Refereeing in Historical Fencing: Consistency & Communication

When it comes to Historical Fencing, few things draw more intense community discussion than that of rules and scoring at HEMA events.  This should come as no surprise – everyone’s motives and goals for taking part in Historical Martial Arts are different, and so everyone is looking for the ideal ruleset which captures what it is they want as an individual out of the event.

This brief article puts forth no such opinions on rules, though is broadly written in reference to the larger experience of competitive tournaments – particularly when it comes to proactively supporting the growth of better refereeing and judging experiences.

Regardless of the ruleset being enforced, one of the things which makes and event a joy (or frustration) is the perceived quality of the judging.  It’s important to note that I say “perceived” quality of the judging; while judging may “seem” poor in the moment, this may well simply be an artefact of organisation or other frustrations.

All experienced tournament fencers have been on the receiving end of calls which went against us.  Most of the time we accept these with equanimity, however when someone has put in countless hours of training and preparation, and has gone to great lengths to be at the tournament, sometimes we allow our frustrations to cloud our judgement. At these times the most obvious target of dissatisfaction is the judging staff, and we have all had regretful moments where we allowed disappointment to overcome good sense in this way.

Judges typically do not deserve this.

Judging can be a thankless job, and often the breakdowns in judging that do happen are a result of surrounding issues such as insufficient judging staff, overloaded schedules, or simple breakdowns in communication.

Over recent months I’ve thrown into conversation around events questions about what people think makes for good judging.  Answers which come up frequently include:

  • Consistency (between judges and across the event): The idea of rules is that they set the standard for what should be considered “good fencing” for the purposes of the tournament.  To achieve this the judges need to be as consistent as possible both in their own appraisal of fencer performance across events, and between individual judges.  This means striving to eliminate bias toward favourites (or as a way of avoiding offence to high profile guest competitors), having all judges know all the rules and have the same criteria for application, and have sufficient understanding of the sport to accurately describe and understand exchanges.
  • Communication: Judges should be able to clearly communicate what they have seen both as semaphore (if being used), and verbally in the case of queries or discrepancies.  The communication should be terse and cogent and not include too much irrelevant information.
  • Confidence: Judgement should be done confidently and use of the voice should be loud and clear.  If a judge is confident of a touch has taken place they should state confidently their opinion.  Likewise a judge must be confident to say “no touch” or “unable to see” with confidence.

When any of these break down, competitors can begin to lose faith in the judging team, and this is where unwanted acrimony creeps in.

With this in mind members of our fencing community from different clubs (specifically GLECA and the School of Historical Fencing) ran some simple baseline judging experiments aimed at taking a first step as a community in improving the judging experience for everyone.


The underlying idea of these experiments was to look at a handful of elements of judging to see where we could begin to improve things – they were not exhaustive nor especially rigorous, but rather were intended to be a signpost at what we expect to be a long journey.

Specifically these included:

  1. Relative perception of exchanges in a match from the point of view of the fencers and the judges
  2. Ability of fencers and judges to accurately recount and communicate the exchange
  3. Relative accuracy of judges and fencers in recognising touches
  4. Relative accuracy of judges based on distance from the match
  5. Perceived cognitive workload of judges based on distance from the match

The first experiment consisted a series of bouts in which two judges (one referee and one line judge) oversaw a match between two experienced fencers.

At the end of each exchange the judges and fencers were taken aside separately and asked to recount what they perceived to be the final part of the “phrase” of the exchange.  These were then contrasted with slow-motion replay footage of the bout.

A second experiment was conducted to test the commonly held adage that the referee inside the ring is in the best position to see what happens in an exchange.  This was conducted by having a referee judge several bouts, one at close range in the ring, one from the edge of the ring, and one from the typical “spectator” distance.  At the end of the match the referee specified their subjective cognitive workload at each distance, and the degree of accuracy to which they believed they had refereed the match (what they felt they could see).


The findings of the first experiment were fairly predictable.  Because the group was made up of experienced fencers and judges, overall very few touches were missed. The outcomes are summarised below

Observations of fencer perceptions included occasions where:

  • Fencers felt they’d been “hit” by the opponent when in fact the hit was ineffective/flat
  • Fencers felt their own hit to their opponent was insufficient, when it fact it was.

Observations of judge perceptions included occasions where:

  • While watching a particularly explosive or dynamic movement from one fencer, they completely missed the attack from the other fencer.
  • The traditionally more “side-on” view led to a number of obscured hits which were judged on “secondary” indicators such as sound, mask movement, etc.

Observations of judge and fencer recounting of fencing phrases include:

  • Terminology is extremely inconsistent in recounting:
    • Type of attacking movement
    • Type of hit
    • Actions surrounding the hit
  • Each person’s understanding of what was worth recounting was different.

General outcomes for the second experiment were:

  • Overall effectiveness was statistically similar across range bands
  • Referee perceived cognitive load was lowest at medium and long ranges


Most of us would agree that the outcomes are far from earth shattering, and are pretty much aligned with the general experience of refereeing.  Some key take-aways from the session were:


This is the most important outcome in our feeling.

Fencers and judges need a restricted lexicon of terms that can be used to describe the final phrase of an exchange.  This should be clear, concise, and style agnostic.

We might begin with a very simple lexicon describing hits.  The most basic structure might include who hit who where, and the relative timings:

For example:

“Touch on Blue’s arm, Touch on Red’s torso, in the same Tempo”

So blue was hit on the arm, and red on the body, in the same fencing action.  There are some key choices of terminology here:

  • “Touch” is used instead of hit as it de-escalates conflicts and brings with it a less forceful mindset to the fencing – you only need to score “touches”, not “hews”.
  • “Tempo” is somewhat flexible – essentially capturing whether hits were more or less simultaneous, whether they were a second tempo afterblow, or were entirely out of tempo.

This could be expanded to include surrounding terminology which might add:

  • Whether the touch was “free” or “in opposition”
  • Circumstances surrounding the strike – in first/second intention, riposte, in preparation.
  • Circumstances prior to the strike – opponent’s attack parried.

These would be very useful for clarity, though some discussion would be required to keep this set minimal, but sufficient.


It may be a good idea to avoid fencers calling hits on themselves; this could be subject to gamification by fencers (currying favour from judges by calling irrelevant hits so as to gain more favourable judgement in ongoing exchanges, or simply calling hits on lesser targets), or simply poorly called interactions.


More eyes are better, but only up to a point:

  • It may be worth experimenting with judges being assigned to look at a single competitor
  • The ‘four judge democracy’ system may rob the judge with the only good viewpoint of their ability to correctly call.
  • Judges must be confident in saying they didn’t see something.
  • Judges should be placed sufficiently far from the action to reduce cognitive load (and hence fatigue)

Improving Event Experience

Some general ideas to improve judging at events might include:

  • Have sufficient judges so you can swap them out on a frequent basis – this takes the pressure off of them in terms of workload, and also reduces the frustration directed at them by over-excited competitors.
  • Structure your event so that judges are best able to convey the information they definitely captured.
  • Encourage your judges to say “nope, didn’t see it”
  • Run demo fights to accustom fencers to the system of judging and communication
  • Train your judges accordingly

Improving Judging Through Practice & Training

Judging might be improved by having fencers recount their exchanges.

  • Step 1:  After each exchange the fencer describes what they think THEY did
  • Step 2:  After each exchange the fencer describes what the OPPONENT did
  • Step 3:  After each exchange the fencer describes what BOTH fencers did

This should begin with simple lexicon (touch on leg, in tempo), and move to more complex terminology leading up to the touch.

Likewise participants should practice their judging:

  • Step 1:  After each exchange the judge describes what they think one fencer did
  • Step 2:  After each exchange the judge describes what the BOTH fencers did

Again, start simple, then work toward the whole fencing phrase.

This might form a solid starting point for fencers and potential judges.

Moving Forward

We look forward to other community groups and members running similar experiments and sharing their results.  Hopefully we can create a culture of shared experience and ideas in the HEMA judging community so that we can collectively improve the judging experience both for competitors, and the judges themselves.

1 thought on “Refereeing in Historical Fencing: Consistency & Communication

  1. I like the idea of using the word “Touch” to de-escalate conflicts, and bring a less forceful mindset of fencing.

    I also liked the idea of fencing not calling hits landed on themselves, something that’s always annoyed me in sparring/competition

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