Excerpted from
"Classical Fencing:
The Martial Art
Incurable Romantics".

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How do we make something that is deadly to do safe to practice?

From the earliest days of professional fencing teachers, this became an important consideration, not only for humane reasons, but also for very practical ones: dead students donıt pay! Even today, there is an unavoidable risk inherent in studying swordplay. It is quite possible, despite all our best efforts, that someone could be seriously injured, maimed or even killed. Yet, I believe such an occurrence can be avoided if the proper steps are taken.

In the IFV Method we utilize three important safety tactics to avoid injuries and make training and contests as safe as possible - even though it is not possible to absolutely guarantee complete safety. Or as the poet said, "men make plans; the gods laugh." There are no guarantees in life. But chance fights ever on the side of the prudent.

The first safeguard we have is well-maintained protective equipment.
The swords we practice with, called foils or blunts, are lightweight and very flexible, intended to bend rather than to penetrate the opponentıs body. What would be a needle-sharp point on a live blade, is hammered flat, resembling a nailhead, and is bound around with string, or covered with a plastic or rubber tip, or swaddled with several layers of tape.

We wear sturdy masks of woven wire mesh to protect the face (invented by the great fencing master La Boessiere in the 18th century) with an attached bavette or bib to protect the throat (added in the early 20th century). Masks used in class may have snap-in bibs but those worn in contests must have permanently sewn-in bibs.

Fencing jackets or vests are made of double or even triple layers of heavy canvas or duck - some these days are made from "bullet-proof" kevlar! - and are well-padded. Extra layers of fabric are often incorporated in the vulnerable underarm area. In contests, as a further precaution, fencers are required to wear under their jackets an additional plastron that gives the underarm additional protection.

Most jackets now include a cuissard, which is a strap at the bottom front that passes between the fencer's legs and fastens on the back. The purpose of the cuissard is to prevent the jacket from riding up. I consider the cuissard more an element of comfort, and therefore personal preference, rather than a safety feature.

Women's jackets usually include interior pockets into which metallic breast protectors are placed. Men are required to wear a cup to protect the genitalia.

The fencing glove, which may be lightly padded on the back of the hand, is furnished with a long gauntlet to overlap the sleeve of the jacket by several inches, to ensure that the fencer has nothing up his sleeve but skill.

Like the jacket, fencing breeches are made of heavy fabric and typically feature a double layer on the fencer's forward leg. They are high-waisted so that the jacket overlaps the waistband substantially. These breeches fasten below the knee. It is also permissible to wear similarly constructed trousers that fasten close to the ankle or have a stirrup passing under the arch of the foot. With breeches, over-the-knee length stockings are mandatory, no part of the body allowed to be left bare.

Always keep your uniform and equipment clean and in good repair. Be certain to check the condition of your blade after every practice. Watch for odd bends and kinks. If in doubt, replace it.

The second safeguard is the IFV METHOD itself.
It comprises a series of ranks based on a systematic skill progression as well as strict training protocols. Training is typically conducted "by the numbers" in such a manner that everyone knows exactly what to do and exactly when to do it, and no one does anything else.

Unlike some fencing schools that allow anyone to come in off the street, pick up a weapon and "fence," crossing blades in our school is a privilege that must be earned and is reserved exclusively for those who have clearly and consistently demonstrated that they are able to fence safely, courteously and competently. No one may "bout," as sparring is called, without the master's permission.

The third and most important safeguard of all is the skill and judgment of the fencers themselves.
For example, the most dangerous thing that can happen in fencing is that a blade breaks during a phrase d'armes, the jagged end now having the character, for all practical purposes, of a real, sharp sword. If that broken blade is in the hand of an insensitive, incompetent, egotistical boor, then the peril to the opponent is great indeed. A competent fencer, however, would immediately feel the change in the weapon, cease any forward action, and withdraw or divert his blade from his opponent's body, almost without doubt being able to avoid accidents.

For this reason, I simply do not allow the insensitive, incompetent, egotistical boors among us to take the piste. They are free to find diversion elsewhere; they have no place whatsoever in the salle d'armes.

Safety is everyone's responsibility. Just as you must treat all people with respect, you must also respect the sword itself. There's a saying, "Treat every blunt as if it were sharp or someday you'll treat a sharp as if it were blunt." Children may sometimes play with matches, but that doesn't change the nature of fire. Simply because we practice our art without deadly intentions, that doesn't alter the nature of the sword. We must remember and respect what it was created to do ‹ and is still quite capable of doing whether we want it to or not.

Anyone who violates safety rules or standards of etiquette may be temporarily suspended or permanently expelled, without warning, without appeal and without refund.

NEVER AIM ANY WEAPON AT ANYONE WHO IS NOT WEARING A MASK or is otherwise unprepared to receive you.

ALWAYS carry the weapon point-down by your side just as if it were in a scabbard.
Never carry it over your shoulder like a baseball bat or tucked under your arm like a swagger stick. Do not gesture with your weapon or use it as a pointer.

ALWAYS keep your blade under perfect control. Know where your point is and where people are around you. Where your point goes, your eyes go.
Never swing your blade around or slice the air with it. It's the mark of an arrogant ass or a complete imbecile.

Pay close attention to the Master and follow his instructions precisely. Do only what you are instructed to do and when and how you are instructed to do it. Refrain from speaking during practice except in an emergency or to ask the Master a question. Everyone must be able to hear the Master's instructions clearly and the Master must be able to hear questions.

When you stop for a rest, intending to return to the floor immediately, set your weapon down by your rear foot and pointing behind you, and lay your mask over it facing the direction your rear foot was pointing. You must never step over a weapon, and especially when you see gear set down in this way. Walk around it.

If you should see a dangerous situation - such as a broken blade gone unnoticed - loudly call out "HALT!" You may then explain your reason for doing so. Whenever you hear the command "HALT!" immediately stop whatever you are doing, lower your weapon and pay attention.

NEVER AIM ANY WEAPON AT ANYONE WHO IS NOT WEARING A MASK or is otherwise unprepared to receive you.


The fencers' code of honour is the direct descendent of the knights' code of chivalry. Thus we value honesty, loyalty, courage, judgment, generosity, temperance and benevolence; we encourage these qualities in others and strive to cultivate them in ourselves.

Courtesy simply means marked by polished manners, gallantry, a respect for and consideration of others.
Discourtesy is a coward's imitation of courage and weakling's imitation of strength. We do not suffer such cowards and weaklings among us. Treat all people with respect at all times. No matter what the circumstances. No matter what the provocation to do otherwise. A swordman assumes full and complete responsibility for his/her actions.

There is no eating, drinking, smoking, or loud or boisterous behavior in the salle d'armes. It is a sacred place dedicated to one purpose only: the cultivation of habitual excellence. Sit or stand, but do not lounge around. No profanity is permitted. Avoid discussions of religion and politics. Never wear your street shoes on the practice floor. Change into your clean sneakers or fencing shoes.

Address the Master as "maestro" or "maitre" (Italian or French school respectively). Everyone else is "sir" or "madame." Always greet the master first when arriving at the salle and be sure to bid the master farewell when you leave. Never interrupt when the master is speaking. During training you should speak only to ask the master a question or to answer one posed by him. NEVER "coach" other fencers or give them "advice" unless the master has specifically requested that you do so.

Remember "please," "thank you," "you're welcome" and "excuse me" - too often forgotten elsewhere. Every class, lesson, exercise and bout begins and ends with a reverence, or salute. After crossing blades shake hands and say "merci" (thank you).

Etiquette of the Touch

In a fencing bout or match (contest) we expect a level of gallantry far above and beyond what most people would consider "good sportsmanship." Winning is not the end; it is the beginning. How you win is equally important, if not more important. You must win decisively. You must win cleanly. You must win gallantly. No fencer can tolerate even the slightest suspicion that he/she might have taken some unfair advantage of the opponent. On the contrary, we give our adversary the benefit of any possible doubt so that our victories may be unblemished.

  • When you believe you have been touched by your opponent, loudly call out "touche!" (I have been touched!)

  • When your opponent acknowledges receiving a touch from you, reply "merci." (thank you).

  • If you believe you have not actually delivered a touch that your opponent has acknowledged, decline credit for it by saying "pas de touche" (no touch).

  • When your opponent declines a touch, reply, "merci."

  • Always acknowledge every possible hit against yourself; never claim one that your opponent has not freely acknowledged. Never say, for example "Was that good?" or "Didn't I hit you?"

  • At the end of a bout whether you win or lose, salute, shake hands, smile and say "thank you." No one should ever be able to tell from your expression, tone, gesture or manner whether you have won or lost. Demonstrations of elation and shows of pique are equally prohibited - the former unnecessarily humiliates your defeated adversary and the latter demeans your opponent's success.

In summary, you must conduct yourself with honesty, courtesy, dignity and grace at all times, never engaging in any behavior that would bring disgrace upon yourself, your Master or the sword. When you become a student of the sword you become heir to a noble tradition of excellence and integrity. Be proud of it and make it proud of you.

Recommended Reading

The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny         Kaepner/Kennedy
The Book of Deeds of Arms and Chivalry Christine de Pizan, Willard, Willard
The Book of Knighthood and ChivalryLull/Price
The Book of the CourtierCastiglione
The Book of the Order of ChivalryLull
ChivalryMaurice Keen
Chivalry & Violence in Medieval EuropeKaepner
Don QuixoteMiguel de Cervantes
Le Morte d'ArthurThomas Malory
Wm. Marshal: The Flower of ChivalryDuby


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This file was last modified Tuesday, Apr 4 2006, 13:39:45 EDT