The grip a foil or epee fencer chooses for his weapons is one of the most important and personal decisions he makes. The grip is how the fencer interfaces with the weapon, and as such the feel and familiarity of a particular grip can be of utmost importance to a fencer. That being said, a good fencer should be comfortable fencing with any of an assortment of grips; in case his primary weapons fail he should be comfortable working with any loaner that may be offered up by a magnanimous fellow.
Fencing grips can be broken up into two general categories, classical or traditional grips, and orthopedic or pistol grips. The latter type dominates by far in the modern sport.
These are the classical grips that were used throughout the history of fencing as a sport. In essence they are direct lineal descendents of the typical rapier or smallsword grip. They tend to be very straight and minimally contoured. There are two basic types, often perceived as representing opposing theories on the importance of strength versus finesse in fencing bladework:
- French Grip
- The French grip is the more common of the traditional grips in this day and age, but in modern times its numbers dwindle as users switch over to pistol grips. The French grip emphasizes point control, a gentle but controlled grasp of the weapon, and finesse and efficiency in bladework. It is at best a minor refinement of the most basic grip a sword-type weapon might have: a mostly straight handle, with a few contours to fit the hand. The French grip continues to be the de rigeur grip for beginning fencers.
- Italian Grip
- The Italian grip, rarely seen in modern fencing, is straight, with two metal rings near the bell guard to provide leverage points for the fingers and thumb. The Italian grip is sometimes strapped to the wrist with a leather strap. The combination of rings and wrist strap make the Italian grip ideal for strong, forceful blade maneouvres, which comes at the cost of much of the fine finger control of the weapon. The Italian grip is often assumed to be illegal in the modern sport, but this is not the case.
The orthopedic, or pistol, grip, as it has come to be known, was originally designed for fencers who had hand injuries that made it otherwise impractical to effectively wield a weapon with a French or Italian grip (hence the moniker "orthopedic grip"). They are called "pistol grips" due to the fact that the hand position when grasping a pistol grip is similar to that used to hold a pistol.
The pistol grip has come to be the dominant type of grip in the modern sport, for several reasons:
- The great variety of pistol grip styles offers fencers the opportunity to customize their weapons to their own needs and preferences
- Pistol grips generally offer a more secure grip on the weapon, without too great a sacrifice of point control (when used correctly).
- Pistol grips can be far less fatiguing to the hand than either type of traditional grip.
Pistol grips are generally made of plastic or aluminum, and they come in many shapes and sizes. In general all pistol grips have in common a large protrusion at the bottom of the grip, around which the fingers of the hand are wrapped, and a smaller protrusion at the top of the grip to hook the thumb on. Instead of a full-fledged pommel, pistol grips tend to have a narrow extension against which the wrist may be braced. Different grips have different contouring or features on the protrusions and pommel extension, giving each type of grip its own character and feel.
There are some strict rules that have been adopted to govern the permissibility of a given pistol grip. The primary ones are as follows:
- The grip may have any protrusions or contours as long as they do not present a shape that an opponent's weapon may get caught on, or that would otherwise give the user an unfair advantage.
- The protrusions must not extend past the bell guard.
- The grip must fix the hand in a single position, with the thumb less than 2 centimeters from the finger pad inside the bell guard.
This last point is generally considered the most restrictive and most important. Several early orthopedic grips were rendered illegal by the implementation of this rule, most notably the Spanish grip. This rule is meant to prevent a fencer from using a grip that may be held very close to its pommel end, while still having protrusions that allow significant leverage to be exerted. (This technique is known as "pommeling".) In particular, in practical terms, this means that any orthopedic grip that is mounted with a French pommel is illegal.
Below I will attempt to describe briefly each orthopedic grip that has been or is currently used in Olympic-style fencing. If a grip is illegal, I will indicate so in the description. I will also include any other comments I have about the type of grip.
- Belgian Grip
- One of the most common pistol grips seen today, the Belgian grip is smoothly contoured, with a wrist extension that is flat and thin. The lower protrusion has a small prong that extends between the middle and ring fingers. The Belgian grip is available in a great variety of sizes and makes, and each manufacturer's Belgian grip has a slightly different form, though the general shape is consistent across brands. The Belgian grip is a good first pistol grip, and it is comfortable for most users as long as the correct size of grip is being used.
- Italian Visconti Grip
- Often referred to simply as a Visconti grip, or, confusingly, as an Italian grip, this is another very common grip. The Visconti grip is highly contoured, with "grooves" along the lower protrusion for each separate finger to settle into. The Visconti grip has a long, narrow pommel extension that is nearly circular in cross-section. The grip itself is quite wide, and it encourages a more fist-like hand position than many other pistol grips. (This feature of the Visconti gives me a severe hand cramp, incidentally.)
- German Visconti Grip
- Often referred to simply as a German grip, this pistol grip is similar to the Visconti, but considerably narrower in profile. The pommel extension is flat and extends quite far down the wrist--long enough that many fencers find that it gets in the way. Because of this, it is common to see a German grip with the pommel extension simply sawn off. I find that this makes the grip considerably more difficult to hold, for some reason. The German grip, in unmodified form, is my favorite pistol grip.
- Russian Grip
- The Russian grip is quite minimalist--it is about as simple as a pistol grip gets. The contours of the grip are very rectangular, and the lower protrusion is basically just a slightly angled block around which the fingers may be wrapped. The pommel extension is broad and flat. Well suited to those with large hands and those who are most familiar with French grips, but some users find the relatively sharp angles of this grip uncomfortable.
- American Grip
- The American grip has the thickness of the Visconti grip, the angularity of the Russian grip, and the general form of the Belgian grip. It is large, and well-suited to those with bigger hands, but it seems to condense some of the worst properties of the Visconti, Russian, and Belgian grips into a single package. I find it frightfully uncomfortable myself. I do not know of many fencers who use this grip--it is actually quite difficult to find these days. The American grip is easily identified by the fact that the extremity of its lower protrusion is usually roughly hexagonal in cross-section.
- Zivkovic grips
- In actuality there is no single Zivkovic grip, but the grips made by Zivkovic Modern Fencing are worthy of special mention. Zivkovic makes many grips roughly in a Visconti style, with several modifications. The most unique property of the Zivkovic grips is a significant reduction in size of, or almost complete elimination of, the pommel extension. Also, Zivkovic grips come in a great variety of sizes; in particular, fencers with particularly large or particularly small hands may find a Zivkovic that suits them.
- Hungarian Grip
- I do not know much about the Hungarian grip; from what I understand it is similar to a Belgian grip but somewhat thicker. Any information on this grip would be greatly appreciated. The Hungarian grip is named after its country of origin, and many Hungarian coaches I have met swear by it.
- Spanish Grip
- Now illegal, the Spanish grip was one of the first orthopedic grips to be developed. It comes in two versions, one with a full French-stype pommel, and one with a pommel extension more similar to other pistol grips. The primary difference between a Spanish grip and most other pistol grips is that there is no large lower protrusion--rather, the grip is more like a French grip with an extra hook at the top and bottom to to hook the thumb and middle finger, respectively, around. Because of the configuration of the hooks, it is possible to "pommel" a weapon with this grip, giving a half-inch to an inch more reach with almost no reduction in leverage. For this reason, the grip is considered illegal in modern fencing. It is still possible to find this grip in several catalogs, but be aware that it is almost universally forbidden in official competition. (Some argue that the Spanish grip without a French pommel is legal as long as it fixes the hand in a single position. The rules are somewhat unclear on the matter, since it is never made explicit what it means to "fix" the hand in a single position. Pyromancer reports that he has not encountered any trouble using such a Spanish grip.)
- Gardere Grip
- Developed by the great early 20th-century master of the same name, the Gardere grip is very similar to the French-pommelled Spanish grip, with more contouring and an additional hook behind the pinky. With the addition of this third hook, the grip may be pommeled a great distance--it is easy to gain well over an inch of reach using this grip with almost no loss of leverage. The Gardere grip is extremely rare these days, and is illegal for the same reason as the Spanish grip. (This grip, or one much like it, is also known as the Castello grip, after the early 20th-century master by the same name. Curious.)
If there are any entries that are suspiciously absent from this list, or if you have any details or corrections for any of these entries, plese /msg me.
UPDATE! Whilst browsing Uhlmann Fencing Equipment's British catalog (http://www.uhlmann-fencing.co.uk), I came across a page which seems to imply that the above naming conventions may be Americocentric. On this page they have the following labels: What is called, above, an Italian Visconti, is given simply as "pistol grip" in the Uhlmann catalog. Likewise what is called here Belgian is listed as English, and what I know as German Visconti is given as Belgian. I would be most pleased to hear from any non-US fencers who can give some clarification on international naming conventions for pistol grips.