The sport has been described as “chess with muscles,” suggesting that complicated strategy lies behind the thrusts and parries that punctuate a duel. The Italians, Spanish, and French all claim parentage for modern fencing, but throughout Europe during the Renaissance the discipline took on the aura of high art, with masters refining and passing on to a select few their secret techniques. In the first decades of competition, Europeans dominated, with France, Italy, Spain, Great Britain, and the Netherlands all boasting champions. Following World War II, the nations of eastern Europe rose to pre-eminence, with the Soviet Union, Poland, and Hungary sharing the medal stand.
Fencing is an art of attack and defense with a sword or similar weapon. Modern fencing is a recreational and competitive sport, but its rules and techniques are derived from those originally developed for efficient swordplay in dueling.

During the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century) the sword was an offensive weapon used for cracking armor, and the shield was used as a defense. After gunpowder came into general use, heavy defensive armor became obsolete, and the sword became a defensive as well as an offensive weapon. In the 16th century the rapier was introduced in Italy, and the art of fencing was rapidly systematized in fencing schools. A dagger in the other hand, and later a folded cloak, replaced the shield. Eventually the non-sword arm was left free and held away from the sword arm to minimize the target area.

The use of the rapier and the Italian fencing technique spread throughout Europe. In France and England, the size and shape of the rapier were constantly modified because its length and weight made it clumsy to carry. During the 18th century the small sword, or épée, was invented and popularized in France; the new weapon resulted in distinct Italian and French styles of fencing. The Italians used the rapier in a bravura manner, with pronounced, vigorous gestures. The French used the épée in a more formal manner, with great restraint of movement. The French style of fencing became by far the more prominent. Its rules govern most modern competition, and the vocabulary of traditional fencing is composed largely of French words.

During the 19th century dueling was generally outlawed, and the fencing schools turned to teaching fencing for purposes of sport. Much of the equipment still used by fencers was developed at this time, including the glove worn on the sword hand, the plastron (chest protector), and the mask of wire netting.

Fencing has evolved over the years. Since the introduction of the electrical scoring apparatus, fencing has become more of an athlete’s game. Previously it had been practiced as a complex and highly technical art. Now its movements are more vigorous, with a greater emphasis on speed, accuracy, timing, agility, and stamina.

All equipment and protective clothing are now standardized. Dress includes a fencing jacket, wire-mesh mask with proper bib, leather glove, trousers or breeches and stockings, underarm protector, breastplates for women, and protective athletic supporter for men. White is usually the color of fencing uniforms and equipment. In recent years, however, the use of light pastel colors has become acceptable.

Three different kinds of fencing are practiced today, each named for the type of sword used: foil, epee, and saber. The objective of fencing is to touch the valid target with the point of the foil or epee, or with the cutting edge and point of the saber. Today men and women fence with all three weapons and compete individually and in teams.

Fencing has been one of the events in the Olympic Games since 1896, and épée fencing is one of the five events in the modern pentathlon. International competitions are sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale d’Escrime (FIE or the International Federation of Fencing), the world governing body of the sport. A world championship is held annually to determine individual and team champions of each weapon. In the United States, competitions are organized on a local, regional, and national basis by the U.S. Fencing Association, formerly known as the Amateur Fencers League of America (founded in 1891). Competitions on the collegiate level are held under the auspices of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).


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