Are you up for some more fencing history on this blog, fencers? We certainly are! After looking at the history of foil fencing (part 1 and part 2), our expert Malcolm Fare today breaks down the history of epee fencing for you. Read the full article after the jump.  

The Development of Epee

by Malcolm Fare

  To examine the origins of epee fencing, one must first, briefly, look at the development of foil. The conventions of foil were introduced in mid-17th century France as a means of demonstrating skilled swordplay in safety, before the invention of the wire mask. By the time the mask appeared at the end of the 18th century, fencing had become a formal academic exercise involving an increasingly intricate series of movements Paradoxically, it was the adoption of the mask that led to epee fencing. Although duelling had been outlawed for centuries, it continued to take place, particularly in France and Italy, where fencing masters would adapt their foil lessons to the practical preparation for a serious encounter with the épée de combat. The more mobile and dynamic form of fencing allowed by wearing masks blurred the distinction between academic foil play and duelling practice, leading some fencers to think that foil technique was a suitable preparation for fighting a duel. By the mid-19th century some French fencers were beginning to rebel against this teaching, which left many competent foilists dead or wounded when involved in a duel. The Baron de Bazancourt in his entertaining book Secrets of the Sword, written in 1862, put forward the revolutionary argument that fencing should represent real fighting as closely as possible. Writing in The Sword (Summer 1949), Luke Fildes, President of the Epee Club, said: “Had it not been for this strictly practical purpose (preparation for a duel), there is no reason for thinking epee fencing ever would have come into existence.” In the first issue of Les Armes (15 May 1905), Horia Rosetti outlined the introduction of epee fencing. Before 1860, he said, epee was never seen in fencing clubs. At that time, those who had to fight a duel would go to the Parisian fencing master Hippolyte Gatechair to learn how to handle an epee in what became known as the ‘widow’s lesson’. His assistant Jules Jacob began specialising in the teaching of epee and soon attracted a following of discontented foilists keen to practise a more realistic form of swordplay. Once invented, this new kind of fencing was found to have merits quite apart from its practical use. The epee became a weapon of sport as well as of combat and its practitioners had to develop the duellist mentality: hit without being hit. By the 1870s epee enthusiasts in Britain were holding informal poules in participants’ gardens and weapons were being presented as prizes, even to winners of some foil competitions . A photograph taken around 1897 shows a meeting of The Fencing Club, 16 Maida Vale, in which the French master Anatole Paroissien, who had settled in London in 1889, is fencing with the painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Fig. 1); the sculptor Alfred Gilbert was another participant.

Fig. 1: French master Anatole Paroissien fencing painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Initially, bouts were for a single hit and if fencers hit simultaneously they suffered a double defeat. But if, in the opinion of four judges and a president, an appreciable length of time had elapsed before the second hit arrived, only the first hit counted. Any one of the judges or president could call halt if they saw a hit arrive; they would then confer before deciding what had happened. The difficulty of judging whether a hit was good or not led the French fencing master Ambroise Baudry to invent a single pointe d'arret in 1883 – a sharp tip protruding 2 mm from its cord binding designed to catch in a fencer’s canvas jacket. Before 1890, the French manufacturer Souzy offered guards in two sizes – 95 mm and 110 mm diameter; fencers who regarded hits to hand and wrist as the highest form of epee favoured the smaller diameter guard. However, as epee competitions became more frequent, the diameter gradually increased to provide greater protection for the hand; at the same time, guards and pommels were produced in a wide variety of designs (Figs. 2-6). [gallery ids="1851,1852,1853,1854,1855"]

Fig. 2-6: Various pommel and guard designs

  In 1896 the Societé d'Escrime à l'Epée de Paris agreed on a specification for epee that became the international standard when adopted by the FIE in 1914. Blade length was not more than 900 mm, maximum guard diameter was 132 mm, depth 50 mm and eccentricity not more than 35 mm, the pommel was cone-shaped, 60 mm long x 30 mm diameter at the end and 18 mm at the handle, and maximum overall weight was 770 g. International open tournaments for professionals and amateurs were held in Paris for the first time in June 1896. Among the epee amateurs there were three Englishmen: Felix Clay, Capt. Hampden Wigram and John Norbury. The 72 competitors were divided into nine poules of eight from which only one was promoted to a final poule of nine. Blades could be triangular, diamond section if Italian, or even square. The winner of each event received 1000 francs and every participant received a bronze medal commemorating the tournament. The longest recorded bout took place at the Paris international epee tournament of 1897 where there was no time limit and fights were for one hit, broken up into fencing periods of 5 minutes followed by 2 minutes rest. Two Frenchmen fought for 1 hour 25 minutes without scoring, broke for lunch and continued for a further 25 minutes before one of them finally made a hit that was seen by the judges – a total of 2½ hours including rest periods. In May 1900, Charles Newton-Robinson, who had studied epee in Paris in the closing years of the 19th century, invited his fencing master Anthime Spinnewyn to visit London with some pupils and demonstrate epee to British fencers. As a result of Newton-Robinson’s initiative, the following month 29 epeeists founded the Epee Club with the purpose of encouraging the use of the epee in the open air by regular summer poules among members. The Club began holding an international open competition in 1901 and at the fourth event in 1904 the French club Les Armes de France presented a handsome Art Nouveau bronze shield to the Amateur Fencing Association (AFA) to be awarded to the highest placed British fencer – in this case Edgar Seligman, who came 7th and was recognised by the AFA as the first British epee champion. 1906 was a significant year for epee fencing. The Epee Club began to try out the single pointe d'arrêt to aid scoring, although by then the continental Europeans had decided it was rather dangerous and adopted the invention of another French fencing master, Léon Sazie, the triple point (Fig. 7), which was sometimes used with a wad of water-based paint tied between the prongs to add visual proof of a hit.

Fig. 7: The so-called triple point )

That same year Athens held the first (and only) Intermediate Olympic Games in which the British epee team held France to a draw in the final, losing only when the whole final was refought. A team photo (Fig. 8) shows Newton-Robinson (left) with Lord Desborough (seated), Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon (centre) and Edgar Seligman (right).

Fig. 8: The British epee team at the Intermediate Olympic Games of 1906

Also in 1906 the French surgeon Dr Eugene-Louis Doyen patented the first orthopaedic grip, an aluminium handle moulded to the shape of the hand (Fig. 9). A further half dozen shapes became available in the decades before World War II.

Fig. 9: The first orthopedic fencing grip

Because one-hit epee sometimes allowed the less skilful fencer to score a fluke hit and led to an over-cautious approach that spectators found boring, tournaments began experimenting with two- or three-hit bouts. But at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, where triangular or lozenge-shaped blades were allowed, one hit was still the rule, as it was at the international tournament of 1913 in London, when a time limit of 15 minutes was introduced. To ensure that valid hits were seen, the organisers applied a colouring matter to the point. Since there was no neutralising agent available, a pencil cross was put over each mark as hits were scored. Towards the end of the competition, it became increasingly difficult for the judges to see whether a new mark had appeared on heavily spotted jackets. In order to reproduce as closely as possible the conditions of a duel, most epee tournaments before World War II were fenced in the open air on gravel paths. By 1925 bouts of two or three hits were commonplace and at the 1927 European championships, the final was to ten hits. But this was exceptional and in 1931 the three-hit bout was formally adopted, becoming five hits at the 1953 world championships. The problem of ensuring that hits were accurately recorded, particularly on the mask, exercised epeeists throughout the early decades of the 20th century. At the third international fencing congress of 1905, no fewer than nine different designs of bouton marqueur were considered for adoption without any being considered altogether suitable; Fig. 10 shows one patented by the fencing master Desiré Baudat.  

Fig. 10: Desiré Baudat's version of the bouton marqueur

The first battery-operated system combining a bouton marqueur and electric epee wired to a small illuminated box strapped to a fencer’s shoulder, the Electrophone, was patented by Souzy in 1914 and favourably reviewed in L’Escrime et le Tir in 1926, but it was too impractical to be generally adopted. Various other ingenious recording systems were developed, but it was not until 1931 that the Swiss engineer Laurent Pagon demonstrated a reliable system and the FIE held the first international electric tournament in Geneva – won by Paul Anspach of Belgium with Charles de Beaumont second – using epees with a spring-loaded four-pronged tip. Three years later Souzy patented its own Valentin system (Fig. 11), used at the European championships for the first time in 1934, and this quickly became the universal standard.

Fig 11: The Valentin system

Electric epee was first used at Olympic/World Championship level at the 1936 Olympics, when two types of connection were allowed: the now conventional straight 3-pin connector inside the guard and a circular 3-pin socket built into the end of the pommel. In 1938 electric epee was used in the British championship for the first time. The following year, Castello-Emerson in the USA introduced the ultimate bouton marqueur, a device that connected a four-pronged tip to a barrel containing a red liquid. Sold in 1 oz bottles, the dye could be removed from jackets with vinegar. After the war, Dr Ron Parfitt invented the first British electrical apparatus (Fig. 12), which was sold by Leon Paul from 1948. Despite these inventions and the regular use of electric epee at major championships, the high cost of electrical equipment ensured that the cheap triple point tied to a flattened tip continued to be used in many clubs well into the 1960s.

Fig 12: The first British electrical scoring apparatus

As soon as scoring moved away from the single hit, the duellist mentality began to fade. The leading French epeeist René Monal was one of the first to take electric epee to its logical conclusion, changing forever the weapon’s golden rule from ‘hit without being hit’ to ‘hit 1/25th of a second before your opponent hits you’. His speciality was the fleche to body and in the 1937 World University Games in Paris he ran on to his opponent’s blade which snapped, the broken stump penetrating his heart. Monal dropped dead after the electrical apparatus had recorded his winning hit. It was another fatality in 1951 that led to the four-pronged electric tip being changed to a pineapple shape in 1953. Finally, in 1968 the familiar bevelled-edge flat tip used today was introduced. (Fig. 13)

Fig 13: From yesterday to today: various epee tip designs

Although there are photographs of women fencing epee informally in the 1930s (Fig. 14), the first individual and team world championships for women were not held until 1988 and their epee events were admitted to the Olympic Games only in 1996.

Fig. 14: Women's fencing in the Thirties.

In 1995 Leon Paul perfected the technology to allow the first mass-produced epee blades to be made from sheets of maraging steel. Wireless epee was first used at the 2007 world championships.