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Sent by: Morgan Burke
Subject: Fencing FAQ (part 2)
Newsgroup: rec.sport.fencing, rec.answers, news.answers
PART 2 : EQUIPMENT
This is Part 2 of the 3-part rec.sport.fencing Frequently Asked
Questions list. All parts can be found on the UseNet newsgroups
rec.sport.fencing, rec.answers, or news.answers. Otherwise, consult
section 3.8 for information on finding archived copies of this
Equipment & Maintenance:
2.1.1 FIE Uniforms
2.5 Metallic Vests and Jackets
2.8.1 FIE & Maraging Blades
2.8.3 Bends and Curvature
2.10 Points & Blade Wires
2.11 Body Wires
2.13 Scoring Apparatus
2.13.1 Wireless Systems
NB: equipment merchants are listed in section 3.2.
Fencing clothing includes the jacket, pants, sous-plastron
(underarm protector), and socks. Some companies manufacture
unitards (combined jacket and pants). Inexpensive practice gear
is fashioned of synthetics or heavy cotton, but competition
clothing is required to pass an 800 N puncture test. Casual and
beginner fencers can rely on cotton or synthetic jackets, but
should consider using a plastron for extra protection. Track
pants or baseball knickers are also thrifty alternatives to
genuine fencing clothing, although they afford little
Jackets are cut differently for men and women, and also for
right- and left- handers. Ambidextrous (back-zip) jackets are
available, but generally not with homologated fabrics.
Ambidextrous (double-sided) plastrons are available from some
Knee-high sport socks (such as for soccer/football or baseball)
can be purchased from most sporting goods stores. Skin should
not show between the socks and pant legs nor the cuff and glove
of the weapon hand. The trailing hand and back of the head
should be the only areas of exposed skin on the fencer's body.
2.1.1 FIE Uniforms
FIE-certified (800 N) uniforms are fashioned from special fabrics
such as kevlar, Startex, or ballistic nylon. Some uniforms (in
particular, older uniforms of kevlar construction) offer partial
800N coverage in vital areas with lighter 350N fabrics used
elsewhere. Full-coverage 800N uniforms are now the norm in
The rules for FIE 'A' level competition demand FIE jacket
and pants. As of April 1, 1995, an additional 800N plastron is
required. CFF and USFA competitions have less stringent uniform
FIE clothing generally provides the highest degree of quality
and protection available. It is strongly recommended for serious
competitors, and for anyone else concerned about their safety.
Although considerably more expensive than practice gear, many
fencers find it well worth the price.
Kevlar clothing should be washed with mild detergent-free soap,
and no bleach. Hang dry away from sources of ultraviolet light
(especially direct sunlight). Store in a dark place (a closet or
your fencing bag, for example).
Traditionally, fencing clothing is all white, but the rules have
recently been relaxed to allow "light" colours on the body.
Other colours are permitted on the limbs. The fencer's last name
and country can appear on the back or the trailing leg in block
blue letters; this is required in international competition.
National colours can be worn on an armband on the trailing arm,
or printed on the leg or sleeve. Club or association badges can
be stitched to the upper trailing arm.
Masks must pass a 12 kg punch test to be certified for
competition. Consider subjecting a used mask to such a test
before using/purchasing it. Older masks can have smaller bibs
and weaker mesh (rated to 7 kg), making them less safe. When
punch testing a mask, depress the punch perpendicular to the mesh
without wiggling it. Do not apply more than the required amount
of pressure. Pay particular attention to parts of the mesh that
have already been dented or bent, including the center crease
line. Unnatural dents in the mesh can and should be pushed or
Masks with a clear lexan panel in front of the face are
available from several manufacturers. Although the FIE has been
encouraging the use of these masks, there has been resistance
from fencers concerned about safety, and their future remains
The best masks have FIE homologated bibs to protect the throat,
and are required in high-level competition. 1600N bibs are
standard in FIE competition as of the 1995/96 season. The CFF
requires 800N bibs as a minimum in elite competition, while the
USFA has no FIE bib requirement.
Although it was announced that the bib would become part of the
foil target in the 1995-96 season, those plans were dropped.
Fencing shoes are available from many vendors and manufacturers,
including Adidas, Asics, PBT, Estoc, Sport-Escrime, Starfighter,
and various vendor house brands. Prices typically range from
US$50 to over US$200 per pair. Distribution of certain brands is
often geographically limited, and limited to fencing equipment
vendors in any case. In other words, don't bother checking at
the mall. The best mass-market substitutes for fencing shoes are
lightweight indoor court shoes, such as for squash, badminton,
racquetball, or volleyball.
Hard heel cups are widely used to absorb the impact of lunges.
They are integrated into some models of fencing shoe, but can be
purchased separately from specialty athletic and orthopedics
stores for other shoes. Softer rubber (eg. Sorbothane) inserts
are also commonly used to provide extra cushioning or prevent
chronic injuries from flaring.
Gloves should have leather or equivalent construction in the
fingers and palm, have a long cuff to cover the sleeve opening,
and have an opening for the bodywire. They should not fit too
snugly, or they will be more susceptable to tearing. Varying
degrees of padding are available in the back of the hand and
fingers, which can be useful for epee and sabre fencers.
Gloves can deteriorate rapidly under heavy use, often lasting a
single season or less. Some gloves are washable; saddle soap or
other leather treatment can extend the lives of other gloves
Economical alternatives to genuine fencing gloves include
precision welding gloves, motorcycle gloves, and even common
workman's gloves available at any hardware store, provided the
fingers and palm are unpadded and supple enough to maintain the
feel of the blade. It may be prudent to hand-stitch a longer
cuff onto the glove, if the normal one doesn't cover the
sleeve opening (the cuff should run halfway up the forearm).
In all these cases, a small wire opening may have to be cut into
2.5 Metallic Vests and Jackets
The higher quality metallic vests are made of stainless steel,
which is much more corrosion resistant than copper. Your foil
vest should come to your hip bones, and be form-fitting but not
too tight. Most vests come in right and left-handed versions,
but ambidextrous (back-zip) versions are also available and
sometimes have higher hips.
Careful rinsing of your stainless steel vest in lukewarm water
following a tournament or rigourous practice will wash out most
of the sweat and salts that will damage it. Old sweat turns
alkaline and can be quite damaging to the lame' fabric. The salt
crystals left behind from dried sweat can also be abrasive and
conducive to corrosion. Occasional handwashing in lukewarm water
with a mild detergent (eg. Woolite or dishsoap) and a small
amount of ammonia is an excellent way of cleaning your stainless
steel vest/jacket and prolonging its life. Some fencers
recommend neutralizing the alkaline deposits in the vest with
lemon juice added to the bath.
Rinse your vest after washing and hang dry on a wooden or
plastic hanger. Avoid folding, crumpling, wringing, or abrading
it. All of these will fatigue the metallic threads in the
Similar care should be taken with sabre metallic jackets, cuffs,
and mask bibs.
With proper care, quality stainless steel vests and jackets
should last 3-5 years of regular use. Copper jackets will
usually not last more than 1-2 years under regular use.
Electric jackets can go dead for several reasons, including high
electric resistance due to oxidation and corrosion (usually
accompanied by visible discolouration), broken metal fibres, or
tears in the fabric.
High-resistance areas that are due to oxidation can often be
temporarily resucitated by moistening them with water. As the
moisture soaks up salts and other deposits in the fabric,
conductivity will increase enough for the material to pass the
armourer's check. Sweat from vigourous fencing will have the
same effect. Some fabrics do not rely on conductive fibres, but
rather are coated with metallic powder; these will lose
conductivity when dirty, and require regular washing.
Small dead spots can be "field-repaired" with a paper stapler or
Larger dead areas and tears in the fabric can only be reliably
repaired by stitching new metallic fabric over the affected
areas. If no patch material is available, the fabric from one
dead vest can be cut up and used to repair another (the material
from the back is generally in better shape). Note that large
areas can go dead due to broken fibres in a relatively small
patch. Patching only the region of broken fibres can re-activate
the entire dead area. Careful testing with an ohmmeter will
determine where the dead zone exists. Patches should be folded
over at the edges, and the stitch should overlap the edge to
prevent flaps that will catch points.
Padded jackets, plastrons, and gloves are available to take the
sting out of hard hits. Most coaches will use special
heavily-padded jackets or sleeves when giving lessons, but these
are not intended for competitive use.
Some masks have extra coverage at the back of the head to protect
against whip-overs. Elbow protectors are also commonly worn by
Athletic cups are important for men, and breast protectors are
essential for women. The latter can take the form of individual
bowls to cover each breast, or more complete full-chest
protectors that cover the ribs up to the collarbone. Hard chest
protectors for men are also available from some suppliers, and
female groin protectors are available from some martial arts
Neck gorgets for additional throat protection can be found from
some hockey equipment suppliers.
For foil and epee, there are a wide variety of grips
available that fall into two broad categories, traditional and
pistol. Sabre grips are all fundamentally of the same design.
Most grips are fashioned of aluminum or plastic; the latter,
while lighter, are also much more fragile and prone to cracking.
Some metal grips are insulated with a layer of enamel (colour
coded by size) or rubber paint. Such insulation will turn an
epee grip into valid target, but it is useful on foils to prevent
grounding. Many traditional grips are surfaced with leather,
rubber, or twine.
These are the French, Italian, and Spanish grips. All consist of
a relatively simple handle, a large, exposed pommel, and in the
case of the Italian and Spanish grips, crossbars or similar
prongs for extra grip.
The French grip is the simplest of all fencing grips in
construction, and the most economical. It emphasizes finger
control over strength, and provides considerable flexibility, and
a variety of possible hand positions. It is the most common grip
used by novices, and remains popular (especially in epee) among
The Italian grip is noted for its strength, but is fairly rare,
partially because it requires a special tang on blades that are
used with it. It is the only ambidextrous fencing grip. Italian
grips are often used with a wrist strap, and contrary to rumour,
they remain legal in modern competition.
The Spanish grip is a compromise between the French and Italian
grips, but is illegal in modern fencing competition, due to a
technicality that forbids grips with orthopaedic aids from being
grasped in more than one manner. There are modern variants of
the Spanish grip that do not use the French pommel, and these may
be legal in competition if they fix a single hand position.
These are modern, orthopedic grips, shaped vaguely like a pistol,
but still grasped in the traditional way. They provide a
pronounced strength advantage over the traditional grips, but can
encourage wrist movement over finger movement. Pistol grips all
have the features of a large protuberance below the tang for the
aids to grasp, a curved prong above the tang that fits in the
crook of the thumb, and a large prong that extends along the
inside of the wrist. There are many variations in shape, size,
sculpting for the fingers, extra prongs, and so on, although
certain designs enjoy wide popularity. Most pistol grip designs
have names (eg. Visconti, Belgian, German, etc.) but these are
not always consistent between manufacturers or regions.
There are a large number of variables to consider when shopping
for blades, including stiffness, length, durability, flex point,
weight, balance, corrosion resistance, and (of course) price.
Stiff blades provide better point control, but less
"flickability". Some brands of blades (eg. Allstar) are sold in
different flexibility grades. Blades that feel heavy in the tip
often provide better point control, while those that are light in
the tip often make for faster parries.
Blades generally come in 5 sizes, 5 being the longest (90 cm for
foil and epee, not including tang) and by far the most common.
Shorter blades are somewhat lighter and quicker of action, and
can be useful for children, fencers who prefer the lighter
balance, or those who often provoke infighting in which a long
blade can be disadvantageous.
Cheap blades (including some Eastern European and Chinese brands)
are typically not very durable or of poor temper, being inclined
to snap, bend, and rust easily. Fencers who are gentle with
their blades and clean, sand, or oil them regularly may
nevertheless find them to be a good value.
Blades typically break at the flex point in the foible. Less
commonly the tips will break off, or the tang will snap at the
base of the blade (this latter failure mode is fairly common in
sabre). Other serious modes of failure include sharp bends in
the middle of the blade and S-bends in the foible, both of which
are difficult to remove and will rapidly lead to fatiguing and
eventual breaking of the blade.
2.8.1 FIE & Maraging Blades
FIE-certified blades have the FIE logo stamped at the base of the
blade, along with the code letters for the forge that produced
the blade (caveat emptor: some disreputable forges have been
known to falsify these marks). They are mandatory at official
FIE and other high-level competitions.
Maraging steel foil blades have a reputation for lasting
considerably longer than regular steel blades, and are supposed
to break more cleanly. They are made of a special alloy steel
(incorporating iron, nickel, and titanium) that is only 5% as
likely to develop the microcracks that lead to eventual breakage.
Many fencers find them a superior value - although they cost
twice as much, they last much more than twice as long. As they
vary in character in the same way as regular blades, similar
caution should be exercised when purchasing them.
Maraging epee blades are also available, although there are
alternative steels that have also received FIE certification.
Leon Paul produces a non-maraging FIE epee blade worth
mentioning; it is stamped from a sheet of steel, rather than
forged whole. These blades are lightweight and flexible; some
older ones passed the wire through a hole to the underside of the
FIE 2000 sabre blades are stiffer than older sabre blades, which
is intended to reduce the incidence of whip-over touches.
The length and thread of the tang may be an issue; some blades
are threaded for French or pistol grips only, and some blades
with French grip tangs require an extra fitting for the thread.
Italian grips may require a special tang, since part of it is
exposed in the hilt. Metric 6x1 threading is standard, but not
universal (esp. in the USA, where a 12x24 thread may be
encountered); dies to re-thread the tang can be found at most
hardware stores. If the tang must be cut to fit the grip, be
very careful to leave enough thread to screw on the pommel nut.
Tangs often have to be filed down to fit in tight grips.
Tangs are attached by an exterior pommel on traditional grips, or
by a pommel nut in pistol grips. Pommel nuts are typically
fitted for a 6mm Allen wrench or hex key, 8mm socket wrench, or a
2.8.3 Bends and Curvature
Many foil and epee fencers prefer a bend at the join of the tang
and blade, so that the blade points slightly inside when held in
sixte. Such a bend is best applied with a strong vise to avoid
bowing the tang. A few fencers prefer to put this bend into the
forte of the blade instead. Be gentle; blades will snap if
handled with too much force.
A gentle curve in the middle and foible of the blade is also common,
and helps to square the point against oblique surfaces. Such a bend
must be smooth and gradual. Sharp kinks are prohibited. Foible
bends are best worked into the blade using the sole of one's shoe
and the floor.
For foil and epee, the total curvature of the blade is measured
at the widest separation between the blade and an imaginary line
drawn between the the join of the forte and tang and the point.
The blade can be laid across a flat surface such as a table top
to measure the arch. Epees must not rise more than 1 cm above
the surface, while foils are allowed 2 cm. If the objective is
to angle the point to hit oblique surfaces better, this is a
significant amount of curvature. If the objective is to "hook"
the blade around blocking parries or body parts, however, these
limits are fairly restrictive.
Remember that the wire groove on epee and foil blades goes on the
top (thumb side) of the blade, and the outside of the blade
Sabre curvature is handled differently, it being the deflection
of the point from the line of the forte. 4 cm is all that is
Foil guards vary mostly in diameter, being between 9.5 and 12 cm
across. The largest guards (eg. Negrini) may fail the weapon
guage check if they are dented or misshapen.
Epee guards are almost always the maximum diameter (13.5 cm) for
best protection, although they can vary considerably in profile
shape, depth (3 - 5.5 cm), weight, and eccentricity (up to 3.5 cm
off of center).
Sabre guards come in left- and right-handed versions (the outside
of the guard being larger). Competition guards may include
attachments for a capteur sensor. If not done by the
manufacturer, sabre fencers may wish to insulate the edges of the
guard (and the pommel) to prevent it from shorting to their cuff.
2.10 Points & Blade Wires
Many fencers have experienced trouble mixing their points,
barrels, and wires. They are best used in matched sets. There
are many brands to consider, each with different qualities. Some
brands are cloned by Chinese and eastern manufacturers; you may
notice a difference in quality or durability when using
Points are regularly tested in competition. Both foil and epee
points must pass a weight test, by lifting a mass (500g for foil;
750g for epee) after the point is depressed. (Technically, epees
only have to lift the mass 0.5 mm, whereas foils must lift it to
the top of the point travel.) In addition, epees must pass two
shim tests, the first to make sure that there is at least 1.5 mm
of travel in the tip, and the second to make sure that the point
doesn't light until the last 0.5 mm.
If the weight test fails, the main spring can be replaced or made
heavier by lightly stretching it. If the fencer thinks his point
is too heavy, the spring can be replaced, compressed, cut down,
or softened by heating one end in a flame.
If the epee 0.5 mm shim test fails, the secondary contact spring
is too long. It should be adjusted or compressed. If the 1.5 mm
shim test fails, your point may be improperly set up, or may be
mismatched with the barrel.
Most points are held together by a pair of screws on the side of
the barrel, and adjusting the springs requires disassembly. Some
makes of epee point are adjusted using a small wrench or a single
screw in the tip. FIE epee points use a solid contact in place
of the secondary spring. Lighting distance can be increased by
carefully filing the contact.
Epee points work by closing the circuit between the two blade
wires when they are depressed. Dirty or faulty points will
normally cause the weapon to fail to register touches. Foil
points work in the opposite manner, by opening a closed circuit
between the blade wire and blade. Dirty or faulty points will
usually cause the weapon to produce spurious off-target lights.
See Troubleshooting (sections 2.15, 2.16), below.
Blade wires are typically insulated with cotton to facilitate
gluing and cleaning. Nevertheless, inexpensive wires can be made
at home using 26 to 36 guage wire-wrap or magnet wire from an
electronics store. Use the cup from an old wire, and attach the
new wire by heating the solder connection with a soldering
iron. This is more difficult with epee wires; the contacts may
have to be removed from the plastic base before soldering -
whether this is possible depends on the brand of wire. In a
pinch, with foils you can spool a bit of wire in the bottom of
the cup; this will work for a short period, but eventually the
spooled wire gets fouled with the spring and causes faults.
Blade tips are threaded metric 3.5 x 0.60 for foils and 4.0 x
0.70 for epees. Rethreading with a die is difficult, but
possible with adequate preparation. Pre-filing the tip into a
long, blunt cone (5.5 mm long with the top 1.5 mm narrower than
the inside diameter of the die) will assist in guiding the die
through the initial turns; the extra metal left behind can later
be removed with a file. The leading edge of the wire groove
should be rounded and the groove filled with epoxy putty or
similar hard compound to prevent the die from jamming on the
groove edge. The putty must be removed afterwards, of course.
No more than 4 mm of threading is needed to affix the barrel.
2.11 Body Wires
The primary question with foil and sabre body wires is bayonet
(eg. Paul brand) vs. two-prong (eg. Uhlmann brand). They are
equally functional; the primary difference is in cost and
Two-prong is a simpler design, and usually less expensive, but
sometimes has a reputation for being less reliable (depending on
the brand). On the other hand, bayonet designs have recently
also acquired a reputation for unreliability; this is probably
due to the arrival of cheap no-name bayonet body wires that give
unreliable performance. Brand-name body wires usually give
Of course, choice of body wire also determines the choice of
weapon socket (or vice versa). One of the primary considerations
in deciding which format to go with should be the prevalent
format in your club or region. Going with the local favourite
will make it easier to borrow weapons or wires when yours
Epee body wires are all of the same basic 3-prong design. The
main reliability concern is how well the prongs maintain contact
over time. Some brands accumulate grime or corrosion, while
others simply wear down and become loose in the socket; sometimes
the prongs can be periodically re-bent to maintain firm contact.
Recycled blades must be cleaned before they are re-wired. 10
minutes with a utility knife to remove all traces of glue from
the groove is usually sufficient, although chemical solvents
(acetone, nail polish remover) may be helpful with some glues
such as super-glue. New blades sometimes require a small amount
of cleaning as well, to remove grease and grit from the machining
Popular wiring glues include Duco cement, 5-minute epoxy, and
cyanoacrylate glues (ie. super-glue). Some fencers have reported
success using rubber cement, silicone, and white glue. Cleaning
and gluing techniques will vary depending on your choice. Thin,
quick-drying glues such as cyanoacrylates are best put down over
top of the wire as the wire is held in the groove. If you use a
thicker glue such as epoxy, you can carefully prepare one surface
first. For foil wires, coat the wire in glue, and then gently
pull it tight and lay it into the groove. For epees you can
alternatively lay a bed of glue down before setting the wire in
the groove, then make a second run of glue over the wire to seal
it in place. Top glue the blade, and let it dry while the blade
is held in a flexed position with the point in the air.
An acetone bath for cleaning blades can be constructed from a
length of copper tubing, sealed at one end. Fill with acetone,
drop in your blades, and let soak overnight. White glues can be
soaked in water to soften them.
A blade-bowing tool for holding blades flexed while the glue
dries can be constructed from a length of cord or chain attached
to some small cups (film canisters work well). Place the cups
over either end of the blade, and the tension of the cord will
hold the blade bent for as long as you need it. Alternatively,
stand the blade up with the point bent under the rim of a counter
2.13 Scoring Apparatus
The scoring apparatus consists of the reels, floor wires, and
indicator box, and optionally a timer and scoring tower(s).
As of February 1, 2000, the scoring lamps indicate who scored the
touch. Older scoring boxes are wired to indicate who received
the touch. Reversing the cables on older boxes will cause them
to function in the new manner.
Modern foil scoring boxes should display only a coloured light or
a white light for each fencer. Older boxes (or ones with older
firmware) may display both if an off-target touch is immediately
followed by an on-target touch. Modern sabre scoring boxes
should tolerate sabres without capteur sensors. Older boxes will
display white lights with capteurless sabres, unless the sensor
leads are shorted on the weapon.
It is possible to defeat older foil scoring circuits by grounding
your own weapon to your lame' (your opponent's touches will fail
to register, but yours will register). This is illegal, and
scoring boxes must be equipped with a grounding light to detect
when fencers do this. Newer boxes have an anti-fraud feature to
eliminate this hazard and allow touches to be scored in spite of
grounding. Boxes without such an anti-fraud circuit are useful
for detecting dead spots on lame's (ground the lame', and then
touch the opponent's lame'; white lights indicate a dead spot).
Reels are typically portable, spring-wound devices (either
"turtles" or "snails"). Less portable (but often more reliable)
systems involving pulleys and bungee cords are used at some
salles. These systems require firm anchor points at the ends and
middle of the piste, so are not as portable as reel systems.
2.13.1 Wireless Systems
Wireless scoring systems are currently prohibited in competition,
due to the difficulties in distinguishing between real and forged
signals. Various modern electronics technologies hold the
promise of circumventing these problems, and some wireless
designs are currently in development. The FIE is experimenting
with some systems, and is expected to rule on their use in the
Simple "buzzboxes", compact battery-powered devices that signal
touches with a light or buzzer, are available from various
sources, but have very limited functionality. As a rule, they
cannot distinguish between targets (on/off, bell hits, etc.), or
distinguish the timing of hits, and do not work with sabre at
all. Some manufacturers claim to sell advanced buzzboxes that
alleviate some of these problems (see, for example,