This article is from the Fencing FAQ, by Morgan Burke with numerous contributions by others.
Swordfighting as sport has existed since ancient Egypt, and has
been practiced in many forms in various cultures since then.
Although jousting and tournament combat was a popular sport in
the European middle ages, modern FIE fencing owes more to
unarmoured duelling forms that evolved from 16th century rapier
Rapiers evolved from cut-and-thrust military swords, but were
most popular amongst civilians who used it for self-defence and
duelling. Rapiers were edged, but the primary means of attack was
the thrust. Rapier fencing spread from Spain and Italy to
northwest Europe, in spite of the objections of masters such as
George Silver who preferred traditional cutting weapons such the
English broad sword.
The Spanish school, under masters such as Narvaez and Thibault,
became a complicated and mystical affair whose geometrical
theories required much practice to master. Italian masters like
Agrippa and Capo Ferro developed a more pragmatic school in the
late 16th and early 17th centuries, introducing innovations such
as linear fencing and the lunge.
By the 18th century, the rapier had evolved to a simpler,
shorter, and lighter design that was popularized in France as the
small sword. Although the small sword often had an edge, it was
only to discourage the opponent from grabbing the blade, and the
weapon was used exclusively for thrusting. The light weight made
a more complex and defensive style possible, and the French
masters developed a school based on defence with the sword,
subtlety of movement, and complex attacks. When buttoned with a
leather safety tip that resembled a flower bud, the small sword was
known as le fleuret, and was identical in use to the modern foil
(still known as le fleuret in French). Indeed, the French small
sword school forms the basis of most of modern fencing theory.
By the mid-19th century, duelling was in decline as a means of
settling disputes, partially because victory could lead to a jail
term for assault or manslaughter. Emphasis shifted to defeating
the opponent without necessarily killing him, and less fatal
duelling forms evolved using the duelling sword, or epee de terrain,
an unedged variant of the small sword. Later duels often ended
with crippling thrusts to the arm or leg, and fewer legal
difficulties for the participants. This is the basis of modern
Cutting swords had been used in bloodsports such as backsword
prizefights at least as far back as the 17th century.
Broadswords, sabres, and cutlasses were used extensively in
military circles, especially by cavalry and naval personell, and
saw some duelling application in these circles as well. Training
was performed with wooden weapons, and stick fighting remained
popular until Italian masters formalized sabre fencing into a
non-fatal sporting/training form with metal weapons in the late
19th century. Early sport sabres were significantly heavier than
the modern sport sabre and necessitated a strong style with the
use of moulinets and other bold movements. As with thrusting
swords, the sabre evolved to lighter, less fatal duelling forms
such as the Italian sciabola di terro and the German schlager.
Hungarian masters developed a new school of sabre fencing that
emphasized finger control over arm strength, and they dominated
sabre fencing for most of the 20th century.
Duelling faded away after the First World War. A couple of
noteworthy duels were fought over disputes that arose during
Olympic games in the 1920s, and there have been rare reports of
sword duels since then. German fraternity duelling (mensur)
still occurs with some frequency.
The first modern Olympic games featured foil and sabre fencing
for men only. Epee was introduced in 1900. Single stick was
featured in the 1904 games. Epee was electrified in the 1936
games, foil in 1956, and sabre in 1988. Early Olympic games
featured events for Masters, and until recently fencing was the
only Olympic sport that has included professionals. Disruptions
in prevailing styles have accompanied the introduction of
electric judging, most recently transforming sabre fencing. Foil
fencing experienced similar upheavals for a decade or two
following the introduction of electric judging, which was
further complicated by the new, aggressive, athletic style coming
out of eastern Europe at the time.
Women's foil was first contested in the 1924 Olympic games, and
Women's epee was only contested for the first time in 1996,
although it has been part of the World Championships since 1989.
Women's sabre made its first appearance in the 1998 World
Championships as a demonstration sport, and will likely appear in
the 2004 Olympics as part of a combined team event.