You’re more likely to pull a hamstring than stab someone: home truths about fencing

Know your epee from your foil?

The basics

You fight your opponent on mat 1.5 to 2 meters wide and 14 meters long, called a piste. There are three different types of fencing: epee, foil and sabre. Obviously the aim of the game is to hit the body with the sword but depending on which form of fencing you’re doing, this varies quite a lot.

This is an epee

Has anybody ever been killed fencing?

The answer is yes. Actually, it has happened several times. It often happens when a broken blade has penetrated the equipment. Probably the ugliest death was that of Soviet olympic foil champion Vladimir Smirnov, who was stabbed in the brain. Nowadays, it’s very rare for someone to die during fencing.

This is what a broken epee looks like

What’s the worst injury I have sustained during fencing?

I once strained my hamstring, which is actually the most common injury fencers sustain (no, it’s actually not getting stabbed). Over the last few decades, there has been much improvement of the fencing kit, so I’d say that nowadays, it’s one of the safest sports, as it’s a rather non-contact sport, and our equipment theoretically prevents blades from injuring us badly (either from a really strong hit, which might still leave a bruise, or a broken blade, which normally cannot penetrate the kit).

Can somebody be good at all three weapons?

Not really, unless you are Chris Nagle (he’s the secret weapon of the UCL Men’s 1st Team). On a more serious note, it’s nearly impossible to be good at all three at world class level. There are some fencers who can fence two weapons fairly well, though ( such as Swiss international Max Heinzer, who has been constantly been in the top 10 in the world for years, and also has 2 or 3, I’m not sure, Swiss national titles in foil). The most usual combination is epee and foil, because they are both “stabbing weapons”

Action shot: me scoring a hit during a BUCS league match

The UCL fencing team

UCL has actually one of the best university fencing team in the UK. The men’s first team finished 2nd in the BUCS Premier South League (the highest division, along with Premier North), while the women’s firsts came 3rd at the same level.

We train at the Bloomsbury Fitness, on Wednesday afternoons, Thursday nights, and Saturday mornings. The membership of the club is quite high (for an individual sport); even the novice group, run by an excellent coach coming from Russia, one of the best fencing nations in the world, has an average turnout of about 20-25 people. Team members also have access to services provided by the UCL Performance Team Athlete programme (this includes free massages!).

We also have great socials, with our usual destination being either Mully’s or the Northumberland Arms.


There are two types of events; individual and team. At an individual competition, there is a round of pools, with bouts (matches) lasting three minutes, or until one of the fencers reaches five hits, and everyone fences everyone in the pool in a round-robin system. Then, according to the result of the pools, direct elimination brackets are created (this includes every participant, regardless of which pool they fenced in); each match lasts until one of the fencers reaches 15 hits, or for three periods of three minutes each, with one minute of break between each period ( for saber, there are just two periods).

Chris Nagle, master of all three weapons, secret weapon of the UCL Men’s 1st team, wearing foil kit

For team events, teams fence in a direct elmination system. Each team is made up of three fencers and a reserve (who can be substituted between bouts). Each fencer fences each fencer from the other team, and the points are added up (it’s a relay). The team that first reaches 45 hits wins.

The BUCS team competitions have a special format, for while usually there are separate team competitions for the different weapons, in the BUCS, it’s mixed. A university team is made up of an epee team, a sabre team, and a foil team. The team of each weapon fences the other university’s team (of the same weapon); the epee team fences the other epee team, the saber tame the other sabre team, and the foil the other foil team. The winner is decided by the aggregate score of the three weapons (in case of a tie, the one having won in more weapons wins).

If you’reY interested, come and watch the UCL teams (hopefully) destroy King’s in the opening event of the London Varsity on 10 March (entry is going to be free, and the event is at UCL).

You can check out the event here.