The foil is based on the French court sword which came into existence late in the 17th century. The court sword was extremely light and fast and soon became the standard fencing weapon. The foil is the blunted practice version. Because the risk of eye injury was so great, rules were introduced so that hits were restricted to the right breast, and the attack/parry right-of-way convention became commonplace. These increasingly stylised conventions remained even after the introduction of the mask in 1750.
Today, the foil is perhaps the predominant weapon in sport fencing. It is the first weapon most new fencers learn to handle. The rules of priority, based upon the right-of-way, continue to govern the use of the foil and make it arguably the most complex weapon of the three.
The épée was developed in the mid-19th century for use as a dueling weapon. The foil was considered too light and the rapier too heavy and slow to be effective when fighting for one’s life.
Modern épée retains the entire body as a target and doesn’t have any right-of-way conventions. Many more attacks are possible than in foil – one might attack the arm, the wrist, the head, the leg and the foot of an opponent – and finer motions are possible, as there is no need clearly to establish a right-of-way in the eyes of the referee. Thus épée might be considered a more nuanced weapon than foil or sabre.
The fencing sabre was introduced by the Italians during the late 19th century. It was based on the heavier curved swords used by earlier cavalry, and soon became a fencing and dueling weapon. Due to its weight and speed fencing with this weapon soon developed rules and conventions similar to foil, the big difference being that the sabre has an edge as well as a point.
The sabre is a very light and fast weapon, and the combination of this with the right-of-way rules and the availability of an opponent’s forearm as target area makes sabre a challenging weapon to succeed in. Whether for this reason or some other, sabre tends to be the more obscure weapon in modern fencing. Nevertheless, sabre fencing retains a faithful following and can be a satisfying skill to learn.