Fencing: Safe, “Even though the goal is to stab your opponent”

Fencing seems like a fast-paced and violent sport, yet its injury rate is very low compared to other sports – as we are always happy to point out, you are more likely to be injured playing badminton than fencing. A 2012 Scientific American article ranked all summer and winter Olympic sports according to how many of each sport’s athletes were injured during training or the games. (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/leg-head-injuries-frequent-at-olympics/). The fact that fencing was ranked as one of the safest sports is no surprise to experienced fencers, but seems to have surprised the author of this article, who pointed out fencing’s low injury rate specifically and said “Even though the goal is to stab your opponent.”

If you think about fencing’s origins, it makes sense that we would work hard to reduce our injury rate. Fencing started as training for duels, and the people who were training for duels wanted to make sure they didn’t die. They started by simply blunting their weapons with a large wad of leather, which they thought looked like a flower or florette – this is where the term foil comes from. These wads of leather had to be about the size of your eye socket, so that accidental hits to the eye wouldn’t gouge out your eye.

Over the years we’ve improved our safety equipment beyond that simple wad of leather. Today’s fencer, in competition gear, is covered from head to toe with the exception of the back of the head and the back hand. If you keep your back arm out of the way and don’t turn away from your opponent (both of these are rules violations, anyway), your bare skin should never come in contact with your opponent’s weapon.

The essential pieces of gear for practice are the underarm protector, the jacket, the glove, and the mask. Some competitors also wear plastic chest protectors. Fencing pants and knee socks are required for competition, and a good idea although not required for practice. If you’re using the electric scoring system you’ll add more gear, but we’ll cover electric gear in a future post.

Chest protector Plastic chest protectors are required for youth events and for women of all ages. They can be worn by teen and adult men, but usually aren’t. The original requirement for women to wear chest protectors came from the mistaken belief that hits to the breasts caused breast cancer. Researchers have since disproven that, but most women prefer the added protection, so the rule has stayed in place.

PlastronThe underarm protector is more formally called the plastron and more informally called the armpit protector. It’s a half-jacket that covers the fencer’s dominant side from above the elbow to the neck. The most important aspect of the plastron is that its seams are not placed directly beneath the seams of the jacket. This way, in the event that a weapon breaks and the jacket seam fails, there’s another layer of protection between your opponent’s jagged blade and your soft, squishy insides.

Fencing jacketThe jacket is long-sleeved and can zip in front or back. Most fencers who buy their own equipment prefer to have the zipper in the front. The zipper on a front zip jacket is on the off-weapon side, so that it is rarely hit by opponents. Most clubs prefer to buy back-zip jackets, as these can be used by both lefties and righties. The jacket comes down to cover the groin in front and has a strap that goes between the legs and connects to the back of the jacket. This helps prevent the jacket riding up.

20150730_195439The glove is thick, with a cuff that should cover at least half the forearm. We only wear gloves on our dominant hand, to protect the hand from hits and to help control the weapon. In the age of duels, competitors would issue a challenge by throwing down their glove or gauntlet. We joke that this is the reason that modern fencers only wear one glove – because we would already have thrown the other glove at the opponent before starting the bout.

Fencing maskThe last piece of safety equipment you put on is also the most important: the mask. It’s made of a strong wire mesh, coated with rubber. The mesh allows you to see and breathe, while still protecting your face from hits. It also includes a thickly padded bib that should cover your neck down to the collarbones, protecting those vulnerable veins, arteries, and your windpipe from direct hits. The mask should fit snugly, with a Velcro strap around the back of your head and a metal tongue to hold it in place. Coach Dan and I have a perfect record of fencers leaving our class with the same number of eyeballs they came in with, and it’s because we insist that fencers always wear their masks when they are holding weapons or standing near people holding weapons.

All new fencers who enroll in our classes get access to these basic pieces of safety equipment, plus a weapon, from the very first class. Some clubs make new fencers wait a few sessions – sometimes even months – before allowing them to suit up and start hitting and being hit. At Houston Sword Sports, we know that the real reason you came was to get a chance to try swordfighting. We will teach you the fundamentals and still let you have fun by actually participating in the sport.

We know the gear itself isn’t really the selling point of the sport, but safety is a top priority. After all, we can have a lot more fun if we aren’t covered in bruises and gashes and poked-out eyes. Sign up for a class today and we’ll make sure you have a great time and come home in one piece.

Fencing Camp Preview

2015-07-11 14.37.45

We’ve got two camps down in our summer schedule, and two camps to go. The next one starts on Monday and we’re getting excited! This one will be held at Westbury Christian School in southwest Houston and is open to all kids from grades 3-12. A summer camp is a great way to experience fencing for the first time. Kids learn the basic skills they need to start quickly and have a chance to apply those skills immediately. If you have a child (or are a child) who’s interested in starting this fun, fast-paced sport, camp is the perfect way to jump-start your fencing career.

So what can you expect at fencing camp? We like to change up the format a little based on the ages, abilities and interests of the kids in attendance, but we have an outline we follow.


Each day starts with some fun games to warm up: sometimes simple games, like relay races; sometimes more interesting games like ultimate Frisbee or a dodgeball-style game called Zombie Tag. The goal of these games is to get kids moving and focused. Next, we move to conditioning – activities that increase the fencer’s coordination, strength, and speed. Then it’s time for footwork. On the first day, we teach campers the core building blocks of fencing footwork: the advance, the retreat, and the lunge. On the following days, we use these steps to create more complicated footwork patterns. We teach students to vary the size and speed of their steps, and tricks that will help them disguise their movement.

Once warmed up and ready to go, we help the kids suit up. New fencers are provided with the basic safety gear: chest protector, underarm protector, jacket, glove, and mask. Then, the campers get the one thing they’ve been wanting to play with since they first found out about fencing camp: the sword. Our beginner camps teach foil fencing, because the foil is lightweight (making it good for smaller fencers) and teaches skills that they can later translate into the other weapons.

We develop tactically over the course of the camp, day one focuses on simple attacks and the use of distance in setting up and defending them – it’s important to learn to use your feet to get you out of the trouble they got you into. Day 2 adds defense with the blade – the parry and riposte – and other blade actions. The rest of the week is about how to prepare these actions to make them more effective and some different variations on them.

2015-06-12 15.33.52

On the last day, we hold a tournament so the kids can put their skills to the test. We follow a standard USA Fencing format for the tournament: a pool, where each participant fences every other participant in a five-point bout; and a direct elimination tableau using the rankings from the pool. The fencers demonstrate how much they’ve learned during the week and get a taste for fencing competition. We also invite parents to observe the tournament, which provides for great photo ops and helps the parents understand what their kids have been learning all week.

Over the week, campers develop the basics of fencing footwork, bladework and tactics. They experience a variety of different drills and games to implement these techniques. And they fence in a tournament with the other campers. In all, campers get a great fencing experience condensed into one week.

Want to join the fun?

Westbury Camp: July 20-24, 1-4pm, $145
Westbury Christian School, 10420 Hillcroft St, Houston, TX 77096
Sign up

Bellaire Camp: August 3-7, 1-5pm, $195
Bellaire City Hall, 7008 S Rice Ave, Bellaire, TX 77401
Sign up