This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 21st August 2015. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
Many practitioners of historical fencing have little interest in modern foil fencing, preferring the historical disciplines for a variety of reasons. However, every so often, the question arises: “is it worth learning modern fencing?”
My advice is that if you have the opportunity, it is worth spending some time learning to fence with the foil. There are some quite tangible benefits that come with this practice, and you cannot go far wrong by giving yourself this experience, even for a short while.
You certainly do not need to learn foil fencing to be able to learn one of the historical disciplines. In fact, I believe that trying to retrofit foil concepts into older historical systems (such as those for the longsword) can actually hold back your development and throw up red herrings as you work with the older treatises.
If you do take up foil fencing, treat it a what it is: its own self-contained discipline, that may have some similarities to other fencing systems, along with many key differences.
1) learning why the hands should move before the feet when attacking along a straight line
One of the pieces of advice you will doubtless hear again and again from instructors in any European fencing art is that the hands should move before the feet.
When you thrust with the foil, you do not step and then try to make a thrust while on the move; you straighten your arm and then perform the lunge if (and only if) it is necessary to do so. There are various thrusting techniques that do not require a lunge, such as the thrust without a step, or even the thrust with a step backwards.
The reason is that if you move the body first, before creating threat with the weapon, then your opponent can react to your body, which is a dangerous situation for you to be in. If you move your sword first, to create threat before moving your body forward, then the likelihood is that your opponent will react to your sword instead of towards your body – a much safer situation.
In foil fencing, you fight along a narrow strip of ground, called the “piste”. It is not wide enough for much stepping to the side, nor for circling, and so the fencing tends to be very linear in nature. Therefore, when you attack, you tend to do so along a straight line towards your opponent, and straightening the arm to move the foil before moving the body or feet is the best way to ensure your safety as you close the distance toward your opponent.
This is a good lesson for historical fencing disciplines when you attack along a straight line. However, some historical disciplines also involve passing footwork (instead of just lunges) and sidesteps, both of which can change the nature of the attack, so that in some circumstances it is perfectly reasonable to move the body before moving the sword.
Once you understand the rationale behind these mechanical rules, you can follow them or break them at your leisure, and you can make the right choice for the situation in which you find yourself.
2) it is a good fun, low-impact game with relevance
The modern fencing foil is a very light sword, weighing perhaps 350 to 400 grams, and is extremely flexible in the thrust. It is quite a different type of weapon from the longsword (weighing around 1500g) or the basket-hilted broadsword weighing (weighing around 1350g). It is even quite different from the military sabre (often weighing 850g-1000g). Modern replicas of historical swords tend to be significantly more stiff and less flexible than modern training foils.
As a result, it is not very painful at all to spend an hour or two receiving constant thrusts from the fencing foil to the torso or to the fencing mask. While sometimes the chest may develop a little bruising, it is nothing compared to the kind of bruising that can result from sparring with historical weapons, and the foil requires far less padding and protective gear (although Newton-rated penetration-proof safety gear is strongly recommended for such light and flexible blades, in case of snapping).
The best way to develop skills, strength and stamina for a given kind of activity is by performing that activity or those closely related to it. Spending an hour jogging may improve your cardiovascular endurance in general, but it will not necessarily help you fence with the rapier for five hours at a time. Similarly, playing a 90 minute game of football will not make you a better wrestler or a better sword and buckler fencer. To become better at fencing, it is best to do more fencing.
Foil fencing requires many of the same skills and actions as are required for most historical fencing disciplines. Because of its general relevance to the kinds of motions required, it is a helpful game to play to develop your capacity for fencing, while still letting you do something a bit different for a while, with a lot less impact on the body from heavy hits.
3) you can learn the concept of priority, or right of way
Whether or not you agree with the rule of priority (or right of way), and how it is handled and implemented in foil fencing, it is nonetheless a valuable concept to understand. If you can analyse in any given situation who has priority, i.e. who has initiated an attack and is presenting threat, and therefore who should be considering his own defence instead of making a suicidal counter-thrust, then you will have a much better ability to make sensible choices in sparring.
You do not need to try to shoehorn the modern concept of right of way into your historical fencing. Indeed, this may sometimes have counter-productive results. At the end of the day, good fencing skills and a sensible mindset are what keep you safe from being hit, and a rule such as right of way is really just a rule for how you play the game.
It is useful to have an awareness of the theory of right of way and how to apply it in different situations. A working knowledge of right of way in modern fencing is a healthy thing to possess, even if you choose not to apply the rule in your own sparring!
4) it emphasises the value of fine detail manipulation of the sword without needing lots of body strength
Often, beginners feel that sword fighting should involve as much strength as possible, and they have difficulty relaxing and letting the sword do its thing without “muscling” techniques to completion.
As a thrusting weapon, without any cutting techniques, the foil is an ideal way to learn to use fine detail manipulation of the fingers without applying any real strength to the actions. Of course, you do need some strength to be able to make dynamic and explosive attacks, and to maintain a back-and-forth rally of thrust parry thrust parry thrust, but the raw strength required is significantly less than what you need to work with the longsword or the basket-hilted broadsword.
Learning to relax and to develop dexterity in the fingers and in the grip can be a valuable lesson for people who clench too tightly around the handle of their sword.
5) it gives you an appreciation for how other people solve the same problems
It is all too easy to fall into the trap of assuming that modern fencing is just sporty nonsense without promoting any sense of self-preservation, especially if your historical fencing instructor or other club members have that kind of mindset.
However, you may discover that some modern fencing schools do prioritise the motto of “touch without being touched”, and pace a greater emphasis on safe and secure fencing than you may have expected. Taking some foil fencing lessons and observing how other schools approach the same problems that we face in historical fencing (how to attack safely and securely, how to avoid being hit when attacked, how to deal with double hits, etc.) can be a valuable learning experience. Such insights may broaden your knowledge and help you become a more mature and well-rounded martial artist.
 For example, when fencing with the longsword, you might make your first Zwerhaw (short edge, arms uncrossed) at the same time as your step, or just before the step, but then you may step off the side in order to find a better location and angle from which to deliver the second Zwerhaw (long edge, arms crossed).
Needless to say, this is a contentious statement. Some people will agree, others will disagree. Another way to describe the above example would be to use George Silver’s terminology: make your strike, take a step to “Gain the Place”, and then strike with “Time of the Hand” from that Place.
The main point to take away from this example is that not every discipline must follow exactly the same rules, because for various reasons, the nature of the fight can change when using different weapons or systems.
 For example, in foil fencing, once you parry an attack, it is your turn to make your own attack. However, in historical fencing, your opponent may make two, three, four, or even more attacks towards you in a long sequence. If he does so, and if you decide that after you make your first parry, it is now your turn to attack, without paying attention to the opponent’s body language and pressure, then you will still get hit, and being hit is bad.
 Some of the 18th and 19th century British broadsword and sabre sources offer a similar suggestion: that fencers should learn to use the smallsword first, to improve their fine-detail skills, before moving onto using the broadsword or sabre with the larger motions that come with a heavier weapon.
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers.