Swords, armor, and dueling have always been more fascinating than foils, plastrons, and bouting. For example, you probably have a general idea of swords, armor, and dueling, but aren’t quite sure what the latter three are. It’s understandable. There has always been more drama, and thus interest, in real combat than combat training. Because of that, it can be difficult for those of us interested in fencing training to learn about historic equipment.
To remedy that, I’ve assembled this visual and textual chronology of fencing equipment used from seventeenth century through the late twentieth century. It does not cover the production, trade, or use of fencing equipment, only an object’s existence and form. Also, it should be noted that the following is a work in progress and does not claim to be exhaustive or complete. Still, it’s a heck of a lot more than what’s out there right now.
For the sake of clarity, I’m using the term fencing here to mean bouting with blunted, rebated, or foiled (read safety) weapons while wearing protective, as opposed to defensive, gear.
For more fencing history check out our Fencing Posts.
1641-1657. Pair of rebated rapiers. L’ESCRIME / Bien que l’un semble plus adret … Droit dans le neuviesme bouton., Claudine Bouzonnet-Stella, after Jacques Stella. Source.
1652- 1718. Has a plastron (protective jacket), the single fencing shoe or slipper on the forefoot, and carries a basket-hilted foil. Le Maistre d’Armes, by Nicholas Bonnart, 1652-1718. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.
1686. In the lower left corner there are two blunted (also called rebated or foiled) rapiers and what appears to be a fencing mask (based on its proximity to the rapiers). Gioventù (Youth), Giuseppe Maria Mitelli. Source.
- 1725. A fencing salon equipped with round or ovoid foils with quillons, fencing slippers, and a master’s plastron. I have no idea what the fencer on the bench is wearing on his head. Is it a mask or a cap, or something else all together? Der Fechtende Student, Johann Georg Puschner. Wikimedia.
1732-33. A fencing master with his plastron and ovoid foil guard with (integral?) quillons (See detail below). Rake’s Progress, William Hogarth. Wikimedia.
1739. Round or ovoid foil guards with quillons. Anfangsgruende der Fechtkunst Nebst Einer Vorrede von dem Nutzen der Fechtkunst un den Vorzuegen Dieser Anweisung (Elements of the Art of Fencing Together With a Prologue Regarding the Benefits of the Art of Fencing and the Merits of These Instructions), Anthon Freiderich Kahn. Source.
1764. A dated foil, with ovoid guard and integral quillons. From the collection of the National Fencing Museum (Great Britain).
C. 1770. Earliest known extant English foil with cup hilt, and reinforced quillons, made by Samuel Harvey of Birmingham. From the collection of the National Fencing Museum.
1771. Round foils with reinforced quillons, master is wearing a plastron, and all of the fencers shown are wearing sleeved waistcoats and no other protective equipment. Kenneth Mackenzie, 1st Earl of Seaforth (1744 – 1781) at home in Naples, Pietro Farbis. Collection of the National Galleries of Scotland.
1773. Round guard foils and a fencing mask (leather under wire?). The D—— of […]– playing at foils with her favorite lap dog Mungo after expending near £10000 to make him a———-*, William Austin. Lewis Walpole Library.
1773. Foils and gloves. Fencing training of Göttingen students in an appartment, Stammbuch Hempel, Unknown. Source.
1780. While the foil isn’t detailed enough to be useful, it’s interesting to note the fencer is wearing breeches, a sleeved waistcoat, and a(n inconveniently) large hat, but doesn’t seem to have any special protective gear on. It is common throughout the eighteenth century to depict fencers in small clothes (with sleeved waistcoats) or in frock coats. From Theory and Practice of Fencing, John McArthur.
1782. Glove, foils, mask with ties, and fencing slipper (?). From Traite en raccourci sur l’art des armes, Alexandre Picard Bremond. Source.
1787-1789. Ovoid guard foils, padded, gloves, fencing slippers, and the fencer on the left is wearing only breeches and a sleeved waistcoat. The fencer on the right isn’t a woman, it’s a cross-dressing man. The most interesting aspect of this is the mask at the extreme lower left hand corner. It had an over-head clip, not ties. The Fencing-Match between the Chevalier de Saint-George and the Chevalier d’Éon, Alexandre-Auguste Robineau. Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
1787. Disc-guard foils, heavily padded gloves, our first wire masks (with ties), & fencing slippers. Henry Angelo, who is standing to the right of the right fencer, is wearing both a master’s plastron and a white, side-buttoned fencing jacket.The famous fencer the Chevalier Saint-George‘s portrait, foils, and fencing shoes (both of them?) are displayed on the right wall. You can see a 1791 version of the same print here (the zoom function is very useful). I Shall Conquer This”, Thomas Rowlandson. Wikimedia.
Pre-1787. Padded glove and open-work figure-8 foil guard. Monsieur De St. George, William Ward, after Mather Brown. Source.
- 1788. Solid figure eight foils, round guard foils, well-padded gloves, wire masks (not worn, but hanging on the rail behind), and oversize fencing shoes (on front feet only?). A Fencing Match, Thomas Rowlandson. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
1789. While the foils are generic, this print suggest that by the late 1780s wire masks were becoming commonly associated with fencing. St George & the Dragon & Madlle riposting, Isaac Cruikshank. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.
C. 1790. White fencing jacket with black collar (also notice the button closures are the reverse of normal men’s wear to prevent blades from easily entering at the button line), padded glove, and foil. While the foil could have a brass guard, could hilt be leather, like this one. Henry Angelo, Mather Brown. Collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
1814. Round or ovoid foil guards with quillons, tied masks, a fencing slipper on front foot of fencer in red coat, and a master’s plastron worn by the fencer on the right. L’Anglais et son maître d’escrime, attributed to Jean Baptiste Genty. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.
1818. Open work figure-8 foils and fencers in sleeved waistcoats. Plate from Traité de l’art des armes, a l’usage des professeurs et des amateurs, Texier la BOËSSIÈRE the younger.
1821. Shows buttoned white fencing jackets, padded gloves, masks with head clips (not ties), and fencing slippers. Fencing. Jerry’s admiration of Tom in an “assault” with Mr O’Shaunessy, at his rooms in St James’s St., George Cruikshank. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.
C. 1831. White fencing uniforms, masks with clips, figure 8 foils, red belts, and fencing slippers. Brevet de Pointe, Dembour Metz. Brown University Library.
1830-70. Solingen foils made by Friedrich Hörster, with steel decorative pierced guards. From the collection of the National Fencing Museum.
1830-75. Brass disc foils with blades stamped FH (Friedrich Horster). From the collection of the National Fencing Museum.
1866. Mask with unusually small hexagonal mesh specially made for Prof. Bertrand to give as a prize at the Petit College de Rollin in Paris. From the collection of the National Fencing Museum.
1880s. Buttoned fencing jackets, fencing slippers, masks, figure-8 guard foils, and padded gloves. Edmund Quinn Fencing, Circle of Thomas Eakins. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
1895. Showing black breeches and white pants, fencing slippers (fencer on right), and wire masks. From the collection of the National Fencing Museum.
C. 1900. His equipment is right out of the catalogs above (for example, his is mask #3 with head protector listed in the Kiffe catalogue). By the way, that foil doesn’t look safe. “The Fencing Master,” Gary Melchers. Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
1902. Description of foils. 1902 Sears Roebuck Catalogue, p. 341.
1920s. Buttoned jacket, black skirt, black glove, wire mask, and round guard foil with urn pommel. From the collection of the National Fencing Museum.
1926. Buttoned jackets, breeches, fencing slippers, padded wire mask, and a bunch of foils and epees. From the collection of the National Fencing Museum.
1930s. Round foil guard with conical pommel, buttoned jacket, black skirt, black glove, and padded wire mask. Portrait of E. Grant Robinson, Harold Lisle. From the collection of the National Fencing Museum.
1920s. French-grip round guard foil, buttoned jacket, black pants, and glove. Image of Aldo Nadi.
C. 1962. Various foil grip types. From Fencing, Hugo Castello & James Castello, The Ronald Press Company, New York.
C. 1962. Padded wire mask, snap-closure jacket, breeches, and roud guard foil with French grip. From Fencing, Hugo Castello & James Castello, The Ronald Press Company, New York.