Abridged Rules of Fencing

Matthew Thompson has kindly provided a highly abridged version of the rules that he uses for the Tomorrow’s Achievers programme.


Abridged rules of fencing

Basic aims

The aim of the sport is to hit the opponent with a sword, without getting hit oneself. There are three different weapons, called foil, épée and sabre which score in different ways. See below for details.

Field of play

Fencing takes place on a long thin strip called a piste. Ideal dimensions are 14m long by 1.5m wide, but any similar shaped space can be used. The length of a badminton court is frequently used, with other markings made with removable tape.



Conduct of a bout 

A bout starts with the referee calling the fencers “on-guard.” They  face each other behind their start lines in the on-guard position. The referee asks if they are ready, and then calls “play”. This starts the fencing and the ref or timekeeper starts a stopwatch

The fencers continue until a hit is scored, one of them steps off the piste, or some infraction of the rules occurs. The referee calls “halt”, stops the stopwatch and awards the hit or penalty if required.


If a hit is awarded, the fencers return to their start lines before starting again, otherwise they start again from where they were when halt was called.

The bout ends when one fencer reaches the total needed to win (usually 5) or when the time allowed runs out (usually  2 or 3 minutes). If the scores are tied after time has run out a tie-break is used.


Target area


In épée, a hit anywhere on the body is valid–from the toe to the top of the mask, but must be made with the point of the weapon.


In sabre, either the point, the front edge, the flat, or the back of the blade can be used to make a hit; which must be above the waist including arms and head but excluding the hands.

A valid hit in foil must be made with the point on the torso–arms, legs and head are excluded.

Scoring apparatus

The fencers are connected to a scoring box by way of spring loaded wire spools. The box has different settings for each weapon, and indicates a hit by sounding a buzzer, and showing a coloured light–red for one fencer and green for the other. In foil it may also show a white light, indicating that a hit was made on the opponent, but not on the target area.

Whenever the buzzer sounds, the referee calls halt, and uses the lights to decide which fencer has earned a hit. It there is only one coloured light, then that fencer gets the hit.

In épée if both coloured lights come on both fencers are awarded a hit, unless the referee decides that one or both fencers actually hit the floor. In foil and sabre only one fencer can be awarded the hit. The method of deciding is shown below.


Right of way (priority)


In foil and sabre, even if both coloured lights come on, only one fencer can be awarded the hit. The basic principle is that the first person to attack has “right of way” and the other fencer must defend themselves.

When attacked, a fencer can block or deflect the attack with a parry. Once the parry is made, right of way passes to the fencer who made the parry and if they make an immediate riposte, this movement has right of way. If the riposte is parried in turn, then the original fencer regains right of way to make a counter-riposte.

There is only one circumstance when the attacking fencer does not automatically gain right of way. If the defender is standing point-in-line and the attacker runs onto the point, then priority goes to the defender.  In this circumstance the attacker must knock the defender’s point out of line before commencing a valid attack.


A counterattack occurs when a fencer who has been attacked doesn’t bother to parry but instead launches an attack of their own. In sabre and foil the counterattack can only succeed if the original attack misses completely. If both lights come up the hit is awarded to the attacker, not the counterattacker. If the referee is not able to tell who attacked first, and both coloured lights come on, then no hit is awarded in sabre or foil. In épée, with no right of way rule, both fencers score.


Off target in foil

In foil, if a hit is made on a part of the body which is not the valid target area, the box will show a white light. No hit is awarded, but the off-target attack WITH right of way takes priority over the on-target counterattack without priority. So if fencer A launches a valid attack which arrives off-target (white light) and fencer B counterattacks and gets a coloured light, no hit is scored.

Positions on the piste


The referee must call halt if the fencers pass each other, or if a fencer leaves the piste. If a fencer accidentally leaves the side of the piste with one foot completely over the line, the referee calls halt and returns the fencers to the piste, with the fencer who did not leave the piste 1m forward from where they were. If the referee feels that the fencer left the side of the piste deliberately to avoid being hit, the offending fencer is penalised with a yellow card (see below).


If a fencer leaves the piste having BOTH feet completely over the back line, a point is awarded to their opponent. However, if just the toe of one foot is on the back line, they are still on the piste and may continue to fence.

Penalties and sanctions

Covering  In foil using the non-sword arm to cover the valid target area, or ducking to the extent that the mask covers the target area is not allowed. For the first offence in any bout: yellow card. Second and subsequent offences: red card.

Turning  In any weapon turning your back on an opponent is dangerous: first offence in any bout yellow card, second and subsequent offences, red card.

Corps-a-corps  French for bodily contact. In foil and sabre fencers are not supposed to barge into their opponents. Epée is more relaxed unless there is real violence. For the first offence in any foil or sabre bout: yellow card. Second and subsequent offences:red card.

Refusal to obey the referee  For the first offence in any bout: yellow card. Second and subsequent offences: red card.

Jostling, disorderly conduct, irregular movements or hits made while falling  For the first offence in any bout:  yellow card. Second and subsequent offences: red card.

Dangerous or vindictive action, or blow with guard or pommel  For the first offence in any bout:  red card. Second and subsequent offences: red card.

Disturbing order on the piste  A catch-all penalty for misbehaviour of fencers or observers. For the first offence for a fencer in any bout:  red card. Second offence: Black Card. For an observer, first offence yellow card, second offence Black Card


Cheating, brutality or an offence against sportsmanship  Black Card and expulsion from the competition. Normally reserved for outright cheating, bullying or throwing equipment in temper on losing a bout.


A printable copy of the penalty sheet can be downloaded here: http://www.tomorrowsachievers.org.uk/yst/documents/Abridged Penalty Sheet.xls


Like other martial arts, fencing requires certain courtesies from its participants.

At the beginning of a fight the fencers should salute each other and the referee. A salute involves the fencer bringing the weapon up to the face, with the point facing the ceiling and then lowering the weapon to their sword arm side.

At the end of the fight the fencers should return to their start lines, salute each other and the referee, and then shake hands (using their non-sword hands) with each other and with the referee.

More detailed rules of fencing can be found at www.britishfencing.com.