Going to Tournaments? Here’s What You Need to Know

Coach Dan explains the format to the Y8 fencers.

Gather round and learn what you need to know about tournaments!

We had a tournament information meeting last Saturday, and discussed the ins and outs of attending your first tournament, plus useful information for those who’ve been to a few. Read on to learn more!

We’ve got a tournament coming up soon – register today and you can put all of the following information to good use!

Houston Sword Sports St. Patrick’s Day Tournament, March 17-18

Signing Up

To participate in a tournament, you must be a member of USA Fencing. Memberships last until July 31st each year. Many novice and Y8 events only require the non-competitive membership; most require the competitive membership. To sign up, visit Be sure to list Houston Sword Sports as your primary club and the Gulf Coast Division for your division.

To see upcoming tournaments, sign up, and check your results, go to Currently most small, local tournaments use this system. Larger tournaments like ROCs, RYCs, RJCCs and NACs are handled through

When you sign up for a tournament, email the coaches to let them know. If a coach is available for a local tournament, they will attend to support our fencers. For out-of-town tournaments, sending a coach will depend on some other factors, and all fencers will need to pay a coaching fee.

Tournament Classifications

Tournaments are divided by four categories: weapon, age, gender, and rating.

Weapon is foil, epee, or saber. Each has its own rules and scoring areas, so you won’t see an event with foil vs epee, saber vs foil, etc. All of our classes start fencers with foil, but each weapon has its own personality, so try them all over time.

Age is broadly youth (Y-8, Y-10, Y-12, Y-14), teen (Cadet or Junior), open (13+), or veteran (40+). All ages are based on birth year, check out our post here for more info on this

Gender is male or female, usually not too tricky. Mixed means the tournament is open to all.

Rating is a letter, E through A, that’s earned by placing high enough at a tournament of a certain strength. Tournaments can be restricted to fencers who are unrated, E and Under, Div 3 (D and Under), Div 2 (C and Under), Div 1A (open or any rating), or Div 1 (C and above). Most tournaments are Div 1A, aka open, by default. There’s also a novice classification that applies to people who’ve been fencing for less than 1 year.

What do you need for a tournament?

All Fencers Foil Epee Saber
Knee socks

Fencing pants

Chest protector (for girls)

Underarm protector



2+ working foils

2+ working body cords

2+ working head cords

Foil lame

Foil mask

2+ working epees

2+ working epee cords

Epee mask

2+ working sabers

2+ working body cords

2+ working head cords

Saber lame

Saber mask

FIE saber glove with conductive cuff OR

FIE glove and manchette

*Foil and epee fencers do not need FIE gloves, but saber fencers do.

Where can I get all this stuff?

For novice events and HSS’s in-house tournaments, you can borrow items from the club (first come, first served). For other tournaments, you will need your own equipment. We recommend for entry-level fencing gear. If you need more information about product recommendations and sizing, ask the coaches.

What else do I need to know about the stuff?

Michael Mergens has a great booklet called The Care and Feeding of All Things Fencing: A Parent’s Guide. It’s a great starting point for taking care of your equipment and available free at the club. If you want to outsource your equipment maintenance, Michael is at the club most Tuesdays and Thursdays and can check your gear for you. All gear needs to be checked for function and holes before a tournament. Try to check it at least a week in advance to give you a chance to get items with issues fixed.

How do I know what tournaments to go to?

The coaches will highlight local tournaments that we think would be good for our fencers on the club whiteboard and in the monthly newsletters. A good number of tournaments to start with is four per season (August-July), so you aren’t too busy or overwhelmed.

When you start competing more regularly and at higher levels, it’s still a good idea to pick a handful of tournaments (three to six) to really focus on, and treat any other tournaments you attend as practices.

Your Day at a Fencing Tournament

When to arrive: AskFred will list the close of registration for your event. That is the absolute latest that you could sprint into the venue, out of breath, and yell “I’m here!” and then check in for your event (don’t do this). You should plan to be at the venue at least a half hour before your event starts. This will give you time to do the following:

  1. Check in, pay, sign waivers, etc.
  2. Take your equipment to the armorer to have it checked. You will always have your mask, glove, body cords, and lames checked. Some tournaments will also check weapons. Lames should be zipped, body cords should be presented neatly and one at a time, rather than as a tangled mass.
  3. Warm up with jogging or other cardio and footwork.
  4. Suit up (5-10 minutes before close of registration)
  5. Warm up by fencing other people in your event. Don’t fence your hardest here – you are trying to focus and get ready.

Part 1: Pools. On average, pools start about a half hour after close of registration. The entire group of fencers will be divided into smaller groups, usually of 5-7 fencers. Fence everyone in your pool to five touches. The results of pools are used to sort you into the next round, the direct eliminations.

Part 2: Direct Eliminations. In most tournaments – especially small local ones – everyone advances to DEs. Some larger tournaments will not have 100% advancement. DEs are a bracket, just like March Madness. If you are in a Y8, Y10, or veteran event, you fence DEs to ten touches. In epee and foil, it’s two three-minute periods with a one-minute break in between. In saber, which is not timed, the break comes after one fencer has five points. For all other events, DEs are fifteen touches, with three three-minute periods or (in saber) a break after one fencer has eight points.

As the name implies, if you lose a DE you are directly eliminated from the tournament. If you win, you get to fence another DE. This continues until someone has won the final bout and earned the gold medal. Some tournaments will require the two people who lost semifinal bouts to fence off for third and fourth place, but most don’t. Most tournaments will have awards for the top four, possibly the top eight, so if you have done well, stick around until the medal ceremony.

If you’re doing multiple events: Sometimes, your events will overlap. You’ll have less break time, and will spend your break for one event fencing in the other event.  If there’s two hours or less between registration times, expect some overlap. If the registration times are farther apart than that, overlap is still possible depending on how the event goes. Get ready for a long (but fun) day full of fencing.

Best practices for fencers

Be polite, be friendly, ask questions after the bout. Keep a fencing journal where you can write down your questions, how you are doing in your bouts, things you want to work on later, and so on. If you suspect your equipment isn’t working, ask the ref to test it (but don’t test it yourself). Watch other fencers fence – get ideas of actions to try and develop some questions to ask your coaches when you get back to the club.

Best practices for parents/friends/spectators

Cheer for your fencer after the ref makes the call, and stop when the ref says on guard. Keep the advice you give your fencer simple and positive (Nice touch! Keep trying! Slow down and take your time!) and only shout it between touches, not during the action. Bring your fencer water during their breaks and in between bouts. Take videos of bouts when you can to show the coach when you get back to practice. Never walk in between the ref and the bout they’re watching.

Tournament fees for out-of-town tournaments

The following expenses must be met for a coach to travel out of town for a tournament:

  • Coach’s travel expenses
  • Coach’s hotel expenses (in the hosting hotel)
  • Per diem (for coaching, travel and in-between days)
  • Daily coaching fee (for coaching days only)

If you are traveling to an out-of-town tournament and want coaching, contact the coaches at least 45 days before the tournament begins. When we have the full numbers, we will divide the total expenses by the number of fencers. This amount will be due from each fencer one week before the coach leaves for the tournament.


Brash 2018 Links and Info

Yeah! We’re doing it again!

It’s almost time for the 2018 Houston Sword Sports Brash Invitational! If you’re coming, here’s what you need to know. First, it’s February 17 – hopefully cooler than the unseasonably hot February we had last year, but no guarantees.

Get Directions to the brewery: 508 W Crosstimbers, Houston TX

Info for non-fencers

Fencing will probably start about 11. The amount of action will vary over time, but if you’re there between noon and three you will probably get to see the most action.

Info for fencers

Epee registration closes at 10:30; Foil registration closes at 12, and Saber registration closes at 1:30.

Preregister on

We’ll have shirts again!

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Referee Stories


Hi, Coach Dan again. Last week I talked about my descent into madness becoming a referee. Today, I wanted to share a couple anecdotes that I think may amuse you.

So I reffed around the Southwest Section (Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana primarily) for a few years and started getting a little recognition as a decent referee. This happened maybe 1998 or so at the Poujardieu Memorial held at (then) Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. I was refereeing a semi-final match between two fencers we’ll call Joe and Lou[1] who have a little bit of a history – which is to say Joe generally beats Lou, and Lou doesn’t like it.

Regardless, Joe was winning 14-13 and Lou was methodically working his way down the strip after him. Joe threw out a point in line to slow the advance, Lou beat it and took a step forward, Joe threw a second line, and Lou started an advance lunge that hit Joe. I said the second line was established in time, Lou took exception and after some debate punted his mask to the other end of the gym. It was a beautiful kick. Probably traveled 75 feet in the air with lots of hang time.

Anyway, there’s 4 levels of penalties in fencing, creatively named Group 1, 2, 3, and 4. Group 1 is minor things, Group 4 is the things that get you kicked out. Things like punting a mask 75 feet. So I gave Lou his black card. Then, Lou realized that he could have earned a better rating if he hadn’t punted that mask, and he followed me around the rest of the day saying aw, geez, he was sorry, couldn’t I please change my mind. I didn’t; his rating did not increase that day.

Second story, a few years later I’m reffing another semi-final bout, this time in Oklahoma. The bout was between Sam, a former Olympic and World Cup fencer, and Ned, a promising junior fencer[2]. The bout wasn’t really that close, but at some point an action happens and words start coming out of my mouth describing it. I wasn’t even close. Exactly wrong, one might say. And I knew it as soon as I said it, that I had mistakenly given Sam’s touch to Ned. So did everyone watching it. So Sam lifted his mask, pantomimed Ned’s action, and asked if I was calling that an attack. I replied I guess I just did. Sam stared at me a couple seconds, came back en garde, and proceeded to finish beating Ned.

Both times I made a call, one right, the other wrong. Both times I stuck to my call because if referees start changing calls, it becomes a debate tournament. It’s not always easy to make snap decisions that affect the outcome of tournaments, people can take those things personally – I know I have as a fencer and a coach. But it’s an important job to the smooth running of a tournament and with practice the referee helps a lot of people have a pretty good time. Unless you black card them – no one likes that.

[1] Standard not name disclaimer

[2] Same deal on the names

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How I Became a Referee


Dan Reffing at the Robert Reed Benefit Tournament

Hi I’m Dan, I coach here, and I’ve been known to referee the occasional tournament.

When I started fencing, most collegiate tournaments that I attended had dedicated referees, while most local USA Fencing tournaments were refereed by other fencers. Generally, fencers would have a pretty good idea who was at the tournament and consensus would determine who refereed which bouts. Occasionally (usually when the stronger referees fenced each other), fencers would find themselves at the mercy of a ref with no understanding of the phrase. This rarely ended well.

After fencing a few years, I became one of the fencers asked to referee matches in my events. It wasn’t the most fun aspect of my life, but it was better than a sharp stick in the eye. In 1995, my then fiancée, now wife, and I moved to Texas and started traveling to tournaments with the Texas A&M Fencing Club. Since I was at the tournaments all weekend, but only fencing saber, I started refereeing the foil and epee events in return for food, my saber entry, and sometimes a little cash.

Midway through 1996, I signed up to referee at Summer Nationals. I tested, was observed, and refereed my first national event in July 1996. It was an eye-opening experience for which I was not as prepared as I thought. Pro tip, some people take their fencing incredibly seriously and insist on Olympic caliber refereeing at all times. Caveat, this is not correlated with their understanding of fencing, or what constitutes Olympic caliber refereeing.[1] Still, I came away rated 5 in foil and epee (first round of a top level national event), and a year later added a 5 in saber to my list.

I continued to referee at the occasional national event next 8 years, along with a steady list of local and regional events. I became fairly popular with most of the better area fencers, amassed a small arsenal of stories, saw a large body of fencers grow from noob to elite, and eventually disappeared from the refereeing scene as my coaching duties took more and more of my time.

Refereeing is a great way to subsidize a fencing habit, but hard work. Be prepared for verbal abuse, long hours, and a shocking level of work. Still, it will give you an appreciation of fencing actions that is hard to get otherwise, and an insight into the groundwork behind different schools of thought.

[1] Like toddlers thinking fair means getting their way, many fencers equate quality refereeing with getting the touch.

Interested in becoming a referee? Dan didn’t scare you away? Sign up for Coastal Bend Fencing Society’s referee clinic on July 9!