Foil (fencing)

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A foil is a type of weapon used in fencing. It is the most common weapon in terms of usage in competition, and is usually the choice for elementary classes for fencing in general.

There are two varieties of foil in use today: the “dry”, or nonelectric, foil; and the electrically scored foil. The components common to both varieties are the pommel, grip, guard, thumb pad, and blade. The nonelectric foil has a real tip with a blunted end that is capped with a plastic or rubber knob.

The electric foil also contains a socket underneath the guard that connects to the scoring apparatus via the body cord and a wire that runs down a channel cut into the top of the blade. The tip of the electric foil terminates in a button assembly that generally consists of a barrel, plunger, spring, and retaining screws. The circuit is a “normally closed” one, meaning that at rest there is always a complete power circuit. Depressing the tip breaks this circuit, and the scoring apparatus illuminates an appropriate light: white for hits not on the valid target area, or either red or green representing hits on the valid target area.

The pommel, a type of threaded fastener used to fasten blade, guard, plug, and grip assemblies together, is specific to the type of grip that is used. There are two types of grips used for foils: straight grips with long, external pommels, comprising the French, Italian, and Spanish varieties, and orthopedic, or pistol grips, which are designed to fix the hand in a specific position and have pommels that fit into a countersink in the back of the grip. Electric foil plugs are fixed so that the body cord plugs into the weapon along the inside of the wrist. There are two varieties in use today: the two-prong variety which has unequal diameter prongs and is held in place by a retaining clip, and the single-prong Bayonette which twist-locks into place. Foil guards are limited to a diameter of 9.5 to 12 cm in international competition.

Foil blades are made of tempered and annealed, low-carbon steel and are designed to bend upon striking an opponent in order to both prevent injuries and breakage of the blade. For international competition maraging steel is required, which is designed to break so that the incidence of potentially dangerous spikes and burrs is reduced. The foil blade is no more than 90 cm in length with a blunted (or foiled) tip. The overall weight of the full assembled weapon is at most 500 g, and the maximum length of the assembled weapon is 110 cm.

The blade itself is subdivided into 3 regions: the foible, or weak, at the last third of the blade near the tip, the medium, and the forte, or strong, is the third of the blade near the guard. Inside of the grip is the tang which is threaded at the end to allow the pommel to fasten the foil assembly together. Where an Italian grip is used a ricosso extends from under the guard, inside of the grip’s quillons, into the tang.

The modern foil is descended from the training weapon for the small-sword, the common sidearm of 18th century gentleman. Rapier and even longsword foils are also known to have been used, but they were very different in terms of weight and use.

The target area for modern foil is said to come from a time when fencing was practiced with limited safety equipment. Another factor in the target area is that foil rules are derived from a period when dueling to the death was the norm. Hence, the favored target area is the torso, where the vital organs are.

In modern sport fencing, the foil is used as a thrusting weapon only. Any contact with the side of the blade (a slap) does not result in a score. Modern foils average 35 inches or 89cm in length, and have standardized, tapered, quadrangular blades which are designed to present a blunt (and therefore non-lethal) tip should they snap. To score a touch, one must touch an opponent with the tip of the foil with a force of over 4.90 newtons (500 grams-force).

Foil is governed by right of way rules. As such, points are not necessarily awarded to the first fencer to hit, but to the fencer who hits with priority. Priority is established when one fencer starts an attack. After this, the defender can gain priority by making the attack fail (e.g. by making a parry) then initiating a counter attack or riposte. The initial attacker regains priority if the defender’s riposte fails. The priority continues to exchange between the fencers until a hit is scored.

As with any fencing weapon, protective equipment must be worn when fencing with foils; this includes a jacket, glove, mask, and knickers (known as breeches in the UK). In electric fencing, the tip of the foil must be depressed while in contact with the opponent’s lamé (wire-mesh jacket which covers valid target area) to score a touch. As of 2009, in order to offset an issue whereby the bib of the fencing mask would cover an unfairly large area of the jacket on smaller fencers, the target area has been extended to the lower part of the bib, eliminating bib coverage.

Recently, the FIE changed the timing in the scoring box to minimize the flick. The foil uses a normally closed electrical circuit, and any break in the circuit (broken wire, loose barrel, grip, or other parts, and especially depressing the tip) opens the circuit and the scoring box illuminates the appropriate light.

Prior to this timing change, ANY break in the circuit would fire the light, which is one reason the flick hit worked so frequently if properly executed — even a relatively flat hit on the back would move the tip around inside the barrel enough for that momentary break in the circuit and fire the light.