The foil is a descendant of the light court sword formerly used by nobility to train for duels. It has a flexible, rectangular blade approximately 35 inches in length and weighing less than one pound. Points are scored with the tip of the blade and must land on valid target: torso from shoulders to groin in the front and to the waist in the back. The arms, neck, head and legs are considered off-target – hits to this non-valid target temporarily halts the fencing action, but does not result any points being awarded. This concept of on-target and off-target evolved from the theory of 18th-century fencing masters, who instructed their pupils to only attack the vital areas of the body – i.e. the torso. Of course, the head is also a vital area of the body, but attacks to face were considered unsporting and therefore discouraged.
Although top foil fencers still employ classical technique of parries and thrusts, the flexible nature of the foil blade permits the modern elite foil fencer to attack an opponent from seemingly impossible angles.
Competitors often “march” down the fencing strip at their opponent, looking to whip or flick the point of their blade at the flank or back of their opponent. Because parrying (blocking) these attacks can be very difficult, the modern game of foil has evolved into a complicated and exciting game of multiple feints, ducking and sudden, explosive attacks.
Rules: Understanding “Right-of-Way”
For newcomers to foil fencing, one of the challenging concepts to grasp is the rule of right-of-way. Right of Way is a theory of armed combat that determines who receives a point when the fencers have both landed hits during the same action. The most basic, and important, precept of right of way is that the fencer who started to attack first will receive the point if they hit valid target. Naturally, fencer who is being attacked must defend themselves with a parry, or somehow cause their opponent to miss in order to take over right of way and score a point. Furthermore, a fencer who hesitates for too long while advancing on their opponent gives up right-of-way to their opponent. A touch scored against an opponent who hesitated to long is called an attack in preparation or a stop-hit, depending on the circumstances.
Additionally, the referee may determine that the two fencers truly attacked each other simultaneously. This simultaneous attack is a kind of tie – no points are awarded, and the fencers are ordered back en garde by the referee to continue fencing
While it may be difficult to follow the referee’s calls (not helped by the fact that the officiating is performed in French!), the referee always clearly raises their hand on the side of the fencer for whom they have awarded a point. Watching for these hand signals can make it easier for newcomers to follow the momentum of a fencing bout without understanding all the intricacies of the rules.
Because foil actions often occur at blinding speed, an electrical scoring system was devised to detect hits on valid target. Each foil has a blunt, spring-loaded button at the point of the blade that must be depressed with a pressure of 500 grams or better to register a hit. The foil fencer’s uniform features an electrically wired metallic vest called a lamé – a hit to the lamé causes the scoring machine to display a colored light on the side of the fencer that scored the touch. Meanwhile, a hit off target – on the arms, legs or head, which are not covered by the lamés – causes the machine to display a white light. As mentioned earlier, hits off target stop the action of the match temporarily, but do not result in a touch being awarded. If the scoring machine displays both a colored light and a white light, it means the fencer quickly hit off target and then hit on target before the machine could lock out. In such situations, the fencer’s hit is ruled off target and no touch is awarded.
Another part of the fencer’s equipment is a special cable called a body cord. This plugs into his foil and runs though the sleeve of his arm out the back of his uniform, connecting to a retractable reel which is, in turn, connected to the scoring machine. Of course, with all this equipment a lot can go wrong, so before each foil bout commences, both fencers ceremoniously test each other’s lamés to ensure they are