The modern sport of fencing is played at many levels, from students learning at a university to professional and Olympic competition. The sport is primarily played in a duel format, one fencer dueling another.
These duels usually take place at tournaments. The early rounds of a competition which establish seeding for the final round will usually be "five touch" bouts, meaning the first fencer to score five touches on the other fencer wins the bout. From the first round fencers will be seeded and the knockout round of the competition will commence. In this it is normal to fence until the first fencer reaches 15. However both the seeding round or rounds and the final will have a time constraint and so a bout may finish without the full number of points scored. The winner is then the fencer with the highest score.
What defines a touch is dependent on the style of fencing and the weapons used. The three primary weapons are the foil, the épée, and the sabre.
The foil is the lightest of the three weapons. It will be the weapon that most instructors will expect students to master before they move to any other weapon.
With the foil, touches may be scored on the torso (groin to neck), with the point only. With the épée, touches may be scored on any part of the body. With the saber, touches may be scored with the point or the blade. The target area is the body from hips to head.
Foil fencing introduces the concept of 'right of way.' An attacker must establish right of way before scoring a valid point. One establishes right of way by extending the blade in a straight line toward the opponent's target area. Until the opponent is able to regain right of way, he/she is on the defensive. Right of way can be gained by parrying (redirecting the opponent's thrust) outside the target area and then extending one's own blade toward the opponent. This counter-attack is termed a 'riposte.' A fencing point often consists of an attack, a riposte, a counter-riposte, and further counter-ripostes in series until a point is scored. Reflecting the dueling origins of modern (European) fencing, action stops after a valid touch and the fencers return to their original position at the center of the strip.
In modern sabre, which is modeled after the cavalry sabre, touches are scored with hits to the head, torso and arms (hands and groin are specifically not target though). Sabre is a slashing weapon, therefore the edge of the blade is generally used to score points, though the point can be used also. This weapon is also governed by the rules of right-of-way, interpreted in the same way as the foil.
The sabre tends to be the fastest and most athletic of the three modern weapons. Fencers engage each other very quickly and the engagements rarely go beyond a few actions. Sabre fencers have had to adapt their tactics to a semi-recent rule that forbids them to bring the rear foot forward of the front. This prevents a type of attack called the fleche, which is a combination of a leap and a run. Fencers have adapted by creating the "flunge,' which is essentially jumping at your opponent. Many sabre matches consist of the two fencers leaping at each other, the weapon is dominated by the quickest and most effective motions.
Epee is the heaviest of the three weapons and beginners, used to foil, often find this an issue in moving to this weapon. The lack of right-of-way rule also requires unlearning.
Epee fencing is a bit of a departure from foil and sabre fencing. Epee was created as a reaction to foil fencing with the idea of creating a competition more like a "real" duel. The rules are modeled after the French practice of dueling to first blood drawn; touches may be scored anywhere on the body. Because no system exists for establishing the priority of an attack, both fencers may score a point simultaneously, called a 'double-touch,' as long as the hits arrive within .5 seconds of each other.
Épée tactics differ significantly from those of foil and sabre. Because the arm is also target (it is, in fact, the primary target) fencers stay further away from each other. Épée also tends to rely less on the parry-riposte because there is no need to establish priority. While parry-riposte is still used, counterattacks are used far more frequently instead. Fencers in épée also tend to rely on deeper strategies because of the slower, more defensive nature.