160501 The Universal Parry

Blades crossed in a parryYes, yes, any number of fencing masters over the centuries have proposed one or more versions of a universal parry – a parry that stops all attacks. That is not what this blog entry discusses. Rather we are focused on two parries which are present in all three weapons, which have been present for at least 300 years, and which have significant utility as core defensive actions. Can you guess which ones they are without reading further?

Before we discuss the two, it is important to review what a parry does and does not do for you.

(1) a parry keeps you from being hit – actually this is a myth. Very few parries cannot be subjected to a remise as a stop hit against the riposte or as a simple insistence when there is no riposte. What is true is that the parry keeps you from being hit long enough. In foil and sabre this is long enough to establish right of way. In all three weapons it is long enough to establish an opposition to allow control of the opponent’s blade so that you are not hit in the riposte when fencing for one light.

There is an old saying that fencing is about hitting the other fencer and not being hit yourself. That never was absolutely true. But what is true is that you do not want to be hit until you have the right of way or until lock-out time prevents your opponent’s hit from being recognized by the scoring machine.

(2) a parry allows you to gain the right of way in foil and sabre. The parry does not give you the right of way. Because these are conventional weapons, the accepted logic is that an immediate riposte after the parry is given the right of way. But if the riposte hesitates the remise can steal the time. Or if the fencers stay on the blade with no immediate riposte the first action off seizes the right of way. The important word is “immediate” if you intend to gain right of way.

(3) the parry sets up the riposte. If the attack is in 4, and I parry 4, the entering argument is to riposte in 4. But if I want to hit the opponent in 6th or 2nd or 8th, I can change the argument with an indirect riposte. This introduces tactical choice into the riposte, gives me options to evade the opponent’s parry, and complicates his or her tactical choices. This is particularly important if I am doing second intention.

(4) the parry disrupts the opponent’s game plan. In immediate terms it forces her back into the OODA Loop creating the opportunity to get inside her decision making – another reason for the immediate riposte. In the short term it forces him to rethink his plan or to move to the next level of the plan.

(5) the parry may make the opponent predictable. For an unsophisticated opponent, a parry is a challenge to make the next attack faster and more powerful – and hence predictable. For a tactician, a parry is the signal to change; what that change is depends upon his plan. What she does under these conditions may not be predictable, but you can predict that there will be a change.

Although I have no statistics to verify this, simple observation indicates that most attacks are directed into the high lines. This argues for 4 and 6 (3 in sabre) being the universal parries. In epee 4 may be less important depending on defensive doctrine and the defensive system you adopt. However, both are important.

Parry 4 defends the inside high line, and Parry 6/3 the outside high line. Understand that these parries are often taught incorrectly. With few exceptions, a parry is not a set position on a diagram in a fencing manual. Rather parries are the mobile defense of envelopes of space. Forward, active parries intercept the opponent’s attack early, cutting down the angles (if you do not understand what that means, watch a soccer goalie in action) to minimize the amount of movement the arm must do laterally, and potentially to break up a compound action. Close in parries wait for and intercept the final action once the opponent has committed fully to the attack. Raising the blade angle from the horizontal expands the coverage vertically against high attacks or flicks. Lowering the hand expands the coverage downward to block attempts to get under the blade into the low line.

Parries 4 and 6/3 are also important in that they offer strong opposition to the attack and allow strong opposition in the riposte. If you have to fight for one light in foil or sabre because the referee does not recognize you parries or has difficulty understanding the right of way this opposition is critical to keeping the opponent’s blade off you for long enough to score the hit. And in epee, especially in 4th, the opposition denies the opponent the opportunity to remise.

All of this means that a parry (and especially 4 and 6/3) has to:

(1) deny the initial hit,

(2) allow opposition to control the opponent’s blade when needed,

(3) move forward and back and up and down as the situation requires to control the envelope of the line,

(4) frustrate the opponent’s plan for the bout,

(5) and allow you to score with the riposte.

So practice making it do just that.

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