What is Classical Fencing?

There are almost as many definitions of Classical Fencing as there are practitioners of the discipline. Many of the definitions focus only on what Classical Fencing is not: Not sport fencing; not flicking; not electric, etc.

I prefer to define Classical Fencing by what it is.

Classical Fencing is the practice of fencing with foil, sabre and epee as they were fenced prior to the introduction of the electric scoring apparatus.

The lack of a scoring box makes it necessary to fence in a slightly more deliberate manner so that the judges can see touches land. And, yes, we all whine about the “four blind men and a thief” scoring system, but it really isn’t any different than having an intermittent problem with your electric tip or a dead spot in your opponent’s lame. Sometimes an extra pair of eyes would be handy, even on a sport strip.

Classical fencers normally use either French or Italian grips. We tend to look upon pistol grips as being too “modern”, even though Visconti seems to have developed his orthopedic grip after a tram accident in the late 19th century. I have seen some fencers in classical tournaments use orthopedic grips because of arthritis problems, and I would rather see someone fence with a pistol grip than not fence at all.

Classical fencing is the continuation of an unbroken line of study of the art of defense reaching back for centuries. Its beginnings lie in the duel, but it has no end date, any more than classical music has an end date. Modern electric fencing is simply a continuation of that tradition on a slightly different path.

Other than the lack of electricity, the thing that sets classical fencing apart is form and technique. While some of this is anachronistic (picture John L. Sullivan’s boxing style), some is still very relevant, even in the modern sport fencing world.

As the use of electricity separates classical fencing from sport fencing, the continuity of study separates historical fencing from classical. While I enjoy fencing with two handed sword, rapier, smallsword, singlestick, great stick, heavy sabre, dueling sabre, etc.,etc., I consider these weapons to historical rather than classical because the study of them requires the use and, sometimes, translation of old texts rather than the unbroken line of pedagogy from Maestro to Maestro that correctly defines classical fencing.

There are currently two schools of thought in classical fencing: One wants to bar the salle doors to keep out the heathen hordes of sport fencing. The other looks for more crossover and collegiality between the two camps.

I’m in favor of more fencing, not less.