How to Follow Fencing (part 2): How to Watch a Fencing Bout

Fencing director hand signals superimposed - referee hand signals can be confusing

Watching a fencing bout can be confusing. For a new spectator, it’s often just a flurry of swords, flashing lights, and the director making arcane hand signals. This can make it extremely difficult to get your footing and actually understand what is going on during a bout. The fencing community is very open and willing to help. But oftentimes it can be difficult to translate the lingo of an experienced fencer as someone new to the sport.

This guide is the second in our series “how to follow fencing”. It will cover everything you need to know to go to a tournament and actually spectate a bout. We will cover scoring and periods, how touches are determined and awarded, when the bouts end, what the director is doing, and some of the more common penalties.

What this guide will not cover is the structure of a fencing tournament or how to know who will compete against whom and when. That is covered in our “how to follow fencing” part 1. This guide will also not cover how to calculate points, rankings, or fencing seasons. That will all be covered in another article.

It is useful if you are familiar with the terms of fencing before reading this article. For your reference, here’s the link to our glossary of fencing terms.

Scoring and periods

If you’ve read our “how to follow fencing” part 1 guide, this section will be partially familiar to you. However, it is recommended that you still read through this section, as we go into greater detail in this article.

A pool bout consists of a single period that is three minutes long. The fencer with the highest score at the end of those three minutes is the winner. A fencer will also win the bout immediately if they score 5 touches.

In Foil and Épée, a DE bout consists of three periods, each three minutes long. Fencers get a one minute break between each period, where they can rest, hydrate, and speak with their coach. The fencer with the highest score at the end of the three periods is the winner. A fencer will also win the bout immediately if they score 15 touches, regardless of the period.

In the case of a tie after the periods are over, the fencers move into a sudden death overtime round. The first fencer to score a touch during this time wins. There is no one-minute break between the end of the last round of fencing and overtime. Additionally, before overtime starts, the referee flips a coin and randomly assigns one of the two fencers with priority. If the sudden death overtime runs out with neither fencer scoring, the fencer with priority wins the bout.

However, in Sabre, DE bouts are fenced over two periods. Because scoring occurs much more quickly, the bouts are rarely timed and fencers will take a one-minute break once one fencer scores 8 touches. The second period lasts until a fencer scores 15 touches and wins the bout.

How to score: right of way

How touches are scored in fencing can be the most difficult aspect for a new spectator or fencer to get the hang of. To ease ourselves into it, let’s start with the easiest weapon to understand: Épée.

Épée

To score a point in Épée, a fencer must squarely hit their opponent with their point before they get hit. The point can land anywhere on the opponent’s body, from their head to their toes. When a fencer scores a valid hit (not on the bell guard or somewhere on the floor), the colored (red or green) light on that fencer’s side of the machine lights up. This colored light indicates that fencer hit their opponent. If the machine shows a white light instead of a colored light, it means there is a malfunction in the wiring. A referee’s job in Épée is to make sure that a fencer actually hits the other fencer, and not the floor or anything else, as well as make sure that both fencers are competing by the rules of the sport.

When two Épée fencers hit at the same time, a touch is awarded to both fencers. You can tell fencers hit at the same time when both the red and green lights turn on. If the fencers don’t hit at the same time, the machine will lock the lights, so only one light will turn on.

Sabre and Foil: Right of Way

Right of way is the term that describes which fencer scores a point if both fencers land a valid hit on valid target. We’ll get into what that means in a bit, but first let’s cover valid target and a valid hit for Foil and Sabre.

Foil:

A fencer must score a hit with the tip of their weapon in Foil. The tip must land on valid target. Valid target includes the torso and groin. It does not include the legs, face, or arms. In competitions, a fencer’s valid target will be covered with a shiny material, called a lamé. When a valid hit is scored in Foil, a colored light will turn on for the fencer that scored the hit. If you score a hit with the point in Foil on invalid target (like the leg), the white light on that fencer’s side will turn on instead.

Sabre

It is not necessary to hit with the tip of your weapon in Sabre. Any part of the blade (excluding the guard) can land on valid target. Valid target in Sabre includes the torso, arms, and head. It does not include the legs, groin, or either hand. When a valid hit is scored in Sabre, a colored light will turn on for the fencer that scored the hit. Nothing will happen if you hit an opponent on invalid target in Sabre. If you see a white light, it means there is a malfunction in the equipment.

Right-of-way

Right of way is perhaps the most difficult concept in fencing to learn and master. For the purposes of this article, we are going to grossly oversimplify it so you can get out there and start watching and learning.

There are two basic situations you’re going to encounter when watching fencing. The first is when both fencers are trying to hit each other at the same time. The second is when one fencer is trying to hit, while the other fencer is trying to defend.

Right of way describes which fencer is awarded the touch when both fencers hit. A fencer gains right of way by initiating an attack before their opponent. This is how you determine who gets the point in that first situation.

According to the rulebook, an attack is made by threatening their opponent’s target area while their arm is extending. In practice, Sabre attacks and Foil attacks will look quite different. In Foil, more emphasis is put on the initial extension of the arm as the origins of the attack. In Sabre, more emphasis is placed on the initial motion forward of the feet when determining right of way. Remember, it’s not about who hits first, it’s about who starts their final sequence of aggressive actions first.

Whoever initiated their attack first has right of way, and if nothing else happens and both fencers score valid hits, the point goes to the person who is determined by the referee to have the right of way. For example, in Sabre, if fencer A starts an advance while fencer B does nothing or retreats, and then both fencer A and fencer B lunge at the same time, then fencer A is awarded the point because they started their final sequence of actions first, with the advance.

However, an experienced fencer without right of way will not attempt to merely hit their opponent. They know they will lose the touch. For this reason, you will often see fencers trying to defend themselves instead. This is the second basic situation mentioned above.

A fencer can lose right of way if their attack fails. If a fencer’s attack fails, either because they simply missed valid target or through their opponent’s deft defense, right of way is temporarily given to their opponent as if they had started an attack (when a fencer scores a touch with this temporary right of way, it is called a ‘riposte’). That means that even if both fencers start their attacks and score valid hits at the same time, the person who recently deflected (called a ‘parry’ in fencing terminology) an attack will have right of way, and thus score the point.

Remember, it does not matter how many how many times right of way has been exchanged during the course of the touch. Right of way is given to the fencer who initiates the attack first, or had recently stopped an attack. As you watch more, you’ll start to get a sense for the time that a fencer has to initiate their riposte after a parry and still retain right-of-way.

In Foil, when a fencer hits off-target (a white-light hit), the referee will stop the bout to determine who would have scored the point, even though no valid hit has been registered. After this occurrence, no fencer is awarded a point and they simply begin again where they left off.

This is in contrast to Sabre, where even if a fencer hits off-target, no white light will register. The point will continue until at least one fencer hits on valid target.

If neither fencer clearly has right of way - which happens when fencers start their attacks at similar times and there wasn’t a recent parry - then the referee calls simultaneous, and fencing begins again where the fencers left off. This is true for both Foil and Sabre.

Below is a simple diagram designed to help understand the thought process needed to determine who scores a point for the second situation - when one fencer is trying to hit and the other is trying to defend.

Simple diagram explaining the exchange of right of way in fencing.

Director hand signals

Okay, so now you have a general idea of how a touch is scored in fencing. You watch the action, and the referee performs interpretive dance, and adds a point to one of the fencer’s scores. Here’s how to translate the most common hand signals that referees make.

Beginning and ending a touch

To begin a touch, the referee holds their hands out to the side and parallel to the floor, and then brings them together in front of them while saying “fence!”. This signals to the fencers to begin fencing.

Fencing director 'En Garde, Ready, Fence!" hand signals

When the touch has concluded, a referee holds up their hand, and says “halt!”, which indicates that fencing must stop. A referee might not call halt if the halt is obvious - when both fencers clearly hit each other, for example.

Fencing referee "halt!" hand gesture

Judging the action

After the touch has ended, the referee will describe what took place. The referee is looking for all the same things that we discussed in the right of way section above. The first thing you’ll see a referee gesture will be the “attack” gesture, which indicates that the attack came from that side.

Fencing referee hand signals "attack initiates from right side"

Now the referee will say whether that attack lands. This is shown in a couple of gestures. They will either indicate that the attack lands, the attack was parried, the attack completely missed, or in the case of Foil, if the attack was off-target. These are indicated as follows:

Fencing hand gesture "touch against" left fencer

Fencing hand gesture "touch against" left fencer

Fencing hand gesture "parry" against right fencer

Fencing hand gesture "parry" against right fencer

Fencing hand gesture "attack no" for right fencer

Fencing hand gesture "attack no" for right fencer

Fencing hand gesture "attack not valid" for right fencer

Fencing hand gesture "attack not valid" for right fencer

Note that the hand signals are placed towards the fencer being attacked.

If the referee indicated the attack did not land, then the referee further indicate whether the riposte landed, missed, was parried, or landed off-target. The referee does this in exactly the same way as for the initial attack. Note again that the referee performs the hand gesture on the side of the fencer being attacked. Once the referee indicates that the attack lands, the referee then holds up their hand on the side of the fencer that scored the touch.

Fencing referee hand gestures "point right"

The score for that fencer is then increased by one point, and then play starts again.

This guide was designed to help you understand the majority of touches that occur in fencing. There are a few variations on these simple rules that you will start to pick up as you watch and observe more, such as point-en-line and attack in preparation, but it can be hard to pick up on these actions without first understanding the fundamentals as outlined here.

Without getting too much in detail, here’s the basics of what you need to know about these touches:

Attack in Preparation: This touch is called when Fencer B is able to take right of way from the Fencer A when Fencer B hits while Fencer A is hesitating.

Point in Line: Point in line is a very specific blade technique that enables a fencer to gain right of way while not attacking. It involves extending the point of the weapon directly at an opponent.

Again, don’t worry too much about these touches when you’re just starting out. As you become more experienced you will start to understand when both of these touches will be called.

Common Penalties

In addition to awarding points, a referee will also give out penalties when fencers violate the rules of the sport. It can be difficult to know exactly what a referee is penalizing without first knowing the entire set of rules for fencing. However, we will cover some of the most common rule infractions that you’ll see, as well as what the various penalties mean when you see them come in a tournament.

Verbal Warning

This isn’t as official as the other penalties you’ll see. It’s essentially a refereeing saying “Hey, I don’t like what you’re doing. Do it again and I’ll give you a card”. Many referees opt to give verbal warnings instead of cards on the first offense for minor infractions, such as jumping the gun and starting the touch before the referee says fence, or taking too long to come back to the En Garde lines to start the next touch.

Yellow Card

A yellow card is a penalty given for the smallest infractions in fencing. A yellow card does not give any additional punishment by itself, but if a fencer accrues more than one yellow card during the course of a bout, each yellow card after the first is converted into a red card. Yellow card counts are reset at the start of every bout. An example of common yellow cards you’ll see are for delay of bout and bringing equipment that doesn’t work to the start of a bout (equipment breaking during fencing doesn’t count).

Red Card

Red cards are given for moderate infractions in fencing. If a fencer receives a red card, their opponent receives a single point in the bout they are fencing. Red cards are most commonly given for repeated yellow cards. However, a few actions will give red cards immediately, such as not having inspection marks on your equipment that verifies that all your equipment is compliant with the rules of the tournament, or falsifying an injury to receive an injury timeout.

Black Card

Black cards are reserved for the more severe infractions. A black cards expels a person from the tournament (a fencer, spectator, or even referee can be expelled this way). Depending on the severity, a black card can expel people for multiple tournaments or even an entire season. These are usually given for cheating, extreme unsportsmanlike conduct (aggressively cursing at a referee or athlete.), or violent actions (throwing equipment, chairs, physically attacking someone).

Exceptions and Footnotes

  • Time is Sabre is still in the rulebook, so theoretically it could go for 3 periods. However, Sabre fencing usually is finished way before 3 minutes is up. Due to this, even high level tournaments often do not enforce time for Sabre bouts.
  • The rules for right-of-way in Sabre and Foil do not technically differ. However, in practice, right of way is interpreted in different ways.