The Senior Men's Foil team celebrates during the Paris World Cup in January 2023. (Photo by #BizziTeam)
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — With a built-in cheering section, the possibility of wild momentum swings and a unique scoring format, it’s no surprise that fencers love the team event.
Casual fencing fans are more familiar with the one-on-one fencing bout, where the first competitor to reach 10 or 15 points wins. But the underrated team event can offer just as much thrilling drama.
In the team event, squads of three fencers compete in a “relay match” where every fencer competes against every other fencer in a series of nine “legs,” or bouts. The first team to score 45 points (or the team leading when time expires) is the winner. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
In this edition of Fencing 101, we’ll explain in detail how these exciting matches work
At USA Fencing national tournaments, there are team events at the Cadet, Junior, Division I and Veteran levels. Internationally, you’ll find team events at most Cadet, Junior, Senior, Veteran and Parafencing competitions — including the world championships at the Junior, Senior, Veteran and Parafencing levels.
And of course you’ll find team events at the Olympics and Paralympics, too — though the rules for substitutions are different. At the Tokyo Olympics, Team USA’s men’s foil team took home bronze medals after an exciting 45-31 win over Japan.
We like to describe the team event as a race to a point target. The target increases by five in each of the nine “legs,” or one-on-one bouts within the larger team match.
The target scores are:
Leg/round 1: 5
Leg/round 2: 10
Leg/round 3: 15
Leg/round 4: 20
Leg/round 5: 25
Leg/round 6: 30
Leg/round 7: 35
Leg/round 8: 40
Leg/round 9: 45
Each leg can end in one of two ways:
Either team reaches the target score for that bout
The 3-minute timer expires for that round
When a leg ends, the next pairing of fencers takes the strip to continue the match and try to reach that round’s target.
This system means that scoring in the team event is not as simple as saying “it’s nine bouts, each to five touches.” That’s just not true. It would be more accurate to say “it’s nine bouts, each a race to the target score for that leg.”
Here’s an example, adapted from a recent gold medal match in Junior Women’s Foil. Let’s say the Green Iguanas are fencing against the Blue Barracudas. Here’s the lineup:
Leg/round 1: Izzy (Iguanas) vs. Barbara (Barracudas)
Leg/round 2: Ingrid (Iguanas) vs. Bree (Barracudas)
Leg/round 3: Ines (Iguanas) vs. Bella (Barracudas)
Leg/round 4: Izzy (Iguanas) vs. Bree (Barracudas)
Leg/round 5: Ines (Iguanas) vs. Barbara (Barracudas)
Leg/round 6: Ingrid (Iguanas) vs. Bella (Barracudas)
Leg/round 7: Ines (Iguanas) vs. Bree (Barracudas)
Leg/round 8: Izzy (Iguanas) vs. Bella (Barracudas)
Leg/round 9: Ingrid (Iguanas) vs. Barbara (Barracudas)
(Every fencer competes against every other fencer.)
Leg 1 will end when either team reaches 5 or the time expires. Izzy (Iguanas) gets 2 touches, while Barbara (Barracudas) gets 5.
The score is 2-5.
Leg 2 will end when either team reaches 10 or the time expires. Ingrid (Iguanas) outscores Bree (Barracudas), 4-3, and then time expires.
The score is now 6-8.
Even though neither team reached 10 in Leg 2, Leg 3’s target remains 15. Ines (Iguanas) outscores Bella (Barracudas), 9-4.
The score is now 15-12.
Leg 4’s target is 20, and this bout ends with 5 touches apiece.
The score is now 20-17.
Leg 5’s target is 25, and Ines (Iguanas) outscores Barbara (Barracudas) 5-1.
The score is now 25-18.
Leg 6’s target is 30, and this is when the match takes a dramatic twist. Bella (Barracudas) scores an impressive 12 touches to Ingrid (Iguanas)’s 4.
The score is now 29-30, essentially turning the tide for the Barracudas.
Leg 7’s target is 35, and this one ends with 2 touches for Ines (Iguanas) and 4 for Bree (Barracudas) when the time runs out.
The score is now 31-34.
Leg 8’s target is 40, and Bella (Barracudas) has another strong showing, out-touching Izzy (Iguanas) 0-6.
The score is now 31-40.
For Leg 9, the target is 45. Ingrid (Iguanas) gets 2 touches, while Barbara (Barracudas) gets 5 touches.
The match finishes at 33-45.
The above example between the Green Iguanas and Blue Barracudas was taken from this real-life gold medal match between Italy and Team USA from the Junior Women's Foil World Cup in Zagreb, Croatia.
Substitutions are permitted in the team event. Each team may — but is not required to — carry a fourth fencer who can be subbed in between bouts and for any reason, including illness or injury.
The fencer who has been replaced can come back in for a later round, but only to replace the fencer who initially replaced them. For example, Fencer A completes their first bout. At Fencer A’s next scheduled bout, Fencer D is substituted in. For Fencer’s A’s third and final bout of the match, Fencer D may fence again or Fencer A may be substituted in.
In this example, neither Fencer B nor Fencer C could sub in or out.
It’s important to note that substitutions normally (i.e., not due to injury) take place only between bouts. Also, the substitution must be announced prior to the start of the bout preceding the bout where the replacement occurs. That is, if the Green Iguanas opt to replace Izzy with Iris for the fourth bout, this substitution must be announced not later than the start of the third bout (i.e., be made between bouts two and three).
For more on this question, consult rule o.99 of the USA Fencing Rulebook.
Here’s the full text of the team rule, from t.41 of the USA Fencing Rulebook:
Each “lap” (bout) of the relay match consists of five touches (5, 10, 15, 20, etc.); Exceptionally, a relay may end at more than 5, 10, 15 etc. if a fencer scores a valid last hit of the relay and is at the same time awarded an additional penalty hit: in this case both hits will be counted; the maximum time for each bout is 3 minutes.
The first two opponents fence until one of them has scored five touches, within the time limit of 3 minutes.
The next two opponents fence until one of their scores has reached ten touches, within the time limit of 3 minutes, and so on with successive bouts, cumulatively, of five touches.
If by the expiration of 3 minutes of fencing time the intended score for the bout has not been achieved, the next two fencers take up the score where it was left off and fence up to the maximum score intended for their bout as normal, within the time limit of 3 minutes.
The winning team is that which first reaches the maximum score of 45 touches, or that which has scored the greatest number of touches after the expiration of regulation time.
If at the end of regulation time for the last bout the scores are equal, the match continues for a deciding touch, with a maximum time limit of one minute, fought for by the fencers of the last bout in the match. Before the fencing recommences the Referee draws lots to decide who will be the winner if scores are still equal at the end of the extra minute.
In epee, during this minute, when double touches occur, points will not be awarded, the score will not change, and the fencers will retain their respective positions on the strip.
Special thanks to Bradley Baker, vice-chair of the Referees' Commission's Rules and Examinations Committee, for reviewing this post.
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