Fencing vs Duelling: Key Differences Explained

While some people use the terms duelling and fencing interchangeably, and think of them as very similar disciplines, there are major differences. In this article we will give an overview of the main differences between fencing and duelling, the sport of fencing, the history of duelling and the key differences that set them both apart.

Fencing vs Duelling Overview

While to many people on the surface fencing and duelling look like the same thing they are actually very different. Fencing is a modern Olympic sport that evolved out of classical fencing and European sword-fighting traditions. It has its own evolved ruleset, set by the FIE (Fédération Internationale d'Escrime).

Duelling on the other hand refers to any arranged combat between two people, with matching weapons and set rules. Originating in the Middle Ages, duels were a means to settle disputes, usually with an honour code. The goal of a duel was not always death, but to defeat the opponent, whether that is by causing the opponent to surrender, or by injuring them. Duelling was also limited to the upper classes and nobility.

In a sense, duelling could be considered a broad category encompassing 1 v 1 bouts, where swords could be the matched weapon of choice. HEMA, might be a closer representation of historical duelling with swords that has continued into the present day. See our article on fencing vs HEMA for a closer comparison.

As fencing evolved from older sword-fighting and classical fencing traditions, it's no wonder that it’s often confused by the layperson with dueling.

Fencing Basics Explained

Fencing is a physical and tactical sport that involves competing against an opponent with swords. It requires speed, agility, strength, and endurance to be successful.

In fencing, there are three main weapons: the foil is characterised by its light and flexible blade, the epee has a heavier and stiffer blade, while the sabre is a cutting and thrusting weapon with an even more rigid blade.

Fencing entails trying to score points with a sword by hitting your opponent's target area, typically the torso. Points are rewarded for successful hits, and penalties are applied for any prohibited moves or conduct.

Fencers wear specialised protective gear including a face mask, padded jacket, breeches, and gloves. The face mask is intended to absorb and protect against impacts, while the jacket is made with thick fabric to provide defence against strikes. The breeches offer protection to the legs and groin, while the gloves guard the hands.

Fencing necessitates special equipment such as a fencing strip, scoring apparatus, and referee for officiated bouts.

Duelling Explained

Duelling is a form of prearranged combat between two people, with matching weapons and set rules. It originated in the Middle Ages as a means to settle disputes, usually with an honour code. The goal of a duel was not always death, but to defeat the opponent, whether that is by causing the opponent to surrender or by injuring them.

Duelling was a popular form of combat in the 18th century, with many countries having their own set of rules and regulations. The rules of duelling varied from place to place but typically included such things as: no one could be forced into a duel; both parties had to agree on the terms; both parties had to be of equal social standing; and both parties had to have a witness present.

The weapons used in duels were usually swords or pistols, depending on the country. In some cases, the participants would fight with rapiers or sabres, while in others they would use muskets or rifles.

What Are The Key Differences Between Fencing and Dueling?

  • Fencing is a competitive sport, while duelling, in most developed countries, is an officially illegal act.
  • Fencing involves scoring points based on specific offensive and defensive moves, while duelling involves attempting to inflict injury on your opponent.
  • Fencing involves the use of a sword, foil or épée; duelling can encompass a wide range of weapons, including guns.
  • Fencing matches are supervised by referees and judges, while duelling has no referee or time limit imposed.
  • Duels are typically spontaneous due to an insult or a desire for revenge, while fencing is officially planned out ahead of time with two willing participants.


How similar is the sport of fencing to historical duels?

Fencing is quite similar to historical duels in that it involves a lot of strategy and tactical manoeuvres, as well as recognizing an opponent's weaknesses. However fencing does not typically include any kind of physical contact or violent intent. Instead, the goal of fencing is to score points by directly targeting your opponent with your sword, instead of inflicting injury.

What is the difference between fencing swords and duelling swords?

Fencing swords are designed with a blunter edge and do not have a sharp point, specifically designed for fencing sport. Duelling swords on the other hand, are designed with an edged blade, and a sharp point so they can be used in actual duels.

When did people stop duelling?

People gradually stopped duelling in the 19th century, with the last known duel in France taking place in 1967. Most developed countries have outlawed duelling entirely.

Is fencing a rich person sport?

Fencing is often seen as a privileged or expensive sport, but the reality is that fencing has become more and more accessible over the years. Nowadays, you can find fencing clubs of various levels all over the world, with reasonable club fees. For more information, see our guide to if fencing is an expensive sport.

What weapons were used in duels?

Duelling weapons varied widely, but typically included swords (such as rapiers or sabres), pistols, and sometimes knives.

Was fencing used in duels?

Yes, an older form of fencing was used in duels. It became popular during the Renaissance period and was a common practice for settling disputes between two people or groups.

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