Terrain v. Planche: A brief history of late 19th-century fencing spaces

This puts the "eh la!" into élan

They may not have been fencing on balance beams or monkey bars. But the spatial dimensions of early fencing strips imprinted footwork and tactics.

Why are modern “Classical” (or, more accurately, reconstructionist) foil fencers so reluctant to move their feet? The answer may lie in the history of the area used for fencing in the late 1800’s at an influential military academy—whose graduates proselytized their peculiar “space saving” style of fencing all over the world.

Fencing, both in drills and in bouts (assaults), requires an even surface for the fencers to move on. The wooden floors, covered with fine sand or saw dust, of a salle or Fechtboden were ideal for practice.

Less ideal, the meticulously groomed surfaces of sanded or graveled walkways and paths in gardens or parks would provide fencers with reasonably firm attachment to the ground. But frequent back and forth, as in drills or assaults, quickly disrupted the evenness and created the danger of rolling an ankle.

Historical photographs show a variety of options that were used to provide a firm footing to outdoors fencers in the years between 1890 and 1914. Many of them survive as mass-produced postcards, sent home by French soldiers attending the military schools of Joinville-le-Pont and other establishments.

The largest contingent of photographs originated in Joinville, where stock poses were struck, if not every year for every class, then with a similar frequency as those assumed by Heidelberg fraternity students at the Hirschgasse.

The most frequent backdrop for fencing drills and instruction is a stretch of dirt road that leads past barracks and utility buildings:


The sanded street in front of the barracks doubled as outdoor fencing areas.

This area appears to have been ideal to accommodate a large group of fencing students within a relatively contained space. The dimensions of that road dictated the practical distance that fencers were able to move in.

barrack street

The length of the fencing “strip” was equal the width of the street — minus the gutter. Out of bounds was automatically indicated by the fencer getting wet feet.

Outdoors fencing was subject to the vagaries of the weather: Puddles could severely compromise the already limited space:

epee puddle.jpeg

Standing your ground could be a reasonable option… This is a group of epee fencers, half of them striking a pose of counter to the lower arm during rassemblement.

After a few rounds, the sandy ground would provide indications of how far the fencers actually moved. The area of engagement, where most fencing action occurred, would have been marred by shuffling feet far more than the areas behind:

terrain foil

Fencing instruction in the French military was conducted on the terrain… the sand of the streets of the barracks. For the sake of this photograph, fencers have arranged themselves at an angle to a well-worn “line of engagement in the sand”.

The staged photographs of single fencing pairs were arranged against a somewhat more attractive backdrop… like under the trees lining part of the street:


Exams and private lessons could be arranged under the trees… here, prévots supervise a saber exam.


… but even that location had its limitations. (Note the epees leaning against the tree to the left.)

But the best-groomed, tightly packed sand surface creates dangerous ruts and unevenness after only a few passages of arms—not to mention puddles that may have been left from the previous night’s rain.

Wood, however, remained patiently even.

The solution was obvious: Bring the indoors floor outside!

Foil: Walking the Plank

The original French word for fencing strip, planche (lit., plank or board), encapsulates the nature of the original strip and points at its inherent limitations, which required adaptation of the footwork by the fencers.

The planche was initially conceived as an outdoors device: It could easily be placed on sand, gravel, or grass, and provide instant even ground. Voila:


When the planche was still a planche: Then as now, upper-class parents spared no expense to educate their offspring. Here, the private fencing teacher pretends that junior’s awkward posture resembles the “Classical Lunge” that modern recinstructionists claim was all-present. More interesting for our purposes: The planche is exactly what it proclaims to be: a single board, with the donor tree’s bark still intact on the side. My estimate: 5m by less than 50 cm.

Initially, it was a large plank sawed from a tree-trunk (above), about 5 meters long and between 40-50 cm wide. The weight of these boards must have been considerable. Multi-segment planches therefore appear relatively soon… like here in Italy:


Italian youth epee fencers still used the original planche in 1911. Although it now consists of 2 major segments — note the seam in the center.

It soon required a more complex assembly that not only provided the required even surface, but also some knee-saving flex:

planche LA POSSONNIERE (49) ESCRIME à la SALLE d'ARMES , MILITAIRE illustré en 1905

While the humor remains opaque, the above cartoon clearly shows that the planche by 1906 had come to consist of around four boards or 1×4’s. The length remained around 5 meters, the width appears to have varied between perhaps 50 cm and less than one meter. This device was in use as early as 1896 (below):


Preening Prévots: The inscription on the back of this faded image dates the scene to 1896. Extrapolation (applying the length of a foil to the length of the planche) indicates a length of c. 5m (15′)—a bit more than a third of a modern strip.

The placement of the planche above—on top of an already even paved surface—may indicate that its role had already expanded from merely providing a firm footing to include demarcation of the fencing area. (Then again, it could have just been placed there for the picture.)

The advantage of a mobile fencing floor is clear: You could place it even on slippery long grass and were able to have a firm footing:

outdoors planche epee.jpeg

Even epee fencers — usually less picky about their terrain — occasionally opted for boards over sand.

Military fencing masters and their scholars provided solid documentation of gear and grounds in the souvenir photographs of the various regiments, intended to hang in dedicated rooms at the barracks to document permanency, line, and tradition… or to decorate the walls of the aging bourgeois with mementos of bygone martially mustached youth…

planche 1900

Around 1900: Military fencing masters posing in the Grand Salut with foils. The approximate length of the strip: 5 meters. The need here is obvious: the underlying surface is cobblestones.

prevots planche.jpeg

It probably took one or two men to carry these planches, but they allowed quick installation of even surfaces both inside and outside.

The picture below shows a military fencing demonstration around 1900. These strips are mobile units, probably 5 meters wide, and perhaps less than 50 cm wide. The identical postures of the fencers indicate synchronized group drills, not actual assaults.


A year before the above event, in 1908, the exhibitions also featured single pairs on the planche:

exhibition planche.jpeg

Maybe the mobile planches could become part of a semi-permanent installation:

outdoors planche platform.jpeg

Two pairs of fencers: Are they fencing on an extra-wide (and potentially permanent) outdoor fencing floor, or have two planches been side by side?

It is obvious that the limited space would have had an immediate effect on the footwork and tactics involved:

If there were only 2.5 meters behind the central point of engagement, the options to use distance both defensively and offensively were tightly rationed. And if, after a few retreats, you ran the danger of literally falling off the planche, you would naturally choose to stay mostly at a distance that required you to engage the opponent’s blade. And if all you had to move on was 50 cm or less of lateral space—the width of three balance beams—your footwork would be strictly linear, with little to no temptation to change the angle of attack laterally,

This would explain why “classical” foil (imprinted by the school at Joinville) looks more like “push-hands with sticks” than actual adversarial fencing — and it’s all due to the artificial space limitations imposed by a piece of wood used for just a few decades in the late 1800’s…

Board walk inside

Once you had your planche at the ready, it seemed like a good idea to not limit their use to the outdoors. To keep them from warping or getting slippery in the rain, they needed to be kept inside.


After about three retreats, he’d get kneed by the bench.

Unfortunately, moving the five meters of wood inside imposed the outdoors limitations on the indoor space: If all you had to accommodate were a couple of 5-meter strips side-by-side, pretty much any indoor space could be converted into a Salle. So fencing could be allocated to secondary spaces that make your average modern multi-purpose room at the Y look like a palace.


This 1893 illustration of this upper-crust Salle abounds in spatial flattery and was not representative of the confined spaces of indoor foil fencing of the period.

Fencing itself remained the cribbed, claustrophobic affair it was outside.

Given the limited space dedicated to fencing, the original outdoor floor modules became a series of workable indoor fencing strips. Like here in Bordeaux…

salle planche 6.jpeg

Note the epees on the rack to the left. Where foil was practiced on 5-meter planches, epee made use of what was there.

…or in Moulins…

salle planche 2.jpeg

…or in Mézieres,…

Salle planche 7.jpeg

… be it for saber practice in Fontainebleau…

salle planche saber.jpeg

… or epee at Vendome…

salle planches.jpeg

… no matter of military or civilian:

salle planche 4.jpeg

Even 5 meters were hard to accommodate if you had a hat- and coat-rack on the wall. So why not place the planche diagonally on the saw dust covered floor.

In fact, planches became so popular indoors, you’d sometimes put planche on planche (be it only for a picture):

salle planche on planche.jpeg

Of course, you wouldn’t fence like that. But congregating in a corner improved the composition of the picture… again for the decorative rassemblement and counter to the arm.

Tight quarters

The attraction of fencing outdoors becomes clear when you look at the dimensions of a typical military or civilian Salle.

They’re barely more than sheds, even when compared to a Holiday Inn conference room, the modern classicists’ favorite convention space to ply their show-motion trade:

crowded salle lycee.jpeg

A SafeSports chicken inspector’s nightmare at the École Polytechnique.

Even Joinville-le-Pont’s facilities left much to be desired:

planche salle.jpeg

Joinville-le-Pont, THE fencing school par excellence, offered more space than most venues, but cramming a troop of cadets to balance on the 5-meter boards limited the options to move.

The length and width of the strips could vary considerably depending on the weapon, country, or character of the encounter. The picture below shows the saber drill practice of Belgian lancers, on planches less than 3m long but close to 1m wide.  Note the painted strip in the center, which could have been used for foil practice.

Cavalry Saber Practice of Belgian Lancers

While some photographs create the impression of indoor fencing areas that provided plenty of space… like St. Cyr, here in 1896…

st cyr 1896.png…indoor fencing quarters could be tight:

st cyr

The same room at St. Cyr as above: Fencers are packed like sardines — a nightmare for every modern SafeSports-trained coach.

st cyr 3

Not even adding perspective makes the room less crowded.

The density of group instruction would make a narrower planche plausible:


The placement of the rack on the right could indicate that it was the white, narrower strips that served for fencing, not the dark ones. Note that their dimensions retain the approximate length of the street and planche.

On the mat

The inconvenience of the old-style planches must have been considerable and the need to place them, possibly before each class or lesson, made them especially cumbersome. Some later varieties make it difficult to determine if thinner boards were used, or other materials were more convenient.

salle markings 6.jpeg

There was a period where stiff mats were used as fencing strips, conceptually not unlike modern portable metal strips:

salle mats2

salle foil mats?

Same place, different class at Joinville-le-Pont.

Since they fit the same space that previously had been occupied by the planche, this had no effect on the length of the strip.

salle strips.jpeg

This fencing room (below) is probably smaller than Emil Beck’s initial space inside the furnace room of the Tauberbischofsheim city council building. Here, mats are placed on a tile floor.

salle mats 1908.jpeg

A single, medium-range lunge was the penultimate forward reach.

Are those convenient mat hooks on the wall (left)? Both pictures date around 1908.

salle mats 2.jpegBy the end of the first decade of the 19th-century, indoor fencing practice was conducted on strips that were painted on the floor:


The salle at Joinville appears to have been stripped of anything of value.

Perhaps these mats could be semi-permanently installed, as seems to be the case at the publishing house of the Grand Echo du Nord, where editorial staff had a separate room to cross blades:

salle civilian.jpeg

Civil dispute

Of course, military fencing was just one aspect of fencing. Parallel to its military practice, fencing flourished in private schools, salles, societées, and clubs. Or, as shown above, newspaper editorial rooms.

Schools are frequently depicted practicing outside, in street clothes, wherever there was space. Below is an educational institute that had invested in mobile flooring:

outdoors planche civilian.jpeg

Students in Dijon during P.E.

Or here, in Rouen:planche pair.jpeg

Civilian fencing salles could be as dank and pitiful as their military counterparts:

epee basement.jpeg

As the years went by, these civilian associations established permanent, specially appointed spaces indoors, with no need for additional flooring substitutes.

salle wood floor.jpeg

Canvas or paint, you be the judge…

salle markings.jpeg

salle floor markings 3.jpeg

Floors later were marked, perhaps painted?

salle marked floor.jpeg

Looks like the (wider but not longer) outline of the strip was painted on the tiles.

The picture below shows either the dour members of a French foil équipe (or, perhaps, the competitors of a mustache grooming competition) around 1910. Masks and foils are hung below what appear to be name plates: The setting just exudes permanence! As do the strips: The floor is painted to show at least two parallel fencing strips of roughly modern width.

planche floor 1910

The planche — or at least its spirit — had returned indoors for good, at least for foil fencers!


Lucien Gaudin vs. Aldo Nadi, 1922: The abandonment of the limiting planche allowed foil fencing to emerge from its cribbed, limited confinement as an indoor exercise on a five-meter strip to an athletic contest that added distance as its main weapon. The elevated nature of the above-depicted strip may be responsible for the additional width. A center line marked the line of engagement.


Epee: Terrain to fencing strip

Epee at the beginning was an outdoors weapon.

Duels, by and large, were fought au grand aire. Unless they involved expert, well-matched swordsmen, they could be over in a matter of minutes or even seconds: Even if conducted on packed sand, the cautious proceeding and less ambitious footwork of the fencers would not create enough wear on a surface to create a combat-inhibiting nuisance.

In addition, the spatial dimensions of a duel were negotiable. A fixed center point was created by the regulated engagement of the blades, usually tip to tip.

epee 1909.jpeg

Even the beginning distance was larger than in foil.

In military practice — and in amateur circles — the space available dictated the distance, just like at Joinville’s foil practice:

epee outside 3.jpeg

epee outside 4.jpeg

epee outside civilian.jpeg

outdoor epee 8.jpeg

Of course, that space could be (relatively) unlimited:

epee outside military.jpeg

epee saumur 1905.jpeg

While fencing with the epee was part of an officer’s education, the duel between expert fencers was the penultimate purpose of the weapon.

Like in the drills, the director would place himself where the tips touched, which could be marked by a line in the sand, or simply by the director’s extended epee or walking stick:


This 1905 shot of the duel Breittmeyer v. Lusciez clearly shows a center line in the sand. The wear in the sand documents prior footwork activity.

duel pini san malato

The worn sand indicates that, even when fencing masters like Pini and San Malato met in a duel, the extent of travel probably did not exceed the five meters of the planche.

Prior to the event, the witnesses, or témoins, had negotiated the distance a duelist was permitted to retreat:

In his duel against Berger in 1913 (below), Breittmayer had demanded “cinq mètres de terrain derrière chacque adversaire“—i.e., a distance equal to an entire contemporary foil planche behind each opponent, for a total of between 12-14 meters!


The terrain has been marked with chalk online previously drawn into the sand. A Center line is presided over by the director. Die témoins or witnesses occupy the respective spaces between starting lines and center. Another pair of witnesses is positioned at the line of withdrawal, beyond which the duelists were not permitted to retreat.

Reports of other duels indicate as much space as 9 meters behind each duelist, reports of a 1913 duel between Breittmayer and Torkom speak of a “fifteen-yard limit”, although it is unclear if there were 15 yards behind each duelist, or if the total length was 15 yards.

Competitive contests

While foil competitions were primarily conducted inside, competitive epee retained its outdoors character throughout the early 20th century. Its venues were flexible:

epee civilian rink.jpeg

Even a boxing ring might be repurposed.

Exhibition or competitive bouts required no artificial demarkations: An appreciative crown would take care of that:

epee otside 2.jpeg

The dimensions of military contest are reflected in civilian contests of the time.

epee outdoors.jpeg


Epee’s freedom of movement made it easily adaptable even for outdoors entertainment on ship deck. (Here, around 1930.)

The following sequence from the 1900 tournament at the Terrasse de Tuileries shows contests on sand without any noticeable markings.

olympics 1900 me 2

olympics 1900 pme

olympics 1900 me 1Toward the end of the first decade, however, epee, too, drifted indoors. First were the compromises:

olympics 1908 me caniell vs van blijenburgh

The move indoors: This contest took place al fresco — but the potentially deleterious effect of rain on the sandy terrain has been counter-acted by moving the tournament underneath a canvas awning.

Or here in Marseilles in 1908.

posting 1908.png

Then, they moved it inside entirely:

planche epee 1914

A French military fencing tournament around 1914. The indoors venue shows no particular markings on the ground.


The markings on the floor may have little relevance to this bout. Apparently, French epee fencers preferred chilled interiors, which required the director to keep on his hat and overcoat.

Even the occasional duel — perhaps in response to their increasing crowd-drawing popularity — moved inside:


The duel, too, was moved inside — here, on the planchet floor of what appears to be an industrial property. No markings visible, the director’s épée marks a floating center.

By 1914, it appears that even in Germany — for obvious reasons a late adopter of the French epee — epee contests took place indoors even in the pentathlon.


Prussian pentathletes appear to have fenced on a strip outlined on the floor with chalk. The Sprossenwand in the background indicates that this bout took place inside a military gymnasium. The markings on the floor in all likelihood were not permanent. The width appears to be between 50 and 75 cm.

But around 1910, even the most deconstructionist epee fencer had made peace with foil’s despised méthode conventionelle — which itself has been rejuvenated by the competition-based ideals of de Coubertin and his Olympic idea and liberated from the confines of ritualistic dance to become a sport again.

Here, 1900 epee fencers are posing as stiffly as classical fencers on a narrow foil strip:

planche epee

International competition, ignited by the Olympic Games and spreading like wildfire throughout Europe, called for regulation and clear definitions to create a fair environment for all fencers. Much like weapon lengths and guard diameters, the fencing strip itself underwent a number of changes after 1910. But it was not the 5-meter board of “classical” foil: Foil and saber ended up adopting the more expansive epee strip as the norm.

Between the wars, epee became the first electrified fencing weapon. Early scoring apparatus was customized to fit both 12- and 14-meter fencing strips in the 1930’s:










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