I have been doing fencing now for over a year and a half. I think I have trained solidly for 12 months during that time, taking 5 classes a week spread over 4 days a week. I would like to collect my thoughts here and if they can be of service to others I would be happy.
We all need to exercise regularly with some vigour in order to be at maximal health. We all know this but are not all motivated to do so. Fencing appeals to people like me to such a degree that we are motivated to train frequently and thoroughly in order to achieve this goal of good health through physical fitness. There are also mental health benefits as fencing is complicated enough to distract us from stressful thoughts occupying our minds from work or home. No doubt fencing, with its complexity, speed and its demand for alertness and intelligence, increases our mental capacities and improves our mental faculties for other realms of life.
Why fencing specifically though?
I think a lot of us enjoy aggression or violence on a basic primeval level. Fencing is "violent" as it is a form of deadly combat. However, none of us particularly want to do anyone any harm nor be truly harmed, and so we look for ways to get our primeval thirst for violent excitement in perfectly safe ways. This explains the popularity of "violent" video games and sports either as viewer or as participant. Instead of feeling "barbaric" or shameful for enjoying such things it is better to accept that we have a taste for violence as part of our survival instincts, and that unfortunately at times still the correct solution for problems can still be violence, as is evinced by the exploits of our ancestors defeating threats to our nation in the World Wars of the past century. Practicing a military art like fencing in a civilian context reminds us of the reality of war and violence in the world, and recalls to us the virtues of courage and sacrifice. Courage and sacrifice are virtues in the civilian world too. Fencing teaches respect as we need to respect the professors of the art and our fellow students of the art. The courtesy learned through experience fencing naturally finds itself applied outside the fencing salle in other parts of our life. Like any social club, fencing allows us the opportunity to make friends and fulfill the natural urge to feel part of a community. This is a very healthy thing. We all too often get stuck in a social milieu composed only of family and coworkers. Any kind of social club broadens our circle of friends and contacts. This is good and healthy for very many reasons, as we all know very well.
Fencing is within reason a perfectly safe activity, unlike many other combat (and non-combat) sports. I will not name other combat sports here, but many other combat sports often cause physical damage including strains, tears, breaks, concussions. In fencing we are trying to score a touch, which should not incur any real harm. However, it represents a much more serious wound than most combat sports' scorings do as it represents a cut or a stab wound. Fencing is a much more serious kind of martial art as a result, as it deals with life and death with sharp weapons. This seriousness has led to the art of fencing being taken very seriously over the years, particularly back in the time when it truly was a matter of life and death. The level of human intelligence brought to bear on the myriad problems of how to defend and attack in fencing is truly astonishing and is one of the main attractions of studying historical fencing systems. We are constantly amazed at the level of sophistication of ancient fencing treatises and at how effectively geometric principles dominate the art!
Due to its complexity, there is infinite room for improvement, and everyone at the salle is working together to improve. Thus it is both an individual and a team effort. To lose a bout is nothing more than to learn new things about oneself, about one's teammate and about the mysterious geometrical principles which underly the art! Fencing being fundamentally not about beating people but about exploring a fascinating art together makes it much more appealing to many people than competitive sports.
How to improve?
Train at the salle and if you can, on your own too. Training at the salle teaches us how to fence with others, but on our own we develop the strength and skill to move in harmony with the sword. This strength and skill are prerequisites to be able to move well when working with partners or against opponents in the salle. Wielding a sword is physically tricky and at first, quite difficult even though a sword is a very light thing! With constant manipulation of the blade in conjunction with other body movements like stepping, you develop excellent control of both your blade and your body working together in harmony, with precision, balance and control.
Know that in order to score a touch you need to extend your sword towards your opponent in such a way that you are in no threat of being touched by your opponent's sword. There are myriad ways to do this, and they often involve trickery.
Every weapon type has its own very unique qualities that dictate its use. A sword specialized for thrusting like a rapier is very suited for this kind of attack, but a sword specialized for cutting like a sabre is not so effective at thrusting. A rapier is long and heavy and is more adept at sliding attacks along the opponent's blade, whereas a smallsword is more suited to parry-riposte actions. Cutting swords made more sense back when people tended to carry shields which covered their torsos, as cutting attacks are easier to land than thrusts on the exposed, narrow and rapidly moving limbs. It is hard to land thrusts accurately on limbs in combat, and such thrusts are a lot less likely to end the fight than cuts which would leave large gaping wounds.
There is unlikely such a thing as an ultimately perfect sword. Swords were developed to fit the military or civilian culture and technology of the time. A longer sword like a longsword or rapier might not be as effective as a smallsword in cramped quarters, and a rapier might not be as effective as a longsword if we are dealing with a culture where shields or body armour were being used. A longsword might not be as effective as a rapier in an open field with no armour being worn. A smallsword might be more nimble and thus more effective than a rapier in an open field for people who did not have the time to develop the requisite strength or nimbleness to wield the rapier as effectively as they could the smallsword. As swords are intimately intertwined with the cultures that produced them, we enrich ourselves culturally by training with them according to their cultures' historical systems. Understanding Shakespearean fencing can unlock deeper levels of meaning behind scenes in Romeo and Juliet, for instance.
To conclude, here is early 17th Century England's royal fencing master Joseph Swetnam's reasons given for practicing fencing:
...skill is not only available to preserve and keep the body without hurts and wounds, but also the use and practice with weapons, does drive away all aches, griefs, and diseases, it removes congealed blood, and breaks impostumes, it makes the body nimble, and pliant, it sharpens the wit, it increases the sight, and procures strength, and expels melancholy and cholerickness, and many other evil conceits, it keeps a man in breath, in perfect health, it makes him to be of long life which uses it, it is unto him which has the perfect skill in weapons, a most friend∣y, & comfortable companion, when he is alone, having but only his weapons about him, it puts him out of all fear, and in the wars and places of most danger it makes a man bold, hardy, valiant, and venturous. Wherefore they that are once experienced in the skill of weapons will afterwards to the end of their lives encourage the unskilful to learn still, considering how necessary a thing skill in weapons is, insomuch that God and nature tolerate the practise of this skill in weapons...