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USA Fencing: Celebrating 130 Years of Fencing in America

04/22/2021, 5:15pm CDT
By Nicole Jomantas

On April 22, 1891, a group of fencers founded the Amateur Fencers League of America (AFLA) and the organization that would grow into the National Governing Body for the sport of fencing in the United States was born.

Support Fencing in the Future

Founded by a group of fencers in New York, the Executive Committee of the AFLA was formed with two members from each of five New York City fencing clubs as part of a separation from the Amateur Athletic Union. Those original clubs included the New York Athletic Club, Manhattan Athletic Club, Columbia College Fencers Club, Central Turnverein and the Fencers Club. Each of the proposed members to the AFLA had to be recommended by a current member and seconded by another. The first meeting of the AFLA Executive Committee would be held on April 26, 1891 at the New York Athletic Club.

The AFLA, which included men only, published its first rulebook that year. The four-page document included the following rules:

  • Bouts judged by a three-person jury with points awarded for both touches and form
  • Five-touch bouts with no time limit and bonus points for form with five touches being the aggregate score (5-0, 4-1, 3-2, etc.)
  • Dark fencing jackets required
  • Field of play: 20 ft x 3 ft
  • Crossing a boundary with your foot equaled a one-point deduction
  • No jabs allowed (hits scored with the elbow behind the hip)
  • Foil target excluded the back

Within a year, the AFLA formed its first divisions which included New England and Nebraska. These early divisions would grow into a structure that now includes 67 divisions and six regions of the nation.

While National Championships for fencing date back to 1888, women were added in 1912 and outdoor National Championships were held for more than two decades – from 1920 – 1941. During the days in which three-weapon fencing was nearly the norm, a three-weapon individual National Championship was held from 1907-1950 with a three-weapon team Nationals held from 1906-1962.

The first Junior Olympic Championships, organized by Father Lawrence Calhoun in 1972. The event was held on President’s Day weekend beginning in 1973 to allow fencers an opportunity to compete prior to the Junior World Championships in April and to be able to do so on a three-day weekend off from school in most areas.  

By the 1940s, the AFLA had grown to 25 divisions with more than 1,200 fencers and 300 tournaments a year with the first NCAA Championships held for men only in 1941 at Ohio State with women’s events added in 1982.  

The 1950s and 1960s saw the number of Black fencers competing in the sport increasing with Uriah Jones becoming Team USA’s first Black Olympian in 1968 and Ruth White becoming the first Black fencer to win a Senior National title in 1972. She would go on to become the nation’s first female Black Olympian in 1972.

In 1964, the AFLA became incorporated as a non-profit organization in Pennsylvania which later changed its name to the United States Fencing Association in 1981 and relocated to Colorado Springs – still the organization’s home – in 1982. Carla Mae Richards became the organization’s first executive director – a position she held through 1994.

Once a sport for aristocratic adults, as recently as the early 1980s, the organization had only 50 members under the age of 15. Now, USA Fencing is the home to more than 40,000 members hailing from 700+ clubs across all 50 states, including approximately 15,000 fencers ages 15 and under.

Competitions now exist for athletes in Y10, Y12 and Y14 age groups all the way through veteran events beginning at age 40 and continuing through the +80 category which was introduced for the first time in 2017. Parafencing continues to be a fast-rising component of the sport as well after being contested by the United States at the Paralympic Games for the first time in 1996. With new events to come in the future in which para and abled-bodied fencers will be able to compete against each other.

This year will mark the 24th edition of the Summer National Championships which has drawn more than 5,000 competitors competing in nearly 100 events.

Fencing at the Olympic Games

In 1896, fencing was contested for the first time at the modern Olympic Games. 125 years later, fencing is one of just five sports to be contested at every modern Olympic Games with the others including track and field, cycling, gymnastics and swimming.

The fencing competition at the 1896 Olympic Games included just 15 male competitors from four European nations: Austria, Denmark, France and Greece. By contrast, the 2016 Olympic Games included 200+ athletes from 47 nations competing in six individual and four team events.

In 1900, the United States sent its first delegation to compete in fencing at the Games. This first team included three fencers with the field of nations expanding to 19.

By 1904, Team USA earned its first medals with the seven-member team hauling in seven individual podium finishes as well as an individual team silver medal in men’s foil. Albertson Van Zo Post won three individual medals for the United States, including gold in the single stick event which would only be contested once at the Olympic Games. Van Zo Post’s gold medal would be the only time the U.S. flag would be raised at the Games for the next 100 years when Mariel Zagunis won the first of her two gold medals in women’s saber in 2004.

In 1913, the Federation Internationale d’Escrime was founded and would become the international federation to govern the sport of fencing throughout the world.

Team USA would not return to the podium again until 1920 when the men’s foil team won bronze.

Women’s fencing was added to the Olympic program for the first time in 1924 with individual foil being contested. Two women represented Team USA at those Games – Adelaide Gehrig and Irma Prichard Hopper. Epee and saber would not be added for the women until 1996 and 2004, respectively.

The first electronic scoring was introduced at the Games in epee in 1936 when side judges were replaced by an electronic scoring apparatus which an audible tone and a red or green light indicating when a touch landed. The first electronic scoring would not be introduced at the Games for foil until 1956 with saber being fenced “dry” at the Games until 1988.

In total, Team USA has won 28 fencing medals at the Olympic Games, including 13 since 2004 alone. In 2021, all weapons will be contested in both individual and team events for the first time in history with a total of 12 medals on the line in Tokyo.

View Team USA’s Olympic Medal History

Fencing at the Paralympic Games

Wheelchair fencing was first introduced to the Paralympic Games in 1960, but the United States did not send a team for the first time until the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Since then, Team USA has qualified fencers to every Games with Scott Rodgers winning the first Paralympic fencing medal for the United States in 2004 with a bronze in Category B men’s epee. In 2021, women’s saber will be added to the Paralympic program, allowing both genders to compete in all three weapons for the first time in history.

Visit http://museumofamericanfencing.com to learn more about American fencing history.

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