In all three weapons, the opponent’s blade presents probably the most serious impediment to your scoring. It allows him to parry your attack and convert your opportunity to his with a riposte. It permits her to attack into your attack or its preparation. It allows the opponent to attack you. It hampers your action by delaying your hit by sufficient time to allow lockout to occur. And it creates confusion and uncertainty as to the opponent’s course of action and increases the difficulty of planning your course of action by its movements. Life would be so much simpler if the opponent did not have a blade.
But the opponent does have a blade, so a key tactical question becomes “how do I get the blade out of the way for long enough to allow me to score?” The simplest answer is to make it irrelevant. If you can close to within critical distance, your simple attack will land regardless of the opponent’s blade action. Critical distance is the distance at which the opponent cannot react quickly enough to parry your attack. It is different for each opponent, and it is different depending on the direction of movement, whether the distance is opening or collapsing. Critical distance is the physical manifestation of your opponent’s combined reaction and movement times. These two times, combined as response time, reflect the physiological reaction sequence of the opponent identifying what you are doing, making a choice of the appropriate counter, sending signals to the muscles to move the right body parts, and the movement actually happening. Get inside that, and all you have to do is not to run into the blade by accident.
But if you can’t, you have to either wait for the opponent to move the blade out of the way, get the opponent to move the blade out of the way, get the opponent to help move the blade out of the way, or move the blade yourself. The good thing is that there is a rich variety of tools available to do these things, and that at least one or two of them will fit into any story line you are developing in the bout. So how does this work?
(1) Wait for the opponent to move the blade out of the way. Someone once told fencers that you have to keep the blade in motion so that it could not be attacked or so that the opponent would not know what you are doing. And fencers, being a generally gullible lot who like to adopt that latest shiny idea, realized that this was the key to becoming world champions and adopted it. The problem is that most did not hear the small print: “the motion has to be unpredictable.” And unpredictable is very hard to do. Almost any repetitive motion will fall into a pattern and cadence of movement that discloses the opponent’s timing and creates an opening based on that timing.
(2) Get the opponent to move the blade out of the way. The feint remains a very effective tool to get an opponent to react and move the blade to attempt to close the line of the supposed attack. This makes use of the principal that you do not attack a closed line or an open line, but rather an opening line.
However, this is not the only option to get the opponent to move to your advantage. The point in line, for example, begs for an opponent’s attempt to take it, allowing you to derobe and hit. The feint in tempo (a feint of a stop hit to draw a parry in countertime that can be deceived by a disengage) capitalizes on the desire to execute defensive countertime. Something as simple as bringing the blade into a line to draw a beat that can be deceived fits the bill. They key is to get the opponent to commit to lateral, vertical, or circular movement, either offensive or defensive, that will result in the blade starting to leave the line in which you want to attack.
(3) Get the opponent to help move the blade out of the way. This is a more complicated option because you are now convincing the opponent that your actions are not just a threat, but a threat that can be taken advantage of. An opponent in a stable position, with the blade not committed to motion has the ability to capitalize on whatever you do. The opponent knows that. So use that knowledge. Take for example, the simple press. You press the blade. The opponent presses back, giving you the motion needed for you to deceive the press back and allow the opponent’s blade to leave the line as you disengage.
A more complex version is the traditional attack in second intention – you attack short, fixing the opponent in position. The opponent parries and ripostes, putting the blade in motion, so that you can parry and counterriposte to hit. In this case you needed the opponent to commit the blade so that you can displace it from the line with the parry, opening that line for your attack after the parry.
(4) Move the blade yourself. You have two basic options, percussion or leverage. The primary percussion method is the beat – hit his blade and the blade leaves the line, creating a short opening for your attack. In foil and epee, the press provides the same effect in a less immediately threatening way. Properly done, an opponent who lacks a developed sentiment de fer may not realize that the press attack is in progress until it is too late.
Traditional leverage actions rely on using the forte to control the opponent’s blade in a smooth, forceful movement into another line. These used to include the full range of transports (also known as takings of the blade) – the bind, envelopment, croise, double envelopment, etc. Because these require an opponent’s extended blade, they are harder to execute in modern fencing. But almost any attack can benefit from the application of leverage through opposition closing the line and displacing the opponent’s blade.
The rules allowing an opponent to have a blade are not going to change materially in the future of most of our fencing careers. That means that you must be prepared to deal with the obstacle the opponent’s blade presents. Your goal is to get it out of the way so that you can hit, preferably in a way that makes it harder for the opponent to hit you. Be prepared to use any of the four approaches discussed above to get the opponent’s blade in motion and you to your goal.