Brother Michael Cain was kind and generous enough to offer me and Maribou a small tour of a fencing tournament. Three different weapon bouts were on display: epée, foil, and sabre fencing.

Now, before this tour, the only real information that I had about fencing was that they trained you on footwork for months at a time before they ever thought about giving you a sword, and what I had read in a little trifle of a book written by Robert Aspirin called Phule’s Company.

Phule’s Company had a fencing tournament in it, you see. With, believe it or not, three separate events… the epée, foil, and sabre fencing.

Here’s how Chapter 15 of Phule’s Company opens:

It is doubtful that you have ever attended a fencing tournament unless you are directly involved in the sport, either as a participant or through some emotional or professional relationship with a fencer. This is due to the simple fact that fencing is not a spectator sport, the action being far too fast and subtle for the uneducated eye. (It might be of interest to note that fencing is one of the few sports where the competitors pay a fee, but the spectators get in for free.) Usually such an event is held in a large gymnasium or field house, with anywhere from six to several dozen “strips” laid out. The competitors are divided into groups or “pools” and fence each person within their pool. The top two or three advance to the next round, where they are reassigned to new pools and the process begins again. The bulk of those attending are in the competition area, consisting almost entirely of competitors and coaches, while a smattering of spectators made up of friends and parents of the competitors loll about in the bleachers getting bored. Only the final bouts generate much interest, but even then there are few spectators, most competitors packing their equipment and leaving as soon as they are eliminated.

While this is a bit, erm, harsh… I would say that reading this book back in the early 90’s prepared me for what I saw after meeting and greeting the dear Michael Cain. There were somewhere between six and a dozen “strips” laid out. When we got there, there was sabre fencing all the way down at the other end of the gym, foil in the middle, and epée (pronounced “eh-PAY”) closest to us. There were a smattering of competitors, friends, and family lolling about in the bleachers but they seemed engaged and pleasant rather than particularly distant or bored.

The rules for fencing both sabre and foil are pretty complex and rely on a concept called “right of way”. Rather than trying to recreate the version that Michael Cain gave us (along with multiple interruptions as we asked questions), I’ll just quote from Phule’s Company again:

Simply put, “right-of-way” was a set of rules designed to preserve the true spirit of dueling, from which fencing descended. By those rules, once fencer A had “declared an attack” by extending his weapon to an arm’s length, threatening a valid target area, fencer B had to parry or otherwise remove that threat before retaliating with an attack of his own. The logic was that if the competitors were using “real” weapons capable of inflicting injury or death, it would be foolhardy, if not suicidal, to ignore an attack in favor of launching one of your own. Though the concept itself might be simple, a goodly portion of any fencing bout was spent with the competitors standing by impatiently after a blinding flurry of action while the director sorted out exactly who had the right-of-way at each moment during the exchange so that the touch, or point, could be awarded. This was, of course, a little less exciting than watching grass grow. The only thing duller than sorting out right-of-way was listening to it being explained.

Michael Cain told us that Olympics fencing for sabre was downright unwatchable due to each point being decided by frame-by-frame video replay with judges checking out each tiny moment to see who has the right of way because if you have the right of way, you’re the only one who can get the point. In both sabre and foil, something as simple as whose wrist twitched first can be the deciding factor. So the judge has to figure it out.

Now, sabre is a weapon that lets you get a point (or “touch”, I guess) with either the tip of the sword or with the edge. Foil is a weapon where you can only get a point with the tip.

Sabre is the one that gets described as “aggressive”. I mean, we saw a half-dozen guys do the “bellow/roar” thing either after they got a point or after someone got a point on them and each time these guys were doing sabre. Michael Cain looked at us and said “the old guys tend to think that you should act like you’ve been there before” after a particularly vigorous bellow. Sabre was a bunch of bellowing followed by explosive action followed by more bellowing. Foil, by contrast, seemed to be all finesse and footwork and delicate precision.

The fun one to watch was epée, though. I’ll let Phule’s Company do the honors one last time:

“Thank you. Our next and final bout will be epee. For those of you who have been confused by my explanation of the right-of-way rules, you’ll be glad to know there is no right-of-way in epee! Whoever hits first, gets the touch!”

This was a lot easier to figure out as Michael Cain was explaining stuff. One of the competitors nearby heard us talking and did us the honor of showing us his sword and the electrical wires coming out of his wristcuff. Each swordsman is plugged in and each sword is now a smartsword. The outfits for sabre or foil are similarly smart. Since you can’t get points against a person for, say, striking them in the legs in sabre or striking them in the arm in foil, the swords and outfits have to communicate together to tell the judge that something has just happened and then the judge has to figure out the right of way stuff.

Luckily, epée just has to deal with the button at the tip of the sword. Press that and *DING!*, congrats. You got the touch. And we watched people dance back and forth, getting hits, and seeing the differences between the swordfights that ended 15-2 and the ones that ended 15-14.

Michael Cain has some seriously sweet stories about fencing that he seriously needs to turn into a post. The horrible Smirnov incident, the story about the attempt to make fencing better television by buying see-through visor masks in bulk, and an absolutely awesome one involving “the story from my fencing teacher about his own fencing teacher”. You guys seriously need to bug him to put those into a post of some sort.

But, in the absence of that, you should pick up Phule’s Company. If you like Robert Aspirin’s stuff, you’ll love this fun little read that will fly past, and even give you a fencing tournament in the middle for you to think about if you ever happen to go to a real one.

So… what are you reading and/or watching?

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Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to

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16 thoughts on “Sunday!

  1. I took a semester of fencing in college, was OK at it but the early start time for the class killed me. Now, it would be no problem…

    Anyhow, reading reading Black Lamb, Grey Falcon in spurts, with 7eves to wind down the day. Oh, and the NEC


  2. Random remarks…

    I’m always interested in hearing stories about why people take a fencing class in college. For me, it was from reading Heinlein’s Glory Road as a teenager.

    The women’s events were the following day, so JB and Maribou didn’t get to hear any women. I’ve always thought the full-volume shriek of a 16-year-old female sabrist is much more impressive than males bellowing. Last year I went to a tournament held at the Arapahoe County Fair Grounds Event Center. It’s a lovely space with a high ceiling and the most amazing dead acoustics. No one was bothering with bellowing/shrieking because the sound didn’t reverberate or carry at all.

    “Smart” is an overkill description of electric scoring. Effective electric scoring in epee was developed in the 1920s and added to the rules in 1933. Resistors, capacitors, and a few vacuum tubes. When you read the epee rules on timing precision, it is clear that they are allowing for the standard tolerances in an RC timing circuit. Yeah, everything’s done by a microprocessor these days, but there’s more code concerned with interacting with the referee’s remote control and running the clock than there is with the actual scoring of a touch.

    The most interesting thing about electric scoring, which we didn’t discuss, is that it really changed the sport. When fencing epee “dry” — no electric scoring — the goal is to convince a group of human judges that you scored a touch and your opponent didn’t. With electric scoring, the goal is to convince the machine that you scored a touch enough sooner than your opponent. This results in much lighter touches, and a greater willingness to take a hit if you can deliver one first.

    Épée (with both acute accents) pronounced eh-PAY is French. English is epee and EH-pay. I’m not sure what the one-accent thing is. (I’m not a French speaker, but am told that épée translates more closely as just sword, and that the specific weapon is more accurately épée de combat.


    • I took Fencing as a PE rotation at Notre Dame many years ago (do colleges still do PE? Does Notre Dame?). It is/was(?) a quirk of the Golden Dome that no matter who you were or how important you might be, you *always* taught undergrads … so my Fencing instructor was Yves Auriol. A little bit like having Lou Holtz as your Flag Football coach. Alas, I had no idea the quality of instruction and abandoned Fencing (and pretty much all physical exertions) for the rest of my college years.

      As a side note, I also had Alisdair MacIntyre as a philosophy professor and a few other notable if lesser known divines. Whether they were happy teaching foolish undergrads I couldn’t say, but it was part of the deal for the big ND $$. I have no idea whether this is still the case.

      Both my sons joined a casual club as part of our homeschooling and earned E ratings by winning tournaments in Charlottesville. I learned more about fencing as a parent than as a college freshman. A fine sport and excellent form of exercise (I got my own gear to spar with my boys).

      I’m trying to convince my tiny Catholic Liberal Arts Colleges to invest in fencing… it’s really the perfect sport for them… external validation via open tournaments, co-ed, low-cost, easy to learn, hard to master, etc. etc.


    • This seems an important point to me. The rationale for “right of way” is that to initiate an attack after your opponent has already started one is foolhardy. On a human scale this makes a lot (although not totally convincing) sense to me.

      But the machine is detecting the initiating of an attack that’s too close for not only for the judges to see, but also for the fencers. So at this scale it’s not foolhardy to mount an attack after your opponent has since neither fencer can perceive who’s first.

      I wonder if there’s any discussion of this in the fencing world, or is the “right of way” idea too completely woven into the sport for any change to be acceptable?


  3. It might be of interest to note that fencing is one of the few sports where the competitors pay a fee, but the spectators get in for free.

    It occurs to me that wargaming tournaments work this way too, and probably for the same reason, although our tournaments are inevitably run using Swiss chess, we don’t have people being eliminated early.

    On the book front, I just finished reading Foundation. I plan to do another “economist nit-picks sci fci” post on it, but one thing I noticed was how clearly of the 1950s it was – nearly everyone smoked (a character disliking smoke was unusual enough to be a noteworthy character trait). Also, there was one female character in the book, and her role was pretty minor.


      • So if one *liked* Foundation, one might want to read H. Beam Piper, just to be clear?

        Asking for a friend.

        (Obviously totally not asking for a friend. I loved the hell out of everything Asimov wrote when I was 13-15. Still pretty attached to some of his stuff.)


        • Noooo…. It is more a feeling of reading things from a different era. Its honestly been so long since I read Foundation that I barely remember it. Piper is very libertarian also, in a 1960 sense.


      • My motivations for reading Foundation were two-fold:
        1) Every so often I like to read one of the seminal works of science fiction. I have previously read Dune, The Forever War, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers on that principle. I feel that Foundation belongs on that list.

        2) I want to do more “An Economist Nitpicks Sci-Fi” posts, and if I’m going to do series with that theme, I need to tackle Pschohistory at some point.

        As for the book itself, I found it interesting (enough that I intend to finish the trilogy), but the writing style was, strange. Aside from the near total absence of female characters, the whole thing was written like an edited transcript from a documentary or something. There was a lot of description of what people were saying or doing, but nothing about their internal mental states. It was fine for a change, but I’m not exactly hanging out for other things that read the same way.


        • I’d be interested in an economist’s take on James Blish’s Earthman, Come Home, the collection of short stories and novellas centered on the migrant Earth cities, part of the Cities in Flight sequence. Earthman is by far the most interesting of the four books; the others are a pair of prequels and an end-of-the-universe sequel.


    • The last two books of the original trilogy contain two very major and strong female characters.

      And of course, a female is the key “antagonist” (scare quotes intended-she’s one of my favorite Asimov characters) of the last two books of the original pentalogy.

      And a female is the kick ass/save the day hero of the last book of the original hexalogy (of which the least said, the better)


  4. I really loved the fencing adventure, thanks again for giving us the tour, .

    I read a book this week that a lot of you might find interesting, actually. Graphic novel by Brian K. Vaughan called Private Eye. The art, by Marcos Martin, is fabulous, and the elevator pitch goes something like,

    “Imagine a world in which the press and the cops have merged, people generally go out in public masked and with pseudonyms to protect their privacy, and there is no longer an Internet… now go noir.”

    Very interesting reading indeed. (Can’t really say more without getting into politics :D.)


  5. I fenced in college, and it was a blast. The one downside it that is unlike a lot of other college sports, unless you are an Olympic-level athlete, you’re pretty much done as soon as you leave school. Not a lot of pick up fencing matches at the Y.

    I just finished Kindred by Octavia Butler, which I was not sure if I would like but did. (Quite a bit, actually.) Now I am reading Barkskins by Annie Prouxl, and so far it’s great.

    I’m also reading (and re-reading) a lot of fairytales/folktales/myths right now, and a few books on the Salem witch trials and the Devil in general from the 19th century.

    Not watching a lot these days, especially now that Rick & Morty won’t be back for another 1-3 years. I tried to get into Gotham a while back but just couldn’t. I’d like to find a series to binge on when I have the time and want to turn my brain down, but nothing grabs me these days.


    • The one downside it that is unlike a lot of other college sports, unless you are an Olympic-level athlete, you’re pretty much done as soon as you leave school. Not a lot of pick up fencing matches at the Y.

      I was skimming through Summer National results this year as I pulled Colorado participants’ results out for our division web site. I seem to recall a fair number of pretty high finishers from Portland area fencing clubs. Unless the Portland clubs are peculiar, there’s a lot of open fencing available.


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