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The épée (pronounced /’?pe?/) is the modern derivative of the original duelling sword, the rapier, used in sport fencing. Épée is French for “sword”.
The weapon is similar to a foil (compared to a sabre), but has a stiffer blade that is V-shaped in cross-section, has a larger bell guard, and is heavier. The technique however, is somewhat different, as there are no rules regarding priority and right-of-way. In addition, the entire body area is a valid target area.
While modern sport fencing has three weapons (foil, épée, and sabre), each a separate event, épée is the only one in which the entire body is the valid target area. Épée is the heaviest of all fencing weapons.
In most higher-level competitions a grounded metal piste is used to prevent floor hits from registering as touches. Unlike sabre and foil, in épée there are no right-of-way rules regarding attacking. Touches are awarded solely on the basis of which fencer makes a touch first, according to the electronic scoring machines. Also, in épée double-touches are allowed, although the touches must be within 40 milliseconds (1/25th of a second) of each other.
The modern épée typically has a blade which measures 90 centimetres, and weighs up to 770 grams, although it sometimes weighs as little as 150 grams due to various metals and construction techniques. Only hits, or “touches”, made with the push-button tip of the weapon are registered. The épée has a three sided blade, in contrast to the foil and sabre, which have four and two sides respectively. In competitions a valid épée touch is scored if a fencer depresses their tip with 750g of pressure. Since the hand is a valid target, the bellguard is much larger than that of the foil and is most often made of aluminum or stainless steel. The tip is wired to a connector in the bellguard, then to an electronic scoring device or “box”. The bellguard, blade, and handle of the épée are all grounded to the scoring box to prevent hits to the weapon from registering as touches.
In the channel (fuller) formed by the V-shaped blade, there are two thin wires leading from the far end of the blade to a connector in the bellguard. These wires are held in place with a strong glue that protects them from the rigors of an encounter. The amount of glue is kept to a minimum as in the unlikely (but possible) case that a fencer manages a touch in that glue, the touch would be registered on the electrical equipment, as the glue and blade are not grounded. But in the event of point to point and point to glue hits, a point should not be awarded. A “body wire” with a three-pronged plug at each end is placed underneath the fencer’s clothing and attached to the connector in the bellguard, then to a wire leading to the scoring box. The scoring box signals with lights (one for each fencer) and a tone each time the tip is depressed.
The tip of an épée comprises several parts including: the mushroom-shaped movable tip; its housing or “barrel” which is threaded to the blade; a contact spring; and a return spring. The tips are generally held in place by two small grub screws, which thread into the sides of the tip through elongated openings on either side of the barrel. The screws hold the tip within the barrel but are allowed to travel freely in the openings. While this is the most common system, screwless variations do exist. The return spring must allow the tip to support a weight of 750 grams without registering a touch. Finally, an épée tip must allow a shim of 1.5 mm to be inserted between the tip and the barrel, and when a 0.5 mm shim is inserted and the tip depressed, it should not register a touch. The contact spring is threaded in or out of the tip to adjust for this distance. These specifications are tested at the start of large competitions. During competitions, fencers are required to have a minimum of two weapons and two body wires in case of failure or breakage.
The épée is the heaviest of the three weapons (approaching the weight of an actual court sword). However, ultra-lightweight blades can actually reduce the weight of an épée to below that of a foil. On low-end weapons, the épée has a relatively stiff blade, though new technology has resulted in a flexible blade comparable to the other weapons. The épée is characterized by a V-shaped or approximately triangular cross-section , and a large round guard which offers much more protection to the hand than the foil guard.
The épée evolved from civilian weapons such as the smallsword in the late 17th century and became the true dueling sword of the 18th and early 19th centuries. The épée developed when authorities in the 19th century decided that they did not like the killing aspect of the duel, and changed it to a “first blood” sport, thus requiring much more skill as a nick on the wrist or other exposed area could end the duel. But this does not mean that no duelist using the épée died. Of course it would be the goal of each duelist to kill his opponent, and not to simply give a minor flesh wound. Since the Épée was so common in duel, craftsmen decided to tweak the weapon itself. Because a wound to the hand or wrist could end a bout, smiths created épées with larger guards to protect the wrist and hand. Today, épée fencing very much resembles 19th century dueling. There is no right of way, since by virtue of 1st blood the whole body is the target. An épée fencer must hit the target with the tip of the weapon. A difference between épée and foil versus sabre is that body contact is not an offense, unless deliberate; however, it still results in an immediate “halt” to play.
In the pre-electric era, épéeists used a point d’arrêt (“stopping point”), a three-pronged point with small protruding spikes, which would snag on the opponent’s clothing or mask, helping the referee to see the hits. The spikes caused épée fencing to be a notoriously painful affair, and épéeists could be easily recognized by the tears in their jacket sleeves. These days, the adherents of the point d’arrêt are few and far between, and non-electric weapons are generally fitted with foil-style buttons.
NOTE: These rankings are accurate as of August 5, 2008