Classical Fencing: Drawing the Foil

In previous articles in this series I have described First Position, the basic body position from which flows the salute and the coming on guard in classical fencing. So far, I have identified three variants, the most common, with the blade held to the front, one appropriate for sabre with the broadsword or sabre resting on the forward shoulder, and an Italian variant with the blade held on the inside with the point to the rear. Now it is time to consider the First Position in which the blade is not held in the weapon, but rather with the unarmed hand.

In 1883 George H. Benedict (Manual of Boxing, Club Swinging and Manly Sports) describes a First Position as part of a sequence leading to a simulated draw of the foil transitioning into a salute:

  • The weapon arm foot is pointed forward toward the opponent with the rear foot pointed at 90 degrees to the inside and drawn up close so that the heel touches the forward foot.
  • The legs are straight and the torso upright, the hips drawn slightly back and turned to the inside at approximately a 45 degree angle.
  • The head is erect and facing the opponent.
  • The arms hang loosely by the sides, with the non-dominant hand holding foil loosely by the rear hip.
  • To draw the sword, the fencer bends the forward arm at the elbow, carrying the hand in supination across the body to grasp the grip of the foil thumb down.
  • Both hands are separated as they are raised above the head, ending with the non-weapon hand holding the button of the foil. This drawing of the weapon then transitions into the salute.

Regis and Louis Senac’s The Art of Fencing (first published in 1904 and reprinted as late as 1926) pictures a similar sequence for drawing the foil:

  • The body is held as described by Benedict, with the exception that the foil is held in the non-dominant hand at the top of the hip with the arm bent and the elbow to the rear at waist level.
  • The fencer extends the weapon arm upward at approximately a 45 degree angle, palm open, thumb upward. This is described as a salute.
  • The weapon arm is brought back to grasp the grip of the weapon, elbow to the outside, and forearm across the body at waist level.
  • The arm is then extended drawing the blade out of the imaginary scabbard and swinging forward into a full extension of the arm and blade, again at a 45 degree upward angle directly to the front. This becomes the start of the transition into the guard.

It is important to note that, like the multiple steps of coming on guard practiced in a number of variations in the classical period, drawing the foil from an imaginary scabbard in and of itself performs no technically useful fencing function. However, it should not be dismissed out of hand. It forms part of a ceremony of polite recognition that the opponent is worthy and honors fencing as an activity, something that was valued in the classical period. That is not all; a smartly executed sequence conveys to the opponent that you are skilled opponent in a subtle bit of psychological warfare. Finally, the ritual serves a valuable purpose in helping to focus and center the fencer on the imminent task of fighting the bout.