180107 Why Do Swords Have Pointy Ends?

This seems like a silly question.  After all, modern fencing weapons (foils, sabres, and epees) don’t have pointy ends, just blunt tips.  But our modern weapons are of some antiquity in their design, designs that come from fully functional weapons built to inflict puncture wounds.  And our rules in two (foil and epee) of the three weapons admit the concept that the point should arrive in such a way as to arrest on the target, symbolically creating a puncture wound.

As an aside it should be noted that the concept of point actions in sabre held that the point should arrest to be counted as a hit in point thrusts and points in line.  The introduction of electric scoring to sabre with the entire blade energized made it difficult to determine whether or not the light lighting up resulted from an arrest or a graze with the side of the blade.  Today the rules:

(1) do not consider the tip of the weapon a scoring surface (see rules T.70.1. and T.70.2.) although they allow hits by cutting or thrusting (T.70.1.),

(2) allow the attack with the point to score if it makes contact with any surface of the blade so that, in a point thrust, a point that does not arrest but grazes the target, establishing electric contact with the front edge, side edge, or back edge, is valid,

(3) except that referees in the United States apply a referee-made rule that, if the point in line is established, it must arrive with the point, not as a graze.  This disadvantages the fencer attacking the fencer whose chest is toward the referee and is incompatible with the British motion to the Federation d’Escrime Internationale that established the current rule on scoring with the edges, but what can I say …

So we can say that in all three weapons, hitting with the point is safest if you hit with the point.  Landing with the point requires control, commonly called point control, to ensure a good arrest.  So how do we get there?  Warning, like everything else in fencing, the answer requires practice.  And practice means working on the following skill components against a wall target, with a static training partner, with a moving training partner, with all sorts of footwork and blade, and against surprise reactions by your training partner.

(1)  See the target – any skill in sport that requires delivery of something to a target with accuracy requires that you can see, identify, and track the target.  You have to see the target and keep that target in focus as you execute the point attack.  Work to make the target you are trying to hit smaller and more precise, moving from a static target to one in predictable movement, and finally to one in random movement.

(2)  If you can’t see the target, project where it is – sometimes you can’t see your target initially.  For example, in flick attacks to the back of the shoulder in foil, over the bell to the protected hand in epee, or upward from low line to the flank.  But you know that the target is there.  Mentally project where that target is, and aim to the projected target.

(3)  Maintain a stable fire control platform – in modern ships and tanks guns are gyrostabilized to allow the gunner to constantly identify, track, and hit the target while in motion.  Our fire control system is our eyes and brain.  When you change head position, you change the apparent spatial relationships that your eyes and brain perceive.  The brain is then forced to recompute the hitting solution to account for the shift.  It does this very rapidly.  And in many cases you have to accept that you will be changing head position in the movement.  However, if you eliminate unnecessary head movement you reduce the load, and increase accuracy.

(4)  Adjust distance for penetration – if you aim to just land on the target, that target may not be there when the point gets to where you thought there was going to be.  Attack not to where the target is now, but to where the target will be.  Then add two to three inches to your expected target location to ensure a solid touch.

(5)  Relaxation – tension in the shoulder, arm, and finger muscles causes the point to move in unintended ways in the extension.  The arm has to move at a high speed, there must be sufficient force to depress the tip in foil and epee, etc.  But in any movement of a body part, there are two sets of muscles involved, agonists that want to move in the direction you want the part to go, and antagonists that can resist that movement.  Tension reflects the antagonists resisting your desired movement.  If you are relaxed the agonists have the best chance of developing the speed you need and of the movement being smooth.

(6)  Smooth delivery – delivery starts with the arm.  If you are forcefully pushing the blade out the muscles will not be relaxed, and you will introduce unwanted movement.  If your body movement does not flow because you have not practiced sufficiently, it will introduce further movement in the arm and blade.  The whole body must work together to give the best chance of the point arresting.

(7)  Don’t jab and pull back – a subset of smooth delivery and appropriate penetration is a complete hit.  Beginners and even more experienced fencers sometimes do a jab with an instantaneous retraction.  This may not even reach the target.  If it does it may not generate the required 500+ grams or 750+ grams of pressure in foil and epee.  In foil it may not remain on target long enough to meet the dwell time requirement.

(8)  Synchronization – ensure the blade extension is coordinated with the preparatory actions, the foot work, torso rotation, and finger action to arrive with maximum point hit speed just before the front foot lands in the lunge.  If the elements of the attack are not synchronized, delivery, and hence blade and point movement, will be jerky.

(9)  Fingers, not hand, wrist, or arm – use your fingers to control blade and point movement in the action.  This allows small and tight actions which are faster because the blade travels the minimum distance to hit.    The genius of the various orthopaedic grips lies in the various projections that allow significantly more efficient finger play.  This is why the first orthopaedic grips were designed – to provide better control of the weapon and enhance finger play.  If you are fencing with a pistol grip and depending on hand, wrist, and arm movement to control the weapon, you are wasting the greatest single advantage the grip gives you.

(10)  Arm not fingers – wait a minute, did I not just say in the line above that you should control the point with the fingers?  Yes, I did.  But, and this is a big but, as the pulse rate increases, motor control in smaller muscles starts to degenerate.  At the same time larger muscles play a bigger part in controlling where the arm, and your blade, goes.  This means that part of your practice of point control must be practicing how to deliver the hit smoothly and tightly with the forearm.

(11)  Practice until the entire movement is automatic – yes, this takes lots of repetitions.  But you have it down when you can close your eyes and hit a specific location on an opponent, either static, or in predictable movement.   And then keep practicing to retain the edge on your action.

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