the secret: the foil really and truly teaches only one thing: Personal control. Underline this answer and memorize it, because by following this premise, you will become an intelligent fencer, no matter what "facts" anyone else throws at you.

The conventions of foil fencing are not just some arbitrary directions set down and force-fed fledgling fencing students because someone simply felt like including them on a list of rules. Nor are they there to establish manners and politeness on the fencing strip. The conventions of foil fencing, the rules of right-of-way, of priority, of give and take, are what they are because they reflect the proper behavior one should follow when fighting with a sword, and the key word here is "should". Admittedly, this is not the gritty, anything goes, life or death reality of mortal combat, but rather the kind of focused behavior that would, in fact, allow you to survive such an unpleasant encounter.

The rules reflect a logical process, and hence instill a sense of rightness of action, of when to do this, when not to do that. They are based on what has been observed in the past as either useful or harmful. They are based on... Truth. You attack when you have a clear opportunity, and you defend when you are being threatened by a well-defined offensive or counter-offensive action.

For instance, attacking with a straight arm gives you your longest potential reach, so that you're more likely to bridge the gap between your foil point and your opponent's chest (which is good); therefore, this is demanded of you, and rewarded over less beneficial actions. When you remise against an immediate riposte, it will likely generate a double touch, causing you to get hit (which is bad); so this is given a big thumb's down. The rules remind us that there are repercussions to our actions.

The rules of foil fencing, then, require us forcefully to respond sensibly rather than react mindlessly with knee-jerk reflexes, so that we may, in the situations we find ourselves in on the fencing strip, hit and not be hit. (This, of course, may come as a surprise to anyone who studies the photographs printed regularly in American Fencing Magazine.)

If you're still confused, look at it this way: These rules are absolutely necessary to gain control over your fencing because they establish a sense of order. No one can establish a sense of rightness out of chaos. Only at the beginning of the Bible do we find order coming out of disorder, and it took God to carry that one off. In our world, disorder breeds disorder. Ever see an avalanche arrange itself into something useful at the foot of the mountain or an explosion transform itself into a recognizable form?

Pure and simple, the conventions of foil fencing act as a guide, something concrete to shoot for. When you shoot an arrow at a target--this is a metaphor--you try to hit the bullseye. That's your goal. That's where control comes from. You can hit the target anywhere accidentally (and some people will be satisfied if that's all they ever get), but only by repeatedly attempting to hit the bullseye do you eventually achieve success. In foil fencing, the conventions are like that bullseye. By sticking to them you steer yourself way from harmful "everyday people" reactions and replace them with useful "fencer" responses. Without the rules, you'd be moving through a void. Do you think fencing control can be fashioned out of a void? If you do, I have some real-estate on the sun you might be interested in buying.

Throughout foil training we learn something valuable. By gaining control over our actions, we master timing, distance, fluidity of motion, point control, lightness of action, focus, intent, and strategy. Furthermore, we find--if we've done it right--that we have cast aside our jumpy, reactive, emotional lapses and psychological weaknesses. Not a bad deal.

To be sure, there will be fencers reading this who will say quite firmly that they started with sabre or epee, and it didn't hurt them. They might even be champions in their given weapon. I would ask how good they might have become had they started along a path that would have broadened their opportunities instead of limiting them? And there are limitations imposed by sabre and epee. They can't be avoided since they are built into the structure of both weapons.

Take epee first. A point weapon, like the foil, but a weapon without conventions. Whoever hits first gets the touch. Yet with such a weapon, where virtually everything is okay, how do you develop the focus needed for fine-tuning your game? How do you develop the point control you need to hit your adversary on something as narrow as his wrist? How do you develop the timing to produce the lightning responses you need to take advantage of those momentary glitches in your opponent's actions, the here-one-minute-gone-the-next openings, that the good epeeist can seize upon and turn to his advantage? How can you get beyond a mere physical approach to epee and bring strategy into play? If you come to epee with your skills and senses already developed from foil, your epee game has plusses from the outset. Imagine beginning your epee career--a contest without rules--with perfect control over the situation. Start with foil, and you'll be there.

Ask yourself this: How many epeeists do you know who, under fire, can repeatedly place their point on their opponent's sword hand or forearm? How many epeeists do you know whose only target is the torso? How many epeeists do you know who rely simply on strength and aggression to see them through? How many can attack without continually fleching? How many have a little more strategy than "hit that guy"? Is this how a person would approach a real duel? My fencing master, who was a champion epeeist in the days of Lucien Gadis and the Nadis, said, "The true art of epee is making the other guy run onto your point!" How much epee do you see being fenced that way today? The subtleties that one may gain in foil have been lost.

One last thought on epee: If you plan on fencing more than one weapon in your lifetime, it's easier to begin with foil's conventions and drop them for epee than it is to begin fencing wthout conventions. Ingrain a non-conventional approach into your being, and then try to incorporate rules. I've seen more than one long-time epeeist give up foil in disgust because they couldn't get the counterattack against attack out of their systems.

As for sabre, we find similar problems for those beginning fencing with that weapon. Because of the broad nature of sabre, one rarely learns the subtleties of combat if one has never had a chance to have them instilled by foil practice. Moreover, since the sabre is also a point weapon, if you are going to use the point, you have to possess point control. Since this can only be done well by first mastering foil and then epee, few from-day-one sabre fencers ever develop effective point work. When was the last time you saw the point employed regularly, or at all, in a tournament? It almost never happens anymore. Why not? It has to start someplace, and if no one thinks of it, no one practices it, and if no one practices it, no one does it. Yet start with foil, then go to epee, and you'll have the point ingrained in your sabre technique without any extra effort. Put effective point work into your sabre game, where no one else employs the point, and you will become a devastating sabreur. Also, learn foil before sabre, and you will have a built-in sense of right-of-way for sabre. You will have timing, a feeling for that give-and-take necessary for conventional weapons, and a strategic outlook. Armed with these attributes, a sabre fencer is beyond the quick-draw tactics common to modern sabre exchanges. No more simultaneous attacks ad nauseum. But this can only be the case if you get control of yourself first by fencing foil.

Lastly, start with sabre first, spending months or years just making cuts, and then try to fence a point weapon. You might as well give it up now. At least you'll save your potential foil and epee opponents undeserved pain from the whippings you would have subjected them to.

Fencing, at its best, is a logical process. So it must begin where the logic is most readily acquired. Gaining control over yourself, you then have ample opportunity to gain control over your opponent. But without this acquisition, every occasion you step onto the fencing strip will be a crap shoot. To win, you will always need less-able opponents than yourself, and plenty of sympathetic directing. Real fencing will have little or nothing to do with how you'll fare. How much better, though, to interject skill into the equation. Then you can mold almost any situation to your advantage. This is fencing with depth, with meaning, with life.

Choose the foil as your beginning weapon, and you'll be on the right path to the best fencing has to offer.


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Saddle, Lance and Stirrup: The Irish/Roman Connection
The Naked Truth | If I Had a Hammer
The Sabre's Edge | Swordfight at the OK Corral
How to Defend a Monopoly | A Propos d'un Accident
The Dubious Quick Kill part 1 | The Dubious Quick Kill part 2
Review and Commentary | Duels with the Sword | Starting with Foil
Liancour's Tercentenary | The Manuel d'escrime of 1877 | The Military Masters Fencing Program
Analysis of the Patton Fencing Manual | The Red Court Fencing's Royal Connection
| The Practical Saviolo part 1 | Saddle, Lance and Stirrup
Demystification of the Spanish School 1 | Demystification of the Spanish School 2
Demystification of the Spanish School 3
| A Brief Look at Joseph Swetnam
| Ithacan Retains Title | Third Time's a Charm
Cross-Training Not Cross-Purposes | Riposte Direct | Use of the Word "Sparring"
Chivalry Makes a Come-back | Teachings of Marozzo |

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This file was last modified Sunday, Mar 26 2006, 17:16:21 EST