Although somewhat similar to the fencing you may have seen in the Olympics or at a modern sport-fencing tournament, classical fencing differs significantly in that our practice has been refined for eons as a marital art to keep the practitioner safe and alive. The evolved form has been proven, at the cost of many lives over the eons, to keep the practitioner safe. In historic parlance, this means landing a touch against your opponent without being touched. The actions are small, measured, and precise in time and form. Louis Rondelle, 19th-century fencing master, rather succinctly described the ideal classical fencer as
“…one who observes a fine position, whose attacks are fully developed, whose hits are marvelously accurate, his parries firm and his ripostes executed with precision. One must not forget that this regularity is not possible unless the adversary is a party to it. It is a conventional bout, which consists of parries, attacks, and returns, all rhyming together.”
Another way to describe the actions of classical fencing is to characterize the bout, as the French say, as a conversation of the blades. A good example of this comes from Benjamin Bowles (left) and Edward Sandoval (right), of the Golden Gate School of Arms, trained by the Martinez Academy (below).
Modern or sport fencing is significantly different in that it is a sport, and not a marital art. Although incredibly athletic, it has evolved over the years to be a sport premised largely on speed; whoever lands the touch first receives the point, even if they receive a touch from their opponent’s sword an instant later. Of course, historically, if fencers behaved this way with sharp swords, both fencers would be dead — just one would be stabbed first. This underscores one of the many consequential differences between practice as a sport versus a martial art.
Although modern sport fencer’s agility and extremely quick reaction times are admirable, it is easy to see from any exchange in the video above, modern fencing has evolved into a sport that is significantly different from classical fencing. Classical fencers train and fence as though we are using sharp swords, protected with modern safety equipment. It is worthy of repetition — classical fencing is not a sport, but a martial art, and we engage in proven sword traditions that kept people safe and alive.
Rondelle, Louis. (1892). Foil and sabre; a grammar of fencing in detailed lessons for professor and pupil, Estes and Lauriat, Boston.