Fencing Competition: The Basics

Now that you're familiar with your weapons, it's time to learn the rules of fencing so that you can get out on the strip!

A match between two fencers is called a bout. The goal of a fencing bout is to score either 5 or 15 points - in preliminary pool play and direct elimination play, respectively. You can also win a bout if you have a higher score than your opponent when the time is up.

Points are scored when a touch is landed in the opponent’s target area. One pool bout is up to 5 points, however for foil and epee, it is either first to 5 or when three-minutes expires. Direct elimination matches for epee and foil consist of three, three‐minute periods with a one‐minute break between each period. For sabre, the first period lasts for eight touches and the second period ends when the first fencer has scored 15 points.

There are four categories of penalties in fencing. USA Fencing describes them as follows:

Category One
All Category One penalties are interdependent. Upon the first occurrence of an offense during a bout, the fencer is warned and receives a yellow card. Committing any additional offense during the bout will result in the offender receiving a red card and the opponent receiving a penalty touch.

Category Two
All Category Two penalties are also interdependent. A fencer is given a red card upon first and any subsequent infraction during a bout.

Both Category One and Two infractions result in the annulment of a touch made by the offending fencer while committing the offense.

Category Three
Category Three penalties may be assessed for infractions against safety or the order of the competition.

Such infractions can result in penalty touches (red card) or expulsion (black card) from the competition.

Category Four
The Category Four penalties involve unsportsmanlike conduct, using fraudulently modified equipment, collusion or brutality. The infractions result in automatic expulsion (black card) from the competition.

RIGHT OF WAY                                                                                                                              

The right‐of‐way rule was established to address seemingly simultaneous touches in a bout. This rule is only applied to foil and sabre and the difference is important only when both the red and green lights go on at the same time. When this happens, the point is awarded to the fencer that the referee determines held the right‐of‐way at the time the lights went on. The most basic, and important, precept of the right‐of‐way is that the fencer who started the attack first will receive the point if they hit the valid target area.

Naturally, the fencer who is being attacked must defend himself or herself with a parry, or somehow cause their opponent to miss in order to reclaim over right‐of‐way and score a point. A fencer who hesitates for too long while advancing on their opponent gives up right‐of‐way to their opponent. The referee may determine that the two fencers truly attacked each other simultaneously. The simultaneous attack results in no points being awarded, and the fencers are ordered back to en garde position.

In sabre, the fencer who starts to attack first is given priority should his opponent counter‐attack. However, sabre referees are much less forgiving of hesitation by an attacker. It is common to see a sabre fencer execute a stop cut against their opponent’s forearm during such a moment of hesitation, winning right‐of‐way and the point.

Epee does not use the right‐of‐way in keeping with its dueling origin. He who first gains touch earns the point, or if both fencers hit within 1/25th of a second both earn a point. Think of epee as a free-for-all, fencers can hit anywhere on the body and at anytime or the same time, epee is most like an actual duel.


Fencers will need their own equipment to compete. Basic equipment includes the jacket, plastron, chest protector (women), knickers (fencing pants), glove, mask, and knee-high socks. Fencing shoes would be ideal, however running/cross-training sneakers are fine. It is best to have at least 2 working weapons, 2 body cords, and 2 head clips (for foil & sabre). For foil and sabre fencers, they will also need lames and masks made for electrical fencing. At National events, it is required to have the last name and country printed on the back of the jacket/lame or down the leg of a fencers' knickers.


Other than equipment, being a competitive fencer requires additional costs. Fencers will need a competitive USFA membership, which costs $70 per year. Each tournament varies in pricing, most often there is a registration fee and an event fee. Fencers who compete in more than one event will pay per event, where the registration is a one-time fee. Please note, most often these fees are non-refundable, so only register if you can commit to the tournament. If something comes up last minute such as illness or serious injury, provided you have a medical note, some tournament organizers may partially refund the fees (note: not all will). If you plan to compete outside of your home state, note the cost of travel and lodging will vary accordingly. If you want to have a coach while you compete, coaching fees vary depending on the tournament.


The ultimate goal for fencers who compete is to have fun and gain experience! Take the knowledge and skills you learn in class or private lessons and try to apply them in a tournament setting. The more you fence, the more you'll learn. If you are new to competing, your best bet is to attend any tournaments your home club offers so you are in a comfortable environment. But remember, to learn and grow, you will need to compete at other tournaments outside your home club. To best prepare yourself before a tournament, take a few private lessons with your coach to work on fine-tuning your skills. As for parents, have fun being supportive and cheering your fencer on!