Strategy and Speed Essential for Fencing

By Bonnie Williamson
Photos By: Jenny Dicola

Somehow, you wouldn’t think the swords-play in fencing would be in demand in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, parts of Maryland and Virginia. Well, it has been going strong for the past 20 years, thanks to a local business called Out of Nowhere Fencing, LLC.

David Copeland, the founder and head coach, and his wife Annette, who manages the business, came up with the unusual name Out of Nowhere Fencing.

“David teaches all over the area, not just one site. We had to have a name when our students competed in tournaments. So we thought Out of Nowhere Fencing was unusual enough and kitschy enough to fit. Now when we win a medal, it’s fun to hear the announcement, ‘From Out of Nowhere, the winner is…….’” says Annette.

David said many of his students become interested in fencing from watching dueling battles made famous by movies like “Star Wars” and the swash and buckle of Errol Flynn.

“It’s nothing like the movies. It’s a lot faster and requires strategy. You have to outwit your opponent. Don’t let them know what you’re going to do. Concerning movement, eighty percent is leg work,” David says.

“Students may come in because of movies, but the intrigue of fencing keeps them here,” Annette adds.

David offers instruction in three types of weapons: foil, epée, and saber. There are individual and team competitions for each. Foil and epée are point thrusting weapons, while the sabre can both thrust and slash with its blade edge. All three weapons have been modified to allow for electronic scoring. All fencers wear protective masks and clothes.

The foil has a flexible rectangular blade, approximately 35 inches long. Points are scored with the tip of the blade and must land within the torso of the body. The valid target area in foil is the
torso, from the shoulders to the groin, front and back (or chest and stomach cavity). It does not include the arms, head or legs. The foil fencer’s uniform includes a metallic vest, which covers the valid target area, so that a valid touch will register as a colored light. A tip is attached to the point of the foil and is connected to a wire inside the blade. The fencer wears a cord inside his uniform, which connects the foil to a wire, connected to the scoring machine.

David says the wire doesn’t hinder movement.

“It just feels like a slight tug on your back,” he says.

There are two scoring lights on the machine. One shows a green light when a fencer is hit the other shows a red light when their opponent is hit. A touch landing off the valid target area is indicated by a white light. These off target hits do not count as a point, but they
do stop the fencing action.

The epée is similar in length to the foil, but is heavier, weighing approximately 27 ounces, with a larger guard to protect the hand from a valid hit and a much stiffer blade. Touches are scored only with the point of the blade. The entire body is the valid target area.

The sabre is the modern version of the slashing cavalry sword, and is similar in length and weight to the foil. The major difference is that the sabre is a thrusting weapon, as well as a
cutting weapon. The target area is from the bend of the hips (both front and back), to the top of the head, simulating the cavalry rider on a horse.

All classes at Out of Nowhere Fencing start with a warm-up exercise. No shouting and very little talking takes place. David uses hand signals to indicate the different positions to be practiced. Annette says even during fencing competitions, people watching are quiet.

“You don’t have people yelling at each other, which, unfortunately, can happen with other sports. Fencers also respect and help each other. During bouts in class, students referee,” she says.

Classes have people of all different ages. Youngsters can start fencing at eight years old. Preparatory fencing classes start at age six.

During one class, David was working in an epée match with a student. His movements appeared slow at first, his arms hanging loosely at his sides, barely pointing his epée at his opponent…until he moved in for the point. His swiftness was unexpected. It was all part of the strategy needed for the sport. Annette has a picture of David in an epée competition where he literally scored a point by touching his opponent’s toe. Again, in epée the whole body is the target.

Speed is a key factor. Competitors win a fencing bout by being the first to score 15 points –in direct elimination play—or five points—in preliminary pool play—against their opponent. Each time a fencer lands a valid hit—a touch—a point is scored. The time limits for bouts can range from three to nine minutes. Fencers salute each other by raising their weapons up then down at the beginning and end of a bout.

Every student in his classes will get the opportunity to fence with David.

“He knows his students’ strengths and weaknesses. That’s what they work on,” Annette says.

Of course fencing with an expert would appear to be overwhelming at first. David is a registered coach and lifetime professional member with USA Fencing and is certified in all Safesport training. He was recently awarded the “Spirit of Fencing” Award in December 2017 by USA Fencing for his dedication to the sport. He has held national ratings in epee, foil and saber. In addition to being head coach, he also has worked as a referee for the Virginia Division, USFA and served on their board of directors. His students have won countless
medals in state and regional tournaments.

He began fencing in 1991 when he was 20 years old, first training in classical fencing
with Shenandoah Swordsmen, under Dr. Peter Ryan. Ryan was a student of the famous champion Georgio Santelli. Santelli was a fencer and fencing master who was part of the Italian team that won the gold medal in men’s team sabre at the 1920 Summer Olympics and was the largest mid-20th century influence in raising the quality and popularity of fencing in the United States, and creator of one of the best-known fencing equipment manufacturers.

David went on to compete in fencing, winning numerous medals but decided his first calling was to be a teacher. He started Out of Nowhere Fencing in 1998.

Participating in fencing offers numerous physical benefits. It builds strength in the lower body and endurance. Each match consists of many lunges and forward and backward movements. The body moves in many different ways, developing coordination.

“You don’t realize you’re getting a work out because you enjoy it so much,” Annette says.

Annette adds that Out of Nowhere Fencing students have included those with conditions like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). She says they have had great success with such students.

“In fencing, you have to focus and concentrate. You don’t have time to be preoccupied. It also builds confidence because it is a solo activity. You are responsible for how far you can go,” Annette says.

Something else to consider is a phrase the Copelands include on their website. “These swords do not discriminate against age, gender, race, religion or social economic status.”


For more information, go to the Out of Nowhere Fencing website at

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