From the United States Fencing Association's Operation Manual:

"For the purpose of providing reasonable equality of strength in the seeding of competitions, fencers are classified nationally on the basis of competitive experience and achievement into the following classifications: Class A (highest), Class B, Class C, Class D, Class E, and Class U (Unclassified, lowest).  Within each of these major classifications (with the exception of Class U), the fencers are classified based upon the calendar year in which the major classification was achieved.  This minor classification shall be indicated by a two digit number immediately following the major classification (e.g., "A85" would be the classification of a fencer who achieved an "A" classification in 1985).  The minor classifications shall be used to rank the fencers within the major classifications so that, for example, a "C86" shall be considered to be ranked higher than a "C85" but lower than all "B" fencers."
 

At any USFA sanctioned tournament...

Group E1: If you have a minimum of 6 (and a maximum of 14) competitors, the winner of the competition earns an E rating.

Group D1: If you have a minimum of 15 fencers (and the tournament does not qualify to be a C1, B1, or A1 tournament), 1st place earns a D and 2nd and 3rd places earn an E rating.

Group C1: Minimum of 15 fencers.  There must be EITHER 4 D rated fencers and four 4 E rated fencers (or higher) with the 4 D's all finishing in the top eight places OR 2 C's, 2 D's, and 2 E's (or higher) with the 2 C's and 2 D's (or higher) all all finishing in the top eight places.  The winner earns a C rating, 2nd and 3rd earn a D, 4th-6th earn an E.

Group C4: Division III North American Circuit tournaments and the Division III National Championships are always at least Group C4 competitions.  Otherwise: Minimum of 64 fencers.  24 D's and 12 E's (or higher) are required with 4 D's in the top eight and 4 E's (or higher) in the top twelve.  1st-4th earn a C, 5th-8th earn a D, 9th-16th earn an E.

Group B1: Minimum of 15 fencers.  2 B's, 2 C's, and 2 D's (or higher) are required, with 2 B's and 2 C's (or higher) finishing in the top eight.  1st earns a B, 2nd-3rd earn a C, 4th-6th earn a D, 7th-9th earn an E.

Group B4: Division II North American Circuit tournaments and the Division II National Championships are always at least Group B4 tournaments.  Otherwise: Minimum of 64 fencers.  24 C's and 12 D's (or higher) are required with 4 C's in the top eight and 4 D's (or higher) in the top twelve.  1st-4th earn a B, 5th-8th earn a C, 9th-16th earn an D, 17th-32nd earn an E.

Group A1: Minimum of 15 fencers.  2 A's, 2 B's, and 2 C's (or higher) are required, with 2 A's and 2 B's (or higher) finishing in the top eight.  1st earns a A, 2nd-3rd earn a B, 4th-6th earn a C, 7th-9th earn an D.  No E's are earned.

Group A4: Division I-A National Championships are always at least Group A4 tournaments, and there are no other ways to have an A4 tournament.  1st-4th earn an A, 5th-8th earn a B, 9th-16th earn a C, 17th-24th earn a D, 25th-32nd earn an E.

Group A8: Elite National Championships are always Group A8 tournaments.  Otherwise: Minimum of 64 fencers.  12 A's, 12 B's, and 12 C's (or higher) are needed, with 4 A's in the top 8 and 4 B's (or higher) finishing in the top 12.  1st-8th earn an A, 9th-16th earn a B, 17th-24th earn a D, 25th-36th earn a D, 37th-52nd earn an E.

 

At almost all tournaments, the competitors are broken up into pools based on their classification.  Consider a tournament with 3 B's, 3 C's, 3 D's, 3 E's, and 6 U's.  Assuming that these fencers are broken into 3 pools of 6, each pool will contain {B, C, D, E, U, U}.

Thus, we can see that not only are classifications a way of gauging a competitor's skill, it is also a boon to have one!  Let's say that the E fencer in the pool above just received his E classification.  There are three fencers (the B, C, and D) who are presumed to be better than him and two (the two unrated fencers) who he is better than.

Now, assume he had caught a cold and not received his E rating the previous week, so he is unrated (but his skill remains the same).  Now, assume that he is one of the U's in our sample pool.  There are still three fencers (B, C, D) who are better than him, one (the E) who he is approximately equal to, and only one fencer (the other U) who he is better than.  So, even though he might have the same skills, it's better for him to be rated higher--he gets an easier pool!


Some notes:

  • The 3rd place (bronze medal) bout is often not fenced at many smaller competitions, and so two fencers will finish tied for 3rd place with no fencer placing 4th.  In this case, both fencers who finish 3rd earn a 3rd place rating (i.e. an E at a Group D1 tournament).
  • A fencer drops one classification if he does not renew or increase his classification after four years.  Thus, in 1995, an unrenewed C91 classification would have become a D95 classification.  In 1999, the D95 would become an E99, and in 2003 the fencer would lose his classification entirely and be unrated.
  • A fencer's classification in one weapon has no bearing on that fencer's classification in another--being an "A" in foil does not earn that fencer an "A" in epee or sabre.

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