Epee refers to a particular style of modern fencing
as well as the specific weapon used in that style. In epee fencing, both the rules and weapon design are derived from the historical tradition of gentlemen's dueling
, where the object is not to kill
your opponent* but to simply draw the first blood
As with all styles of fencing, two opponents attempt to score touches on one another without being scored upon themselves. In epee, one can only score a touch by pressing the tip (also called the point) of his weapon into his opponent's target area.
Consistent with tradition of a "first blood" duel, the epee style uses the entire body, from head to toe, as target area (rather than just the upper torso). For this reason, the closest and therefore most assailed region of the target area is the hand and forearm of the weapon arm. (Not only is the weapon forearm the closest target area, but it is also the most gentlemanly, since an attack to the arm will typically will not kill your opponent (though it may permanently damage and disable his weapon arm, which was sometimes the object in particularly bitter and protracted feuds.))
In a quite literal interpretation of the "first blood" dueling tradition, the rules of epee fencing state that the first fencer to land his point on his opponent's target area is awarded the touch -- even if the opponent lands a touch very shortly after. (The rules are quite different in foil and sabre styles: see Right of Way.) However, in an electronically scored bout (the norm for modern fencing), if the two opponents manage to land both of their touches within 1/25 of a second, then it is considered a simultaneous action and a one touch is awarded to each fencer.**
The epee weapon itself is the heaviest and the least flexible of fencing weapons. It is characterized by a thick blade with an isosceles-obtuse-triangular cross section and a large, dome-like bell guard to protect the target area of the weapon hand. (See below*** for the nitty-gritty details.) The modern epee weapon also retains the traditional deep groove on the wide face of the blade. This purpose of the groove in historical weapons was to break the seal between the blade and the flesh of any unfortunate individual that happened to become skewered on it. Without a groove, the blade and the flesh would form an airtight seal, making it nearly impossible to remove the blade from the unfortunate person's body.
With first-touch-wins rules and the entire body as legal target area, epee fencing can be, to say the least, invigorating. As a rule, epee fencing emphasizes speed and control above all else. A successful epee fencer typically uses his fingers to precisely control the tip of his weapon, probing his opponent for openings in target area -- while at the same time keeping his wrist and arm rather rigid and hidden behind the large bell guard. Attacks can take a variety of forms, -- as is the case with all fencing styles -- however in epee the most effective attacks are simple, precise, lightning fast attacks to the forearm. While elaborate blade and foot work can be useful, being able to quickly and consistently hit your opponent's weapon arm is the bread-and-butter of an epee fencer. In addition, an epee fencer also benefits from reflexively extending his arm in response to an attack****, as a rapid counterattack can help remove target area from danger and can often result in your opponent running into your blade when his initial attack fails.
Needless to say, competition level epee fencing very fast and very intense, and for this reason the scoring and judging of individual epee bouts relies enormously on modern electronic scoring equipment.
*Usually. And this was only the case in post-Middle Ages Europe. I've heard it said that before that time, the most common cause of death for young men of the ruling class was the honor of young women. ;-)
**Usually. The most notable exception that I know of is the case when awarding the "double touch" would give one or both fencers enough points to win the bout. In that case, neither fencer scores and the bout continues until there is a winner or until time runs out.
***The weight of the entire weapon must be under 770g, and the total length of the weapon must be 110cm, with the blade being 90cm long. The blade may have a uniform bend of less than 1cm in the vertical plane. (The blade also has flexibility restrictions, but if you really want to know them, RTFM.) The guard can be no larger than 13.5cm in diameter, and must have a depth of 3 to 5.5cm. For electric weapons: the point must support a weight of 750g without registering a touch, and when being depressed from rest must travel at least 1mm before registering a touch.
****To contrast with foil and sabre fencers, for whom such a reflex would be a bad, bad thing.