Today it is widely accepted that fencing without electrical scoring equipment, and especially holding tournaments without electrical scoring, is a waste of time. Such dry fencing (also called standard, or by the British steam, fencing) marks one as thoroughly out of touch with real fencing. Unfortunately, what is widely accepted is simply wrong, and in many ways limits the training of athletes in all three weapons.
First, let me establish that I believe fencing with electric scoring in practice is a key part in preparing for competition. The balance and handling of an electric weapon is different, the supporting electric equipment, especially the lame, imposes physiological loads on the fencer, the timing necessary to success in all three weapons is different. You have to fence electric in order to prepare for electric competition.
However, this is not the complete picture. For example, consider the hit. No one, to the best of my knowledge, has done research on what percentage of hits in electric competition in all three weapons result from accidental factors having little to do with correct mechanical execution of technique. For example, is the hit on the underlying body, or is the hit an accidental tag on a fold of clothing? If the percentage is 10 percent, accidental hits start to account for a significant cumulative number of touches in competition. Training with electric scoring may result in a picture of good enough placement of the hit, a good enough that is significantly vulnerable to swings in outcome based on chance.
At the same time, because the fencer is focused on whether the scoring machine is registering a hit, there may be a tendency not to feel what a good hit feels like. In terms of developing good technique, this is probably not a good thing, especially if the fencer wants to develop good point placement. However, there is a more mundane, but highly significant, outcome. The fencer may become so confident in the reliability of electric scoring that he or she does not realize the weapon has failed when it does in a bout.
I have seen fencers fence for as many as 5 touches in a direct elimination bout without realizing that the hits were not registering because there was no tip in their weapon – the hit was not solid enough, it must have not had enough dwell time on the target, somehow it hit outside the timing parameters of the scoring machine, etc…. any excuse was accepted in preference to realizing at the first hit that there was a technical problem. Because dry fencing is a more tactile experience, it promotes a good understanding of what is a light hit that might not trigger a light, a solid hit that should light up the scoring machine, and a graze that should not result in a hit. If we train for high probability hits, dry fencing can help that training.
Throughput on the fencing floor is another issue. It is not unusual for an electric bout to consume as much time in putting on equipment, testing, identifying and replacing equipment when it fails, etc., as the actual fencing requires. If your goal is bouts for training, with more bouts imposing increased training overload on the athletes, throughput (the number of bouts fenced per strip per hour) becomes an issue. Every year my Salle fences Fence Til You Drop, an informal and self-refereed tournament on New Year’s Day, in which the goal is to fence the most dry bouts in two hours – last year the winning two fencers fenced 52 bouts each, and that was with getting off the strip after each bout so that others could fight.
Finally, the loss of judges has created a generation of fencers who do not have the building blocks for developing referee skills or an understanding of the referee’s task level. In the 1960s and 1970s and even through the last years of dry sabre, fencers grew up judging and refereeing in the pools in which they were fencing. We were socialized to the difficulty of seeing and describing the action, and, even though we harassed referees, we had a level of sympathy for how hard the job is. More importantly we learned why referees called actions the way they did through watching and listening, and we learned a lot about recognizing opponent’s actions on the strip.
Today, electrical scoring creates the impression that fencing is an objective sport. It is not – fencers compete in an environment dominated by the subjective interpretation of matters of fact by referees. Dry bouts have value in training specifically because they are even more subjective. Frustration over judges missing hits is not a bad thing if we wish to develop the ability to maintain focus in the face of bad calls and to adjust technique to the capabilities of the referee and the scoring system.
There are many good reasons to fence training bouts with electrical scoring – it is always desirable to practice the way you will fight in competition. However, there are also good reasons to keep dry training bouts and internal competitions specifically as a part of the training repertoire. Coaches and fencers should identify specific outcomes for each type of activity, electric or dry, and use the most appropriate tool for the training task.