Foil, sabre or épée? The specific characteristics of weapons dictate the rules of fencing

Agility, strength and precision are some of the abilities required for each of the sport’s three weapons

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Three weapons are used in one of the most traditional combat sports in the Olympic programme   (Photo: Getty Images/Dean Mouhtaropoulos)
Three weapons are used in one of the most traditional combat sports in the Olympic programme (Photo: Getty Images/Dean Mouhtaropoulos)

Some sports rules are based on the objective of the game, athletes’ skills or even the competition environment. In the case of fencing, the competitions’ characteristics follow the movements of the three different weapons – épée, foil and sabre. Each athlete must choose the weapon that best matches his or her abilities. For fast competitors with honed reflexes the sabre may be ideal. For those who seek to fence in a precise, light manner, the foil is the best option. Those whose strength and range of movement are strong points should choose the épée.

In fact, each of the fencing weapons has characteristics so specific that they can completely change a competitor’s strategy. Often it is up to coaches to recommend the weapon that offers the greatest advantage to athletes who are embarking on their career. While the sabre is the most flexible of the weapons, the foil is the lightest. The épée, despite being heavier and more rigid, permits the greatest range.

The foil is the most popular, commonly used by those starting to learn the art of the sport’s weapons. With a flexible, light blade, it allows for a lighter touch. During duels, points are scored by touching the point of the blade on the adversary’s torso.

This weapon was the choice of Fernando Scavasin, leader in the Brazilian ranking for the foil. “I started fencing at the age of 13 with coach Guillermo Betancourt, who won a silver medal for foil fencing at the Barcelona 1992 Games. I like all three weapons, but I ended up with the foil because it was the structure I had at my disposal. I have taken part in competitions using other weapons as well, but I have never planned on changing”, he explains.

The sabre has the most flexible blade of the three weapons and so demands impeccable rapidity and reflexes. Fencers may land a touch using the point or edge, a characteristic heavily inspired by the weapons used by cavalry soldiers during wars.

Renzo Agresta, one of Brazil’s leading fencers, opted for rapid duels with the sabre from the beginning. “I believe it was the right choice, as I found characteristics in the weapon that I believe to be compatible with me, such as instinct and speed”, he says.

Finally, the épée is a more rigid, heavier weapon, ideal for competitors who are taller and stronger, and with a longer range. This weapon best represents the duels that gave rise to the sport of fencing centuries ago. Touches may be landed on the adversary’s whole body, although only hits with the point of the épée score points.

With 1.78m of height, Rayssa Costa started her career directly to the dueling arts of the epée: “The epée is usually practiced by taller people, so it was a little easier for me to adapt. The opponent’s whole body can be reached, so you have to have a wider range if compared to foil or sabre. The movements have to be more precise, like reaching the opponent’s hand or feet”, said.


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