The French grip is a fencing grip for foil and epee, and is the traditional "beginner's" fencing grip to this day. The French grip is generally made of leather-wrapped wood or metal, or more recently, solid hard rubber or plastic. The French grip is mostly straight, roughly rectangular in cross-section, and contoured slightly along its length to conform to the curves of the hand. French grips come in left-handed and right-handed varieties, with the contours shaped appropriately to conform to the handedness of the user.
The French grip is affixed to the weapon through the use of a heavy, metal pommel, which provides counterweight to the blade to give it ideal balance. The French grip emphasizes finger control--the traditional means for holding the French grip places the onus of the weapon on just the thumb and index finger, with the other fingers playing a supporting role. Fencers using the French grip are trained to control the weapon through minor changes in the grip of the index finger and thumb. A good exercise to practice point control with the French grip is to hold the weapon using only the forefinger and thumb and practice writing one's name in cursive in midair with the tip of the weapon. In keeping with the focus on finger control and finesse, there are no protrusions on a French grip. As such it requires a good deal of hand strength to maintain a secure grip on the weapon if there is a lot of forcing of blades in the bout. Fencers who have used the French grip exclusively often have massively strong hands.
The French grip is so yclept because it was traditionally favored by the French schools of fencing in the 18th century. The French schools emphasized finesse and point control over powerful maneouvres, and the French grip was ideal for these purposes.
Some advantages and disadvantages of the French grip:
- Finesse, point control, and hand strength (as opposed to grip strength) are emphasized.
- In general, it is easiest to switch from a French grip to any other of the grips. A fencer trained in the French grip will not have too much trouble adapting to the use of any of the others. The reverse is not often true.
- On the other hand, it is very difficult to use a French grip if unfamiliar with it. A fencer will tend to hold the weapon too tightly and tire out his hand.
- One is far more susceptible to being disarmed whilst using a French grip. A skilled fencer can use leverage to pop the French grip right out of his opponent's hand, especially if the opponent is holding the weapon too tightly (see above point).
- Some fencers engage in the technique of "pommeling" when using the French grip. When one pommels, one holds the weapon an inch or more further down the grip than it is usually held. One gains a significant distance advantage at the cost of leverage. It is very easy to control the blade of an opponent who is pommeling. The design of most other grips used currently makes them impractical to use while pommeling (see notes on rules regarding pistol grips).