Foil Priority – For Newbies

So you’ve never seen fencing before, you’ve just found out about foil fencing, and you want to know how it’s scored.

What is Priority?

In foil, only one fencer can get a point at a time. If both fencers touch each other at the same time, then priority is used to determine which fencer gets the point.

  • One, or neither fencer has priority at any given time
  • Only the touch of the fencer who has priority should be considered when scoring an action (regardless of whether it was on or off target)
  • If only one fencer touches then their touch can be considered regardless of priority (though strictly speaking they do have priority by virtue of the other fencer missing)

How do you determine who has priority

It’s simple

In very simplified terms:

Whoever starts their attack first gains priority and loses it when they stop their attack, miss, or get parried.

The fencer on the left is clearly the attacker, and scores the point.

The fencer on the left is clearly the attacker – but they miss! The fencer on the right counter attacks and scores the point

The fencer on the right is clearly the attacker, but touches off-target. The fencer on the left touches on-target, but her touch does not matter since the fencer on the right touched off-target with priority. No one scores a point

If both start their attack at the same time, and both touch (whether on-targt or off-target), the call is “Simultaneous” and no one gets a point.

If a defender parries the attack, or the attack misses or stops, generally the defender gains priority and if both fencers now hit, the defender would score a point.

The fencer on the left clearly attacks. The fencer on the right clearly parries, and then both fencers touch on-target. The fencer on the right scores, because she was the one to parry

Actually, it’s a bit complicated…

In practice, the nuances of priority are heavily debated. The majority of calls are actually not very hard to determine. Many are single lights. Many have one fencer clearly trying to attack, while the other fencer either clearly successfully defends, or clearly fails to defend.

A healthy minority of calls will require some skill to get right. A smaller minority still will require a few years experience practicing. A smaller minority after that are just hard for even the best referees in the world to determine.

Additionally, beginner fencer bouts often are harder to referee because the fencers don’t have as much control or awareness over what’s going on, so the actions often get a little bit wonky.

Don’t worry though! It’s okay for beginner referees to say “I abstain” or “I just don’t know!”. As you become more experienced you should try to abstain as little as possible (generally it’s frowned upon for an world class referee to ever abstain, but it happens occasionally).

I’ve written a number of posts that go into more detail. The best one to start with is here:

Foil priority rules of thumb with examples

And more can be found here:

Refereeing tutorials

Some other things to know

  • If one of the fencers scores, they start the next action behind their on guard lines. If no one scores, they start where the last action finished
  • Bouts go to either 5 points with 3 minutes fencing time, or 15 points, with 3 periods of 3 minutes fencing time separated by two one minute breaks.
  • If the fencers pass each other or one fencer steps off the piste, a halt is called (no cards are given)
  • If a fencer steps off the back of the piste with both feet (having one toe on is still on the piste), then the other fencer gets a point and fencers start the next action at the on guard lines