We have previously discussed distance in the Salle Blog, but for this week let me do a quick review, and then add something new. First, what is distance? One common definition is that it is the physical distance between your point and the opponent’s target; another is that it is the physical distance between the fencer’s target and the opponent’s target. These definitions set the stage for the traditional division of distance into three categories defined by the movement required to hit the target: short (extension), medium (lunge), and long (advance lunge). For a number of years I have been teaching that there are actually five distances:

(1) Infighting – the distance at which unusual attitudes and movements must be used to position the blade for a hit in close quarters.

(2) Short – the distance at which a hit may arrive by simple extension.

(3) Medium – the distance at which a hit may arrive by extension and lunge.

(4) Long – the distance at which a single footwork motion is required to reach medium distance, typically the advance lunge.

(5) Preparatory – the distance at which multiple preparatory footwork steps, changes of direction and tempo, etc. must be used to reach long distance. I used to term this out-of-distance, but I feel that name tends to be a soothing “they can’t get me from there” statement, rather than the more realistic reflection that “they” are working very hard to convert this to at least Long and preferably Medium distance.

It is important to understand that these definitions are in offensive terms. If we translate them to defensive terms they become:

(1) I suggest that is difficult to find defensive infighting – it is all offense or counteroffense. The most probable way to have defensive infighting is to close the distance to hit your opponent off target or to provoke corps-a-corps to escape the situation.

(2) Short – the distance at which the defensive envelope for parries is collapsed to parries close to the body and ripostes are by simple extension.

(3) Medium – the distance at which a parry is required and can be made anywhere in the full defensive envelope, from deep to advanced, with a riposte by advance or lunge.

(4) Long – the distance at which the opponent can hit with an attack that maintains the right of way – it will require a preparatory footwork movement and you may have the options to collapse the distance or to force a pursuit. Alternately, the distance against a fast opponent at which you require a preparatory step to hit with the riposte.

(5) Preparatory – the distance at which an opponent is actively preparing an attack against you that will involve multiple footwork actions (and covers a lot of the strip).

The problem with all distance classifications is that they are typically measured from the wrong place, in fact four wrong places.

First – there is an implicit assumption in the definitions that distance is the same for both fencers. It isn’t. Take short distance – if my arm is longer than your arm, my short distance is longer than your short distance. If we look at medium and long, now lunge length, step length, ability to use torso rotation, etc. can all give one fencer an advantage. There can be a significant difference in fencer reach (the physical distance the fencer can cover to deliver a hit in offense or counteroffense). Reach differences can be decisive in epee, and in those situations in right of way weapons in which the referee bases his or her calls on the order in which the lights illuminate. The difference in reach creates a relative distance – the difference between the attacker’s and defender’s distance considering reach. If I am attacking you and my relative distance is negative (your reach is longer than mine), my attack is vulnerable to counterattack or advanced parry-riposte for a significant part of its travel. On the other hand, if my relative distance is positive I can hit from outside your ability to reach me.

Second – they are measured from where the fencers are in the moment. But that is not necessarily where they will be when the attack ends. Offensive and counteroffensive action must be delivered to where the opponent will be when the action ends, not where the opponent is when it starts. What this means is that if I attack with a lunge against a stable and ready opponent with reasonable response time, and I aim to hit where they are at this moment, they will be at least part of a retreat step further away (or may be a good part of an advance step closer trying to collapse the distance). Where the opponent will be at the end of the attack is a difficult problem, depending on their experience, tactics at this point in the bout, morale, and physical condition. Sometimes you can see this or feel it, and know where they will be; sometimes it is purely a risk decision.

Third – there is always more than one target. An attack to the shoulder or upper front chest in foil is at a different distance from an angulated attack deep in four. In sabre you add the advanced target of the upper arm and forearm. And in epee the target deepens dramatically with forearm and arm, front torso, thigh, foot, back torso, and even rear foot, all at different distances. If you are at one distance for one target you will be at a different distance for other targets. There is a special case as well in sabre and epee – counteroffensive action may result in the advanced arm target closing the distance, while the rest of the body is opening it.

Fourth – distance is operational speed. If you execute an action at one speed to hit at a specific distance it takes a certain amount of time. If you do the same action at a closer distance, it takes less time, and at a longer distance, more time. This is important because the time associated with the distance translates into time for an opponent to move, time for a counterattack, time for a parry and riposte.

If we take these considerations and mesh them with the more static five definitions above against a mobile opponent:

… on offense – short distance is now the range from short to medium distance, medium distance will frequently be long distance, and long distance will commonly be preparatory distance.

… on defense – a short distance action can be collapsed to infighting distance, the opponent’s medium distance attack is your short distance riposte, your small step back to open the distance on an attack creates medium to long distance for your riposte, and anything beyond that becomes a pursuit in preparatory distance.

What all this means is that the traditional definitions of distance only work in the context of your understanding and adapting to the relative distance with your opponent, work to hit where the opponent will be, know the impact of the target you choose on distance, and, where possible, minimize the time in the action. It is perhaps more important to be able to assess these factors in determining whether distance is a negative or positive for you, and the reverse for your opponent. A negative distance situation is one in which your opponent has a better than 50% chance of hitting you, and you have a less than 50% chance of either hitting him or avoiding her hit. A positive distance situation is one in which the odds of hitting or avoiding are in your favor.