USA Fencing brought a new blade to Phoenix: The 'Star Wars' lightsaber

By Jill Ryan
Published: Monday, July 17, 2023 - 4:05am
Updated: Tuesday, July 18, 2023 - 9:16am

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More than 5,000 fencers recently came to Phoenix to compete in this year’s USA Fencing Summer Nationals.

Amidst the competition was one event using very familiar weaponry. 

Fencing is an ancient sport with its origins in multiple countries, including France. For centuries, the sport had three disciplines with three respective weapons: sabre, foil and épée. 

“Sabre comes from war. And it’s the slashing weapon. So, the idea was you would slash somebody effectively across their torso or across their head, and you would kill the human, but not the horse, because the horse is an asset that can be brought to your side of the war in Europe,” said Phil Andrews, the CEO of USA Fencing.

In the sport, a person uses the entire sword to slash their padded opponent for the point. The two other disciplines are foil and épée. Both only use the tip of the blade to “pierce” the opponent, again while padded. But their targeted areas are different. 

A fourth discipline

A group of light fencers and referees.
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More than 5,000 fencers came to the USA Fencing Summer Nationals 2023 in Phoenix, including light fencers.

But new to this year’s competition was what France has already recognized as its fourth fencing weapon: the lightsaber. Yes, like the one from “Star Wars.”

Well, not exactly. The LED lights in the lightsabers are contained in hard plastic tubing.

“It’s based on the LED saber, which is basically a replica like the lightsabers you see in ‘Star Wars’ and all that. We have a simplified hilt, so it’s essentially just a flashlight, very durable, we can bash them against each other without breaking them,” said Chad Eisner with Terra Prime Light Armory, or TPLA.

While it’s not as formally established in the U.S., this sport goes by many names, one of which is light fencing. Unlike traditional fencing’s combat zone, which is a long but narrow rectangular area, light fencing is a more 360 degree sport typically played in a circular arena.

“The French Fencing Federation has it as a full part of their nationals so we brought them here to trial it, demo it — I did it yesterday — for our participants here,” Andrews said.

Light fencing and its specific rules have been curated and tested by TPLA. 

“In 2018, we were able to get the French Fencing Federation to accept this sport as the fourth fencing weapon. And they just had their first national tournament back in February,” Eisner said.

The Federation officially recognized lightsaber dueling as a sport in 2019.

System of priority in play

Two light fencers compete.
Jill Ryan/KJZZ
The rule-set of light fencing takes a page out of each fencing discipline.

For light fencing, imagine what a regular fencer looks like in their padded white armor and meshed mask. Now, bulk up the pads, make it all black and add a lightsaber with a color of your choice — and that is what these athletes look like. And its rule set takes a page out of each fencing discipline.

“So, we can hit the entire body. We’re pretty much doing cuts, we don’t thrust with these blades because they injure you. And we work in a system of priority or right of way, so when one person starts an attack the other person must defend,” Eisner said.

Eisner said TPLA’s goal is threefold: to introduce sport to people who would not likely otherwise become athletes, be a gateway to fencing and to create a governing body that works in conjunction with USA Fencing. 

Gender and body neutrality

A light fencer instructors another person.
Jill Ryan/KJZZ
Light fencing does not currently have different age and weight classes.

Like most combat sports, traditional fencing has divisions — usually by gender, age or skill level. One thing Light Fencing is introducing from of the get-go is gender and body neutrality.

Anna Faulkner is a TPLA-certified light fencer.

“Participation is varied from age, gender identity, body type, background. It is welcomed to anyone with or without a background in fencing or any other form of fighting,” Faulkner said.

Eisner said as they continue to build, they may create different age and weight classes, but the sport will remain coed while simultaneously being fair. He said that’s possible because the sport is played in turns where one player has to signal to the other that they have priority.  

“And with that turn-based kind of system, somebody who is larger, stronger, and faster only does not automatically have an advantage,” Eisner said

COVID-19 has delayed many efforts to officially establish light fencing in the U.S. But an invitation from USA Fencing to demonstrate the sport here in Phoenix brought them another step closer.

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