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The foil is a decendent of the light court sword used by nobility to train for duels. It has a flexible, rectangular blade about 35 inches in length, and weighing less than a pound. Points are scored with the tip of the blade on valid target: the torso from shoulders to groin in the front, and to the waist in the back. The arms, head, neck, and legs are considered off target. Because foil actions often occur at blinding speed, an electrical scoring system was devised to detect hits on valid target. Each foil has a blunt, spring-loaded button at the point of the blade that must be depressed to register a hit. The foil fencer’s uniform features an electrically wired metallic vest called a lamé – a hit to the lamé causes the scoring machine to display a colored light on the side of the fencer that scored the touch. Meanwhile, a hit off target – on the arms, legs or head, which are not covered by the lamés – causes the machine to display a white light. Off target hits stop the action of the match temporarily, but do not result in a touch being awarded.
The epee (pronounced “EPP-pay” – literally meaning “sword” in French) is the descendant of the dueling sword, but is heavier, weighing approximately 27 ounces, with a stiffer, thicker blade and a larger guard. As in foil, touches are scored only with the point of the blade, however in epee the entire body, head-to-toe, is valid target – much like in an actual duel. Similar to the foil, the point of the epee is fixed with a blunt, spring-loaded button. However, the epee tip requires force than in foil to register a touch with the scoring machine (basically, epee fencers have to hit harder). Because the entire body is a valid target area, epee fencers do not have to wear a metallic lamé. There is no concept of “off-target” in epee – anything goes.
The sabre is the modern version of the slashing cavalry sword. As such, the major difference between sabre and the other two weapons is that sabreists can score with the edge of their blade as well as their point. In sabre, the target area is the entire body above the waist, excluding the hands. The lower half is not valid target, which is meant to simulate a cavalry rider on a horse. As in foil, the sabre fencer’s uniform features an electrically wired metallic lamé, which fully covers their valid target area. Because the head is valid target area, the fencer’s mask is also electrically wired. One significant departure from foil is that off-target hits do not register on the scoring machine, and therefore do not halt the fencing action. Sabre fencing is also the first of the three weapons to feature a wireless scoring system.