Today fencers specialize, at the elite level in a single weapon and at the club level usually in a single weapon, but occasionally in two. There have always been specialists, but in the earlier days of the sport three weapon fencers were quite commonplace. From a practical point of view, even through the 1960s, small clubs widely spaced in much of the country meant that if you only fenced one weapon, your choice of opponents and competitions could be quite limited.
The three weapon generalist had a specific competition format as late as 1948, with United States individual national championships being held in Three Weapons. Two options exist for three weapons bouts:
(1) a bout fenced with 5 touches in foil, 5 touches in epee, and 5 touches in sabre, or
(2) a bout fenced with 5 touches in foil, 1 touch in epee, and 5 touches in sabre.
In both cases fencing is for the best of the number of touches. This means that the weapon changes when the total number of touches has been fenced. For example, the foil portion of the bout ends with scores of 5-0, 4-1, 3-2, 2-3, 1-4, or 0-5 being possible.
At the same time the overall bout is for the best of 15 (where all three weapons are equal) or for the best of 11 (when epee is fenced for one touch). When fencing for 15 touches, the bout ends when one fencer scores 8 or more hits, as the opponent cannot score enough touches to win. Similarly in bouts for 11 touches, the bout ends when one fencer scores 6 touches. Tournament formats were generally single elimination.
The 11 touch bout is true to the tradition of one touch epee. At the same time, a case can be made that this creates a more even competition, as one touch epee has an element of chance missing in epee bouts for five touches. Although the 11 touch bout can be won by the fencer who wins all five touches in foil and then the single epee touch, this may be less likely to occur than one fencer reaching 8 by winning a combination of foil and epee bouts.
This bout format has potential value in the club that has recreational fencers who fence all three weapons, and offers an enjoyable challenge for anyone with familiarity with the foil, epee, and sabre. It is also consistent with a classical fencing program, having been fenced as a distinct fourth weapon as early as 1907 in the United States.