We tend to think of things that are simple as, well … simple. They are easy to do. They do not require much thought. Anyone can do them. No assembly (translate as training and practice) is necessary. After all, you learn them in a beginner class, so how hard can it be?
In fact, the exact opposite is true. They are not easy to do – the tactical conditions have to be created in which they will be a success, and that is not easy against a competent opponent. They require a lot of thought in a very short period of time to include them productively in your bout plan. Many, if not most, fencers’ executions of simple attacks are technically inefficient, and sometimes just plain wrong. Practice is an absolute requirement – lots of practice. And yes, you do learn them in a beginner class, but you only learn the barest outline of what a simple attack is, and your proficiency is more accidental than intentional.
Let’s start with the basics. What is a simple attack? Surely is that it is simple? Well, in a word, no. A simple attack is:
… an attack executed in one tempo. That sounds simple enough, and this is a commonly used definition, except that it is circular – one tempo is defined as the time required to execute a simple action. That means that a simple attack is an attack executed in the time it takes to execute it.
… a first intention attack – that is an attack that is executed with the intent of landing a hit in the course of its completion, without intervening or included invitations, provocations, defensive, or counteroffensive actions.
… an attack that does not include blade preparations, such as feints, takings of the blade, or attacks on the blade, as part of the attacking action. Feints may be present within the bout to establish the conditions for the attack, but they are not a part of the attack itself.
… an attack that proceeds in one consistent direction and does not pause or reverse the course of the blade movement.
… an attack that either starts in and remains in the same line (the direct simple attack) or starts in and transitions through other lines without repeating the sequence of transitions (the indirect simple attack). For example, the disengage starts in one line and either moves laterally, vertically, or diagonally to another line. The counterdisengage starts in one line and moves through the other three lines, to return to land in the original line.
… an attack that continually progresses toward the target. The two apparent exceptions are the coupe and the countercoupe. Because of the geometry the initial movement of the blade appears to not be towards the target. However, the conception of the movement is forward.
What are these simple attacks? We can classify them as follows:
(1) Direct Simple Attacks: the Straight Thrust executed in any line.
(2) Indirect Simple Attacks: the Disengage, Counterdisengage, Coupe, and Countercoupe.
Any of these simple actions can be executed with opposition closing a line to the defender’s counteraction or with angulation to pass the point behind the defense.
Although we tend to teach these as a package of simple actions, there are two exceptions to note. Some Masters regard the coupe as being a more advanced attack, rather than just a simple action. And the countercoupe (a coupe executed with precise timing to avoid a circular attempt to take the blade, landing in the original line) is a rarely taught action.
So what makes them difficult? Because they are simple, they do not pose the problem for the defender of defeating and a preparation and discerning the final commitment and final line of the attack. This means that they are theoretically easier to defeat by parry. On the face of it, a straight thrust is the easiest action in fencing to defeat.
To make simple attacks succeed, you must bring other elements into play (in no particular order):
(1) Distance – the shorter the distance at the moment of the attack, the operationally faster the attack becomes from the defender’s perspective. This is a simple time-speed-distance problem. If the speed is the same but the distance is shorter, the time required for the attack is reduced. A shorter time required to execute the attack means a greater chance that the attack will get inside the opponent’s response time and their OODA decision cycle.
(2) Initiative – the fencer who has the initiative is consistently inside the opponent’s decision cycle, making the opponent’s response always behind the attacker’s action.
(3) Shortest line and time to target – if an attack is operationally faster, we have already established that the time available to defeat the attack is shorter. That means that every attack must take the shortest line to the target. This includes two areas of common faults in execution of simple actions. First, wide actions with extraneous movement, especially common in disengages and counterdisengages, are self-defeating. To the fencer making the wide action it appears that wideness improves the chance of avoiding a parry. The reverse is true. For example, if you increase the diameter of a disengage, the increase in distance travelled is not linear, it is a geometric progression. Second, if you extend and then disengage, or disengage and then extend, you introduce delay into the attack – the two should be combined into one movement as the blade moves forward. Finely honed technique is critical.
(4) Movement – a retreating opponent is opening the distance from the point at which you start the attack. This means your attack becomes operationally slower, with a significant increase in its vulnerability to parry and your vulnerability to riposte. And that means that you have to be closer to the opponent to maintain a desired time in the air for your blade when you attack. Conversely, an advancing opponent is reducing the distance and increasing the operational speed of your attack, increasing the chance of success.
(5) Stability – an unstable opponent, in the midst of a step or with the blade in motion, has two problems – changing the direction, speed, or character of the movement to be in a position to deal with the attack, and making the parry itself. This is why your disengage is successful against lateral movements, your counterdisengage against circular movements, etc. A stable opponent with the blade in a good guard is immediately ready to respond. You want unstable opponents.
(6) Speed – use all of the accelerating features at your disposal to increase the speed of the attack. Operate from a balanced position so that you do not have to counteract your own weight in moving forward. Use the short advance in an advance-lunge to break inertia. Coordinate leg speed, arm speed, torso rotation speed, and finger speed in the lunge to generate the highest possible point hit speed at the critical gap for scoring (the last four to six inches to target).
(7) Tells – tells give the opponent advance warning that you are going to attack, effectively giving them more time to respond. Watch video, work in front of the mirror, ask your friends (if you trust them to give up their advantage) to tell you what they see just before you attack. Stop doing these things.
(8) Surprise and the psychological moment – unexpected actions delay an opponent’s response. If you can achieve surprise in executing your attack, the opponent’s response will be slower and may be inappropriate, leading to an easier hit. Surprise is particularly valuable when executed in the psychological moment in a bout when the opponent is most vulnerable to one touch changing the course of the fight in your favor permanently.
The bottom line is that you have to study your movement patterns and refine them to eliminate all wasted movement, practice to remove all catches and hesitations, develop your sense of distance, and critically evaluate what your opponent is doing. And that is why simple attacks are not simply simple.