Fencing, once considered a comic imitation of sport essentially practiced by the Three Musketeers and Douglas Fairbanks, has developed a new public acceptance in the past 10 years. Fencers have been saying all along that theirs is one of the best ways of attaining good physical condition. Like any number of other sports, fencing demands technical skill, good footwork, timing, mobility, speed and poise. And it keeps the body (and mind) alert and active without undue physical strain. Most important, however, it is one of the few sports in which age doesn't kill ability—the current national champions range in age from 22 to 45.
There are over 250,000 active fencers in the U.S., and each year 10,000 more people start taking lessons in one of the thousands of fencing clubs, groups or school programs around the country. Because the latter is the greatest source of future fencing champions, a Junior Olympic program has also been set up to help provide coaches for fencing classes in even more schools.
Partly because of a lack of interest in fencing and partly because of a lack of qualified instructors, the U.S. has never won an Olympic gold medal in fencing events. In the 1960 Games only one U.S. fencer earned a medal, and that was a bronze in the men's foil competition. After the Hungarian revolt in 1956, however, a number of that country's skilled fencers emigrated to the U.S. As a result, there now are some excellently qualified instructors available and U.S. medal chances in the 1964 Olympics are considerably improved, especially in the sabre events.
Fencing is a "taught" rather than an instinctive sport, so the earlier it is learned the better; but at whatever age it is mastered it still provides fine exercise, discipline and recreation. It can be taken up inexpensively—either as a group activity or as a friendly two-man competition. A beginner can outfit himself (or herself) with basic equipment for about $25, investing in a French foil ($5), wire mask ($6.50), practice jacket ($9) and a foil glove ($4).
Fencing apparel (masks, uniforms, gloves) and accessories (equipment bags, bib cloths) are manufactured in the U.S., but the weapons are usually imported, as is the expensive electrical equipment used in épée and foil events. The two major manufacturers and importers of fencing equipment are Castello Fencing Equipment Co., Inc. (30 East 10th Street, New York City), the largest outfitter in the U.S., and George Santelli, Inc. (412 Sixth Avenue, New York City). The former is run by brothers Hugo and James Castello, who are fencing experts in their own right. Hugo is the fencing coach at New York University and has been selected as coach of the 1963 Pan American Games. He is also national co-chairman of the Junior Olympic fencing program. James has been electrical weapons armorer for both national and world competitions. George Santelli, the finest sabre fencer in Europe as a youth and the U.S. Olympic fencing team coach from 1928 to 1952, operates an equally fine, slightly more expensive equipment establishment, plus a celebrated fencing school, Salle Santelli.
Once a beginner becomes proficient enough to require a standard fencing outfit, he merely adds items to his original investment. A man needs a regulation jacket ($14 at Castello) and trousers ($10); and a woman, a foil jacket ($12.80) and trousers ($9.25). Custom-fitted jackets and trousers cost a few dollars more. Although fencing apparel is traditionally white, there have been a few special orders—mostly by women—in color.
Three Types of Weapons
When a fencer passes the beginner stage, he generally is hooked by the sport and needs more specialized equipment and accessories, not to mention replacements for broken blades. Men's fencing includes three types of weapons, foil, épée (dueling swords) and sabre, each with its own set of competitive rules and its own outfit. Épée, the classic form of fencing, is also the most expensive. Since the target area in épée is the whole body of the fencer, he must be fully protected. His uniform has to be made of heavy material (14-oz. duck as opposed to 10½ for foil and sabre), which costs about $25. His weapon is larger and heavier than the foil or sabre and thus costs a few dollars more (the more expensive épées have "pistol grips," or metal prongs on the handle to allow greater control and strength of parry, and cost about $9.50). And if he engages in any serious competition he has to acquire an electrical weapon ($14.50) and accessories to go with the signaling sets used in judging all épée competition.
Épée fencing is the only competitive sport that is scored completely by a machine. At one time four judges and a director were needed to determine whether or not a touch was made and which fencer had made first contact. Now there is an electronic signaling set attached by reels and wires to the fencers and their weapons that automatically records the hits by means of a lighting system. An excellent set, made by Leon Paul of London, is available at both Castello and Santelli for $250.
For young children Castello carries a line of small-size regulation equipment, including mask, practice jacket, glove and weapons with 32-inch blades (a standard foil blade is 35 inches). Price of a complete child's foil outfit: $21.90.