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Is Epee Easier Than Foil?

Everyone thinks their weapon is the best. This is not hyperbole. If you don’t think your weapon is the best, then why are you doing it? Switch to the weapon that you think is the best. We also all believe that our weapon is the most difficult, the most fun, the most important, etc. for the same reasons.

I used to fence saber, but switched to foil about 5 years ago and fence epee occasionally. From my experience with my foil friends, they all think epee is easy. Like they think that foil fencers should be able to earn an identical (or at worst one lower) rating in epee to their foil rating. I wanted to know if this is really true though, so I looked at the numbers.

Basically, I looked at each national tournament (eg. March NAC 2019) and generated the list of fencers who participated in both foil and epee. I assumed a fencer was a foil fencer if their foil rating was higher than their epee rating, and a fencer was an epee fencer if their epee rating was higher than their foil rating. Few fencers had the same rating for both foil and epee, and since I couldn’t figure out which was their main weapon, I threw them out. Then for each fencer, I checked whether they earned a rating in their non-preferred weapon (indicating that the other weapon is easier since they are able to “accidentally” earn a higher rating in it without really practicing it). 

There are some fencers who do both weapons seriously, so I put a cap on the rating for the non-preferred weapon, as this would indicate that they probably don’t take it too seriously. Specifically, I only looked at fencers who were C or under in their secondary weapon. Here are the results of the analysis:

When foil fencers with a epee rating of C or below competed in epee, they got a rating 35/328 times

When epee fencers with a foil rating of C or below competed in foil, they got a rating 19/512 times

However, when manually looking through the results, I realized that many of the fencers earned a rating in Veteran, which is very different from the Div 1-3, Cadet, Junior, and Youth categories. There are many more fencers who seriously compete in two weapons in Veteran, and the ratings are also a bit inflated because a Vet fencer could get older and lose skill, but still maintain the same rating for at least 4 years. So I decided to throw out Vet events because they weren’t representative of fencers aged between 10 and 30 and had all sorts of quirks.

Removing Veteran events

Here are the results when you remove Veteran events:

When foil fencers with an epee rating of C or below competed in epee, they got a rating 16/207 times. These were the ratings earned:
A:1  B:1  C:5  D:2  E:7

When epee fencers with a foil rating of C or below competed in foil, they got a rating 2/312 times. These were the ratings earned:
E:2

You may argue that a fencer that has a C or D rating in their non-preferred may be taking it somewhat seriously. However, it’s fairly unlikely that they have an E or U and are super knowledgeable about epee.

When foil fencers with an epee rating of E or below competed in epee, they got a rating 11/125 times. These were the ratings earned:
A:1  C:2  D:1  E:7

When epee fencers with an foil rating of E or below competed in foil, they got a rating 2/171 times. These were the ratings earned: 
E:2

Additionally, just to be transparent and make it clear that I am not trying to hide anything, here are the results when you have no cap on the rating of the non-preferred weapon (although the non-preferred weapon rating is still below the preferred weapon):

When foil fencers competed in epee, they got a rating 18/214 times. These were the ratings earned:
A:2  B:2  C:5  D:2  E:7

When epee fencers competed in foil, they got a rating 2/339 times. These were the ratings earned:
E:2

Interestingly, of these 18 ratings earned in epee, 10 of them were equal or higher than the fencers’ foil ratings. None of the epee fencers earned a rating in foil that was equal to or higher than their epee rating.

Overall, there are three conclusions to draw from this. Either:

a. Epee is easier than foil,

b. Epee has a lot of rating inflation, or

c. Foil skills are more transferrable to epee than epee skills are to foil.

This is just mere speculation, and one can never get a perfect conclusion from an observational study, but I think that the best answer is probably some mix of the latter two: likely foil skills are more transferrable to epee than epee skills are to foil, but epee ratings are also inflated, making it easier to earn a high rating. 

I don’t think that it is fair to say that epee is overall easier than foil. The difficulty in fencing is beating other people who are also trying their best to beat you, so if there was some “easy” way to get good at epee, everyone could just learn it and nobody would have a specific advantage. 

Furthermore, epee fencers do not know right of way, which puts them at a disadvantage when they try to fence foil. On the other hand, foil fencers can just move around and do some basic actions (eg. disengage, parry) and score some singles and doubles without too much specialized knowledge. 

Based on the numbers it is definitely easier to get ratings in epee than foil. Foil fencers have about an 8% chance of earning a rating in epee, whereas epee fencers only have a 0.06% chance of earning a rating in foil. About 5% of the time when a foil fencer competes in epee they earn an equal to or higher rating than their foil rating, which never happens in epee. 

Let me know what you think in the comments! Here is a spreadsheet of the full data, in case you are interested.

People who fence foil and saber or saber and epee

If you are wondering about people who fenced both saber and epee at a NAC, or foil and saber:

Foil fencer doing saber only happened 53 times, with 2 D ratings earned

Saber fencer doing foil only happened 28 times, with no ratings earned

Epee fencer doing saber happened 78 times with 3 ratings given: 1 C, 1 D, and 1 E

Saber fencer doing epee happened 12 times, with no ratings earned

This is probably because saber fencers don’t have point control, which makes doing well in other weapons hard because they can’t even hit. Foil and epee fencers won’t really have good saber strategy, but at least they’ll be able to get a light on.

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