Rules Blog: The Field of Play

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Jun 232017

As you may be aware, USA Fencing uses a variety of pistes at our North American Cup tournaments, with some variance in size and markings. Because of this variance, there has been some confusion in the past as to what parts of a given piste are considered “in-bounds”, particularly with regard to the pistes we use for bouts on video replay (typically beginning in the round of 16 through the semi-finals).

Specifically, I’m referring to pistes supplied by Leon Paul or Absolute Fencing that look like these:

There has been some question as to whether or not the colored border along the sides of these pistes is considered in-bounds or out-of-bounds. Members of the Rules Committee who are active international referees have raised this question throughout the season with members of FIE Arbitrage, and the interpretation at the FIE level has been consistent: the entirety of the metal surface of the piste, including the colored areas, is considered “in-bounds”.

The rationale provided by FIE Arbitrage is that fencers often determine their location on the piste (whether on or off with respect to the lateral boundary) via tactile means (e.g. by feeling with their feet). If we enforce the edge of the strip as the painted surface, referees are compelled to cause numerous counter-intuitive and disruptive stoppages in the bout. These stoppages harm the fencing and make judgement more difficult. In addition, a large number of standard grounded pistes lack the side markings and are treated as entirely in-bounds, and fencers often struggle (or fail to) adapt to the change in markings.

This image from the Budapest Epee Grand Prix is an example of senior international epee fencers and officials treating the entire piste surface as in-bounds:

The Referees’ Commission is therefore directing American referees to adopt the same interpretation at our North American Cups and at the upcoming Summer Nationals.

Good luck out there!
Devin Donnelly
Vice Chair, Rules and Exams
On behalf of the Rules Committee and the Referees’ Commission

Rules Blog: Conflicts of Interest

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May 122017

This edition of the Rules Blog focuses on a question from member Richard Lee, about avoiding conflicts of interest while refereeing:

“I fence competitively (and so does my son), and I am a member of a Club, so I would like to know when I can and when I can’t referee a particular (or any) bout in a USA Fencing-sanctioned Tournament (I suppose it would be more lenient in non-sanctioned bouts).

1. I am sure I can’t referee a bout/pool that I, my son or a Club mate is fencing in. Similarly, I would imagine I cannot referee a Tournament that me or my son is competing in, regardless of me avoiding refereeing any of my son’s bouts (perhaps I am wrong?). However, can I referee a Tournament that includes a fencer (not me or my son) from my Club, as long as I do not referee any of his/her particular bout/pool? I may be wrong in some of my assumptions above, so I would love to know the proper rules on this.

2. Also, is there a restriction on refereeing a bout involving a fencer who I personally know, but is not a relative or a Club mate (or other fiduciary/official relationship)? Since I fence, and my son fences, I certainly have gotten to know (to varying degrees) a lot of the fencers (both Youth and Open fencers). Obviously, I cannot be biased and must be strictly objective, but I have socialized/gotten to know a lot of fencers in my Region.

I very much appreciate your guidance. Thank you!”

And the answer, from the Rules Committee:

Hi Richard,

These are good questions. Avoiding conflicts of interest is extremely important for referees, and USA Fencing referees make it a point of emphasis to make sure to avoid conflicts or even the appearance thereof. The FIE Code of Ethics, in Statutes Chapter 12 states that:

“[Referees] must avoid accepting an assignment to referee any match in which they have a perceived
or actual “Conflict of Interest” with any participant. Conflict of Interest shall mean any
situation where a conflict exists between the duties and the private interests of a referee or
judge, in which s/he has direct or indirect private interests that affect, might affect or seem
to affect the performance of, in an incorrect way, the referee’s or judge’s responsibilities
and duties as a referee or judge.”

Keep in mind, however, that “fencing is a small town.” As you referee in your local area, or even nationally or internationally, you’ll get to know the other members of the fencing community and likely become friends with them. It’s simply impossible to avoid refereeing someone that you know. In that case, we define “relationships” as being familial or fiduciary (such as affiliation with a fencing club).

1. Conflicts depend on the level of the tournament. We avoid conflicts based on personal relationships (such as family), club affiliation (teammates), and geography. I’ll take these in order:

Personal Relationships: You should recuse yourself from any bouts or pools that involve a family member, spouse, or significant other (any romantic relationship). That means you are correct in that you should not referee any bout or pool in which your son is fencing, at any level. You may, however, referee a tournament that your son (or a person with another such relationship) is fencing in, provided you aren’t involved with any of that fencer’s bouts or pools. A coach/student relationship is also a personal relationship in this context, whether past or present.

Teammates/Club Affiliation: You should recuse yourself from any bouts that involve your teammates–however, you can referee pools in which you have teammates/club members, provided you don’t work the actual bouts. In such cases, you should ask for help from another referee to handle those bouts that involve your teammates.

Geography: We avoid geographic conflicts only at the National or International level. At the National level, you should avoid refereeing fencers that come from the same division as you do. At the International level, you should avoid refereeing fencers from your home country. Bear in mind that at local tournaments, everyone will be from the same one or two local divisions, so these conflicts are not considered at that level.

2. There is no restriction on refereeing fencers that you know personally if there is no familial or fiduciary relationship. Fencing is a small town and you’ll quickly find that you get to know everybody. Use your judgement when recusing yourself; if you had a past personal relationship with a fencer (such as a romantic relationship), or coached a fencer personally, or had any other kind of personal relationship that would make you personally uncomfortable with your ability to be impartial, you can recuse yourself and you’ll find the community to be understanding.

Hope this helps! Thanks for bringing up such an important question.

Best of luck out there!
Devin Donnelly
On behalf of the Rules Committee and the Referees’ Commission

Rules Blog: On Corps-a-corps to Avoid a Touch

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Jan 102017

We’re all aware that when two fencers are in physical contact, we as referees need to stop the bout in accordance with rule t.20.1. When fencers are engaged at close quarters, such contact is relatively common and often accidental.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the contact may fall under the situations outlined under article t.20.2: “In all three weapons it is forbidden for a fencer to cause corps à corps intentionally to avoid being touched, or to jostle the opponent.” This contact merits a first group penalty: A yellow card at first offense, and a red for subsequent offenses.

So how do we tell the difference between an accidental or incidental corps-a-corps and a fencer intentionally making contact to avoid a touch? Like a lot of other decisions we make, this is a judgement call and is dependent upon the individual fencing situation. The rulebook doesn’t codify when to apply incidental corps-a-corps (a halt) versus corps-a-corps to avoid a touch (a Group 1 penalty), but the action can give us some context clues. These can include fencer movement and the priority of the action.

Fencer Movement

Generally speaking, a fencer cannot cause corps-a-corps (to avoid a touch or otherwise) if they’re stationary. A fencer holding still will almost always be subject to the other fencer’s corps-a-corps. If two competitors make contact and one of them isn’t moving, the stationary fencer most likely did not cause the contact. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the fencer causing the contact should be penalized, but it can help you make your decision based on other factors (like the priority of the action).

(A fencer can cause corps-a-corps without moving their feet by “pushing off” with either the armed or unarmed arm, or by leaning their torso, but in neither of those cases is the fencer considered “stationary”–they’re moving in some sense.)

The Priority of the Action

With movement established, another important clue as to whether or not a fencer has made contact to avoid a touch is the priority of the action during which the corps-a-corps took place.

The most common reason for a fencer to cause corps-a-corps to avoid a touch is because they are at a disadvantage in the fencing phrase: their attack has just been parried, or they made an action on the target that missed. Knowing that their opponent’s next action will take priority over theirs, such a fencer may attempt to force a halt by causing body contact. The penalty in t.20.2 is specifically designed to prevent a fencer from doing this.

Both the context of the larger phrase and the individual fencer’s action can give you information to help you apply a penalty (or not). If a fencer is collapsing the distance toward their stationary opponent, but their action has priority (they’ve just parried, or they started an attack first) and they’re trying to bring the tip to the target, then the corps-a-corps is likely accidental; they’re not trying to avoid a touch, they’re trying to score one. Causing corps-a-corps in such a situation confers no advantage to them, and as a matter of fact, puts their action at risk. In such a situation, you should not penalize a fencer under t.20.2.

While epee doesn’t use priority rules for scoring, all actions take time to perform and can confer similar relative advantages and disadvantages. An epee fencer might be parried, with the defender maintaining control over the attacker’s blade. The attacker might then cause body contact to try and create a halt and prevent the defender from taking advantage.

Intent of the Rule

t.20.2, or corps-a-corps to avoid a touch, has always been an important rule in epee. This season, it has become particularly important in foil. The new penalty for reversing the shoulders makes legal fencing at close quarters in foil somewhat more difficult, and creates an incentive for a fencer who is at a disadvantage in priority to collapse the distance or “crowd” their opponent. Should a fencer in such a situation make body contact, you should penalize them according to t.20.2.

Good luck out there!

Devin Donnelly
On Behalf of the Rules Committee and the Referees’ Commission

Rules Blog: On Passing — What is “Completely Past”?

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Oct 312016

Beginning in 2013, the FIE moved to change the wording of rule t.21.3, which stipulates when the referee should call “halt!” when the fencers have passed one another. Specifically, they inserted the phrase “goes completely past” the opponent:

“When a fencer goes completely past his opponent during a bout, the Referee must immediately call ‘Halt!’ and replace the competitors in the positions which they occupied before the passing took place.”

So what do we mean by “completely past”?

We’ve now had a full quadrennial of fencing to gain consensus on what “completely past” means, and based on the experience of our colleagues working abroad, it is this:

Fencers are “completely past” one another if their entire torsos (shoulder to shoulder) no longer overlap.

Basically, if you can see daylight between the fencers’ torsos, they’ve passed.

Intent of the Rule:

The FIE adopted this rule to cut down on a high number of early halts called for passing at close quarters when any part of the fencers’ torsos overlapped. Admittedly, the updated wording has its own ambiguity, but we as a group have had a few years to get used to the change, and the interpretation has coalesced somewhat.

Things to keep in mind:

– Occasionally, you’ll find your own viewpoint offset from the relative center of the fencers as you position yourself to keep the scoring apparatus in your field of view; be aware of this when judging when the fencers have passed.
– You don’t need to factor in the fencers trailing extremities when judging whether or not the fencers have passed one another. This holds true regardless of the situation–either live or on video replay.
– If a fencer being passed makes an immediate riposte started before the opposing fencer is completely past, that riposte is still valid if it lands after the pass has concluded (as stated in t.21.4).

Good luck out there!

Devin Donnelly
On behalf of the Rules Committee and the Referees’ Commission

Rules Blog – Clarifying the Reversal Rule in Foil

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Sep 292016

It’s come to our attention here at the Rules Committee that there have been some further questions about our previous post, Interpreting Reversing the Shoulders in Foil. Specifically, there have been some questions about the last section, “pulling back at close distance”.

Some readers have interpreted that section to mean that a backward rotation should be considered legal, even if it results in the shoulders being reversed with respect to the opponent. That’s not the case. Reversing the shoulders with respect to the opponent (where the non-weapon arm is between the two fencers) is always a penalty, regardless of which way a fencer turns.

Here’s an example of an action where the fencer on the left pulls his weapon arm and shoulder back, as opposed to a forward rotation. However, note that relative to his opponent, he has reversed his shoulders and should be penalized according to the rule.

Downloadable Video – Shoulder Reverse

I’d like to stress that this section about pulling back is only relevant when a fencer is being passed on the weapon arm side, and the two fencers’ shoulders remain “squared up” relative to one another. The above video demonstrates a situation in which a fencer rotates backward, but should still be penalized for reversing because of the relationship of the shoulders with respect to the other fencer.

A good rule of thumb to follow: If the non-weapon arm is between the fencers and you ask yourself, “is that possibly covering?” the answer is that they definitely reversed.

I hope this clarifies a few things. Good luck out there.

Devin Donnelly
Vice Chair, Rules and Exams
On Behalf of the Rules Committee and the Referees’ Commissio

Rules Blog – Interpreting Reversing the Shoulders in Foil

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Sep 112016
As you might already know, USA Fencing has adopted a rule change from the international fencing governing body (the FIE), in which a foil fencer who brings the shoulder of his/her non-weapon arm forward of their weapon arm shoulder is now subject to a Group 1 penalty (a yellow card). According to the FIE’s proposal to the congress, the rule change is intended to cut down on cases where it isn’t clear if a fencer substituted valid target with their off-weapon arm while reversing their shoulders.

The thing to keep in mind when watching for this penalty is that you need to look for a forward rotation relative to the opponent–a fencer making a move to bring their off-shoulder forward such that it ends up closer to their opponent than the weapon arm shoulder. When both fencers are in front of one another at normal fencing distance, this is pretty easy to spot.

However, there are some cases where a fencer may end up in a position where their off-weapon shoulder is closer to the opponent than the weapon shoulder, but not as a result of that fencer making a forward rotation. These are cases where you should not apply the penalty. Specifically, these are situations when the fencers are passing one another, and situations where a fencer is pulling back at close distance.


In passing cases, fencers will usually end up with their shoulders reversed in relation to one another, but it’s because their position on the strip has changed–not because either fencer has made a forward rotation. Some examples of passing situations where you should not penalize a fencer for having their shoulders reversed:
  • A fencer who has run or fleched past their opponent; they are not not obligated to turn around once they’ve passed and should not be penalized.
  • A fencer who has been passed by their opponent, who is now behind them, should not be penalized.
  • A fencer who turns to make a riposte on an opponent who is passing them should not be penalized.
It’s important that you differentiate between a fencer who is turning forward relative to a static opponent and a fencer who is turning to track an opponent moving past them. Only the former merits a penalty.

Pulling Back at Close Distance

This is perhaps the trickiest case. You’ll see it happen primarily with opposite-handed fencers (lefty vs. righty) when one fencer closes distance rapidly toward their opponent’s weapon-arm side. If a fencer rotates backward–meaning they pull their front foot and weapon-arm shoulder backward to make a hit on the target as their opponent moves closer to them–they may end up with their shoulders reversed. In many cases their shoulders will not be reversed relative to the target, though the target is still at least partially in front of them relative to the strip. In this case, you should not penalize the fencer who’s rotating and pulling back to make a hit. They aren’t bringing their off-weapon shoulder forward; they’re bringing their weapon arm back, in response to the opponent closing distance.

Intent of the Penalty

The penalty for reversing the shoulders is intended for fencers who reverse forward in order to avoid being hit. Keep that in mind when applying this penalty; we don’t want to create an incentive for fencers to either attempt a pass or collapse the distance in the hopes of getting their opponent penalized for trying to make a hit.

Bear in mind that we want to ensure that the United States’ referees interpret the rule in line with our colleagues in the international community; the Rules Committee will update our information here with observations from American referees that attend competitions around the world as necessary. Best of luck out there!

Devin Donnelly, Vice-Chair, Rules and Exams
On behalf of the Rules Committee and the Referees’ Commission

Welcome to the Referees’ Commission Rules Blog!

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Sep 112016

Welcome to the Referees’ Commission Rules Blog!

On this site, the RC’s Vice Chair of Rules and Exams and other members of the Rules Committee (plus guests) will post regular updates on rules applications and answer noteworthy questions we’ve received from the membership. Ideally, we’d like to post bi-weekly updates on rules interpretations or member questions.

Many members of the RC and Rules Committee are currently active international referees, so if you’ve got any questions as to how things are working at the international level, feel free to ask and to check here.


Devin Donnelly, Referees’ Commission Vice Chair, Rules and Exams