Fencing equipment repair: an idiot’s guide to fixing body cords

Repairing fencing body cords (foil-epee-sabre) / Fencing equipment care

by Will Spear

Every fencer has experienced this moment: You score a perfectly executed touch and celebrate with gusto, only to look back at the scoring machine and find that your light isn’t on.

Your mind races, asking a million questions at once. Did I hit? Am I going crazy? Often you are not, in fact, going crazy, and this scenario has a simple explanation: a broken or unreliable body cord.

The fencing body cord is not only one of the most important items in your fencing bag, but it is also one of the most fragile. Proper care for this key piece of fencing equipment can make a huge difference during important situations in practice and competition.

In this article, we’ll discuss how to fix fencing body cords. However, this is the second installment of a three-part article about the essentials of caring for your fencing equipment.

To ensure we provide you with the best information, we have consulted Bill Murphy, the manager of Leon Paul USA since 2005. Bill has been involved with fencing since 1982 and has participated as an armorer in countless NACs, five US World Championship Teams, two Olympic and Paralympic Games.

How to avoid having to fix fencing body cords

Before we get into the dark art of fixing body cords, it’s important to keep two points in mind that can help you to avoid having to fix the darned things in the first place.

Moisture is a fencing body cord’s greatest enemy

When you’re done fencing, let your body cord dry for a few minutes before putting it away. When not in use, keep your body cords in a thin, cotton bag—something like a pillowcase and NEVER store your body cords in a plastic bag. An accomplished men’s foil fencer from the San Francisco area actually leaves his body cord inside of his jacket after he’s done fencing. Once you start winning Olympic medals, you can get away with this sort of thing, but, until then, keep your body cords away from moisture.

You get what you pay for

This says it all with pretty much all fencing equipment. All body cords are not created equal. Some have more strands of wire than others. More flexible body cords tend to last longer than more rigid one ones, and they are more comfortable to fence with. Don’t be afraid to pay $25 or more for a good body cord from a trusted European manufacturer. In other words, better quality body cords are going to require fewer repairs because they break less often.

These two points are your greatest defense against broken cords. However, no matter how careful you are, at some point your cords will need repairs.

The basics of fencing body cords

Before you can have a good understanding of how to fix body cords, you need to know a few basics about how they work. Cords function a bit differently in each of the three weapons, although all have similarities.

All body cords have a three-pin end (the reel-end) which plugs into to the scoring machine. The three pins are attached to individual wires that run through the length of the cords and are referred to as the A, B, and C lines. The A and B line are closest together and the C line is positioned away from the other two.

Diagram for repairing fencing body cords, including epee, foil and sabre - it is essential to care for this part of your fencing equipment

The other side of the body cord which plugs into the socket (the weapon-end) can differ by weapon and style. Despite these differences, fixing the wires will be relatively similar between épée and foil/saber cords.

How Épée body cords work

In épée, the weapon-end plug is the same as the reel-end. The A and B lines lead to the two wires running down the groove of the blade. When the tip is depressed, the spring in the tip makes contact with the two wires and completes the circuit, registering a hit. The C line connects to the guard by way of the socket mount and grounds the guard and blade, so that hits will not register if they are touched by the opponent’s weapon.

How foil & sabre body cords work

The foil and sabre body cord are the same, however function differently depending on which weapon is used.

In foil, the A line leads to the Alligator clip that connects to the lamé. The B line is attached to the smaller of the two pins on the weapon-end plug and connects to the wire running down the groove of the foil. This is the line that carries the current down the blade and to the opponent’s lamé. The C line connects to the guard by way of the socket mount and grounds the guard and blade, so that hits will not register if they are touched by the opponent’s weapon.

In sabre, the A line also leads to the Alligator clip that connects to the lamé. The B and C lines connect (and are shorted) at the weapon socket. When the sabre touches the opponent's mask, lamé or glove, it makes contact with the opponents A line and thus registers a hit.

What tools you will need to repair fencing body cords

With a little creativity, body cords can be fixed using a variety of tools. However, if you have the items below, it will make your life a lot easier.

Testing the fencing body cord for breaks

If you’re getting your body cords checked by an armorer at fencing competition, you can simply ask which line failed, and why it failed. However, if you are doing it yourself, there are a couple of ways to figure out where the problem lies.

How to check with a fencing testing box

Knowing how to use a testing box is imperative for anyone aspiring to fix their own body cords, as it is an excellent way to tell if a wire has been fixed successfully.

There are a number of different test boxes** available, but the most common type among fencers is the one with two lights on it, one red and one green. Legend has it that this type of test box was invented by an epee fencer, who chose the green light for a properly working epee and a red light for a properly working foil.

Checking an épée body cord with a testing box

  1. Plug in the reel-end of the body cord into your test box.
  2. On the weapon-end of the body cord, connect the A and B pins with a metal object, such as a screwdriver (known as short circuiting).
  3. If there is a solid green light when you short circuit the A and B pins, then the body cord is working normally. If the green light flickers, or is not on, this suggests a break or loose connection. If a red light is also on, it indicates a short circuit elsewhere in the body wire (e.g. wires are touching each other further down the cord).
  4. If you short circuit the B and C pins, you should see a solid red light. If the red light flickers, this a break in the C line.

Checking a foil/sabre body cord with testing box

  1. Plug in the reel-end of the body cord into the test box.
  2. On the weapon-end of body cord, short circuit (connect) the B and C pins with a metal object, such as a screwdriver.
  3. If there is a continuous red light when you short circuit the B and C pins, then the body cord is working normally. If the red light is flickering, or is not on, this suggests a break or loose connection in the body cord. If the green light is also on, it indicates a short circuit elsewhere in the body cord (e.g. wires are touching each other further down the cord).
  4. Then take the B line (the thinner pin) of weapon-end of the plug and connect it to the A line by putting it between the teeth of alligator clip.
  5. If there is a continuous green light, then the body cord is working normally. If it is flickering or does not go on, then there is a bad connection in the A line leading to the alligator clip.

How to find the location of the break on the body cord

As you conduct the tests above, you will want to give the cords a good wiggle back and forth at various places along the wire. This can help you identify where the break is located as you will see the lights go on and off the test box if you are moving the wire back and forth on a problem area.

How to quickly test foil and sabre cords with a fencing scoring machine

Most of the time, you’ll be fencing when your cords stop working. Here’s a quick and dirty way to test two-prong saber/foil wires using a fencing scoring machine (unfortunately this method doesn’t work with épée cords).

  1. Set the machine to saber.
  2. Plug the suspect body cord into one of the reels.
  3. Attach the alligator clip to the two prongs.
  4. The grounding light (the small yellow light on the machine) should be the only thing on, even if you move the wires around. If this is the case, your wire works.
  5. If no lights at all are on, the A line is broken.
  6. If both the grounding light and the white light are on, the C line is broken.
  7. If only the white light is on, the B line is broken.
Note: This won’t tell you if your wires are crossed, which would occur if you made a mistake repairing them. Crossed wires will work in practice for saber (and not in épée or foil) but will fail inspection. For this reason, it’s better to test wires that you’ve fixed with a testing box.

Repairing your fencing body cord

After you have ruled out more visible problems, such as broken pin, your body cord problem is likely to be one of two issues:

  • A break in the wire itself
  • The set-screw in the pin has loosened up

Unfortunately, there’s no great way to visually tell where the break is unless there’s a full break or the wire is only partially connected. As we mention above, if you wiggle the wire on one side, and the light on your test box flickers, then that’s likely where you have the problem. Most of the time foil and saber body cords will break near the weapon-end of the body cord, as this is the area where the wire flexes the most.

Fixing a poor fit with the weapon socket

One quick note here is that sometimes the cord won’t fit snugly into the socket of your weapon. This might result in some inconsistencies when wiggling the cord. In sabre, the warning light on the scoring machine will flicker. In foil, a white light will come on. If the cord fits into your weapon loosely, then you simply need to take a small screwdriver and pull the pins apart so they fit more snugly into the weapon’s socket. This type of problem is less common in higher quality body wires and sockets.

Carefully push a screwdriver into the pin to flare it out

Carefully push a screwdriver into the pin to flare it out

How to fix a break in the body cord

We’ll start with a common occurrence: a break on the weapon-end of a foil/sabre body cord.

Repairing a Break on the weapon-end of a foil/sabre body cord

You’ll need to use your standard screwdriver to open up the plastic plugs. There will also be one small screw that goes into the retaining clip of the weapon-end plug that holds it in place in the socket. Make sure that all the pieces that come out go into a safe place.

Quick tip: If you ever lose a retaining clip spring, it is same as an épée pressure spring.

Once you have opened the plastic plug on the weapon-end of the cord, pay close attention to how the wiring and pins are arranged. You’ll have two wires, one ending with a little pin and one with a larger pin. The little pin is the B line, and the larger one is the C line. You’ll want to mark the individual wires with a Sharpie a couple inches down so you don’t mix them up. A simple method for doing this is to put one dot on the A line, two dots on the B line. You can also make up you own method, but just make sure to be consistent so you don’t confuse yourself later doing the line with other body cords.

Each wire will have a small square mount at the base of the pin. Use your jewelers screwdriver to unscrew the small screw holding the wire in. Avoid screwing them all the way out if you can (they are a pain to put back in). Pull the pin off the wire. Repeat on the other side.

All parts successfully removed - notice the screws still resting in the pins

All parts successfully removed - notice the screws still resting in the pins

Now you’ll want to find the break. The break may be easier to see on body wires with clear insulation than body cords with solid color insulation. Once you have ruled out a loose pin screw as being the problem (which you can easily fix by screwing back in), take your pliers and firmly tug on the bare wire. If the break is located close to the socket, the broken wire will pull right out of the insulation that covers it. If not, you will have to do a little guesswork, as the break is likely a bit farther down the cord.

Cut both wires to the same length just below the break (so you cut the break off). If the break isn’t obvious, you might try cutting the wire 4” below the plug. Even if this doesn’t fix it (often times it will), putting it back together and fixing it are similarly difficult at this point, so you might as well just play it safe and fix the thing.

Pull the strands of the wire apart about four inches down. Strip the end of the wires so about two centimeters are bare. Fold the wire so it is doubled back on itself and stick it back into the correct corresponding pin.

Note the top wire folded back on itself allows it to fit snugly in the pin.

Note the top wire folded back on itself allows it to fit snugly in the pin.

Screw the small screw back into the pin to secure the wire. Give it a firm tug to make sure it’s tight.

Note: Depending on the brand of cord you have, you might have a wire that is thicker and does not need to doubled over. In these rare cases, simply strip the wire leaving one centimeter bare and continue.

Put the pins back into the plastic plug. The side of the plastic plug that you put the wires into first actually matters. One side will have a small bump in it, and the other side will have a small indent. You will find that it is easier to first put the wires into the side with the small indent.

Wires added successfully - notice the small bumps on the track of the lower half of the plastic holder

Wires added successfully - notice the small bumps on the track of the lower half of the plastic holder

Screw everything back together. The only tricky part is getting the spring and clip back in. Push the button in with the spring down onto the table with one hand, then, put the clip over the top, and start screwing in the small screw with your fingers before switching over to the screwdriver.

So again to briefly summarize the process for repairing a break on the weapon-end of a foil/sabre body cord:

  1. Open the plastic plug on the weapon-end of the cord
  2. Mark the individual lines with a Sharpie, so you don’t mix them up
  3. Use your jewelers screwdriver, and unscrew the small screw holding the wire in.
  4. Pull the pin off the wire.
  5. Repeat on the other side.
  6. Find the break in the wire.
  7. Cut both wires to the same length just above the break
  8. Pull the wires apart about four inches down
  9. Strip the end of the wires so about two centimeters are bare.
  10. Fold the wire so it is doubled back on itself.
  11. Stick it back into the correct corresponding pin.
  12. Screw the small screw back into the pin to secure the wire.
  13. Give it a firm tug to make sure it’s tight.
  14. Put the pins back into the plastic holder.
  15. Screw all the components back together.

Fixing an épée body cord or a break on the reel-side of foil/sabre body cord

The entire process for fixing a break on the reel-side of and épée or foil/sabre body cord is exactly the same as as above, except that it’s a little easier to mix up where the wires go back into the plastic casing. So, you’ll have to be especially careful to mark them and keep them distinct from each other. A simple method for doing this is to put one dot on the A line, two dots on the B line and three dots on the C line. The same is true from the weapon-end of and épée body cord, as it is identical to the three-prong reel-end of any body cord.

Fixing a break on the C line (alligator clip) of a foil/sabre body cord

The alligator clip tends to break off completely making the problem easy to identify. However if this isn’t the case follow the steps below:

  1. First identify where the break has occurred.
  2. Cut the wire off just below the break (so you’re cutting the break off).
  3. Pull any loose wire off the alligator clip itself.
  4. Clean the clip carefully.
  5. Use wire stripper to strip a centimeter below where you cut the wire.
  6. Use needle nose pliers and soldering iron to firmly re-attach the wire to the alligator clip.

Always retest your fencing body cord

It’s important to note that until you become proficient in repairs, it's best not to use repaired wires for competition before they have been thoroughly tested (using the testing box method mentioned above). You don’t want that wire breaking in a tournament and losing you a point in a critical situation.

Note: You should also talk to your coach or club armorer about testing body wires for resistance. At all national tournaments and many local tournaments body wires will be inspected for resistance, using an ohmmeter. FIE Rules require that resistance in each wire not exceed 1 ohm of resistance.

Summary

We hope this guide helps you keep your body cords in working condition for years to come. If you carefully follow the guidelines above you should extend the lifetime of your cords and help your wallet out at the same time.

Footnotes

*There is also a bayonet-style body cord in foil and sabre. This type of cord has a single unit that plugs into the weapon; however, these are less common, and so their repair isn’t covered in this article.

**An epee circuit is normally open and becomes closed when the tip is depressed (with over 750 grams of pressure), causing the contact spring to make contact with the blade wires. On a two-light test box you should see a green light, when the tip is depressed. A red light indicates that the blade wires (the A and B lines) are making contact somewhere other than the tip. This is called a "short." A foil circuit is normally closed, meaning that current is continuously flowing down the blade wire, through the spring, the tip and the screws, then back up the blade. When the point touches the opponent’s lamé (with over 500 grams of pressure) the tip is depressed and the circuit is broken.

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