On HEMA competitions and the factors of fencing performance

Article by Kristina Nagy saber coach and group leader of the MFFG of Hungary

A frequently discussed and complicated topic came up in a Hungarian Facebook-group of researchers of historical european weapons (HEMA):

the possibilities of lessening mutual hits, and the effect of various elements of the competitive system, on the outward appearance of fencing style, and the style of competitors.

With the following article, my goal is to give a theoretical overview and and to introduce the fundamental definitions and argumentation that I find essential in the judgment of the connected topics, and during the search for a solution.

I’d like to start with the definition of the terms I use in the article.

In the tactical sense, the hits that fall on both fencers at the same time have two different groups, the definitions of which contain no reference or value judgment whatsoever connected to rule-systems. The different rule-systems of competitions might handle these cases differently depending on the rule-set creator’s goal (the possibility of not differentiating them at all belongs here too), and, as a consequence, the preferences in tactical solutions used by fencers may show various tendencies, yet the (fencing-)theoretical background does not change. In order to build a well-functioning fencing competition-system, the knowledge of these is important.

  1. The simultaneous hit (the truly mutual hit)

When competitors are in a symmetric situation, — especially in case of opponents with a similar level of knowledge, even on a high level — they might choose the same — tactically founded — solution.

In practice, this might, for example, look like the following: The opponents, in a neutral tactical situation (at start, or maybe moving mirroring each other), sensing a certain opportunity provided by the moment (a kind of deadlock), start an approximately similar action at the same time. In the tactical sense, they both make the same — equal — decision, and as long as the technical execution is correct, they will cut/thrust each other at the same time. In a system that allows the strategic use of simultaneous hits to any extent, this might have various reasons (some of these still apply even when simultaneous or mutual hits of any kind are sanctioned; or to all kinds of mutual hits if the ruleset makes no differentiation):

  1. The simultaneous hit might be incidental, if both fencers choose the same (offensive) tactic at start.
  2. It might come from a tactical consideration:
    1. If the two fencers are equally strong (or weak), the simultaneous hit delays the decision-making
    2. Through a simultaneous hit, the opponent can be observed, and the knowledge can be put to good use in the following action(s); we can find out whether the opponent is faster or slower than us, and we are able to decide on the following set of actions accordingly
  • When one of the opponents has the advantage (by having more points), they might avoid taking risks, but impose it on their opponent instead (especially when the mutual hits are counted against both opponents)
  1. One might want to gain time to rest and consider the next decision, etc.
  2. One might want to avoid taking risks (temporarily or at all)
  3. One might also find out in advance that one has an impatient opponent, and want to take advantage of it
  1. A simultaneous hit might happen out of necessity as well. For example, when the attack of one of the fencers falls short and the opponent is about to start attacking (after having retreated too much), it might be expedient to refrain from taking another action (risk) but to stop the opponent’s attack with a simultaneous hit instead.*

Although in theory it is possible to (logically) explain the idea of simply ignoring simultaneous hits during competitive bouts, still it might naturally lead to the excessive and strategic use of it, overshadowing the traditionally defensive nature of fencing that is based on the principle of ‘Toucher sans être touché’ — to give without receiving. This is an eternal struggle for the users of conventional weapons. The theoretical ‘good fencer’ shall, of course, be able to win under any kinds of rules, but our true goal is to approach the desired fencing performance optimally.

  1. Mutual hits in other situations, except the ones described above

In the rules, the definition of ‘attack’ shows what kind of movements the creator of the given rule-set considers to be a ‘direct threat’ to the opponent, and in what cases they hold the initiation of such an action rightful. Thus, the rules also contain, implicitly or explicitly, what kind of answer is expected from the threatened opponent, according to the principles of fencing and the specialities of the given weapon — the definition of the attack itself has a heavy influence here. (E.g. whether advancing in itself, or only the movement of the weapon towards the opponent counts as a threat, what kind of footwork is expected for an action to be considered as an attack, etc.) The common factor in the second kind of mutual (or double) hits is that there is already such a directly threatening action or series of actions in progress.

According to the principles of fencing, the attacked party may only think of starting an attack, when they have averted the already existing threat. The reason of the mutual hit in these kinds of situations is that at least one of the opponents misjudges the situation, or fails to execute the — otherwise well chosen — action correctly. Given that the defensive action does not (manage to) deal with the offensive action, and unless the attacker somehow fails to achieve a valid and relevant hit with their offensive action, the incorrect opposing action will result in mutual hits. (The relevance of a valid hit is usually defined in time, but is fundamentally connected to the character and features of their movement. It is explained in a greater detail in THIS presentation.) These details become important in the refereeing work in HEMA as well, even if the rules are not conventional.



In case of historical weapons (HEMA) — due to the possibility and even the necessity of them being applied in sharp combat — in contemporary fencing, the possibility of a mutual hit wasn’t a viable tactical option. Yet victory, as in defeating the opponent, was the goal even during practicing in protective gear. It could not be risked that the ones who might use the weapon in sharp combat should learn some potentially life threatening habits, and the effects of this kind of thinking were present even in the first half of the 20th century, when modern weapons were introduced (duels still occurred).

It is probably impossible to build this element in its original form into today’s competitive system, but it isn’t even necessary. Still, one must take the fact in consideration, that regarding the historical and practical use, those who seek to perform mutual hits today, practically draw themselves out of combat.* It is therefore necessary to construct such systems that support the required behavioral patterns consistently, progressively and in the most clear way possible.

In the following paragraphs I would like to survey the elements that fundamentally affect the appearance of fencing and the tendencies of the tactical and technical repertoire experienced in scored competitions.

Fencing, applied in a competition measured with points, is fundamentally a tactical sport and art that uses physical elements; and wherein, ‘getting tamed from the martial struggle and the duels to sport-combat, defeating the opponent becomes symbolic’. (László Szepesi – Válogatott vívóversenyzők felkészítésének és versenyeztetésének jellegzetességei; PhD Értekezés, Budapest, 2004 ‘The characteristics of the preparation and competitive training of national team fencers; PhD dissertation’) It is a basic requirement that a fencer (first of all, their coach) knows the correct way of executing movements, and is able to carry them out with a determined goal, starting and also finishing in ‘tempo’ — within the right moment. (This raises the topics of choice reaction, anticipation and other factors of speed in fencing)

Still, technical executions may only be interpreted in their own tactical context, a movement might gain completely different significance in each different action-environment. When analysing and interpreting historical sources from a tactical and methodological point of view, difficulties might emerge because these are the very practical details that construct a caoach’s/master’s individuality, work-tools, and livelihood, and that they, even if they wanted to, could not really commit to paper. The profession (or trade) of a fencing master and the preparation of a fencer can be imparted primarily in practice, in person, during the day-to-day work. While reading the sources, we might attempt to reconstruct such details by reading between the lines at the descriptions of various actions, comparing them to tactical tables, and interpreting them in the action-environment as well.


Source: Fencing and the Master by Laszlo Szabo, Stephan Kinoy (Editor), Attila Bano (Illustrator), Gyula Gulyas (Translator) Published April 1st 1998 by S K a Swordplay Books (first published June 1982)


Ideally, the competitive environment (rules), the mutual work of coaches and fencers, and the referee’s work constitute an organic system, wherein the elements mutually affect each other, and should be examined in relation to this whole system. At the same time, each factor concerning the the outward image of fencing can be best approached through the element which has a direct effect on it.

  1. With the creation of a certain kind of competitive environment (the rules and the professional background/staff), we shall provide conditions that support the preferred behavioral patterns and tactical relations, and facilitate the referee’s work. The characteristics and details of the rule- and competition-system will, of course, determine the appearance of fencing; as fencers will subordinate other factors to the kinds of behavior and patterns encouraged by the system in order to win—this is an essential trait of a good strategist in a competition—as well as in combat.

In order to improve the niveau of fencing, it is necessary that the performance of the competitors is measured with real evaluation, (in other words, not compared to a theoretical ideal, but to their actual opponents,) and that they are able to take risks that have real and clear stakes, while learning and perfecting more refined tactical and technical solutions. Injury-free matches with scoring and ranking, are perfect for this purpose in themselves.

Fencers often make mistakes, yet it is more expedient to positively (relatively to the opponent) reinforce looking for and implementing the correct logic of fencing, than to absolutely punish erroneous decisions or technical executions.

A solution to reduce the number of simultaneous hits (see the definition in the first paragraphs) can be the enforcement of such rules that disrupt the symmetry of the competition-situation.

In case of other mutual hits (due to the disregard of the given tactical situation), the rulebook may help handle the problem by

  1. not rewarding the wrong decision, thus putting it in disadvantage (which category includes the conventions of fencing used in modern foil, sabre, and the longsword rule-set of the Slovakian FEBUS federation)
  2. or, again, applying certain restrictive measures.

For a contrasting example, by eliminating people from a competition as a punishment to mutual hits resulting from tactical or technical mistakes or — in certain cases (see at the definition of simultaneous hits) — necessity, the rules suggest that simultaneous hits are even worse than just getting hit without any attempt to resist. In extreme cases, this could be the only option for a competitor who does not want to be immediately disqualified from the competition through mutual hits.

However, the key to correct the mistakes of this nature lies in the education of fencers.

  1. The phenomena that originate from fencers’ violation of tactical principles — often despite the rules — can be improved through technical and mental preparation, and the natural maturing of fencers, rather than by enforcing further regulations and restrictions in the rule-system.

There has been an experiment in HEMA circles (please refer to Dustin Reagan for details) where someone offered a bet to their debate-partner, that no matter what the opponent did, he would be able to create ‘double-hits’. He succeeded. Such hits result from the voluntary or involuntary disregard for the principles of fencing, and at least one of the opponents can be held responsible for each of them.

It is fair to expect from a good (sufficiently educated and trained) fencer to notice an existing problem and change their tactics accordingly, and to execute appropriate actions with appropriate preparation, that are definitely supported by the historical sources as well. This way, their victory can happen sooner too, but to see such fencers emerge, we shall, first of all, provide the necessary preparation from the coaching side, give time for this to evolve and mature, and in the meantime, apply rules and refereeing practices that advocate the preferred behaviors, instead of deterring people with fire and sword from mutual hits,. By positive evaluation I mean that the good (better than the opponent’s, in the given situation) and successful decisions (technically, successfully executed) should be awarded with points, instead of deducting points or eliminating people for the erroneous ones.

Similarly to the way new and different schools are created to answer and defeat the currently dominant trends, the increasingly qualified fencers set obstacles and challenges to each other. Time is an important factor here, the individual pace of each fencer’s development and maturing process can not be skipped artificially, even under ideal conditions. I hold this true to bigger systems too; in this young sport, even to the entire group of competitors.

The fact that someone can easily be defeated with certain, seemingly not very refined strategies that otherwise don’t conflict the principles of fencing and competing, depends on the qualification and mental ability of the individual, and in itself, labels neither the art of the weapon, nor the rule-book, nor the opponent, nor the referee. Such cases are when, for example, someone receives many hits to their hands — or other, recurrent types of hits; uses feints improperly — thus frequently causing mutual hits; draws attacks-on-preparation to themselves; only uses very basic actions to hit, etc.

If, in response, the rule-system starts to ban (actively disadvantage, punish, etc.) said strategy, it is not the standard of fencing that is really raised by it, but the system itself adjusts to the needs of those who are unable to overcome their own deficiencies. Even if the outward appearance of fencing changes as a consequence, it does not happen because of the necessary improvement in the fencers’ education and abilities, but rather through an artificial ‘power vacuum’ among the strategical possibilities that the theory of fencing includes.

  1. The third essential element is the referee’s precise judgment and bout-management. The referee is practically the representative of the weapon’s sharpness, and this is especially true when there is a lack of objective scoring apparatus.

The referee’s interpretation of a given fencing phrase is independent on the rules that will be applied after assessing the situation, and is based on the referee’s understanding of fencing theory and perception of the events. (It is important to note that naturally, the general quality and efficiency of the refereeing work is sensitive to the nature of the refereeing system and the rules that must be applied to the situation.) Among other things, their function includes being personally responsible for the events and calls in their bout, separating the intention from the actual outcome, respecting the microclimate of the bout (making consistent decisions), handling conflict professionally, cooperatively, and proactively (understanding the competitor’s position and issues), refraining from judgment if necessary, withdrawing their personal emotions from their professional role (being able to account for their calls, including maintaining their standpoint, or admitting, apologising for and correcting their own error when needed), being educated and experienced in the practical methods that allow them to accurately perceive and judge fencers’ movement hardly traceable to the untrained eye (e.g. the successfulness of a counterattack, or the relevance of an after-action).

If the referee can interpret the action precisely and consistently, then competitors don’t need to convince the referee with bigger and heavier moves, and will naturally overcome the hope that hits of certain types may remain unnoticed. In this context, the referee may ensure a safe and desirable competitive style with their own personality, and can achieve remarkable results even within one single bout or one competition in the modern HEMA scene. It might be needless to say that the fencing-specific, professional training of the referees is one of the most important duties of federations or groups who organise fencing competitions with historical European weapons.

Source: Vasárnapi Újság 21. szám. 1895. 42. évfolyam (A Magyar Athletikai Klub Országos Vívóversenye a Fővárosi Vigadóban. – drawing by Jantyik Mátyás.)


In my opinion, HEMA has the invaluable potential to nurture even multiple different approaches at the same time, even within each individual federation. I find this to be a great asset, for this way, through systems created consistently, various different aspects to the essence of fencing and its mentality can be pursued, and as needed, even various competitive goals can be implemented and tested, in different types of competitions and matches. Still, within one single system, only one kind of preference can exist at a time, and as a result, not all kids of goals can be properly represented. It is important to create each system with a clear purpose and preferences, out of matching elements, and to be able to integrate these systems in a standardized, legally sound frame, as well.

I’d like to suggest the following evaluation models and competition-elements for consideration, with regard to some of the most frequently mentioned competitive goals in HEMA:

  1. For those who prefer ‘duel-style’ challenges that model potential incapability through injuries:
    1. The competition shall consist of ‘duels’ for one point.
      1. There may be one or more pool rounds, and there shall be a set amount of points that competitors must not exceed in touches received (clear and mutual hit), else they get eliminated from the competition without a placement.
      2. A bout is fought until there is a clear hit, but mutual hits are also counted towards the elimination limit.
  • At the ranking after the pool round(s), the first criterion can be the number of victories; in case of even score there, the 2nd criterion can be the number of hits received.
  1. Those who do not get eliminated can take their places in the ranking immediately, or — for example, in direct elimination rounds — after more fencing.

If someone has to face the same opponent several times, the element of experience that is found in matches for several hits, will play a part to some level: competitors will change their behavior somewhat, according to their experience in the previous encounters with the same person.

  1. Similar competitions can be organised with several point matches. The main element is that punishment (elimination) is not given based on mutual hits, but on valid touches of any kind, received. Here, the chance is greater for someone who wants to eliminate an opponent with premeditated, ‘double-hit’ strategy.
  2. In the one-point-bout dueling competition mentioned in point 1, the first criterion of ranking after pools can be the touches received (including mutual hits), and the 2nd criterion, the touches given (or victories).

It is necessary to note, that in extreme cases, systems that put NOT RECEIVING HITS in focus, might also have such disadvantages that disregard the ‘Toucher sans être touché’ principle, although maybe in an unexpected way.

  1. For those who advocate the development of the fencing-theoretical approach and the technical and tactical repertoire of fencing:
    1. The competition consists of bouts with multiple hits; in pool and later direct elimination rounds, and only those hits are counted, where the fencer who gives the hit, does not receive any hit in return. Within one bout, after a pre-determined number of mutual hits, priority is assigned randomly (e.g. with a coin-flip), to one of the fencers. The next mutual hit will be won by the one with priority, and the roles switch after each hit until the end of the bout. The bout has time and point limit. HERE is an example.

In such a system, several solutions may exist for the usage of priority, they should be considered well:

  1. After the first mutual hits, the priority is immediately raffled
  2. After mutual hits, the loser of the lot can be put in a disadvantageous position in the field of play (similarly to wrestling)
  • At the end of the fencing time, before the decisive hit, a new, previous lot can be done (after the previous ones for the mutual hits within the bout-time)*.
  1. Priority can be assigned as an organic part of the environment, too, like in Tennis:
    1. At the start of the match, priority is randomly allocated to one fencer (Fencer A)
    2. Fencer A “serves”, or starts with priority, for a “set” of four points
  • After a “set” of four points, priority is shifted to Fencer B. This four-point cycle repeats for the remainder of the match
  1. Winner is first to 16, with a 2 point margin of victory
  2. Winner is first to 16, with a 2 point margin of victory
  3. If the score gets to 15-16, then the priority is switched every point.

Source: http://www.showmethedata.com.au/this-aint-tennis-testing-a-radical-proposal-to-fix-the-4-meters/

However, it must be added, that, if no difference is made between between the basic types of mutual hits, it might have a different effect on the competitors’ choices: the one with the priority is not forced to observe the principles of fencing, any kind of double hit will do, unless additional measures are taken. If the right of way is present, only the number of simultaneous hits will be affected.

  1. Although a topic burdened with misunderstanding in HEMA, the conventions of fencing belong here. We already have examples of its weapon-specified application in HEMA, even though its introduction is not rid of conflict, and its development is an elaborate and lengthy process that requires system-specific knowledge. It is a valuable option when one wants to include the — theoretically momentous — difference between simultaneous hits and other mutual hits, in the performance-evaluation process. It is a worthy study to follow the competitions, experience and argumentation (this article only exists in Slovak language at the moment) of FEBUS, who are currently experimenting with such a system, and have just got past the first steps with competition-organising, rule-formation and referee-trainings. The detailed study of the concept and its elements exceeds the capacity of this article.
  2. A probably little known possibility is to define a series of obligatory actions that must be performed each time the opponents engage in combat. When it has been performed, the opponents directly continue with free fencing in the situation that is created by the starting sequence.

Through this a specific tactical relation is set up in each exchange. (There can be various options in handling issues that might come up during the obligatory actions: they must be performed clearly and successfully, if someone fails to do so, it can be addressed in the rules.)

This will limit the initial preparation somewhat, yet at once, it delivers highly educational and interesting cases. It skips the problematic parts of creating good tactical situations, and immediately sets up a pre-defined tactical relation where both parties have special possibilities.

Through limiting the possible choices, the educational value increases, and the system can raise the application and success-rate of more advanced tactical-technical solutions. At the same time, the structure of the pre-defined actions teaches the competitors about the required behavioral patterns (the rule-maker’s preference) — e.g. threats must be averted first, etc.

Obviously, these defined moves must be planned carefully. The roles can be switched after sets of hits, mutual hits can be evaluated e.g. according to one of the above mentioned models. More starting sequences can be constructed and used, leading to different tactical situations, especially as the competitors gain experience with the system.

This model can be applied temporarily, indefinitely, or beside other competition models, for education and a source of case-studies. However, the organiser must make sure that the competitors have a clear understanding of what they are expected to do, and the obligatory actions represent the weapon’s important characteristics. They should not be switched too often or unexpectedly.

  1. For those who prefer the forms of movement, the athletic and aesthetical value of technical actions related to fencing to tactical-technical fights for touches:
    1. Academy-style fencing, where the group who wants to organise such competitions, may choose a jury from among the available experts (who, in the world of fencing federations, must have regular qualification; e.g. federational license). The bout is performed for a set time and under defined circumstances; I suggest to stop the bout after each ‘fencing phrase’ — each hit, and that the referees intervene regularly, when necessary. They may analyse the action, but this is not by all means necessary. Finally, the jury shall decide — e.g. by holding up scoring tables — who fenced more beautifully, and with a greater repertoire of actions. Hits are not counted.


— NK


*Based on the suggestions of Dr. Szepesi László. Thank you for the professional support and valuable insights during writing this article!

Edited by: Szilvia Nagy


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