Trying Fencing? Here's Your Guide to Fencing Swords and Armor

close up of two fencing swords against each other in a match
Different types of fencing use different fencing swords.
Image Credit: Capuski/iStock/GettyImages

A game of "physical chess," fencing requires knowledge, skill and confidence. While this sport — heavily based on strategy — can sharpen your mind, it can also do wonders for your fitness.

"Fencing is a fantastic sport to play for exercise," April Whitney, CPT, a certified personal trainer and former top-12 nationally ranked fencer, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "It's a full-body workout that can help you improve your cardiovascular fitness, overall strength, agility, flexibility, power [aka: explosiveness], coordination and endurance," she says.

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But before you say "en garde," you need to familiarize yourself with a few fencing accoutrements. Unlike running, which only involves lacing up a pair of sneakers, the sport of fencing involves a lot specialized equipment.

From fencing swords to protective armor, here's all of the gear you need.

The 3 Fencing Sword Types

There are three types of weapons used in fencing: the soil, the epee and the saber. Which sword you choose depends on the event, or style of fencing, in which you compete. Each form of the sport is named for the sword it involves. Here's what you need to know about the three types of fencing swords.

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1. Foil

Hundreds of years ago, the foil began as a lightweight tool for duellers to hone their skills without risking accidental injury, according to USA Fencing. The foil is about 43 inches (110 centimeters) in length, and has a flexible blade that's about 35 inches (90 centimeters) long, per the International Fencing Federation (FIE). The foil weighs less than one pound.

The foil is a thrusting weapon, meaning you poke or tap with the sword. In foil fencing, you get a point by striking the front or back of the torso with the tip of the sword.

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2. Epee

The epee (meaning "sword" in French) is the same length as the foil but has a much heavier, stiffer blade (weighing 27 ounces).

It also has a larger, cup-shaped guard to protect the fencer's hand and wrist from the opponent's sword, per USA Fencing. That's because, in epee fencing, also called freestyle fencing, any part of the body is fair game for scoring points. As with foils, only the epee's tip strikes in this form of fencing.

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3. Saber

Unlike the foil and epee, which are exclusively thrusting weapons, the saber is also used to cut and slash, Whitney says. Thus, saber fencers can score with both the tip ​and​ edges of their blade. The saber is roughly 41 inches (105 centimeters) long, with a blade measuring 34 inches (88 centimeters), according to the FIE.

The saber was originally a military weapon. In fact, the point area of modern saber fencing, spanning from the bend of the hips to the top of the head, relates to those being the targets when fighting on horseback, according to USA Fencing.

The Parts of a Fencing Sword

No matter what type of fencing sword you use, the parts of the sword are same, according to the Academy of Fencing Masters (AFM). And every part serves a unique purpose.

Grip

This is the part of the sword that allows you to grip and wield the weapon, Whitney says.

While there are many types of grips in fencing, only two are legal for use in sport fencing: the French and pistol grips, according to the AFM.

"Typically, beginners start with a French grip [a straight pole grip] and graduate to the pistol grip [a multi-pronged grip that contours to the shape of a hand and is more ergonomic] as they improve," Whitney explains.

Bell Guard

"The bell guard is a metal protective shield that [goes around the blade and] helps to cover and protect the weapon hand," Whitney says.

Guards are available in many styles, and most fencers have a favorite version, according to the AFM.

Blade

The most important component of the sword, the blade is the part of the sword fencers use to strike and defend against opponents.

The blades of foils, epees and sabers are made of low-carbon steel. "This composite metal bends when the opponent is struck in order to minimize the physical impact" and ultimately prevent injury, according to the AFM. Low-carbon steel is lightweight, which helps fencers move swiftly and keep them from quickly tiring.

Since a longer blade can work as an advantage over a fencer with a shorter blade, the lengths for blades are limited. A foil or epee blade is about 35 inches (90 centimeters long), while a saber blade is about 34 inches (80 centimeters) long, according to the FIE.

Pommel

The pommel is a piece of aluminum that attaches the end of the grip to the blade. Since the weight of a pommel "can change the balance and 'feel' of the weapon," this part of the sword is also of great importance, Whitney says.

Pad

The pad is a lining between the bell guard and the fencer's hand that provides cushioning against potential impact, Whitney says. Made of cloth, leather or plastic, the pad prevents the fencer's knuckles and fingers from colliding with the metal bell guard during a match, per the AFM.

Point

The point is the tip of the weapon's blade. In modern fencing, points are blunted to prevent injury, according to the AFM.

Two types of points exist in fencing: practice and electrical. With a practice point, a plastic piece (aka the button) covers the tip of the dull blade as a sort of pad, per the AFM.

The electric point connects by a wire from the point of the sword to the socket (more on this next) under the guard. "The electric point, which rests on top of a small spring, needs to compress when touching a target in order to register a valid point" for foil and épée fencing, Whitney says.

Conversely, saber weapons do not have a point that compresses and can score with slashing alone, Whitney adds.

Socket

When using an electric point, the socket "allows an athlete to 'plug' into the weapon with their body cord," Whitney says. That way, when their sword touches the target area on their opponent, a scoring machine will register the point.

Protective Equipment in Fencing

While fencing swords' construction limits the risk of blade-related fencing injuries, protective equipment is also important in keeping fencers safe.

Fencing Jacket

The long-sleeved fencing jacket serves to protect a fencer's torso and arms, and is rated on how many newtons of penetrative force it can withstand.

"For international competition, jackets must be approved by the FIE to withstand 800 Newtons of force," Whitney says. However, most fencing jackets for beginners are 350NW (meaning they can take at least 350 newtons).

Mask

"The mask is made of a metal mesh material that protects the face while also allowing you to see through it," Whitney says.

When purchasing a mask, make sure to choose one with sufficient interior padding and a comfortable fit (you don't want a mask that presses on the top of the head or chin).

Masks come in various makes and models, all with different levels of protection. FIE-approved models, which are used in advanced competitions, offer the most protective features.

Glove

"The glove is meant to cover and protect the weapon hand," Whitney says. For electric fencing, athletes use gloves with a Velcro cuff, which makes it easier for fencers to connect their body cord under their sleeve to their weapon.

Underarm Protector

Also called the plastron (which is French for "chest plate"), this is essentially a half-jacket that sits underneath the fencing jacket. It adds an additional layer of protection to the weapon arm and side of the torso, Whitney says.

Chest Protector

"Chest protectors are plastic protective gear made for both men and women to be worn underneath the jacket," says Whitney, adding that they are required for women.

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