Fencing vs. sport fencing

Some, not me, but some, might say that I really blew it in that last post by not explaining the difference between fencing and sport fencing.

When most people think “fencing,” they think of Olympic fencing. Or, this:

It’s easy to dump on sport fencing and make snide little remarks about how it looks more like the members of Daft Punk playing electric tag with straightened out coat hangers than it resembles a sword fight, but we don’t do that here. Here, we think it’s still pretty cool, but it’s a very different art than fencing in the classical sense, or “historical fencing.”

Don't feel too bad for this guy -- there's a solid chance he was a Nazi. (source: https://www.pinterest.com/brentswar/mensur/)
Don’t feel too bad for this guy — there’s a solid chance he was a Nazi.
(source: https://www.pinterest.com/brentswar/mensur/)

Sport fencing is the game of tag that evolved from fencing, which, historically, meant training in martial combat, especially for defensive purposes. As sword culture came into the modern age, laws changed and stabbing someone in the street for a minor offense became less socially acceptable. Rules were introduced into fencing culture to mitigate injury and keep things civilized. This is where you get strictly regulated fencing forms like Mensur, in which two German frat boys slash at each other’s faces with sharp swords while keeping their feet planted and maintaining a fixed distance with the opponent. I should note that Mensur is not actually a sport, but rather a German pastime in which there are no winners or losers, only questionable character building and rad facial scarring.

Here’s a breakdown of the basic differences between sport and historical fencing:

  1. Emphasis on defense – Historical fencing takes into account the concept of not dying. Not dying was a big deal during the Middle Ages, especially since they didn’t really have trauma surgery or antibiotics. Sport fencing, meanwhile, is about tagging the other guy first without worrying so much about what happens after. In historical fencing, landing a hit is great, but isn’t worth much if you take a hit immediately after. You have to assume that your opponent might not “die” from their wounds until after the duel is over, meaning that as long as they are upright, in range and armed, they are still a threat. This is also why we often play through hits — i.e., the fight isn’t necessarily over after a successful hit.
  2. Lateral movement – Sport fencing is linear, so it’s a bit like it happens in a two-dimensional plane. Historical fencing does not do this. Stepping offline to avoid an attack or to open up a new line of attack is extremely important. Can’t get through your opponent’s defenses head-on? Go around to the side.
  3. The gear – Sport fencing weapons — saber, foil and epée — have evolved over time to be very different from the swords that inspired them. Historical fencing aims to find the right balance between safety and historical accuracy with its wood, synthetic or blunt steel weapons. HEMA also incorporates real swords (sharps) for test cutting and even controlled sparring. Heavier protective equipment is usually worn, particularly in a tournament setting, or when sparring at higher speed and/or with steel. This could be anything from lacrosse and motocross armor to specialized modern HEMA gear to historically accurate clothing like gambesons, mail or even full plate.
  4. Rules – Sport fencing has rules, but I don’t really know what they are. Historical fencing has no rules. You can head butt, punch, go for the groin, throw your weapon, stab your opponent with their own sword or dagger — whatever. The limits are self-imposed; think of it like a BDSM sex dungeon where the participants set their own rules based on preference and safety. The safe word is usually a labored “YIELD.”
  5. Colors – Sport fencers wear white and HEMA fencers wear black, mostly. I have no idea why, but good luck finding a HEMA fencing jacket that isn’t black.
  6. The aim of the art – Sport fencing aims to play to the rules of sport fencing. HEMA/historical fencing aims to play to history. The goal is to understand the fighting systems of whichever period in history you’re focusing on.

This isn’t all to say there is no sport in HEMA. Tournaments like Longpoint, Swordfish, IGX and more feature a spectator-sport atmosphere, rulesets and scoring systems. The important distinction to make, however, is that these tournaments are not what HEMA is all about. They are extensions of the movement, rather than its focal point. The goal is the training; the tournaments provide an outlet for this training, but they are not the end in mind at weekly practice.

2 thoughts on “Fencing vs. sport fencing

  1. One explanation I’ve heard for why sport fencing uniforms are predominantly white — before the days of electronic scoring machines, sport fencing relied on paint to record touches. Each fencer would dip their weapon tips in red paint, and wearing white was required to make it obvious when a touch was scored (“hey look, that guy’s got this red spot on his shoulder, he’s been hit”). Tradition is the only reason why white or light gray uniforms are still worn. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it makes a great story.


    1. Oh, that’s interesting. I was just thinking yesterday that dusting the tip of a rapier blunt with some chalk might be a good way to record hits in rapier fencing, though that wouldn’t account for cuts or for force on target. I.e., light touches and tip scrapes would leave as much of a mark as hits that would cause effective injury. From what I’ve read, that’s not a concern in sport fencing.

      Liked by 1 person

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