160221 Compound Attacks

Compound attacks used to be the culmination of the fencer’s art, multiple tempo actions that required blade virtuosity and the ability to lead an opponent through a series of movements leading to his or her downfall. The epitome was the tour d’epee, formed by change of engagement, change of engagement to the original line, disengage, and coupe. Success in such complicated actions required an agreement by the opponent to react to what was offered – today such actions are improbable. Fencing has moved on.

This does not mean that compound attacks are not useful today, but it does mean that in almost cases they must be well prepared, executed with full attention to distance, footwork, and timing, and be simple enough to deny an opponent the opportunity of disrupting them by counterattack.

What is a compound attack? The standard definition is an attack executed in two or more parts, all parts of which before the final action are feints, and the final of which is the actual attack.  This definition is based on the catalog of compound actions in which all feints are feints of one of the simple attacks. Of the actions that meet this definition, only the two part feints seem to be practical in the modern game. Examples include:

  • In foil and epee, feints of straight thrust and disengage or counterdisengage, feints of disengage and second disengage (one-two) of feint of disengage and counterdisengage (double).
  • In sabre, the feint of cut (or less frequently thrust) in one line, followed by a cut (or thrust) in a second line (for example, feint head-cut flank or feint outside arm cut-disengage point thrust)

However, this population of compound actions is too limiting. If we go back to the underlying design of the compound attack, we can ask why do we do a feint? The obvious answer is to destabilize an opponent’s defense by drawing a blade in motion in a direction in which the attack will not come. From this come two worthwhile thoughts.

The first actually denies the answer suggested above. An opponent who has been hit by a previous compound action may make the decision to react only to the final action, ignoring the feint. The fencer who is fencing eyes open may see the lack of reaction to the feint and execute the final tempo of the attack in the same line as the feint, a feint of straight thrust-straight thrust. In effect the previous attacks have served as the stimulus for the opponent to ignore the feint, and fix the blade in readiness for a change of line that does not come. The opponent has mentally destabilized his or her defense, and the previous compound attacks have served as the feint that allows a feint of straight thrust-straight thrust to score.

The second thought is that limiting the feint to a member of the simple attack family is too, well, limiting. If the objective of the feint is to destabilize by setting the opponent’s blade in motion, then cannot we get the blade in motion with percussion or leverage? The beat or press disengage uses the natural inclination to resist percussion to set up the disengage in a two part action – the beat or press is the feint to draw the blade from the final line of attack. Similarly, if a glide (straight thrust with opposition) draws resistance back, the opponent’s blade may well be moving in a direction that opens a line for the disengage.

So, when we think about compound attacks it may be important to think about ways we can achieve the objective of the feint, getting the blade in motion, in a variety of ways. Thinking about the timing of doing so is equally important. In simple terms, when do you feint?

The classical compound attack was delivered from medium (lunge distance) with the feint (or feints) from a relatively static position, followed by the final action with the lunge. In modern footwork-centric fencing this will not be successful. Now the feint may be delivered as a series of blade movements in preparatory footwork, on the start or in the middle or at the end of the advance of an advance-lunge, or even in the early stage of the lunge as acceleration starts. If you want the feint to prematurely draw a counterattack if the opponent plans one, an early feint may be useful. The timing and depth of later feints depends on distance, how far forward the opponent likes to parry, whether a feint parry is often used, and whether the opponent tends to wait for the perceived final action to parry.

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