In our last blog posting we discussed using opposition to control an opponent’s blade, and gave you the impression that this is an important, even vital, tool in the path to victory. Okay, but as a smart fencer you ask the obvious question: “If it is so good, then how do I defeat it?” After all, Fencing Masters have been teaching fencers how to fence for approximately 800 years. Surely, in that amount of time someone has figured it out?
To plagiarize from a particularly obnoxious series of television commercials by a Richmond area automobile dealership … yes, yes we have. The answer lies in what makes opposition work:
(1) contact of the opponent’s blade with your blade,
(2) displacement of your blade by pressure,
(3) your blade either resisting or remaining in a steady state, and
(4) the opponent’s blade closing the distance,
If we remove or change one or more elements the opponent needs for success, we can defeat the attack with opposition, no matter where that opposition is applied.
We have known since at least the composition of Tower Manuscript I.33 (the Walpurgis Fechtbuch, the earliest surviving fencing manual written in approximately 1300 CE) that denying the opponent contact with your blade eliminates a range of options in the attack. That is a long time, over 700 years. So, one time tested option is to fence absence of blade or with a hidden blade. Manage distance and timing, and only bring the blade into line when it is absolutely necessary for attack, defense, or counterattack. This is not a foolproof solution – your blade movement will be larger, the blade will take longer to get to where you need it, and to compensate you may have to vary distance from attack to defense to attack.
If your blade is in a normal fencing line and the opponent intends to displace your blade with pressure, the next step is simply to deny the ability to oppose it and to exert pressure on it. Two French words describe the two techniques for doing this:
Derobement – the opponent is attacking and moving to take your blade. You simply avoid the take, if lateral or vertical with a disengage, if circular with a counterdisengage. In foil and sabre, this must avoid blade contact in order to get right of way credit for deceiving the take. In epee, incidental contact with a quick escape into the opposite line works as well.
Trompement – you are attacking, the opponent moves to oppose your blade with a parry. You simply avoid the parry, if lateral or vertical with a disengage, if circular with a counterdisengage. In foil and sabre, this must avoid blade contact in order to get right of way credit for deceiving the parry. In epee, incidental contact with a quick escape into the opposite line (effectively a redouble) works as well.
You might say to yourself that these two actions sound like exactly the same physical movement. And they are. The only real difference is in the tactical employment. If you remember our conversations about chimneys or stovepipies (the idea that techniques that are executed in the same way should be called and taught as different things if they are employed for different purposes), this is an example. If he or she comes for your blade avoid it – it is a simple idea.
But once the opponent establishes contact on the attack or counterattack surely you are doomed? No, not really. Opposition depends on your either trying to resist or keeping your blade in the same relative place. Why not use the opponent’s opposition to move your blade somewhere else? Perhaps somewhere else that is a perfectly good parry against the attack. Try a simple experiment. Come on guard and have a training partner push on your blade laterally from the high outside line – relax your hand and forearm – watch where your blade goes and let your arm rotate into prime. This is a ceding parry. Ceding parries work by using the pressure to rotate your blade on the opponent’s blade into a parrying position. They work in all four lines in all three weapons:
… high outside (6th or 3rd) to 1st – all three weapons
… low outside (8th or 2nd) to 5th – foil and epee, to low 4th in sabre
… high inside (4th) to lifted 2nd or lifted 8th – foil and epee, to high 2nd in sabre
… low inside (8th or 2nd) to low 6th or 3rd – all three weapons
Pressures on the outside line are the easiest to cede against because they roll into a familiar parry position. The inside line responses require a significant amount of practice.
Well, all this sounds easy enough on paper, but after all the opponent’s blade is coming toward you while this is happening. What do we do about that factor? The simplest way to deal with opposition is to open the distance so that the opponent loses blade contact. It does not necessarily require a big backward movement to do so. A combination of a retreat step with pulling back the arm can be sufficient to lose the opposition and cause the opponent’s blade to both deviate from the line and fall short.
Of course, the most basic way to avoid opposition by an opponent who regularly uses it is to manage time and distance and your movement patterns and preparation of your attack so that he or she never achieves the desired tactical envelope to employ opposition. And that, along with everything else in this post requires … practice, lots of practice.