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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an attack?

The main problem appears to be the belief that the Rules Book states that the attacker's arm must be extended. What makes an action an attack is something that has been discussed for centuries. There are, it sometimes seems, two schools regarding this question. One states that the arm must be fully extended in order to be attacking; the other school is just as adamant in stating that whomever starts moving forward with even the intent to hit is the attacker. The truth is actually somewhere in the middle.

Look at the Rules Book. Rule #t7 is supposed to define the attack. "The attack is the initial offensive action made by extending the arm and continuously threatening the opponent's target . . ."

Does this tell the whole story? Hardly. To find out what an attack is, there are two important things one needs to understand.

One is that you'll not find the answer by only looking in the Rules Book. (Remember that the Rules Book doesn't even state which arm has to be extending to make an attack.) The Rules Book does not have a glossary so there are no definitions as to what an "offensive action" is or what "threatening" means. The definition as to what is an attack is derived from both the Rules Book and from convention -- what is called an attack by the world's best referees.

That it really isn't what one person does that makes an action an attack is the other important point to consider. The attack is defined by what both fencers do in relationship to each other. Here is an example. In a foil bout between Mary and Sue, Mary lunges while extending her arm. Her arm is fully extended and straight just before her forward foot hits the ground. What fencing action has Mary done? Here are three possibilities:

1 If Sue was immobile, in lunge distance, and in the On Guard position, Mary made an ATTACK.

2 If, just before Mary started her lunge while extending her arm, Sue lunged while extending her arm, Mary made a COUNTER ATTACK.

3 If Sue was immobile, beyond lunge distance, in the On Guard position, and advanced after Mary had finished her lunge, Mary established a POINT IN LINE.

In this example, the same "movement" by Mary resulted in three different "actions."

One will overhear something such as the following at competitions all over the world after a top-level referee correctly says "Halt. Attack from the left. Point for the left." when the fencer on the left went after his opponent with his guard next to his hip and then finally started extending just before the opponent -- who had been desperately trying to make a parry -- ultimately extended his arm: "'We've got to let everyone know what's going on. 'They' are calling any aggressive movement an attack.'"

It is important to realize that the referee is supposed to analyze "actions." In this example - even though there was much "movement" - the end result was an attack.

What makes one's action an attack is one's movement in relationship to what the opponent is doing. Knowing this, take another look at Rule t7 paying particular attention to some key words.

"The attack is the INITIAL OFFENSIVE action made by EXTENDING the arm and CONTINUOUSLY THREATENING the opponent's target . . ."

INITIAL -- you must start your action before your opponent. This does not at all mean who started moving first.

OFFENSIVE -- you must be going toward your opponent. Attempting a parry is not offensive.

EXTENDING -- for those of you who know grammar, this is a gerund; it connotes action. The arm never has to become extended to have a correctly executed attack. To have an extending arm, your hand must be going away from your body.

CONTINUOUSLY -- non-stop. You must keep attacking. If you "break" your attack -- stop moving forward or hold back your arm -- you are no longer attacking and, if your opponent starts an attack of her own, your continuation may become a counter attack. The attacker who lunges has the attack end when the front foot lands.

THREATENING -- you must present a danger to your opponent. This word really has two parts to its definition. One is the relationship of distance between the fencers in determining whether one is threatening. If your opponent is within advance lunge distance, you can be threatening; you can start an attack. If your opponent is beyond advance lunge distance, you cannot be threatening; you cannot start an attack - even if your opponent were to remain completely immobile, your attack would not start until you were at advance lunge distance. The other part that is important in defining this word is that your point (for foil) or your blade (for sabre) is going toward your opponent's valid target. It is a very common misconception that, for example, a foil attack requires the point to be "aimed" at the valid target before an attack starts.

If one were to only use the Rules Book to decide what constituted an attack one could easily argue in favor of foil fencer John in this completely absurd example: John extends his arm aiming the point directly at the middle of Bob's chest. John then lunges without moving his arm. After John lunges, Bob sticks out his arm. John's point arrives on Bob's arm; Bob's point arrives on target. Is it a point for Bob because John couldn't have been attacking? Since John hit Bob on the arm, John clearly wasn't "continuously threatening the valid surface" of Bob. Here, of course, the referee would say that John's attack was off target and Bob's action was a counter attack; no touch is awarded.

What actually happens so often in competition is the combination of the technical and tactical execution of an action. Example: If a fencer starts a correctly executed attack and her opponent starts retreating while trying to make a parry, the aggressor may very well pull her arm back so that the defensive fencer has no blade to parry. If the parries continue, the aggressor will wait until she is close enough and then restart her attack. If the parrier were to start her own attack while the former aggressor had her arm back, then this attack would have right of way; it would be an attack into a preparation.

I do hope this helps. Please feel free to contact me directly if you have any additional concerns.


Is my grip legal?

Is my ______ handle legal? (Fill in the blank with "Dos Santos," "Guardere," "Spanish Modern," or any other name.) This question is very difficult to answer in that there are just too many variables. Different vendors give the same handle different names and the size of the handle in relation to the size of the fencer's hand also determines if a handle is legal. Yes, a specific handle that is perfectly legal for one fencer might be illegal for someone else.

Many people think that the rules concerning various types of grips are not very clear. The three main reasons for this are: 1, People don't know the rules. 2, The rules are all too frequently ignored. 3, Vendors sell illegal handles. One should be aware that just because some vender sells a handle or just because a referee allows someone to fence with a handle does not make that handle legal. (The complete Rules Book is easily available from, the USFA web page.)

If you look in the Rules Book at Article m.4, 6, you will find that the handle with attachments that does not allow the thumb to be 2 cm or less from the guard is illegal for that fencer. (Now you can understand that a handle could be perfectly legal for someone with a very large hand while it would be illegal for someone with a very small hand.) Does your pronged handle allow you to hold it in more than one position (without going into some sort of contortions)? If so, it is illegal. If there are prongs that would allow you to hold it as you would hold a "French" handle with a finger hooked around a prong so that your thumb would be more than 2 cm from the guard, it is illegal.

The use of a strap to assist in holding the weapon has caused some confusion. If one has a legal orthopedic grip (including the Italian grip), one may use a strap. If one is using a French grip, one may not use a strap. (The applicable rules follow.) The basic concept here is that if one wishes to have a weapon that will allow for longer reach (French handle), one may not have a device (strap) that will give the user added strength.

The main rules that govern grips are:

t.16: With all three weapons, defense must be effected exclusively with the guard and the blade used either separately or together. If the handle has no special device or attachment or special shape (e.g. orthopedic), a fencer may hold it in any way he or she wishes and he or she may also alter the position of his hand on the handle during a bout. However, the weapon must not be - either permanently or temporarily, in an open or disguised manner - transformed into a throwing weapon; it must be used without the hand leaving the hilt . . .

m.4: 1. The maximum length of the grip in foil and �p�e is 20 cm, measured between lines B and E, and 18 cm, measured between lines B and D. In saber the maximum length of the grip is 17 cm (see Figures 8, 9 and 13, pp. 86, 89, 94).
2. The grip must be able to pass through the same gauge as the guard. It must be so made that normally it cannot injure either the user or the opponent.
3. All types of hilts are allowed providing that they conform to the regulations which have been framed with a view to placing the various types of weapons on the same footing. However, at �p�e, orthopedic grips, whether metal or not, may not be covered with leather or any material which could hide wires or switches.
4. The grip must not include any device which assists the fencer to use it as a throwing weapon.
5. The grip must not include any device which can increase in any way the protection afforded to the hand or wrist of the fencer by the guard: a cross bar or electric socket which extends beyond the edge of the guard is expressly forbidden.
6. If the grip (or glove) includes any device or attachment or has a special shape (orthopedic) which fixes the position of the hand on the grip, the grip must conform to the following conditions.
(a) It must determine and fix one position only for the hand on the grip.
(b) When the hand occupies this one position on the grip, the extremity of the thumb when completely extended must not be more than 2 cm from the inner surface of the guard.


Can I use a wrist strap (martingale)?

It is legal to use a wrist strap with any orthopedic grip, especially an Italian grip, in USFA competition. French grips, due to the possibility of changing position of the hand, may not include the use of a wrist strap.


Are long fencing pants legal?

Long fencing pants used to be specificaly described in the rules, but since they've fallen out of common use, the reference has been removed. There is no specific prohibition of long fencing pants. The knickers have to conform to the following rule:

5. Knickers. The knickers must be fastened below the knees. With knickers, the fencer must wear socks which cover the legs right up to the knickers. These socks must be held up in such a way that they cannot fall down.


What are the regulations regarding club patches and logos on fencing uniforms?

This information is contained in article m.25 of the USFA rules:

"Note: At USFA local, divisional and sectional competitions, there are no restrictions on colors or decoration on uniforms, providing that the uniforms still comply with all other requirements." 


What is the rule regarding the minute breakin saber Direct Eliminations?

After three minutes of fencing time, or when one competitor reaches 8 touches, the end of the first period of fencing will be completed.

A one minute break will ensue.


Is the design on my mask legal?

The answer to this question can be found in the US Fencing rulebook, in Appendix A, Chapter 2.1.3, which has the following note: “In USA Fencing events, masks may feature colored designs on condition that they are approved on the sole and absolute discretion of the Head Referee. This decision may not be appealed at that event." Because of this, we cannot predict if the Head Referee at any of your local tournaments may disallow this mask. For national tournaments, we recommend emailing pictures of the mask (from left, front, and right) to the head referee for tournament in question at least 2 weeks in advance. Head referees for National Tournaments with their email addresses can be found here (please link to


Do off-target touches in foil count as "touches" when applying the criteria for non-combativity? If two fencers make simultaneous attacks and each turn on lights, does that reset the non-combativity clock?

In a foil bout, when a fencer registers a valid touch OR a non-valid touch on his opponent, the one-minute “clock” is reset. (“Clock” being in quotation marks since there is not actually a clock, and in fact, the rules note that only “approximately” one minute must elapse). If two fencers make simultaneous attacks and each turn on lights on the machine, the one-minute “clock” would also be reset. That is, in determining when the one-minute starts over, the validity of the touch does not matter, as long as the fencer hits their opponent.