Electric Foil Development

Electrification had the same revolutionary effect on foil technique in the last quarter of the 20th century as the mask had in the first quarter of the 19th. But in 1955, when electric foil was tried for the first time at a world championships, there was little indication of the changes to come. Charles de Beaumont said at the time, “The electric foil worked on the whole very well and did what was required of it – to register hits exactly and impartially. This device at last eliminated the imperfections of the judges, which have been the worst feature of international foil fencing for generations.”

There had been many unsuccessful attempts to ‘eliminate the imperfections of the judges’, starting in the 19th century. Towards the end of his life, the French magician and fencer Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) invented a metallic jacket connected by wires to a battery so that when the metal point of a foil touched the jacket a bell rang. He gave the rights to this invention to the fencing master Augustin Cabot, who registered a patent in 1895. Another electric scoring apparatus had been developed in Belgium in 1885, and in 1896 the English surgeon Muirhead Little invented a similar device involving an electric wire connecting a jacket woven with copper thread to a wall-mounted recorder [Fig. 1]. But, although they were successfully demonstrated, the sight of two fencers moving up and down the piste on wires like a couple of captive beetles caused such hilarity among spectators that the systems lost all credibility.

By 1931 a satisfactory electrical system had been developed for epee – it was introduced at the world championships for the first time in 1933 – but the problem of distinguishing between valid and non-valid hits proved more difficult to solve. Electric jackets were successfully demonstrated at the 1935 world championships in Lausanne, but the foils used were heavy and cumbersome. Two years later the FIE initiated the first men’s foil international electric tournament in Brussels, using an apparatus developed by the Italian engineer Sergio Carmina. Just before the war, a former Hungarian army sabre champion, Bela de Tuscan, demonstrated an ingenious battery-operated system and demonstrated it with his wife Joanna on stage in London. A wire led from a battery inside a transparent bell guard and along a channel cut into the foil blade with the tip of each blade slightly recessed. The fencers wore jackets with the target area covered with a thin layer of metallic cloth. When the blade hit the cloth, a light came on inside the guard to indicate who had scored a hit, but not if the hit was off-target. Another display involved connecting a miniature light bulb to the end of their foils so that, on a darkened stage, they could trace fencing moves [Fig. 2]. But the second world war brought all development to a standstill.

After the war, research started again. By the time of the world championships in 1950, electric foil was sufficiently well advanced for an experimental pool to be run: it was won by René Paul [Fig.3 ]. Finally, in 1954 the FIE gave approval for a full trial of electric foil at the 1955 world championships. Britain’s first national coach, Roger Crosnier, was not an enthusiast. “In its present state, the electric foil does not favour technique, but is to the advantage of the unorthodox and forceful fencer”, he wrote in The Sword (Spring 1955). “An American foilist .. summed up the position rather conclusively. He said, ‘It brings fencers like D’Oriola, Rommel and co down to our level. We’ve a chance of beating them now.’ He has, in fact, formulated the opinion of most foilists, which is that the electric foil will bring fencing technique down to a common lower level. Surely, this in itself should condemn the weapon.”

The blades were about 65 g heavier than non-electric ones and the resulting lack of balance caused many foilists to give up the weapon in disgust. But the best fencers adjusted, as demonstrated by the Frenchman Christian D’Oriola, who won the gold medal at both the non-electric 1952 Olympics in Helsinki and the electric 1956 Melbourne Games. At these latter Games the main problem was with the foil point, which caused a white non-valid light to come on whenever there was the slightest fluctuation in current; the white light registered four times more frequently than the coloured lights for a good hit. Nevertheless, Gillian Sheen [Fig. 4] overcame all obstacles to win Britain’s first, and so far only, fencing Olympic gold medal. In those early days, it was felt that referees would be so pressurised that they would not be able to work for more than 15 minutes at a time.

In 1957 the FIE formally adopted the electric foil, but at that year’s world championships the apparatus caused considerable problems. Charles de Beaumont noted, “ … a non-valid hit would be shown as a valid hit on both competitors and valid hits were registered on the mask so often that after a time exasperated contestants started to wear ladies’ bathing caps
under their masks to stop their sweaty hair forming electrical contact to the jacket. The new French apparatus was most unsatisfactory and is far less reliable than the British or Italian models.” Allan Jay [Fig. 5] performed a remarkable feat of endurance at these championships, fencing through eight days of foil and epee events during which he had 85 bouts and reached both individual finals, coming third at foil and sixth at epee.

The rotating foil tip underwent significant changes as attempts were made to make it both reliable and effective. The first type, known as the hedgehog, had both horizontal and vertical ridges designed to ensure that it would fix. It certainly did that, but it also tore jackets to pieces. In 1958 a version with the vertical ridges removed was tried, but this was not much kinder to clothing. The Italians produced a flat-tipped model in 1961, but it still had a sharp edge. It was not until 1968 that the bevel-edged tip we know today became the standard shape, although its diameter has changed over the years. [Fig. 6]

Every fencing country has developed its own electrical equipment. As soon as electric foil was introduced, Leon Paul devised a very effective bayonet-type bodywire plug and socket, but most European countries favoured a two-pin connection and eventually in 2015 the FIE adopted this as the international standard, much to the frustration of the UK, USA and Italy which had used bayonet sockets for decades.

In 60 years the scoring apparatus has improved beyond all recognition from boxes with unreliable mechanical relays to today’s remote-controlled electronic wonders capable of automatic scoring and time-keeping.

Various non-electric methods of indicating hits have been tried over the centuries. Back in 1687 Sir William Hope in his book The Scots Fencing Master recommended covering the foil tip with sponge and dipping it in vermillion and water so that the judges could see the effect of every thrust. It took 270 years for this system to be improved upon. At the 1955 world championships the Russians demonstrated an invention that, it was claimed, could replace the costly electric foil. It consisted of a hollow spring-loaded point containing a wad of cotton wool that was impregnated with a mix of water, red dye and ammonia before each bout. When a hit was made that caused the point to be depressed, a red mark appeared, disappearing a few seconds later depending on the amount of ammonia in the mixture. But, apart from the inconvenience of having to regularly replenish the mixture, the system did not work on metal and so off-target hits on the wire mesh of the mask did not register. Like other ingenious devices for recording hits developed over the previous 250 years, it passed into oblivion.

Not long after the war, a radio-controlled system made its appearance and experiments with it continued for years, culminating in a serious appraisal by Wilkinson Sword in the early 1980s, but they were thwarted by the problem of interference. It was not until the late 1990s that a Ukrainian company, StM, introduced a system, initially for sabre, that worked reliably. It was used at the world championships for the first time in 2001 and at the Olympics in 2004, before being adapted to epee at the 2007 world championships and finally to foil at the 2008 Olympics. Since then it has been used in the final stages of all major tournaments.
Competitors wear a special conductive T-shirt next to their skin. A hit activates a transmitter attached to the fencer’s waist, which triggers a light on the mask and transmits a signal to the scoreboard in the arena. A sophisticated encoding system solves problems of interference from any other transmitter. Fig. 7 shows a bout at the 2019 Tokyo World Cup (photo by Augusto Bizzi).

Becoming British Under 17 Champion.

In September this year I became British Under 17 (Cadet) Champion and followed it up the following day with silver in the Under 20 (Junior) Championships. At 14 years old it felt like the highlight of what had been a fantastic set of results for me in the previous 6 months.

Although I always review my performance after a competition with my dad and coach, Keith Cook, writing this blog forced me to think perhaps more deeply about why my weekend had been so successful. Normally we look at all the elements that made up my day – what I ate the night before and, on the day, how well I slept, my warm-up and how I was feeling on the piste both physically and mentally. And then we follow that up with a movie night of video analysis of my direct elimination fights.

What struck me most when thinking about this weekend was that I felt fresh and I was keen to test the work my dad and I had been putting in over the summer. The season had just started but my preparation for this event had begun in July with two training camps – one at the Leon Paul Centre immediately followed by a week of intensive sparring with the GB Senior Men’s Foil Team and some of the top Under 20 fencers in the country at the Salle Holyrood Summer Camp. This was such a special week for me which really motivated me to work even harder.

Part of the preparation for the British Cadet and Junior Championships was ensuring I was competition ready. We scheduled in three competitions before this to challenge me – the Leon Paul Summer Open, the Junior British Ranking Competition in London and the Fencers Club London Open. I’m starting to feel like London is my second home!

I felt good on the morning of the competition (I’d had my coca pops!) but also nervous. I knew how important a good result at this event would be to seal my selection for the GB squad to the first international in Budapest. Talking of nerves though, I think the most nerve-racking thing of the weekend was my winners’ interview with Georgina Usher after the event. That’s no reflection on Georgina.

Despite knowing the importance of the competitions ahead, one of the things I always try to work on is not to think about the bigger picture – “how will I do, I need to get such and such a result” etc – but rather maintain my focus on each hit. My poule in the Cadets went great and I felt I was fencing well. I dropped only 4 hits putting me at the top of the rankings going into the Direct Eliminations. Despite my hard work, I had a pretty tough run to the final and only won this by a single hit. The only point at which I was up in the fight. I was pleased with my performance for lots of reasons – I kept the head, stayed in control, stayed focused and really believed I could win, despite being down for the whole of the final match in the Cadets. One of the things my dad and I had been working on was active defence, making it difficult for my opponent to get into a rhythm and find the right distance and timing to attack. This was something I felt really pleased with over the weekend. Sadly, by the time I came to the final of the Juniors the next day, my legs finally ran out of steam and my active defence was a little less active!

What made my Cadet Championship win so special was that I shared the podium with two of my clubmates, Callum and Rhys. These two results at the start of the Cadet season, together with a last 16 at the British Under 23 Championships put me in Number 1 spot in the British Cadet Rankings. A great feeling and I’m so looking forward to the journey this season.

The best two pin bodywire in the world – a story of digital manufacturing

Our newly released updated two pin plug, found on our FIE-approved foil and sabre bodywires, already has a considerable number of fans… but do you know the the story of cutting-edge technology involved in its making?
Today, Alex Paul, our director and mastermind behind product development, tells you all about how our latest innovation saw the light of day the fencing halls of the world. Read on after the jump.

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Hairdos for fencing. The best styles for under the mask.

It’s a problem every fencer with long hair (and in fencing this means everything that is not a pixie…) knows: what in heaven’s name are you supposed to do with your mop under a fencing mask? This is way more than a questions of good or bad looks, since at some competitions the wrong hairdo might even put you at risk of a yellow card! We’ve teamed up with our Instagram girl Johanna, who has first-hand experience of the issue, to give you a round-up of the rules and the best strategies to tame your hair. 

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Ice Ice Baby! That’s the updated Leon Paul two pin bodywire

First shown on our Instagram page some months ago we are ready to unveil our brand new two pin plug. This awesome new design makes the previously dull world of plugs and sockets a guaranteed 100% more exciting!

Our new foil and sabre two pin bodywire is

  • Longer lasting – the best strain relief on the market
  • Less Exploding – no more flying lock clips
  • Easier to fix – no need for a helpful octopus
  • Prettier – like it was hewn from a solid block of ice (or a glacier mint)

Read on for a full description of all its the benefits!



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From fencer to fencer: my Leon Paul Weapon Carrier Pro review

Our new fencing bag is here! Fencers, please meet the weapon carrier pro. At first glance, it may look a bit like a traditional top bag you would usually use to carry your weapons around during tournaments, but actually our new release is far more than that. We aimed at nothing less than the – almost – impossible. Offering you a fencing bag that holds all of your kit (yes, even if you’re a pro), but that can still be comfortably worn over your shoulders. For that reason, it couldnʼt bear the name “weapon carrier PRO” without at least being tested by one! Meet professional fencer Ben Peggs, who is used to travelling all around the world for World Cup tournaments, and other fencing events. Read on to discover the review (and vlog!) by the former European Games Champion and current Commonwealth Champion.

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Care and maintenance of your foil (and epee) points

Our GT3 tips, whether for foil or epee,  are the most carefully engineered on the planet. We have gone to extraordinary lengths to try to make sure that they are reliable, robust and above all else buttery smooth.
Ahead a few tips by our director Alex Paul (with the input from top-ranked foil fencer Richard Kruse!) to help you get the best from them.


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From fencing mask making to record stores – an unusual London City Guide by Alex Massialas (part 2)

From London-Hendon to a district where the British capital feels a lot like San Francisco, from making fencing equipment to buying music albums… here’s the second part of our not-so-ordinary London city guide, written by Olympic Silver medalist (and big rock’n’roll lover!) Alexander Massialas. If you want to know where London’s best record store is (no, it’s not in one of the more touristy boroughs!) or how Alex tackled the challenge to make a fencing mask in our factory (fans of our #FactorytourFriday series on Instagram, this is for you!), then we recommend you read on!

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FoilGuard – the story and people behind the latest addition to your (foil) fencing kit

You might know the reasons behind its development, you might have received a newsletter promoting it and you might even have purchased it already…but do you really know the story of FoilGuard, the new EVA soft cover mandatory for all fencers wearing a chest protector in official FIE competitions (and domestic events in many countries *)? We’ve gathered some insight with our supplier when the product just came out last spring – read on for our background story about Richard Shearer and his company QP sports. 

(Spoiler: even if you don’t know it , you might already own one of their products! )


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Just when and where the lightweight foil emerged as a weapon in its own right remains an intriguing mystery in the history of fencing. Purpose-made practice swords with buttoned tips had been available since the rapier became a popular civilian sword in the 16th century. So how did the foil develop?

Continue reading “THE DEVELOPMENT OF FOIL (Part 1)”