Classical Fencing: The Classical Period

The Classical Academy of Arms defines the classical period of fencing in terms of three major factors: (1) how the sword is used, (2) the social context of the sword in sport, and (3) the signature weapons of the period. The Academy believes that, when these factors are applied, the result is a coherent approach to the use of the sword, with a standard set of weapons, in a definable social context.

Swords have been used in at least 5 different ways: as a military weapon, as a weapon for civilian personal defense, in judicial trials by combat, as a method of settling affairs of honor, and for sport.

The sword enters the period following the American Civil War (1861-65) and the Franco Prussian War (1870-71) much diminished as a battlefield weapon. These wars demonstrated that repeating firearms, the development of early machine guns, and longer ranged artillery had made the premier battlefield use of the sword, the massed cavalry charge, extraordinarily costly. In spite of various attempts to restore the sword to its traditional stature, and its continued inclusion in military training, by the early 1900s it was an anachronism.

Swords for civilian daily personal defense had already disappeared from use with the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Men about town no longer carried a sword as a fashion accessory.

The last recorded attempt to use the sword in judicial trial by combat occurred in England in 1818. The result was a speedy, and somewhat embarrassed, legislative revocation of the trial by combat in 1819.

The settling of affairs of honor by the sword had suffered a downturn with the development of dueling pistols in the 1700s. However, in the years after the Franco Prussian War, the use of swords in duels became a nationalistic cause, and by the 1880s this resurgence fueled a rebirth of interest in dueling with the dueling sword and the sabre. However, the carnage of World War I generally satiated the bloodlust of society, and by World War II the duel was an infrequent event.

That leaves the use of the sword for sport. The Victorian sports revival included fencing, leading to the organization of competitions, the development of governing organizations, the establishment of common rules, and the inclusion of fencing in the first Olympic games, all in the period 1880-1910. Civilian sport and dueling technique clearly diverged from the military use of the sword. Fencing was a sport of the white social elite, with women’s roles narrowly proscribed, and firmly amateur in character. During the period from the 1880s through to the early 1950s, three weapons evolved into their modern form (foil, epee, and sabre), and two were eventually discarded (the bayonet and singlestick).

Thus, during the period from approximately 1880 to World War II the combination of several trends clearly defines a period of change and rebirth in fencing. The period saw the end of the military use of the sword for anything but ceremonial purpose and the slow demise of dueling, leaving the sword only as a weapon for sport. At the same time fencing texts evolved to focus on the civilian and then the sporting use of fencing weapons. The birth of organized sports in general in the Victorian sports revival included fencing, making its practice more international in scope. And as fencing moved into international competition, rising nationalism in Europe adopted fencing as an element of national power.

This period clearly ends with World War II. Not only does international fencing stop during the period 1939-1945, but after the war fencing undergoes significant changes. The introduction of electric scoring to foil and eventually sabre complete the transition in scoring and technique started with electric epee in the 1930s. The adoption of fencing, and all international sports, as an element of a wider national security strategy by the Soviet block led to revolutionary changes. The use of the sports factory model and the quest for medals as a measure of international prestige fundamentally reshaped how fencing was funded and managed at the national level. The development of sports science led to significant changes in the development of athletes. Social changes cleared the way for women to participate fully at all levels in the sport, changed the character of the athletes from members of the rich elite to a much wider population including all races, and led to the eventual abandonment of the amateur ideal.

Based on these changes on how the sword was used, the context of fencing as a sport, and the signature weapons in use, the Academy believes that a reasonable definition of the classical period is a transitional period during the years between approximately 1880 and the onset of World War II in 1939.