Fencing – fighting with swords – is a minority sport in New Zealand. In 2012 there were 21 clubs affiliated with Fencing New Zealand, the sport’s national association. Although a 2007–8 survey found that fewer than 1% of New Zealanders had participated in fencing in the previous year, the sport remained well known. The long history of swords as a weapon of war and their later association with aristocracy and duelling, combined with swords and sword fights in films and television, gave the sport an aura of dangerous glamour.
Three types of sword are used: the épée, foil and sabre. All have blunt tips. The épée, originally used for duels, and the foil, a practice sword, score with the tip. A foil blade is slender and tapered toward the tip, and designed to bend on contact. An épée is a thicker, heavier sword, with a fluted blade. The sabre, light and virtually straight-bladed, was originally a heavy, curved sword used by cavalry. Fencers can score with the tip or edge of the blade.
A bout or match between fencers takes place on a piste (fencing mat), 1.5–2 metres wide and 14 metres long. The speed of a fight varies, depending on the weapon – sabre bouts are fast throughout, while épée and foil bouts are slow with sudden bursts of speed.
Fencing is dangerous – an accident at the 1982 world championships resulted in the death of a competitor. Those engaged in a bout wear a full mask with a bib that protects the neck, a form-fitting jacket, breeches, a long glove on the weapon arm, and underarm and groin protection. Women also wear a chest protector. The clothing is made of heavy cotton or nylon, and is reinforced for top-level competitors.
Some say fencing was better to watch and more interesting to do when a hit had to be seen to be believed. A ‘conversation’ between blades was more likely to occur, fencers duelling until one picked an opponent’s error or moment of indecision, lunging forward to deliver a decisive hit.
Scoring has been done electronically since 1936 for épée bouts, 1956 for foil and 1988 for sabre. An épée is connected to a scoring box by a body cord and has a depressor in the tip. A touch on any part of an opponent’s body by the épée tip turns on the appropriate light on the scoring box. When fighting with a sabre or foil, lamé – a cover made of electrically conductive material – is worn over the areas of the body to be targeted. Both lamé and weapon are connected to the scoring box. A successful hit on the lamé is electronically recorded.
New Zealand fencers have won gold, silver and bronze medals at Commonwealth or Empire Games.
- Gold: Dot Coleman, foil, 1962.
- Silver: Patricia Woodroffe, foil, 1950; men’s foil team, 1950.
- Bronze: men’s sabre team, 1962; Gaye McDermit, foil, 1966; women’s foil team, 1966.
Brian Pickworth, a member of the men’s sabre team that won a bronze medal in 1962, competed at four Commonwealth Games and the 1960 Olympics. Across the five competitions he took part in foil and épée individual events, and sabre individual and team events. Another notable Olympic competitor was Martin Brill, who entered foil events at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, placing highly in the latter.
Fencing and cavalry sword exercises were practised as military drill in 19th- and early-20th-century New Zealand. Bouts were also held informally – port towns have been described as an important location for matches between naval officers, cadets, crew from visiting ships and local residents.
The late-19th-century development of fencing as a sport in Europe reached New Zealand in the early 20th century. The first clubs were formed at Otago and Canterbury universities in the 1920s. By the late 1930s there were clubs in the four larger cities and some towns, the New Zealand Amateur Fencing Association had been formed, and the first national championships had been held.