It has been over six months since I began fencing and as this is well over 66 days, the time period oft cited to develop a new habit, it’s time that I write about something that has become more than a hobby.
Most youngsters daydream of wielding a sword; in the olden days sparring as pirates and today cosplaying as Jedi Masters or Sith Lords. I, too, am one of those. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’ve always wanted to fence but I never got involved in the sport more than watching it being played out at the Olympics, occasionally.
What is it about brandishing a sword that incites a primal sense in an individual? Is it the anticipation of adrenaline or the excitement of having picked up a lethal skill? I do not overstate in terming it lethal. Back in the days, the fencer would carry a dagger in the non-blade wielding hand to protect his face from getting stabbed; presumably to not have any disfiguration but definitely because he didn’t want to lose an eye. Later, some of these daggers turned into sword breakers with teeth because breaking off even a few inches from a sword could firmly place favor in the camp of the fencer with the unaltered blade. Today, of course, it’s all padded clothing and helmets which allows the fencer to focus fully on the fighting blade, especially when the blow that lands has an effect that is buffered. In fact, even the blade tips for duels in which only the tips count to a point have electronic mechanisms that simulate the resistance to pressure required to induce breakage of skin for the point to be awarded.
As a tangent and a player in my story of taking up fencing as a sport is a little aside that one of my fencing coaches made to me about fencers of old; a story of rogues, blademasters, and lawyers. Back in the days, when feudal lords, barons, and other aristocrats reigned supreme in a hierarchical fashion, smart ruffians with time on hand devised a way to steal from the rich and give to their poor selves. These ingenious ruffians would find a deft swordsman and spend years on end learning to wield a blade from him. Once they had achieved a level of mastery, they would then spend time at the favorite haunts of aristocrats and wait for them to get sloshed, high or buzzed before making their move.
The move would be to bump into the target aristocrat or make some other such advance as to count as an effrontery to either of the men’s honor. This would lead to an argument, escalation, and inevitably in the direction of a duel. It’s now the ruffian’s time to shine. Both men would designate a second, a precursor to today’s lawyers, to settle on the “terms of the duel” and as neither man wants to die, after a certain threshold of blood loss, the bout would be considered ended. If the ruffian was skillful enough, within a few architected bouts he would become a lord. It was a sport to them, it is a sport to us.
Pictured above is a foil and below are épées; if it’s technique you wish to develop, pick foil. If it’s defense you wish to master, pick épée. If you don’t care for regulations or patience, pick sabre.
I started my journey into fencing when I picked up a foil and trained with it for a few months. This is apt as a foil is analogous to the practice blades of old and a target region that is limited to the torso. Only after reaching a degree of confidence and a certain skill level did I begin fencing with an epee which is analogous to the rapier in practice and the target area for it is anywhere on the body.
Settling upon which blade to fence is a question of the fencer’s constitution, temperament, and interest. There is another big decision that every fencer has to make; the grip. Most fencers begin training on a French grip which is a long handle with an angle to it. Recently, I attempted to use a Belgian grip which looks a lot like a pistol’s handle and is sometimes called a pistol grip for that reason. From my experience, a French grip gives a fencer an extra few inches on handling distance when fencing a height advantaged opponent while a Belgian gives the fencer blade tip flexibility because of the surety with which the blade is attached to the arm and hand.
In addition to fancy footwork, quick hands, and dancing blades, what appeals to me about fencing is that to excel at it, one has to be of the mold of strategic thinking; every hit landed is planned about three beats, parries, or ripostes in advance. If you have been turned into a pincushion, know that your strategic thinking on the strip needs revamping.
It rains, you get wet. It rains blade points, you get stabbed.
Sword fighting is a time honored tradition that, with the appropriate safety gear and passage of time became accepted as a sport. Yet in a world in which guns are widespread, the ability to wield a blade in self defense is a remarkable skill to have in one’s repertoire.
Blade fighting as a martial art fascinates me and while I am not yet inclined to picking a knife fighting technique, I wouldn’t put it past myself to actively pursue learning to use a katana. And neither should you.