The technology behind fencing

A look at what goes into everyday practice and competition for a Temple program that has been around for 43 years.

The fencing team uses electronic scoring to record points for all of its events. | Alex Beaufort TTN
The fencing team uses electronic scoring to record points for all of its events. | Alex Beaufort TTN

The touch of a blade sends light from an electronic scoring machine often placed at the side of a strip.

The specific color of light set off depends on which part of the body gets hit.

In the sport of fencing, red and green lights indicate that a fencer has scored valid touches, while a white beam shows that a fencer has hit an off-target area for both sabre and foil fencers.

Yet, it didn’t always used to be this way, as the NCAA gradually incorporated the electronic scoring system from its inception in the 1930s until the 1980s, when the system was first universally accepted for all weapon types in collegiate fencing.

In a room with shining wood flooring in Pearson-McGonigle halls, Temple’s fencers use this system on a daily basis. The sport has changed in many ways since coach Nikki Franke oversaw the team’s first season in 1972, but the equipment her program uses today shares many similarities to what has been used for much of the past four decades.

And as Temple fencers can attest to, there’s a lot more to the sport than a mask and a sword.

The Connections

The way in which the hits are registered is dependent on the weapon that is used. But, across the board, the setup is always the same, as Temple volunteer assistant coach Josh Herring said each strip is equipped with two reels, two floor cables and a scoring box.

Each fencer on the strip has a body cord that goes through lamés, or an electronic conductive jacket worn by foil and saber fencers that connects to the weapon and runs to the tip of the blade. While the opposite end of the wire is connected to the scoring machine, the reel, which is fastened to the wires, dictates how fast the fencer can move up and down the strip.

So, when the tip of the weapon touches the target area, the electrical waves are transmitted through the body cord to the machine, which sets off the lights, signaling a point for the fencer.

The Weapons

Foil, epee and sabre.

Each of the three possible weapons a fencer can use is constructed differently, originally designed for specific tasks. Foil weapons are the lightest of the three and have a small bell guard used to secure the hand. The epee weapon is heavier than the foil weapon, featuring a larger bell guard that protects the hand, which is considered a target area.

Herring said foil and epee weapons are considered thrusting and stabbing weapons, while the sabre weapons are considered a cutting and slashing weapon.

“Foil and epee came from a traditional musketeer fighting … in all the old movies where someone gets stuck in the chest and kills them instantly,” Herring said. “Sabre comes from tabular, where you are generally on a horse and you are riding, so there is a lot more cutting and slashing. So it’s kind of where the brutal weapons came from.”

As foil and epee fencers score their points by thrusting their weapons, there is usually a tip at the end of their blade, which helps to record them.

Junior foilist Demi Antipas said there is a required amount of pressure that needs to be applied to the tip before touches can translate to points.

“In foil, it takes 500 grams of pressure to depress the tip,” Antipas said. “It’s very specific. For epee, it’s 700 grams. It’s harder to push down. So when that pushes down on the opposite person’s vest, [it] scores a point.”

The Uniforms

With three different weapons come three different uniforms.

Although all fencers wear the same base layers, the uniforms are made according to a fencer’s target area. An epeeist wears all white because their entire body is a target area, while the area is more limited for foil and sabre fencers.

“You have your knickers, which are the pants, and then you have a chest protector for the girls,” Antipas said. “What we call a plastron, it’s like a half-sleeve … because there is a lot of nerve-endings underneath your arms. It’s just an extra piece of fabric so you don’t get nerve damages from getting hit, and then you wear a white cotton jacket.”

Foil and sabre fencers also wear lamés – an electrionically-conductive jacket that help record their points. The target area of a foilist is the torso. Yet, sabre fencers wear a jacket that indicates additional target areas such as the arms, hands and head. Alongside the lamés, sabre fencers have to wear an electronic conductive mask to record points.

Dry Fencing

Before electronic scoring became popular within the sport, fencers took part in what is now called dry fencing.

Similar to the sport of  Taekwondo, Herring recalls a time when fencing required a minimum of four judges and a maximum of eight.

“Instead of a round button that looked like a button [at the tip of the weapon], they used to have cones and little domes that had teeth on them,” Herring said. “The idea was you were supposed to stick it into your target and let it stay there for a second so that they could see it.”

Herring said fencers would also dip the tip of their weapons into powder or colored chalk so that when the fencers connected with the target area, it would be noticeable on the all-white uniform.

Junior sabreist Petra Khan said when she first started the sport, she competed in dry fencing for a time, but after she started to advance in the sport, she started wearing her lamé.

“It wasn’t too hard of an adjustment,” Khan said of the transition to electronic fencing. “But what was great about it was that you can hit, and see the light when you hit. You didn’t have to rely on the other person, saying, ‘Oh, you hit me or you didn’t hit me.’ It was a nice adjustment.”

Wireless Fencing 

Collegiate fencing remains a sport far different from that at the Olympic level.

“There [are] wireless fencing reels,” Herring said. “If you look at the Olympics, a lot of times you see them carrying a pack on their backs, a little battery-pack looking thing, that is the entire machine more or less contained on their body.”

When fencers scores a valid touch during the Olympics, the entire strip lights up. But, Herrings said it may take some time before the NCAA incorporates wireless fencing into its own level of competition.

Herring fears cheating and cost will challenge the NCAA to make the change in the near future.

Nevertheless, Herring said the sport has improved.

“It has evolved greatly,” he said.

Danielle Nelson can be reached at or on Twitter @Dan_Nels.

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