Friday, 15 June 2012

En-garde, Prêt, Allez

A fencing lesson at Société d'escrime de Zurich SEZ
If you hear the words en garde, prêt, allez in that order then most likely you are standing facing someone with a sword in your hand, like I was on Tuesday night when I attended a fencing class with the Société d'escrime de Zurich SEZ.  They kindly agreed to let me join them in a typical weekly fencing lesson so that I could write about it on here on my blog.  It is part of my new campaign to try out different activities and write about them, to give people ideas of sports/fitness related activities they might like to try that they might not previously have considered.

The club is run by Thomas and his wife, who is originally Cuban and was a member of the Cuban fencing team, participating in both the Olympics and the Word Championships.  They have around 50 active members and train at the Bildungszentrum BIZE in Seefeld.  On Tuesday night there were 5 people plus myself, the coach and Thomas.

My German is not perfect but as the coach spoke both Spanish and German I managed to get by between the 2 languages.  After the initial greetings I was kitted out with a jacket, a mask, a glove, an electric cable, a chest pad and a weapon.  The electric cable is plugged at one end into the sword and at the other end into the spools of a machine that registers the points.  All the rest of the equipment other than the weapon is simply for protection.

The weapon we were using was the épée.  In fencing there are 3 types of weapon - the foil, the épée and the sabre.  Thomas was explaining that in most countries people traditionally start with the foil and then progress to the sabre or épée after several years of training, but in Switzerland they often start immediately with the épée.  The differences are as follows:

Foil - a light thrusting weapon that targets the torso, including the back.  Simultaneous points scoring is not allowed and a "right of way" rule is established to determine who to award the point to in case of simultaneous hits.

Sabre - a light cutting and thrusting weapon that targets the entire body above the waist (excluding the hands and the back of the head, but including the wrists).  Hits with the edge of the blade are valid as are hits with the tip.  In contrast to foil, whilst off target hits do not score, the bout is not stopped and the action continues.  As with foil, in case of simultaneous hits, the "right of way" rule is used to establish which fencer to aware the point to.

Epée - a heavier thrusting weapon that targets the entire body.  Unlike the other 2, in épée simultaneous points may be awarded.  The only exception is for the last point of the bout, and here in the case of simultaneous hits neither fencer will be awarded a point.

Apparently the bouts involving foil and sabre can involve heated debates and discussions about who had the "right of way" and épée bouts are generally much easier to score.  This is one reason that here in Switzerland they sometimes start people off immediately in épée as opposed to foil.  However, until recently women were only permitted to compete in foil.  Nowadays though they can compete in all 3 disciplines.

After some warm up exercises and techniques drills I got the chance to take part in some actual fencing bouts. This was the part I had really been looking forward to.  The protocol is as follows.  The 2 competing fencers walk onto the piste (fencing area) fully dressed except for mask, and then after plugging their cable into the sword and into the spools connected to the electronic scoring equipment and testing their equipment (making sure that touches with the point of the épée on the body register a point and touches with the point of the épée on the bell guard don't register a point) they stand on the en-garde lines facing each other.  Next, the fencers salute each other as a sign of respect.  Salutes completed, the referee calls en-garde and the fencers don their masks and adopt the fencing stance.  The referee now calls "prêt" (and in some countries the fencers must confirm that they are ready) and finally "allez".  This signals that the action may commence.  The bout continues until the required number of points has been reached by one of the fencers, or until the bout time has expired, with the action being stopped briefly after each point has been scored for the fencers to reassume their ready positions.

I had a lot of fun during my bouts and got the chance to fence against three different people.  Firstly I fenced with the coach, then with Thomas and finally with the other male member of the group who has been doing fencing for around 5 months.  They all gave me lots of useful tips and I even managed to score some points along the way.  The tips were to minimise the body surface area that is available to my opponent, to keep my arm tucked in so that my opponent only sees the bell guard and is not able to strike my arm, to never fully extend myself when I am not sure to be able to reach my opponent as then they can easily strike back and to keep the movements of the épée very small (since big movements cost time).  I was also told to make sure I keep my spare hand out of the way as it is ungloved and can be hurt or cut by small imperfections in the weapon if it is held in front of the body.  The reason I had to be told this was because I come from a martial arts background and my first reaction was to try to grab the épée with my spare hand, which of course is not allowed and can be dangerous for the reasons mentioned previously.

The bouts were intense and you need to be fit to be able to keep moving and stay "on your toes" so to speak.  The lunges are great workouts for the leg muscles.  It also uses up a lot of energy to remain focussed and concentrated throughout the bout.  By the end of my 3 bouts I was completely covered in sweat.  I would have been happy to continue with further bouts if there was more time though, as I was having such a good time.  Fencing is certainly something I would give a thumbs up too as a fun way of getting fit.

In terms of danger factor it seems pretty safe as you are wearing proper protection, although I did get one or two very large bruises the next day.  This could be a good thing though if you like showing off your war wounds to your friends.  Fencing has a kind of gentlemanly mystique to it.

If you want to know more about fencing in Zurich, I am sure the Société d'escrime de Zurich SEZ will be happy to answer your questions.  They were very friendly and I would like to thank them again for affording me a small insight into the world of fencing.

A fencing lesson at Société d'escrime de Zurich SEZ


  1. Nice article! Just a small correction: hands are not valid target on sabre (the armed hand wrist does get an extra electric cover to prevent any sleeve slippage).

  2. Hi Alexandre. Thanks for your correction. I have incorporated it into my article now.

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