The Origins Of Fencing As A Sport

Fencing has quite a lot of history behind it, slowly changing into the futuristic-looking electric
sport we watch in the Summer Olympics today.

This can lead to a lot of questions, as many things in fencing are historical and don’t seem to make sense anymore. Here are a few of the most common questions about fencing answered:

The Origins Of Fencing As A Sport

Why Is Fencing In French?

All international fencing competitions, including the Olympics, have the referees officiating the bouts in French instead of English, the language which might be more expected.

This is because of the age of fencing as a sport. When fencing first gained popularity with the general public as a fun pastime or hobby to do instead of a strictly martial art, it was the 1800’s:

At the time, the most widely spoken language around different countries was French.

It was used in much the same way as English is today, as a sort of general language for different places and different people who might not understand each other’s original language.

Since so many people knew French, it was used for official documents and this kind of thing often.

In the case of fencing it was chosen as the language to direct fencing in when the governing body of the sport (the FIE) was founded.

Just to show this in action again, “FIE” stands for “Fédération Internationale d’Escrime” which means “International Fencing Federation” in French.

This also extends to the name of the equipment up until the present day, “Plastron” “Epee” and so on. In addition it also remains in the names of the fencing techniques, “Lunge”, “riposte”, “quarte”, “sixte” and so on.

When Did Fencing Become An Olympic Sport?

Fencing became an Olympic sport during the first Olympic games ever held, in 1896. Originally only three disciplines of men’s foil and saber fencing were included in 1896.

Over time more fencing events were added to the Olympic schedule, until all twelve events that are currently held were included.

When Was Fencing First Played?

As we all know, fighting with a sword has been around for quite some time now as part of human history. Training with a sword has also been around to complement this for thousands of years.

The modern weapons used in fencing Foil, Epee and Saber have been around for comparatively quite a short time.

Swords like the Longsword, and then the Rapier began to fall out of use and fashion as technology changed, with the inventions of cannons, rifles and so on.

When people did carry a sword with them, it was now a smaller sword such as the (accurately named) Smallsword, or they might have carried a Saber.

Training with these weapons would have been going on in the 1600’s, which could be regarded as the first form of modern fencing.

Then in the late 1700’s they would have been doing it a an official “sport” with teachers and
clubs and so on.


Cavalry Sabers

These were pretty much the final stage in the evolution of the sword in Europe before being rendered obsolete by improving firearms technology.

You can see the similarities between this final stage and the practice electric weapons used to compete in fencing today.

You can read more about the development of the modern fencing weapons here.

Who Invented The Sport Of Fencing?

The sport of fencing gradually emerged from the prominence of duels in the 18th century.

As more people were instructed in the art of the sword, it became more common to practice it as what would be called a “hobby”.

Sword dueling and learning technique for the sake of technique was fashionable, and swords and duels were not just something reserved for the military.

A major figure in popularizing fencing as an exciting pastime was Domenico Angelo. Angelo was the author of a book called “L’École des armes” which means “The Fencing School” that is the foundation of the modern idea of fencing.

Angelo highlighted the health and fitness aspects of fencing, as well as promoting it as something that engaged the mind and required tactics, technique, and focus.

Angelo lived in the late 1700’s, and over the next 100 years fencing grew in popularity despite (or because of?) new advances in military technology further and further away from the sword.

Eventually in 1896 fencing was included in the first Olympic games.

You can read more about Domenico Angelo’s life here.

How Many Fencing Events Are In The Olympics?

There are 12 events in the Olympics for fencing. The three weapons, Foil Epee and Saber, are each split by gender. So there will be both a Women’s Epee event and a Men’s Epee event for example.

This gives six events. In addition to that, there is both an individual event and a team event, so for example there will be both Individual Women’s Epee and Team Women’s Epee.

So overall there are twelve gold medal winning champions each Olympics – a champion for each individual event (6) and a team champion for each team event (6).

Until the Tokyo Olympics, fencing was actually only allocated 10 medal “packages” by the IOC, even though they had 12 events in the programme.

This meant that the International Fencing Federation would rotate out two events at each Olympics, for example in 2016 Rio Olympics the Men’s Team Saber and Women’s Team Foil events were not held.

For the Tokyo Olympics, the IOC granted the last two medals to the fencing event, meaning that every event was held in one Olympics for the first time. Going forward, it seems that all 12 will be held each Olympics now.


Fencing is one of the oldest sports still played in the modern age, with roots stretching back across many huge cultural and historical changes in the world.

This has left it with some interesting and sometimes strange quirks, which can also be quite interesting!
Christopher Anderson
Latest posts by Christopher Anderson (see all)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *