Most people view it as an activity associated solely with the likes of Errol Flynn, or as a means of converting hot goods to cash. But the sport of fencing is flourishing in Washington.

In existence for as long as there has been warfare, fencing has been refined over the centuries, away from battlefields and into the Olympics.

The three weapons -- foil, epee and saber -- evolved from different forms of sword fighting and to this day retain different rules based on their origins. (The target area in foil fencing is the torso; the epee encompasses the whole body and the saber the upper body, arms and head.)

The appeal of fencing as a sport has as many variations as people who enjoy it. A guide to the sport written in 1940 proclaims, "Of all the recreations demanded by modern man . . . to keep him fit and diverted, fencing offers the most. It is not too taxing. Men of 60 and 75 go on fencing with no danger to their health. It is low in cost . . . The club dues are far less than those of a country club."

Yet fencing carries as many elitist connotations as the poshest private club.

Says Richard E. Shipman, coach of the Capitol Hill and Downtown fencing clubs, "I suppose at one time, fencing was an elitist sport. Certainly in the 19th century it was the sport of aristocrats. In Europe, everybody who was a gentleman learned swordfighting. Women did too, because it developed physical grace and control. But fencing is viewed as elitist in America because swords have never really been part of American culture. They were not an important tradition because duels here were always fought with pistols."

According to Capt. Richard C. Steere, U.S.N. (Ret.), a member of the 1932 Olympic foil team and at age 70 still an active fencer, fencing in Washington "has been growing since the '20s and '30s. In the late '40s and early '50s there were only two clubs; now there are 15 in the area." Most colleges in the vicinity also have teams by now, he said.

For the beginning fencer, clubs sometimes provide basic equipment -- a foil and face mask -- although beginners must work on hand and foot movement for at least several weeks before handling a weapon. Eventually, basics such as a foil, mask and jacket become essential -- with added necessities of aluminum breast protectors for women and other protections for competition fencing. The three basics run about $70 (less for children's gear), available from two New York fencing salles (schools): Santelli's and Castello's. There are no suppliers in the D.C. area, but orders can be placed through the clubs.

Fees for area clubs vary, depending on the number of sessions and lessons per week and the quality of the accommodations. Some of the more informal clubs, such as the Capitol Hill, charge a membership fee of $7 a month -- to cover occasional lessons and the rent of the church hall that is used as a salle.

More competitive clubs offer more sophisticated equipment -- such as electrical reels and wires used in foil and epee competition to record accurately the number of hits. Such clubs have correspondingly sophisticated dues. Dr. Werner J. Meudt, president of the Metropolitan division of the Amateur Fencing League of America (AFLA), says some club memberships might run to $150 a year -- reasonable, he says, considering that some meet year-round, several times a week.

Many fencers, when they first try the sport, are disappointed that they can't immediately begin Errol Flynn-style swashbuckling. Coach Shipman admits his initial interest in fencing was in the "galmorous romantics of it all. But once the myths are abolished by a few sore muscles, people begin to enjoy fencing for the exercise and challenge it provides."

Donna McGowan, who has been fencing for six years, began in college where she was quickly placed on the team. "My advice is don't be afraid to try it. You forget how unnatural some of the positions are, like the engarde (ready position), after you've been doing it for a while, but it's like ballet in that respect -- very graceful. Just practice and be patient and you'll have a sword in your hand in no time."

Carroll Gibbs, a fencer for three years, emphasizes, "Especially at first, the attitude of the instructor is all-important. If instructors become sensitive to the image of the sport they could expand its attractiveness."

As in most sports, the younger one starts, the better. Meudt runs a program for high school students at High Point Senior High School, Adelphi, which he plans to expand. He also has launched a program at Landon School, bethesda, and is checking into starting one in Bowie.

Although beginning at a young age is important for a good competitive background, it is by no means essential for those just wanting exercise.

Esther Jorolan, past president of the Metropolitan AFLA, insists that fencing doesn't depend on age, especially for women, who are starting to fence epee and saber in addition to the traditional, lighter foil.

Fencing, devotees claim, is fun because it is exercise with a point to it -- as it were -- involving strategy as well as basic drills.

"You have to outsmart your opponent," says McGowan. "It's a matter of agility and flexibility, but you have to think about it. It's like playing physical chess."