Fencing, a history

A relief in the temple of Medīnat Habu, near Luxor in Egypt, built by Ramses III about 1190 BCE, is the earliest image of swordplay. It is thought to be of a practice bout or match because the sword points are covered, the swordsmen have shields strapped to their left arms and are wearing masks, large bibs and padding over their ears. As a pastime, in single combat and war, swordsmanship was widely practiced by the ancient Persians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans and Germanic tribes. 

In the Middle Ages sword fighting schools developed a reputation for attracting members of the criminal element of society. Many communities dealt with this problem by outlawing fencing schools in their boundaries. Despite an edict, condemning “the most unheard-of villainies” committed by swordsmen, being passed by King Edward I in 1286, with the threat of swift justice for teaching sword-related skills, fencing schools continued to flourish. 

The French school of sword fighting adopted conventions and rules and introduced the foil, or practice sword, to create a safer training environment. In the 18th century a mask, to improve safety was developed by the fencing master La Boëssière and the famed duelist Joseph Bologne, chevalier de Saint-Georges. 

From the mid-18th century, when dueling with the sword had virtually disappeared because of the growing accuracy of firearms, fencing became a sport with the swordplay being very similar to that of modern times. 

Fencing, a competitive sport

From the late in the 19th century fencing became increasingly organized as a competitive sport with the basic conventions in the 1880s by French fencing master, Camille Prévost. National fencing associations also began to be established, the Amateur Fencers League of America in 1891, the Amateur Fencing Association of Great Britain in 1902, and the Fédération Nationale des Sociétés d’Escrime et Salles d’Armes de France in 1906. 

Individual fencing competitions for the foil and sabre were included in the 1896 Athens Games, the épée being added at Paris in 1900. At the St. Louis Games of 1904, team competition in the foil was introduced, followed by the sabre and épée at London in 1908. 

In early 20th century disputes arose over various fencing rules. At Stockholm 1912, France pulled out over a dispute about the target area for foil and the Italians refused to fence in the épée events because a request to increase the length of the épée blade was rejected. As a result, in 1913 the Fédération Internationale d’Escrime was founded as the international governing body for Olympic Games and world championships amateur fencing. 

Electrical scoring for the épée was adopted in 1936, eliminating the sometimes, inaccurate, decisions of officials. Introduced for foil competitions in 1955, it made its Olympic debut at Melbourne in 1956 and was included for the sabre at Barcelona 1992.

Fencers clothing is made of lamé interlaced with copper threads, making it sensitive to the electrical weapon. Cords, on a spring-loaded reel to take up the slack, connect the clothing and weapon to the scoring box. Even a small amount of pressure from the weapon touching the fencer creates an electrical circuit and the scoring box records a hit.

As the entire body is the target in épée the whole suit is sensitive, in foil only the vest is sensitive and, in sabre, both the vest and mask are sensitive. 

Sir Ludwig Guttmann introduced wheelchair fencing at Stoke Mandeville as one of the sports therapies for World War II veterans who had suffered spinal cord injuries.

The 1954 Stoke Mandeville games included a wheelchair fencing demonstration by a patient from the Rookwood Centre in Wales and his non-disabled instructor, reportedly watched by a large and appreciative audience.

With support from the British Amateur Fencing Association, sabre wheelchair fencing became a full-medal sport at the 1955 Games at Stoke Mandeville and was umpired by Mr. Charles de Beaumon, British Fencing Champion and President of the Amateur Fencing Association.

Foil fencing for ladies was added to the 1956 Games at Stoke Mandeville and in 1965 was added as an event for men.

Archive film footage of Fencing at Stoke Mandeville in 1956

Wheelchair Fencing, a Paralympic event

Wheelchair Fencing has been included as an event since the first Paralympic Games in Rome 1960, it is one of only two combat sports in the Games.

Wheelchair Fencing at the Summer Paralympic Games

  • 1960 Rome, Italy – 3 events
  • 1964 Tokyo, Japan - 7 events, 6 countries and 27 (18 men and 9 women) participated
  • 1968 Tel Aviv, Israel - 10 events, 6 countries and 65 (43 men and 22 women) participated
  • 1972 Heidelberg, Germany - 11 events, 7 countries and 52 (38 men and 14 women) participated
  • 1976 Toronto, Canada - 14 events, 7 countries and 54 (38 men and 16 women) participated
  • 1980 Arnhem, Netherlands - 17 events, 7 countries and 45 (31 men and 14 women) participated
  • 1984 New York, USA – 15 events, 8 countries and 33 (23 men and 10 women) participated
  • 1988 Seoul, South Korea – 14 events, 11 countries and 71 (50 men and 21 women) participated
  • 1992 Barcelona, Spain – 14 events, 12 countries and 62 (47 men and 15 women) participated
  • 1996 Atlanta, USA – 15 events, 13 countries and 70 (48 men and 22 women) participated
  • 2000 Sydney, Australia – 15 events, 18 countries and 84 (58 men and 26 women) participated
  • 2004 Athens, Greece – 15 events, 20 countries and 88 (56 men and 32 women) participated
  • 2008 Beijing, China – 10 events, 19 countries and 84 (60 men and 24 women) participated
  • 2012 London, UK – 12 events, 24 countries and 105 (69 men and 36 women) participated

 British Wheelchair Fencing medal winners

  • 1964 Tokyo, Japan
    Cyril Thomas – Gold in Men's Foil Novice Individual
    Great Britain (Valerie Forder, Shelagh Jones, Diana Thompson) – Silver in Women's Foil Team
    Great Britain (Brian Dickinson, James Shipman, Cyril Thomas) – Bronze in Men's Epee Team 
  • 1968 Tel Aviv, Israel
    Great Britain (Valerie Forder, Shelagh Finnegan, Sally Haynes) – Gold in Women's Foil Team
    Great Britain (John Clark, Brian Dickinson, Terry Willett) – Bronze in Men's Epee Team
    Great Britain (Cyril Thomas, John Clark, Joe Slattery) – Bronze in Men's Foil Team
    Sally Haynes – Bronze in Women's Foil Individual 
  • 1972 Heidelberg, Germany
    Great Britain (Ron Parkin, Cyril Thomas, Terry Willett) - Gold in Men’s Sabre Team
    Carol Bryant - Gold in Women’s Foil Novice Individual
    Ron Parkin – Silver in Men’s Sabre Individual
    Cyril Thomas – Bronze in Men’s Epee Individual Bronze
    Great Britain (John Clarke, Cyril Thomas, Terry Willett) – Bronze in Men’s Epee Team
    Great Britain (Sally Haynes, Janet Swann, Phyllis Waller) – bronze in Women’s Foil Team 
  • 1976 Toronto, Canada
    Terry Willett – gold in Men’s Epee Individual 2-3
    Cyril Thomas – gold in Men’s Sabre Individual 4-5
    Janet Swann – gold in Women’s Foil Individual 2-3
    Cyril Thomas – silver in Men’s Epee Individual 4-5
    Great Britain (John Clarke, Mike Kelly, Cyril Thomas, Terry Willett) – Silver in Men’s Epee Team 2-5
    Mike Kelly – silver in Men’s Sabre Individual 2-3
    Great Britain (Mike Kelly, Cyril Thomas, Terry Willett) – silver in Men’s Sabre Team 2-5
    John Clarke – bronze in Men’s Epee Individual 4-5
    Vincent Ross – bronze in Men’s Foil Individual 2-3
    Howard Wardle – bronze in Men’s Foil Novice Individual
    Terry Willett – bronze in Men’s Sabre Individual 2-3
    Carol Bryant - bronze in Women’s Foil Individual 4-5
    Great Britain (Valerie Robertson, Janet Swann, Phyllis Waller, Irene Nowak) - bronze in Women’s Foil Novice Team
  • 1980 Arnhem, Netherlands
    Mike Kelly – gold in Men’s Sabre Individual 2-3
    Terry Willett – silver in Men’s Epee Individual 1C-3
    Great Britain (John Clarke, Tom Killin, Terry Willett) - silver in Men’s Epee Team
    Terry Willett - silver in Men’s Sabre
    Great Britain (Mike Kelly, Tom Killin, Howard Wardle, Terry Willett) -silver in Men’s Sabre Team
    Great Britain (John Clarke, Mike Kelly, Howard Wardle) - bronze in Men’s Foil Team
    Maggie McLellan - bronze in Mixed Foil Individual 1A 
  • 1984 New York, USA (Stoke Mandeville)
    Kevin Davies – gold in Men’s Sabre Individual 4-5
    Barry Travis – bronze in Men’s Foil Individual
    John Clarke – bronze in Men’s Foil Individual 4-5
    Great Britain (John Clarke, Kevin Davies, David Hickson, Jim Parkinson) - bronze in Men’s Foil Team
    Brian Dickinson – bronze in Men’s Sabre Individual 2-3
    Great Britain (Kevin Davies, Brian Dickinson, Tom Killin, Terry Willett) - bronze in Men’s Sabre Team 
  • 1988 Seoul, South Korea
    Carol Walton – gold in Women’s Epee Individual 4-6
    Cyril Thomas – bronze in Men’s Sabre Individual 4-6
    Suzannah Rockett - bronze in Women’s Epee Individual 4-6 
  • 1992 Barcelona, Spain
    Great Britain (Jack Bradley, Kevin Davies, Brian Dickinson, David Heaton) – bronze in Men’s Sabre Team 

How Wheelchair Fencing has evolved

Initially, competitors used heavy brown wheelchairs, known as travaux chairs, which were supplied by the Ministry of Pensions. These did not move much during bouts, but as wheelchairs became lighter and the fencers more agile, it became necessary to stabilise the chairs.  The early solution was to have someone crouching behind the chair, holding on to the wheels. 

Manufactured holding devices were first used at the 1957 International Stoke Mandeville Games.  Various designs have been tried over the years to meet the objectives of providing stability for the wheelchair and fencer and transportability. 

In 1982 the Dutch member Federation gave the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation (ISMWSF) 4 sets of fencing frames which stabilised the wheelchairs and fixed the distance between the fencers.  However, they were very unwieldy to transport and set up. 

In 1987, the Italians designed a frame which was copied in England and is the basis of several versions still in use today.  

Since the 2000 Sydney Games, extremely lightweight frames, developed by EDF have been used – but efforts continue to develop the ‘ultimate’ frame. 

Rules of Wheelchair Fencing

In order to compete in fencing at the Paralympic Games athletes must compete while sitting in a wheelchair. Athletes who have had a spinal cord injury (quadriplegic and paraplegic), athletes with lower leg amputations, athletes with cerebral palsy and athletes with other physical disabilities which require the use of a wheelchair are all eligible to compete. 

There are three classes:
Class A for athletes with good balance and recovery and full trunk movement.
Class B for those with poor balance and recovery but full use of one or both upper limbs.
Class C for athletes with severe physical impairment in all four limbs. Although this classification is included in international competition it is not included at the Paralympic Games. 

The International Wheelchair Fencing Committee (IWFC) uses the rules of the Federation Internationale D’escrime (FIE) for wheelchair fencing, with IWFC additions covering the use and position of the wheelchair, clothing and equipment. 

Competitions for all three fencing weapons, foil, epee and sabre, have pool stages followed by direct elimination rounds. 

Successful hits, where the opponent is struck cleanly in a valid area, are recorded by electronic equipment. In the Foil, only the trunk area of the opponent is a valid target, while in Sabre and Epee anywhere above the waist is valid. 

Bouts last a maximum of four minutes in the preliminary stages, the winner being the first competitor to score five valid hits or the one with the most hits at the end of the four minutes. 

In the knockout stages, bouts consist of three, three-minute, rounds. The winner is the first to score 15 hits, or the highest scorer at the end of the 9 minutes. A tie results in a sudden death bout of one-minute, with the first person to score a valid hit declared the winner. 

Governing bodies

British Disability Fencing is the national governing body in the UK, more information can be found on their website here

The international governing body is the International Wheelchair Fencing Committee (IWFC) which is part of the International Wheelchair & Amputee Sports Federation (IWASF). 

Regional clubs

The BPA have created an online directory, Parasport, where you can search for and find out about sport and physical activity in your area.

UK wide - Visit https://parasport.org.uk/find-a-club/all for contact details for clubs. 

References

Brittain, I.S. (2012) From Stoke Mandeville to Stratford: A History of the Summer Paralympic

Games. Champaign, Illinois: Common Ground Publishing.

https://www.paralympic.org/wheelchair-fencing
https://parasport.org.uk/play-sport/sports-a-z/wheelchair-fencing
https://paralympics.org.uk/sports/wheelchair-fencing
https://www.britannica.com/sports/fencing
http://www.iwasf.com/iwasf/index.cfm/sports/iwas-wheelchair-fencing/history1/
https://www.olympic.org/fencing-equipment-and-history

Wheelchair Fencing stories

Terry Willet talks about fencing in the 1970s.

"In the 1970s the two fencing classifications were ‘complete’ or ‘incomplete’: i.e. you either had complete lesions, meaning that you had no abdominal muscles, or ‘incomplete’ where you still had some abs.” Read more

Sally Haynes and Fencing in the 1960s

"It’s not just physical, this sport, it’s a mental thing, out-manoeuvering people with the moves you’re going to make." Read more