Everyone knows what a compound attack is – an attack with two or more blade actions, the last of which is the final attack, and every action before the final is a feint. Common examples include the family of two tempo compound attacks (for simplicity, I have omitted cut actions and restricted this to thrusts, but sabre fencers will understand that they can deliver most, if not all, of these with both point and edge):
- Feint straight thrust, disengage
- Feint straight thrust, counterdisengage
- Feint of straight thrust, coupe
- Feint of straight thrust, straight thrust
- Feint of disengage, disengage (the one-two)
- Feint of disengage, counterdisengage (the double)
- Feint of disengage, coupe
- Feint of disengage, straight thrust
- etc. including the same types of actions starting with the counterdisengage or coupe, not to mention the countercoupe.
But if we really want to understand what a compound attack is, we need to think more deeply about actions that have two or more parts. What do they try to accomplish, how are they alike, how are they different, what is their tactical role?
If we follow the short tactical wheel we understand that the compound attack (1) exists as a way to defeat the opponent’s parry and riposte and (2) is the only type of attack other than the simple attack. If you are not sure that is so, here is the sequence:
- Simple attack
- Is defeated by the parry and riposte,
- Which is deceived by the compound attack,
- Which is timed out by the counterattack,
- In turn defeated by the simple attack.
No mention of attacks on the blade or takings of the blade anywhere in that sequence … So why do Fencing Masters waste their time teaching students beats, binds, etc.?
To understand the answer to that question we have to understand what attacks do. A simple attack exploits an opening created by surprise, initiative, speed, footwork, timing, distance, vulnerability in the guard position, or blade action by the opponent. One or more of these elements needs to be present. You gain the initiative, exploit an advantage in speed and timing with your footwork, gain the correct attacking distance, and create surprise to hit. The opponent fails to defeat your conditions to hit by maintaining the status quo through her movement or has either a vulnerability in her guard position or creates an opening by the pattern of her blade movement. Each of you plays a distinct and largely simultaneous role in creating the conditions in which you can hit.
In contrast in multiple tempo attacks, the attacker relies on all of the tools of the simple attack, but must create the opportunity to hit by removing the opponent’s blade from its position to create the opening needed for the final action (a simple attack) to score. Why do we have to do this? Because the blade represents two impediments to scoring.
First – the blade closing the line in which we wish to attack is a barrier to our success. We want it out of the way so that we can get to the target.
Second, and more difficult – the blade under the opponent’s control in a stable guard position is a clear defensive threat to any attempt to execute a simple attack. We need it headed in the wrong direction and out of the opponent’s full control.
In the simple attack the preparation of the attack was not blade based – footwork, timing, etc. prepared the attack. In the multiple tempo attack the first blade actions are now also preparation. To get to the hit we now have three added categories of blade tools:
- Feints – which induce the opponent to move her blade to create an opening line. Example – the one-two. These create the condition of the blade heading in the wrong direction.
- Attacks on the blade – which remove the blade from the line by percussion or pressure. Example – the beat, head cut. These create both conditions, headed in the wrong direction and partly out of the opponent’s control.
- Takings of the blade – which use leverage to remove the blade from the line. Example – a bind into second with a vertical disengage high line attack. These create both conditions, headed in the wrong direction and partly out of the opponent’s control.
Each of these achieves the same basic tactical objectives, to open the line and to impede the defense. Each is actually a compound attack – an attack with two or more parts, the first of which opens the line, and the second of which scores the touch.
In fencing texts from the classical period, you find references that include examples of all three as compound attacks. The volume of material referring to compound attacks as being feint-final actions is large enough that this use will not change any time soon in the United States. But we can be more precise in both teaching and learning the technical and tactical application of actions prepared by bladework. Attacks with feints, attacks on the blade, and takings of the blade are all blade preparation attacks, and that is how we should think of them.
Oh … and when you think about the short or long tactical wheels, discard compound attacks and substitute blade preparation attacks. Just the word choice alone will open up a whole range of additional actions that can deal with the parry-riposte!