The modern fencer faces a very complex tactical environment. It is not enough to know blade technique and footwork – risk assessment, statistical influence of hits in the bout and the pool, timing control, distance control, retention of the initiative, energy and hydration management, management of the fencer’s psychological state, and psychological combat with the opponent all play a role in creating and executing tactics at any given point in the bout. Under these conditions blade actions are one of many decisions the fencer must make in a very short period of time if he is to be successful. This creates considerable pressure on her to simplify and systematize her selection of blade technique.
However, before we discuss this, it is important to note that there is a difference between recognizing an opponent’s action and doing one yourself. If you can’t recognize and assess an opponent’s actions, it becomes infinitely more difficult to either defeat them or to exploit the opening they present. In simple terms, the Observe and Orient functions in the OODA Loop simply don’t work for you. That means you have to be able to identify a wide variety of movement patterns. However, that does not mean you have to be able to do everything you can recognize. Some things you can exclude simply because they are errors or ineffective – for example, you don’t want to routinely complete your high line attacks with your weapon arm at the level of the lower edge of the opponent’s rib cage. Some you can exclude because they do not fit into your tactical doctrine, some because they have a low probability of success, and some because they are just too complicated to learn and perfect in our available time.
When you talk to people whose job routinely involves hand to hand combat, a common theme that emerges is the importance of having a limited set of techniques (perhaps 5 or 6) that can be used in a variety of situations, that are highly effective, and that you can practice and develop to a level of fast, controlled, powerful, precise, and automated execution. The tactical challenge then becomes for these fighters to create the conditions in which they can employ this set of techniques to end the fight quickly and in their favor.
This is not a new idea for fencing. According to contemporary reports, one fencer won the European Championships in the early 1900s (when the European Champions was effectively the World Championships) with the straight thrust – not the final touch in the final bout, but all the touches in all the bouts. Today there are high level fencers who employ a very small set (as few as 1 or 2) of techniques, with everything else they do being directed to setting up the conditions in which that small set will guarantee victory. For examples of how this works, see Harmenberg’s Epee 2.0 or Epee 2.5.
The question is how to select what to do. Imre Vass in Degenfechten is the first Master I have found who suggests the use of systems, which he describes in the context of a combination of techniques that logically flow from one to the other and that provide a full capability to execute defense with a small portion of the possible parries. Vass describes a variety of epee defensive systems from which the fencer can select one that meets his or her needs considering the fencer’s approach to tactics. This reduces the large number of possible parries (when you consider lateral, semi-circular, circular, change, diagonal and ceding, foil theoretically has somewhere around 40) to a manageable 3 to 5.
The same approach can logically be taken to attacks and to counterattacks. In all three weapons it is possible to reduce your system of attacks to a small enough number to allow a high degree of technical quality in their execution – perhaps 5 or 6. Counterattacks can probably be reduced to 2 or 3.
The choice between counterattacks and parries and ripostes is important here. Counterattack blade actions are largely simple actions. The system is in determining when you will parry and riposte and when you will counterattack, and drilling on situation recognition and immediate action.
In each case reduction means choosing not just a specific technique (straight thrust as an example), but also the conditions under which you will execute the technique, and the target to which you will direct it. For example, in sabre I might simplify my list of ripostes to cheek cut from parry 4 (to anywhere on the arm, shoulder, or cheek) and coupe from parry 3 (to the head). What about the riposte from the head cut – I am not going to worry about that because I intend to use parries 3 and 4 to defend the head and have excluded 5 as too slow and too dangerous. On the other hand, you might decide that the old first defensive triangle of 1st, 2nd, and 5th is how you want to defend in sabre and build the appropriate ripostes into your system.
Having a system does not exclude other technique. But it does give you a highly reliable set of skills as a core to fight from and to return to in the moment of crisis in the bout. As you develop as a fencer and competitor, you will find that you (first) increasingly rely on the system techniques and eventually (second) start to further simplify the list as you develop the ability to control in whose tactical envelope the bout is fought.