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The Virtues of Epee Fencing

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I am retired and a former epee fencer at CCNY Varsity and USFA. I have achieved the rank of A and have competed in National tournament.

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Introduction

This article is in response to an article written by Katharine Trendacosta in DeadSpin online magazine titled "Epee is for Losers". For some outsiders, her points made against epee may seems sensible and logical. However, as a long time epee fencer, I must defend my sport of choice. You can read her entire article in the link provided below. This is a case of some outsider knowing nothing about the sport, making opinions that are based on ignorance. Let me set the record straight.

- Nov. 2017

Background

The sport of fencing is unique among sword fighting. As popularized by movies and TV shows, the sword fighting shown such as on Game of Thrones or Scaramouche are not any where close to actual fencing. These are theatrical representation of a weapon for entertainment. Historically, they may be accurate but that is not what the sport of modern fencing is all about.

The three weapons of foil, epee and sabre are chosen to illustrate the various techniques of combat under various conditions. For example, sabre is a representation of sword fighting on horseback. The valid target area were chosen to be above the waist line because when you are doing combat riding on a horse, an injury to your leg is not a kill shot. By the same token, the epee was chosen as representation of the traditional duel. This was a technique to settle disputes of honor by aristocrats In the old days. It is meant to demonstrate the skill of fineness and speed and precision and cunning of the participants. The first person to "draw blood" against his opponent, is the winner. How do you draw blood? Well, any where on our body, when pricked, will cause bleeding. Therefore, the valid target area for epee is the whole body.

Where as the sabre is mostly a cutting action, the epee is a point thrust action. In order to replicate the actual historical use of these weapons, and also not incur injury, the sabre weapon was modified to a blade of steel that has no sharp cutting edge or a sharp point. On the other hand, the epee was fitted with a flat push button with spring action. It takes a certain amount of pressure to register a touch. Both blades are made of flexible steel so that they will less likely break during combat and cause injury.

The judging of these sports were done traditionally by 4 judges that stand behind each fencer, two on each side. A director, would called the shots as to when to start and stop action and also determine the "right of way" and breakdown the moves of each fencer to reach a conclusion and award the touch.

This method lead to many contentions by fencers due to the accuracy of the judging and in some cases the fairness of the director and judges. When electic scoring was introduced in epee and foil, it removed some of those contentions. In specific, in epee, the right of way was elliminated and the scoring was left up to the machine. A difference of 1/25 of a second would settle a double touch. This changed how the game of epee fencing was conducted for the better.

The strategy in the past was always to hit your opponent and at the same time avoid getting hit. That is the only sure way to win the touch. With electrified fencing rules, it changed. Your objective is to hit your opponent before he hits you by more than 1/25th of a second. Obviously, this would not translate well into actual dueling. What good is hitting your opponent and then be hit also? It would be suicide.

Electrified Sabre

Back in my college days, in the 1970s, sabre was always fenced without scoring machine. It rely on judging and director to settle the score. As a result, it became necessary for the fencer to put up a good show. This was how they convince the judges and director that they made a touch. The speed of the actions and blade is too fast for the naked eye. A typical sabre fencer would make a loud noise or a fuss at the end of each action. This would give the judges and director a sense that he had made a touch when, at times, it may not have landed on the opponent. The "prettiness" of his actions and execution was part of the game. If you can convince the judge or director that you made a touch, it is as good as actually doing it.

Finally, when sabre became electrified, the game changed again. The "right of way" is still part of the sabre rules. The judges are no longer needed but the director's role is still the same. He needs to determine who has the right of way regardless of which light came on. It made it harder for bias to influence the outcome but not totally elliminate it. The director still rules.

Some Epee Touches...

The toe touch is a great example of why epee is special and unique. No other sport has this claim. A touch made to the toe is a great move and a surprise move. This is something a short fencer can execute against a tall fencer to even the odds a bit. It is also a way to psyche out your opponent. Fencing is not just about who is faster or taller or stronger. The skills has more to do with timing, distance and point control.

Another great epee touch is to the wrist. When executed correctly, your opponent is way out of range and still gets hit and a clean touch or la belle is achieved. The satisfaction of hitting a small target on the move is one of the joys of epee fencing. With regard to the comment about a tall fencer having the advantage In epee may be true, however, it is not guarenteed. A short person with precise point control can neutralize a tall fencer.

The stop thrust is also a prime epee defensive move. This action will allow the defender to steal the thunder from an attacker. In the process, he will score a touch in the preparation step of his opponent. The term stop in the dead of his track applies.

The double touch is unique to epee because of the no right of way rule. When two people score a touch simultaneously, both are counted. This may be used as a strategy to win by an opponent who is ahead. As long as you are ahead, a double touch will get you closer to winning. On the other hand, the one trailing must be extra careful to avoid the double touch if he wants to win.

Summary

In summary, I want to make the case that each weapon in fencing has its idiosyncrasy. No one weapon is superior to another. Like any other sports, the rules are what dictates how the game is played and what strategies to adopt for winning.

To an outsider, some actions may seem idiotic or makes no sense where as to the competitor, it is totally valid and makes total sense.

For me, personally, having been an epee fencer for over 40 years off and on, I prefer epee because of the free nature and no "right of way" rules. This is how real life is conducted. There is no "right of way" in real combat. Also, I prefer the honesty of this weapon. There is no external influence by directors. The machine has the final say and I like that.

I hope this article gives you outsiders a glimpse on the sport of fencing. A piece of advice. Don't write about something unless you have real first hand knowledge of the subject matter. It makes you seem out of touch.

  • Épée Is For Losers
    Fencing is a great sport. It’s pseudo-techno-sword-fighting! What more could you want? I’ll tell you: to get rid of épée, the stupid version of the sport.

© 2017 Jack Lee

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