Much has been said about the current classification system used by the USFA to seed fencing tournaments. There are many supporters of the current system and many detractors who believe it should be modified or replaced for a variety of reasons. It is not our intention to side with either group in the debate, but to provide some background information on the recent and current distribution of ratings between weapons and within each gender.
According to an “old hand” who recently retired from competitive fencing, the current letter system was adopted in 1956, when “A”, “B” and “C” ratings replaced a system in place at the time which used categories such as “Senior”, “Junior”, “Novice” and “Prep”. The system was expanded in the early 1980’s with the addition of “D” and “E” ratings.
The USFA’s classification system for fencers was primarily designed to provide an objective scale for the seeding of competitions and to determine an event’s strength. Fencers are classified as follows: A (highest), B, C, D, E, U (Unclassified or Unrated, lowest). In recent times, the National Rolling Point System (NRPS) has taken an increasingly major role in the seeding of national-level events.
The classification system is also used to admit or exclude fencers for different events such as Division 1 (C & Above), Division 11 (C & Under) and Division 111 (D & under). The classification system is also used by fencers to gauge their progress in the sport and is a motivating factor for many fencers who seek to improve their skills. In addition, many fencers who plan to fence in college use their classification to attract the attention of college coaches.
Classifications are written as A16, B15, C14, etc. with the letter indicating the most recent year in which the classification was earned or re-earned. They are earned in each weapon at USA Fencing rated competitions at local, regional or national levels. The rating of a competition is based on the number of competitors and classification of the fencers and determines the type and number of classifications awarded or revised. The classification chart can be found in the USFA’s Athlete Handbook.
Classifications are valid for four seasons after they are earned. If, after four seasons, the classification has not been re-earned, it then reverts to the next lowest letter and the current year. The “decay” is enacted at the beginning of the new fencing season – August 1. For example, if a fencer earned a “B” rating in 2007 (B07) and did not re-earn the “B” for four years, the fencer’s “B” becomes a C11 on August 1, 2011. If the fencer did not re-earn the C11 for four more years, the fencer’s rating becomes a D15 on August 1, 2015.
According to an excellent analysis done by David Ma, the skill gap between achieving an E>D>C>B>A gets progressively larger. The article demonstrates empirically what we all know; not all classification categories are created equal and is the major reason why the USFA now uses the NRPS to seed events. See our earlier post on the average time it takes to upgrade a “B” rating to an “A” rating.
To facilitate a year-by-year comparison of classifications by gender and weapon over the past four years, yearly classifications were categorized as either AY, BY, CY, DY and EY. AY therefore refers to “A” ratings awarded in the respective years, 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012. AY-1 refers to the next rung of annual ratings, e.g., in 2015 an A14 is referred to as an AY-1 along with A13, A12 and A11.¹
The annual distributions of “A” to “E” ratings for men by weapon at year-end 31 July 2012 through 31 July 2015 are illustrated in Graphs 1-3. At first glance, the patterns for the three weapons appear similar with a declining number of fencers earning “D”, “C”, “B” and “A” classifications. While the overall pattern is similar, the vertical scale in each graph is different. On average, there has been about 822 “E” rated epee fencers per year as illustrated in Graph 1 compared with 824 for foil (Graph 2) and 570 for saber (Graph 3).
Epee and foil have shared a similar number of ratings awarded to “E” rated fencers over the period. The similarity ends here as the number of fencers awarded “D”, “C” and “B” classifications is much higher for epee compared with for foil and saber. Epee clearly has many more “A” rated fencers than does foil or saber. On average there have been 451 “A” rated epee fencers per year compared to 198 “A” rated foil fencers and 120 “A” rated saber fencers as demonstrated in Graph 4.
Graph 4: The Average Annual Number of “A” Rated Men Fencers By Weapon at Year End 31 July 2012 to 31 July 2015
There has been almost four times as many “A” rated epee fencers as there has been “A” rated saber fencers. Epee leads the way with the largest number of classifications awarded per year at 1,179 on average compared to foil at 873 and saber 586. So next time you meet an “A” rated saber fencer, tip your cap and extend your hand as they form the rarest breed of elite men fencers!
There is a different story for women fencers and their weapons as illustrated in Graphs 5, 6 and 7. Significantly more “E” ratings have been awarded on average to women foil fencers over the past four years. There has been about 327 “E” rated women foil fencers per year over the past four years, compared with 269 for epee and 172 for saber.
Epee clearly has many more “A” rated women fencers per year than does foil or saber at 104 compared to 77 for saber and 76 for foil as summarized in Graph 8. Epee leads the way with the largest number of classifications awarded per year at 346 compared to foil at 332 and saber 228.
Graph 8: The Average Annual Number of “A” Rated Women Fencers By Weapon at Year End 31 July 2012 – 31 July 2015
So in summary we find that significantly more ratings have been awarded to epee fencers compared to either foil or saber fencers over the past four years. About 1,525 ratings were awarded to epee fencers each year compared to foil at 1,205 and saber at 814. So there is about twice as many ratings awarded to epee fencers compared to saber fencers!
¹ Ideally, we would like to have published the ratio or percentage of fencers with classifications, but the denominator (total population of fencers for each gender-weapon category) simply does not exist. While the USFA membership list provides details on gender, membership type (competitive, non-competitive, etc.,) and classification, it does not identify the primary weapon for fencers. This is the only source of data for the total population of classified fencers (A, B, C, D & E). At the end of the season we plan to use data from the Summer Nationals, which represents a sample, albeit a large sample of classified fencers, to corroborate our findings. The data provided in the post provides an insight on the similarities and differences within and between genders and weapons over a four-year period.