My sword will speak for me," cried the hero, and bug-eyed we read on as Dumas and Sabatini filled our youthful hours with chapter upon chapter of blood and steel. At a certain age almost everyone becomes a musketeer, fencing fiercely with sticks and rods. Yet how many realize that formal fencing can be an exhilarating family sport, and one of the few in which "mixed singles" offers even competition between men and women? It is inexpensive—$30 buys all equipment—needs little space, is safe and not hard to learn. In these pages Ed Vebell, a 1952 U.S. Olympic fencer, uses his wife as a model for his own drawings and explains the basics of foil fencing
It is almost instinctive among the uninitiated to think of fencing in terms of a swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks dispatching a whole platoon of the King's Guards. The thought is exciting but wrong. Fencing is far less strenuous and far more sophisticated than that: its inherent excitement is always controlled.
There are two reasons for this. First, the action is limited to a narrow field, 40 feet long and six feet wide. Second, the basic rule of fencing makes it more like a formal debate than an assault. The fencer who first attacks has the right to press the attack until his opponent successfully blocks (parries) it. Then the defender may counterattack (riposte) until he in turn is parried, at which point the right to go on the offense returns to the initial attacker. I like to think of the whole process as an orderly conversation—with steel.
Points are scored by touching an opponent on the target area—that is, front or back, on the torso only, from hips to the top of the collar. The first to score five points in a men's match, or four in a mixed or women's match, is the winner.
There are several types of foil handles, but I recommend the French, which is slightly curved. The arched side of this handle is placed against the palm, just beneath the fleshy base of the thumb. The thumb is put on top of the handle, with the index finger curving beneath it. These two fingers—not the wrist or forearm—direct the blade. The remaining fingers merely give support.
The basic on-guard position
All fencing action begins from the on-guard position. This is the placement of the feet, legs, body and arms which gives the fencer a firmly balanced stance from which he can either attack or retreat.
The feet are positioned at right angles to each other, with the heels about 18 inches apart. The front foot and knee point directly at the opponent and are in a straight line with the rear heel. It is important that the weight be placed equally on each foot and that the heels always be kept on a line with the opponent, as my wife Elsa has them in the figure at the lower left. If your feet get out of position you are certain, sooner or later, to lose your balance.
The knees are bent into a "sitting" position, with the front knee projecting forward over the instep. The body rests in a natural position, turned away from the opponent but not enough to cause strain. Hips and shoulders will be on a parallel line.
Now the foil is raised until the hand is chest-high. Weapon and right forearm form a straight line aimed at the vicinity of the opponent's chin. The left arm, meanwhile, is arched to the rear, acting as a counterweight; the upper arm level with the shoulders; the hand very relaxed, seeming to droop casually from the wrist.