In most systems of fencing there are four simple attacks – attacks that are executed in a single tempo and that represent movement with no change of direction: the straight thrust, the disengage, the counterdisengage, and the coupe. The coupe is a bread and butter attack in sabre, very useful in foil, and a surprise (although a risky one in epee). So how do we do it, and when do we apply it tactically?
First, some history. In the classical period the coupe was a standard technique – although the execution varied. In the 1870s, the forearm was brought up to face level with the tip of the blade actually behind the head. By the 1930s, the blade was brought up to about a 45 degree angle from the horizontal. And such interesting variants as the flying parry became parts of the tool box. As technique became more weapon specific in the 1990s the coupe in foil became a primary way of delivering the flick. So the coupe has evolved as fencing has evolved.
But the key elements remain the same – a coupe is a simple attack in which the fencer’s blade passes from one line around the point of the opponent’s weapon to land in a different line. In high line the coupe goes up and over the blade; in low line it goes down and around the point of the blade; in a horizontal high to low action it goes laterally around the tip of the blade. This makes it the opposite of the disengage – in the disengage the blade goes around the opponent’s bell.
When do we use the coupe? The answer is that the coupe will work under the same conditions as a disengage: when the opponent is attempting to sweep to take the blade, or is pressing or trying to beat the blade, or just because the distance and timing is right. There is one difference, and it is counterintuitive. The coupe works best in foil or epee when the opponent’s tip is moderately high – a level or 10-15 degree up angle blade presentation by the opponent is difficult to clear. And if the opponent’s tip is very high it takes too long – hit them with a straight thrust or disengage.
We teach that you should use all available body parts to accelerate the attack – normally in foil or epee this is legs, arm, and torso rotation. In sabre we add fingers for the quick finger action that accelerates the final stage of the cut. In foil and epee the coupe is ideally suited for use of the fingers to accelerate the downward and forward movement of the point into line. This can be as a flick or as a fast insertion of the thrust. In either case, it increases point speed in the last 8-10 inches of the attack, making it harder to parry. The sabre coupe already accomplishes this through the finger mechanism of the cut.
The difficulty is that the coupe is a fairly large blade movement typically with forearm execution. This means it has a distinct visual signature which, combined with the distance away from the target the point has to travel, means that it is recognizable fairly early in the execution. In addition, in epee the arm movement will expose the fencer to the potential for the opponent to counterattack. The more the blade movement can be executed with the fingers and the forearm used to travel forward rather than up the faster and less vulnerable the final attack will be.
The coupe can be used in compound attacks. I once had a student who scored two successive hits with a double coupe (feint of coupe, coupe). And there is always the Tour d’Epee, a coupe which flows directly into a disengage to return to hit in the original line.
Are there ways to use the coupe other than in the attack? Yes. It makes an effective indirect riposte in all the ways you would normally use an indirect riposte, particularly in foil from a parry of 5.
I mentioned the flying parry. This is a parry executed with a backward movement sliding up the opponent’s blade, followed by a coupe around the point and a thrust with opposition or a cut into the opponent’s opposite line as she recovers in a return to the expected line of your riposte. It requires a nice bit of timing and a good understanding of when the opponent has started to recover to avoid a remise as a stop against the riposte. The coupe in fifth as a riposte usually has the characteristics of a high to low flying parry.
And there is another, rather obscure (I have only seen this referenced twice in print), but still valuable, use of the coupe. If you are fencing an opponent who habitually attempts to take the blade with a circular motion, try the counter-coupe. As the opponent’s blade moves in a circle, wait (the hard part) until the opponent’s blade is rising, and then pull your blade up out of the circumference of the circle and lower it and thrust in the vacuum on the back side as his blade passes.
Compound coupes, flying parries, and counter coupes are all specialty movements that require a lot of practice. There are also once a pool actions. They are unusual enough that they will attract attention, someone will figure it out and be waiting for you to do it. But when you do them the first time the surprise will probably be complete when you score.