Modern vs SCA fencing

by Lady Caitlin Deirdre of Errelyn - Rhydderich Hael, Aethelmearc.

I’ve heard rumors that in civilized countries, they teach fencing in the public school system. English or French 10 year olds learn to fence about the same time we learn to play basketball. Sadly, the U.S. school system is far behind and very few of us learn fencing as part of regular gym class. Quite of few SCA fencers, however, do get their start in modern fencing, which is the sort you see at the Olympics. I myself did modern fencing for 3 years, and some of that style still shows in my techniques in the lists. While there are many similarities (men wear knickers without shame), there are quite a few differences between SCA and modern fencing rules. Because we have a fair amount of crossover, I thought I’d write up a little compare and contrast to save myself having to explain it for the 100th time in person. While this is primarily aimed at modern fencers learning SCA-style fencing, I strongly encourage SCA-only fencers to learn a little about the other forms. It will help you understand mind-sets and techniques of your future opponents. You will be able to appear intelligent in conversations with both sorts of fencers. And, most importantly, I went through the bother of writing this whole article - the least you can do is read it.

Modern fencing is also called “collegiate” fencing, Olympic fencing, and strip fencing. This last term is not analogous to “strip poker” (shame on you), but refers to the strip (also called a piste) that fencers use. It is roughly 40’ by 6’ and you are not allowed to go off it during a match - actually they are often elevated in competitions. As you can imagine, this set-up encourages a very “straight back and forth” approach to maneuvering. Modern fencers are not trained to go sideways and circle and this is one of their weaknesses when learning SCA style. Another is that in NO style of modern fencing are you allowed to use the off hand for anything other than balance (or taunting your opponent by waving). I’ve been fencing SCA style for over 12 years and I still drop my left arm behind me in a lunge position. Every modern fencer I’ve seen has spent years training his/her left hand to not move and it takes quite an effort to wake it up again. For left-handed fencers, the rule applies to the right hand, but the theory generally applies. (On the bright side, fencers trained in the modern style do usually have excellent footwork.)

There are 3 weapon forms in modern: foil, saber and epee (which is also useful to know for crossword puzzles). All forms are fought for points, as opposed to mock-death. In this system, stabbing a person’s big toe is considered the same point value as stabbing their heart (at least in epee). Some schools count points against you (“Noelle stabbed Larry, so he has one point against”) and some count points for a successful attack. Bouts are generally to 3 or 5 points. Some modern fencers use elaborate grips that help them control the blade better - only basic French grips are allowed in the SCA (although we tend to have more decorated hilts and nice quillons). Modern fencers are also known for dressing in all white outfits. This comes from the early days of the sport where they chalked the tips of the blades to see if you successfully stabbed your opponent. Competition in modern is generally segregated by gender, although it’s usually open in practices. SCA fencing is co-ed, which, frankly, I think both genders prefer. I know I’d get rather bored with fencing the same few lady fencers for the rest of my life - there just aren’t enough of us.

Foil is considered the equivalent of a practice weapon. It is thin, light and allows limited target area. When fencing modern foil, you are only allowed to hit the torso - no arms, legs or head. Virtually all beginner SCA fencers stop attacking after they’ve hit you in the arm or leg. Brand-new fencers have some mental disconnect that says “I was trying to hit her and I succeeded, so my job is done”. Modern fencers trying to convert are generally waiting for a director to stop the action and rule the hit as off-target. Both theories will get you killed in an SCA bout, since advanced SCA fencers don’t stop until someone is officially dead. (And often not even then, which you’ll know if you’ve seen me in a tourney. I have a tendency to stab corpses a few extra times and then apologize. It’s much safer than thinking my opponent IS dead and having him explain later that I only had the shoulder.) Foil fencers are only allowed to use thrusts, and there are depressing rules about “right of way” that I’ll complain about later.

The sabre (also spelled “saber”) is based on the old cavalry sabers. The blade is more of a wedge and generally has a bell that extends over the fingers. As one might guess, this is because the fingers and hand are valid targets in saber fencing. Their target is from the waist up, arms and head included. Sabre is more like SCA fencing in that it allows cuts in addition to thrusts. Sabre cuts, however, are generally light tip flicks that don’t transfer well into SCA-style draw cuts (which should be 6-8” inches of pulling in Aethelmearc). Sabre blades are not allowed in the SCA in any kingdom. Foil and epee blades are generally allowed - individual kingdoms vary.

Epee is the closest that modern gets to the old-style duels. The blade is thicker and heavier. Legal target area includes the entire body and many an epee fencer snipes at your big toe to get a point. Epee fencing only counts thrusts as points, but is the only modern style that does not use the concept of “right of way”. Simply put, the idea is that you must counter your opponent’s attack before your own attack can count. Certainly, in ANY style of combat, it’s a really good idea to block your opponent from hitting you. “Right of way” takes this idea to more complicated levels, wherein if your opponent straightens her arm and points the blade towards you, she has “initiated the action”. You must take the action back by moving her blade out of line to make a proper attack yourself. If you’ve never dealt with “right of way”, just be happy. If you have, be even more happy, because the SCA doesn’t have it. The most the SCA has is “if you were technically dead before you attacked your opponent, you should say yours was late and doesn’t count”. With adrenalin and the high speed of blades whirling about, it’s more common than you might think to not realize you are dead for a few extra seconds.

All three forms come in two basic variations: electric and non-electric (also known as “dry”). Which one you use generally depends on which one your club uses - electric is clearly more expensive, since you need all sorts of wires and a little box with lights. In either case, “who did what to whom” is decided by the director, judges and a little box with lights. Fencers have no say in the matter – THIS IS IMPORTANT. One of the most significant differences between modern and SCA fencing is that SCA fencing puts the priority on the fencers to mutually decide “who did what to whom”. You are expected to acknowledge every wound your opponent makes against you and what level of injury resulted (“only one draw”, “lost the hand”). You and your opponent decide if your last shot came too late after she killed you. Fencers are on their honor to call their received blows correctly and not ignore them or wear armor that interferes with their ability to feel those blows. Modern fencing is considered a sport of honor - you salute your opponent before a match and shake his hand afterwards. But decisions about the actual scoring are all made by outside observers.

In SCA fencing, there are 5 basic fencing forms, regardless of the blade used (foil, epee or schlager). The forms are: single sword, sword and rigid parry object (such as a small buckler), sword and non-rigid parry object (such as a cloak), sword and dagger, and two swords (also known as a “case of rapier”). In Aethelmearc, you must pass a qualification test in each separately, with a different 6th qualification in schlager. Some kingdoms do not test each form separately and some use schlager as the only blade (Ealdomere, for example). FYI, some kingdoms allow “Del Tins” which are closest to schlagers but slightly different, and some prefer blades made of fiberglass. A schlager blade is much heavier than an epee blade and has a clear difference between the edge and the flat of the blade. It is the closest we come to recreating rapiers actually used in period, in terms of weight and maneuverability. I imagine theirs had sharp bits, though, and we try to avoid those in the SCA.

SCA fencing is also called “fencing in the round” because you can move sideways or circle with your opponent. Closing distance with your opponent until you can see her freckles is called “corps-a-corps” in modern and is illegal. In the SCA, it’s called in-fighting and is considered a valuable skill, especially for shorter fencers who might be at a disadvantage when kept at full distance by a 6’ fighter. In contrast, a running attack at your opponent (called a “fleche”) is forbidden in the SCA, and considered valid in modern.

As mentioned earlier, it is the two fencers who decide what hits happened, where and when. There should always be a marshal watching the bout, but her main job is to keep the action safe for the fencers and the non-combatants. Marshals watch for broken blades, armor that might have fallen off, and five-year olds deciding to run into the list. In Aethelmearc, it is a requirement at all practices and tourneys to get your weapons and your armor inspected each and every time. The only serious problem that happens in either sort of fencing is a blade breaking and hitting the opponent. We check blades to try to rule out the ones likely to break soon (i.e. having a suspicious bend) and we check armor to try to verify that you are protected in the very unlikely event you are hit with a broken tip. In over 12 years of SCA fencing, I have personally broken 2-3 blades. I have never hit an opponent with one or been hit myself, which is in large part due to the preventative and monitoring work by the marshals. I don’t have the actual statistics, but it has been said that it is safer to fence at an SCA practice than it is to drive your car to that practice.

After all, we want to kill our opponents, but we don’t want to hurt them. Then they wouldn’t be around to try to kill us next week :-).