The Elements of Distance

For the regular spectator fencing is one swordplay sport. However, for those who hang around long enough confusion starts settling in when they are exposed to terms such as epee, foil or saber. When curious parents request more clarityin regards to the weapons of fencing I compare fencing with gymnastics. “Think of fencing as you would think of gymnastics,” I explain. “Gymnastics is the sport, but the sport has four different events. Similarly fencing is the sport, but the sport has three events: foil, saber or epee.” At a first glance foil, saber and epee appear to be similar, but in fact they are as different from each other as a beam routine is from a floor routine in gymnastics. Moreover, the difference is accentuated by the fact that usually each event has its own coach. Very rarely one single coach teaches foil, saber and epee. Also, a major difference is the style of footwork.

Before we dive in the dance of footwork it is wise to stop and give contour to our playground. The following footwork elements are used in the sport of fencing as a whole, yet individually each event favors only specific combinations. For instance, epee fencers would use combinations of small steps followed by actions with arm extended first because the whole body is a target and there is no right of way rule. Foil and saber fencers are mainly concerned with initiating actions first, and therefore footwork combinations that would produce initiative, since right of way is in play. Here are a few examples of basic elements of distance:

  1. Small/big advance
  2. Small/big retreat
  3. Jump forward and jump backward
  4. Hop in place
  5. Hop forward and hop backward
  6. Combination of steps

Like on a battlefield, each choice of footwork should have a tactical meaning. Nothing should be executed randomly without a specific purpose. For example, combination of slow and small forward moves followed by sudden big moves forward are executed with the purpose of “stealing” the distance in order to attack with a greater chance of success. Small advance coupled with a big advanced, or hop in place followed by a jump forward would accomplish such task. Or small retreat followed by a big retreat would be executed with the purpose of drawing the opponent into favorable striking distance. All three weapons, foil, epee and saber favor a certain type of footwork.

Advanced and elite fencers dedicate specific practice time to the study of distance. They understand that a touch cannot be scored unless the “dance” of distance is understood and properly applied. In his book The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin makes an interesting observation. Drawing from his experience as an elite chess and Thai Chi student he noticed that the act of learning is divided in three phases. The first phase is focused on absorbing information and correct execution. The second phase demands from the student to “feel” the opponent or the situation, and then execute already practiced solutions based on the information provided by feelings as it were. The third phase is creativity. In this stage not only that the student knows what to do and feels the opponent, but now creativity in finding options takes center stage. Similarly in fencing, the elements of fencing are known by all fencers and many fencers even learn how to “feel” the opponent. Yet creatively searching for options, courageously taking chances, and allow the brain for “out of the box” options is a skill that could determine the outcome of any fight.

The featured resource of the month Top Three Gaps in Fencing Training and How to Solve Them, distance is one of the gaps that challenges all fencers to become lifetime students of distance. Moreover, new trends in fencing are inspiring foilists and even epeeists to do footwork drills like saber fencers and vice-versa. Always changing and always demanding new skills, distance in fencing will continue to claim center stage in the upbringing of aspiring elite fencers.

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Waitzkin, J (2007). The Art of Learning. New York, NY: Free Press.




The On Garde Position

It would seam inconceivable today for a 9 year old to join a fencing club and do only footwork for one year and a half, but that’s how I got started. All the kids in the club were “drooling” around the weapon rack, but the coach was very adamant thundering with a dictatorial voice. “You are not ready yet to touch the weapons.” Now forty something winters later, a fencing coach myself, I totally agree with that philosophy of coaching which stresses footwork first and then the weapon skills.

Before the first steps

Fencing starts with the en garde (Fr.) or on guard position. It is the foundation that provides the fencer with the necessary mobility to create offensive, defensive or counter offensive actions. Generally speaking there are two schools of thought that approach the same topic from two different angles. The classical school of fencing teaches the on guard position with particular focus on strict lines, symmetry and aesthetic balance. Other schools decided to distance themselves from the classic lines and adopt a natural, facing forward of the on guard position. That means that the fencer’s shoulders and hips are facing naturally forward in a comfortable position. Even though this on guard position advocates natural move on the strip, it still maintains all the foundational elements: heals on the same line; the distance between the heals approximately equals the distance between the shoulders; knees slightly bent; an imaginary line drawn from the center of the hips falls in the middle of the distance between the heals (aka body’s center of gravity); body straight maybe forward leaning a few degrees from the waist (note: hips remain in the same position); shoulder, hip, knee and ankle on a perpendicular line with the floor; front elbow a palm away from the torso. The only difference is the back foot now pointing forward at about forty-five degrees, and shoulders plus hips are also facing naturally forward.

Why shoulders and hips facing forward?

Since footwork in modern fencing tends to cover the whole length of the strip at rapid speed, the on guard position gradually adapted to meet that need. It almost looks like foil and epee fencers wanted to be as fast on the fencing strip as saber fencers. So, they decided to imitate the saber on guard position. It is a well-known fact in the world of fencing that saber fencers move fast on the strip. One of the factors that generate increased mobility on the fencing strip is a natural, forward facing position of the torso. World renown fencing Master Emil Beck stated in The Complete Guide to Fencing that “The fencing position is not a static element, but is essential for loose and quick movements and therefore should be as natural as possible” (p. 48).

A talented kid came to train with us. I was intrigued by his on guard position. His whole torso, including hips and shoulders, was perfectly lined up with his weapon in the position of sixth. When I asked him if he intentionally adopted this uncomfortable on guard position, he said “Yes, because I am showing less target to my opponent.” “I agree,” I tried to reason with the kid, “yet that defies the purpose of fencing which is touch without being touched.” In my mind a fencer who starts the bout concerned about not being touched develops a defensive mindset instead of being free to create touches. “Works for me,” said the kid. It may work now, but for how long? A constrictive and less mobile on guard position coupled with a mindset that is not fully devoted to land touches, can potentially develop detrimental habits that may hinder the development of talent.

How to detect if your on guard position provides for a dynamic mobility on the strip

Take three or four retreat steps as fast as you can, then immediately advance three of four steps. If you are able to fluently retreat and immediately advance without stopping because you lost your balance, you are probably well centered and therefore mobile on your on guard position.

The on guard position, a subdivision of body position, is part of basic fencing elements along with weapon position, body movement and weapon movement. A natural on guard position promotes freedom of movement on the strip, allows muscles to act and react with appropriate speed, and it also stimulates creativity in footwork.


Beck, E. (2007). The complete guide to fencing (2nd ed.). St. Louis, Missouri: Meyer and Meyer Sport.


Coach Daniel Bucur | 9 October 2016 | Melbourne, Florida