When exploring fencing or HEMA, you may be wondering - what are the main differences?
On the surface, they make look similar due to their apparent focus on swordsmanship, but there are many important differences to make note of if you are interested in getting started in either.
What's The Main Difference Between Fencing and HEMA?
The main difference between fencing and HEMA is that modern fencing is an Olympic combat sport that evolved from classical fencing, whereas HEMA is focused on the authentic recreation of martial arts originating from Europe.
Those that fence often do so purely to engage in the sport of fencing as it stands today. They may wish to stay fit, compete locally, or even have ambitions to compete at an Olympic level.
While fencing on the surface may look like “swordfighting” it’s more accurate to see fencing as an intricate game of sword-based tag, rather than a display of historical swordsmanship. This is despite the sport originating in the 19th Century as an evolution of classical fencing.
HEMA (Historical European martial arts), on the other hand, places historical accuracy at the heart. HEMA is primarily concerned with using accurate techniques, weaponry and etiquette to try and replicate techniques and traditions of historical European origin. Rather than being a single martial art, it should be considered an attempt to conglomerate multiple martial arts from the period.
So when we talk about HEMA vs fencing and try to compare and contrast, we are in fact talking about HEMA fencing, historical fencing or classical fencing and comparing this to modern fencing. Even though there are technical differences between historical and classical fencing.
Fencing is sometimes criticised by HEMA practitioners for being unrealistic and inauthentic. This largely comes down to rules, the flexible nature of modern swords and how right of way and modern point scoring places minimal emphasis on whether the fencer would have been injured or killed in a realistic “sword fight”.
However, judging fencing on its historical realism is like judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree. Fencing is not trying to be historically accurate, it’s a modern sport with its own evolved ruleset with historical origins.
Fencing Basics Explained
Fencing is a combat sport that comprises three sub-disciplines - foil, épée and sabre. Each of these types of fencing has their own unique set of rules with differences in:
- Sword anatomy
- Target area
- Right of way
To the untrained eye, it may be difficult to distinguish each type of fencing from the other. However, the aforementioned differences make each discipline extremely varied, and most competitive fencers specialise in one of these. Learn more about the differences in fencing swords.
Fencers will fence on a piste wearing a mask, plastron, jacket, lamé, glove, breeches, socks, shoes and, of course, sword. Fencers will be wired to electric apparatus via a wire that connects to their sword and runs through their jacket to a spool at their end of the piste.
A bout will last a total of nine minutes, split into a total of three periods. The first fencer to reach fifteen points wins. A valid touch on the opponent is worth one point. If neither fencer reaches fifteen points, the fencer with the most points wins.
See our fencing terminology page for a complete glossary of fencing terms.
HEMA Basics Explained
HEMA is a collection of European martial arts, which have been revived, studied and practised by a modern community, often focusing on the mediaeval and renaissance periods.
While more of a community rather than a centralised sport like fencing, HEMA encompasses various traditions, weapons and techniques from historical Europe and brings them into the modern day through clubs, events and tournaments.
Weapons that can sit under the umbrella of HEMA include:
- Sword and shield
- Sword and cape
- Sword and dagger
Some HEMA events can also incorporate hand-to-hand combat.
What Are the Key Differences Between Fencing and HEMA?
Clothing and Attire
One main difference is in the attire used. In fencing, this will encompass the standardised fencing equipment, to an FIE or non-FIE standard, with minor differences based on the sword.
By contrast, HEMA attire, depending on the particular martial art, will put more emphasis on protective clothing such as helmets, masks, pads and gloves, to protect from injury from stronger weaponry.
In fencing, there are three swords - foil, épée and sabre. HEMA, on the other hand, has a much greater breadth of swords based on historical periods that are being recreated authentically. This also means there will be a wider variety of sword lengths, weights, styles and anatomies for a HEMA practitioner to get to grips with. This can even include historical versions of the foil, épée and sabre.
Fencing is linear, with fencers advancing and retreating in an en-garde stance. HEMA however usually takes place in a wider, circular area to better reflect the combat conditions of a real-world engagement.
Approaches to Engagements
Because there isn’t the danger of being mortally wounded in modern fencing due to the protective equipment and nature of modern swords, fencers can attack without fear of serious injury.
By contrast, HEMA, with its emphasis on realistic and authentic replication of historical martial arts, places a much greater emphasis on defence. The implication here being if you were not defensive-minded you would surely be injured or killed in a real bout.
While both disciplines require athleticism even at amateur level, there are differences between the type of athleticism required.
Fencing requires sustained mental engagement, quick feet, lower-level cardio, punctuated by explosive actions for attacking and defending - similar in a way to boxing.
HEMA places emphasis on muscular strength and dexterity in manipulating heavier weapons and shields. With its greater focus on defensive manoeuvres and only attacking when a clear opportunity presents itself, the need for explosive energy is markedly less than modern fencing. Cardio is however still crucial for serious competitors of both disciplines.
Aside from the clearer differences of weaponry and attire, the key difference between fencing and HEMA is their overall purpose.
Fencing is a modern sport with a set of evolved rules from its historical routes, and is fundamentally a combat sport. Whereas HEMA is an umbrella term for the faithful recreation of historical European martial arts.
Ultimately, fencing is more sportified, whereas HEMA is more firmly rooted in historical recreation, despite more recent attempts to “sportify” it as it becomes more popular.