The Top 10 Rules Of Fencing

Fencing Rules

Fencing is an exciting sport that originated from medieval sword duels. From an activity where one of the participants would often end up either dead or injured, fencing has evolved to become a modern sport in which two athletes use safe swords to touch each other and score points. Fencing has three different weapon categories: the épée (also spelled epee), the foil, and the saber. The three are very different from each other, with different sets of rules, tactics, techniques, equipment, and types of fencers involved. Read on to learn about some of the most important rules in fencing.

What Are the Most Important Rules of Fencing?

  1. Safety Rules
  2. Priority Rules or Right of Way Rules
  3. General Saber Rules
  4. General Foil Rules
  5. General Epee Rules
  6. General Scoring Rules
  7. Cards and Penalties Rules
  8. Epee and Foil Overtime Rules
  9. Team Fencing Rules
  10. Competition Format Rules

1. Safety Rules

Fencing Safety Rules

Every sport has its own safety rules, and fencing is no exception. Fencing safety rules are a little more specific, and must be followed more thoroughly than in most sports. Although fencing is a safe sport, fencers are still dealing with steel blades that can break and become sharp in an attempt to “touch” each other at a very high speed from a close distance.

For the sport to be practiced properly, safety rules must be followed. Some safety rules are written in rulebooks and regulations, while others are just preventive practices applied by fencing masters in their clubs.

Some of the most important safety rules are:

  • Wear the right fencing gear when fencing, including a mask, underarm protector, and fencing pants. Also, be sure to use quality blades.
  • Make sure your equipment is well zipped up and that everything is properly closed and secure.
  • Never point a weapon at someone who is not wearing a mask, and always keep the tip down, away from others, when not fencing.
  • Avoid wearing fencing shoes outside, and keep the soles clean.
  • In competitions, only use checked and approved equipment.

2. Priority Rules or Right of Way

Fencing Priority Rules

The priority rules are often the most confusing part of fencing. They are only used in saber and foil and are utilized to decide who gets awarded a point. In foil and saber, a point will sometimes not be awarded just for a touch. More often than not, this occurs when both fencers touch each other at the same time. Instead, a point will be awarded depending on what both fencers did leading up to the touch.

As the name indicates, the priority rules define who has the priority in scoring and, therefore, who will add a point to their score. To begin with, a fencer who initiates the attack will have priority. Let's say Fencer A moves forward, aiming to touch their opponent, initiating the offensive action. Fencer B also moves forward in an offensive movement, aiming to score but starting slightly after Fencer A. If both fencers touch each other, a point is awarded to Fencer A because they were the one that initiated an offensive motion first.

A fencing match is not only composed of fencers trying to initiate an attack. Fencers can also choose to try and parry an attack with their weapon to score by riposting. Let's imagine now that Fencer C began an attack much earlier than their opponent, Fencer D. Fencer D, however, was prepared for that and successfully used their weapon to parry the attack and execute a riposte. If both fencers touch each other, a point will be awarded to Fencer D because they got the priority by parrying their opponent's attack.

3. General Saber Rules

Fencing General Saber Rules

Fencing has three different weapons with differing rules, styles, and equipment. Saber is typically the fastest and most explosive of the three disciplines. In saber, the valid touching area is anywhere from the waist up, which includes the mask and the back. Saberists wear an electric jacket with sleeves and a mask different from that of foil and epee.

Unlike the two other disciplines, points can be scored with the tip and the side of the blade. Additionally, in regard to scoring, saber uses right of way (priority) rules when awarding a point. Although foil also uses them, referees interpret saber and foil actions differently, and so the right of way rules are not used exactly the same for both disciplines.

It may sound complicated, but it will be easier to see the differences between saber refereeing and foil refereeing once you start to fence. In saber, and only in saber, a fencer is not allowed to cross their legs forward while the bout is ongoing. If a fencer does that, they will be punished with a yellow card.

4. General Foil Rules

Fencing General Foil Rules

Foil is considered by many to be the mixture between the two other fencing disciplines, saber and epee, as it contains elements of both. Foil is the most technical weapon in fencing, and the challenge is to combine good technique with speed in execution. The valid target area in foil is the torso, excluding the arms.

Naturally, there is a good deal of the body that is not a valid target area, so foil fencers touch each other outside the valid area very often. When that happens, the scoreboard will light up white, indicating that a fencer was touched outside of the valid area, and the bout will be stopped.

Like in saber, priority rules are used in foil. Now let's imagine a situation where Fencer A and Fencer B are fencing foil. Fencer A clearly initiates an attack, thus having the priority to score, but touches their opponent on the arm, outside of the electric jacket. Fencer B does not move forward and instead tries to parry the attack unsuccessfully. Still, Fencer B touches Fencer A in their chest, right in the middle of the electric jacket, and the scoreboard lights up with a white light for Fencer A and a green light for Fencer B.

In this scenario, no one is awarded a point, as Fencer A had the priority but didn't manage to touch inside the valid area. Remember, priority rules are the final deciding factor on when a point is earned, not just which fencer was able to touch on target.

5. General Epee Rules

Fencing General Epee Rules

Epee is the simplest-looking and easiest-to-understand weapon in fencing, inspiring many beginners to adopt it as their primary weapon. Epee is a game of timing and patience, where fencers need to choose the right moment to attempt an attack.

In epee, there are no electric jackets like in saber and foil because the whole body, from the tip of the toes to the top of the mask, are valid scoring areas. Additionally, epee does not use priority rules, making the discipline pretty straightforward for those who have never watched it. In epee, independently of who initiated the attack, if a fencer does not commit any faults when touching their opponent, they score a point. In the event that both fencers touch each other at exactly the same time, both are awarded a point.

6. General Scoring Rules

Fencing General Scoring Rules

Each fencing weapon has its own scoring system, with its own particularities and sets of rules. Nonetheless, some scoring rules are valid for all weapons. All weapons make use of the same electronic scoreboard, which indicates when a touch happens, who touched who, and if it was inside the valid area or not when applicable.

The scoreboard also keeps track of the points and the time. The scoreboard has a green light, a red light, and two white lights that are only used for foil. If the fencer on the left touches their opponent, the red light will go on, while the green one represents the fencer on the right.

For a point to be valid, athletes cannot commit any faults before or while executing the action that leads to their touch. For example, in saber, if a fencer touches their opponent but crosses his leg to do so, they will not be awarded a point because they committed a fault. In foil and epee, fencers have one or three periods, each three minutes long, to score a set number of points, depending on which stage of a competition fencers are competing in. There are one-minute long breaks between those periods in which fencers rest and get instructions from their coaches.

Due to saber being such a fast-paced sport, there is no point in keeping time. Therefore, saber is not divided into periods. For bouts fenced up to 15 points, saberists get a break in the middle of their bouts when one of the competitors reaches eight points.

7. Cards and Penalties Rules

Fencing Cards and Penalties Rules

Fencing has a system of cards to punish those who commit faults during bouts. It is the referee's duty to spot those faults and penalize the fencer accordingly. In fencing, there are three different cards: yellow, red, and black. A yellow card works like a warning to the fencer, a red card given to a fencer results in a point awarded to their opponent, and a black card results in automatic defeat and, potentially, elimination from the competition.

All fencing faults are divided into four groups based on what card is given to the fencer when the fault is committed. Each group increases in the severity of the foul, with the first group being the least severe and the fourth group being the most severe. The first group consists of fouls such as turning your back to your opponent. On the other hand, the fourth group includes serious violations such as cheating with illegal equipment, which results in elimination.

Below is a table that details the punishments for each foul and subsequent offense.

Group1st Offense2nd Offense3rd Offense
1st GroupYellow CardRed CardRed Card
2nd GroupRed CardRed CardRed Card
3rd GroupRed CardBlack CardN/A
4th GroupBlack CardN/AN/A

8. Epee and Foil Overtime Rules

Fencing Overtime Rules

What happens if a bout ends in a tie and the time runs out? For foil and epee, the bout goes into overtime, but in saber, time cannot run out because time is not kept. Therefore, saber bouts never go into overtime. For foil and saber, on the other hand, overtime is quite common. In overtime, fencers get one extra minute of fencing action to untie the match. In that case, fencers compete until time ends, or until one of the athletes scores, in a “sudden death” format.

What if, after that one minute, the score is still tied? Due to that possibility, before overtime starts, a coin is flipped, and a fencer gets the overtime priority. If the last minute ends and the score is still tied, whoever got lucky enough to get priority wins the bout. Overtime bouts are always exciting and often hard to officiate, with fencers eager to score a point while time quickly winds down.

9. Team Fencing Rules

Fencing Team Rules

Although fencing is an individual sport, there are also team events that are very important in Olympic qualification, and thus highly-valued by countries and fencers. A fencing team is formed by four athletes, of which three are in the starting lineup. In a team bout, there are nine matches, in which fencers have to score five or more points to win. The scores are cumulative, so a team bout is only completed once a team reaches 45 points. Fencers cannot fence each other more than once.

For example, let's imagine the following situation: Team A and Team B will fence each other in the final of the team men's foil event. Team A is composed of Fencer 1, Fencer 2, Fencer 3, and Fencer 4. Team B has Fencer 5, Fencer 6, Fencer 7, and Fencer 8. Fencers 4 and 8 will start on the bench for their teams. In the first match, Fencer 1 beats Fencer 5 by a score of 5-2. In the next bout, Team B makes a comeback, and Fencer 6 defeats Fencer 2 by a score of 5-1, bringing the total aggregate score to 7-6 in favor of Team B.

The match continues on with this aggregate scoring system until one of the teams scores 45 points collectively. Fencers 4 and 8, who started on the bench, can come in as the bout goes and can only be replaced later by the fencer who originally occupied their spot in the starting lineup.

10. General Competition Rules

Fencing General Competition Rules

Most fencing competitions follow the same format and rules, especially those organized by the International Fencing Federation (FIE). Competitions start with a round of pools, where fencers are divided into groups called pools, which are decided based on previously established rankings. All fencers in a pool will face each other in three one-minute long bouts that go up to five points. Pools have between five and eight athletes.

Based on the pool results, a competition ranking is established, with fencers who did better within their pools seeded higher and fencers who did not perform as well seeded lower. Depending on the competition rules and the number of participants, a percentage of the lowest-seeded fencers can be eliminated from the competition after the pools are completed.

After pool competition, fencers who advanced will compete in the direct elimination. Direct elimination bouts go up to 15 points and last up to three periods of three minutes long each. How athletes are paired in direct elimination is determined based on the pool results. Fencers continue the direct elimination bracket until only two remain, and a final is played to decide the champion.


What are the rules of epee fencing?

Epee does not feature a “valid area” where points can be recorded on the body. Any part of the body, from the opponent’s feet up to their head, is fair game. Additionally, epee does not incorporate priority rules when scoring points. Priority rules are arguably the most confusing portion of fencing events, so epee’s lack of adherence to any form of priority rules makes it a great starting point for beginners trying to get involved in fencing.

What type of fencing is done in the Olympics?

In the Olympics, there are individual and team foil, epee, and saber events for both men and women. Each discipline of fencing utilizes different rules in Olympic competition. In epee and foil, the winner is determined by who is the first to reach 15 points in the allotted 3-minute time limit. In saber, Olympic competition is split into two periods, with a break after one fencer reaches eight points. The first to reach 15 points in an Olympic saber bout wins.

How many referees are there in a fencing match?

There are between one and five referees in a fencing match. There is always a main judge or referee titled the “director,” who oversees the match and directs the pace of the competition. The director may be assisted by two or four line judges, who assist in watching for hits scored, judging validity, and making decisions on who points are awarded to.