The challenge any attacker faces is to create the conditions needed for the attack to succeed. Simple attacks work if the opponent puts his blade in motion or if she lets you control the timing, distance, psychological factors, and initiative. Otherwise you challenge is to either get the opponent to put their blade in motion or to do the job for them. This step opens the way to the final action to score. Attacks that have these two distinct elements, a preparation and a final action are prepared attacks. The final action is a simple attack, perhaps with angulation, perhaps with opposition, etc., but essentially a simple attack.
Note: preparation can be by footwork or bladework. In modern usage, preparation tends to be used to describe the approach to combat in the phrase, including distractions, maneuvering on the piste, etc. Preparation can be used offensively, but equally can be employed to set up the defense-offense transition or for counteroffense. However, for the purpose of this discussion, we will look at preparations specifically as part of the blade action of the attack.
There are four categories of prepared attacks:
(1) Attacks on the blade – these work essentially by percussion to remove the blade from the line into which you wish to attack with the beat and press being examples.
(2) Takings of the blade – these apply leverage to control the opponent’s blade and put it into a position that allows the hit – binds, envelopments, croises, and the stronger categories of opposition actions in the same line.
(3) Engagements – a less frequent, but productive, technique in which the engagement elicits the opponent’s response on your blade needed to clear the line.
(4) Compound attacks – these depend on the opponent putting his blade in motion in response to your feint.
This week we are going to focus on compound attacks. A compound attack is an attack, the first motion of which (and any subsequent motions before the final) is a feint, and the final motion is the actual attack in the desired line. In the classical period fencers learned combinations of as many as four elements in a feint-feint-feint-final attack sequence. However, the Masters of the time were pretty much universal in their agreement that anything more than two feints and a final was not a practical proposition in a bout. Today, two elements, feint and final, is the almost universal combination.
So how does this work? What is a feint? And what do I use as a feint? All good questions. It works because the feint, into a line in which the fencer does not intend to actually attack, draws a response by the opponent in the form of a parry. As the opponent starts the parry, the fencer then commits to the final attack into the line that the blade is vacating to make the parry. The feint is usually directed into an open line to increase its credibility. As we have discussed before an attack into a stable open line of a competent opponent is a risky proposition. But as the opponent closes that line to the feint, he is creating the opening line into which the final action is inserted with a significantly higher chance of success.
The feint is thus a key element – if the opponent believes the feint the attack can touch. That means that the feint must look like the start of an actual simple attack, the same blade positioning, apparently the same speed and depth of penetration up to the point that parry is committed, the same footwork, etc. This has the added benefit that, if the opponent does not react, the feint can be converted into the final action – for example, a feint of straight thrust with the straight thrust as the second tempo of the attack.
There is a second part of this. A feint does not just occur in the compound attack in this phrase. Every action that you do in a bout is potentially a feint for the action in the next phrase or for the next touch. If you hit an opponent with a disengage, what is the opponent’s expectation? More often than not she will expect you to try to hit with the same disengage again, perhaps on the next action or perhaps after one or more intervening actions. When he sees that start of a disengage, he will be ready and will commit his parry … but you will not be there.
All of the simple attacks can serve as feints in all three weapons, although some are less frequent in one weapon than in another. Coupe feints, for example, can be expected to be rare in epee, but reasonably common in sabre. To complete the action all that is required is to add a second simple attack. For example:
- feint of straight thrust, disengage (to deceive the lateral parry) – hits in the opposite line from the original feint
- feint of disengage, disengage (to deceive the lateral parry) – the One-Two – hits in the line from which the feint started
- feint of disengage, counterdisengage (to deceive the circular parry) – the Double – hits in the opposite line from which the feint started
- feint of head cut, flank cut (to deceive the vertical parry) – hits in a different line from the original feint
- feint by coupe, disengage (to deceive the lateral parry of the coupe) – the Tour d’Epee – hits in the line from which the feint started
Simple attack feint + simple attack = one compound attack. This is a two tempo action (a simple attack being a tempo in duration). There are a number of ways that the blade action can be synchronized with the footwork. The simplest is one tempo of footwork for each blade tempo, but variation as to when in the footwork tempo the bladework tempo occurs is possible based on the tactical situation.