The lunge is one of the most basic techniques of fencing, and has been done in one form or another since the 1600s. Millions of fencers have learned to lunge. Millions of fencers have fenced using the lunge. With all that lunging going on, you would think that perfection of the lunge would be universal. But, as any visit to a major competition will point out, perfection is perfect in its absence among practitioners. So let’s take a look at the lunge in detail.
First, a caveat. If your lunge is mechanically awful and violates all of the markers of good technique in the lunge, but it works at your level of fencing, don’t change a thing. You won’t get significantly better results, but at least you will be successful where you are. Every tournament or club pool needs fencers who are successful in their own minds at their level of fencing. Those are the fencers who win one or two bouts and populate the bottom half of the direct elimination tableau – they serve the useful function of giving the top half of the tableau someone to beat in the initial round. Being in the bottom half of the initial round is a noble thing for the success of the fencing tournament … for your success, not so much.
Second, understand that there are a wide variety of approaches to lunge technique. Like anything in fencing technique, there is the basic core technique and the variations appropriate for upper level athletes. This discussion addresses core technique. If you cannot do the traditional or classic core technique of the lunge, you will be significantly less effective in doing the advanced techniques you have copied from something you saw in a tournament or on You Tube. This, incidentally, is true of virtually everything in fencing.
Why is functional perfection the lunge important? The majority of touches in each weapon are achieved by offensive action – the attack or the riposte after the parry. You have to get to your opponent with your blade. If you can’t do that, nothing lese matters. The most flexible and lowest risk technique for driving the attack forward is the lunge.
The core lunge is marked by a sequence of coordinated and synchronized action. The objective is to reach maximum point (or blade in sabre) hit speed when the blade reaches the critical distance for scoring (the last 4 to 12 inches to the target) with sufficient remaining extension of the lunge to reach the target. To do this:
(0) execute any approach or accelerating steps needed to get to hitting range. Selection of these steps and their coordination with the lunge is another complete study.
(1) be in a good balanced guard. If your center of gravity is not centered within the triangle of front toe, rear toes, rear heel, you are going to have to do more work to control your lunge and even to move it at all. Your legs should be bent at approximately 45 degrees to cock them for the explosive movement you will need. Your weapon should be chambered in position to deliver the feint, invitation, or attack with the minimum movement (and thus the maximum tactical speed).
(2) the attack starts with a forward movement of the blade threatening the target – that is what the rules say (t.7.1.). The actual text is:
“The attack is the initial offensive action made by extending the arm and continuously threatening the opponent’s target, preceding the launching of the lunge …”
We all understand that that is not universally true – the attack is what the referee says is the attack. In foil, theoretically, the attack starts with such an extension, even if only by the tiniest amount and then can go wherever it pleases. In sabre, the rule is generally observed. In epee, well, who cares? The attack in epee consists of getting the point on target first, and there is a very good case that blade extension should come late. And then is blade movement or body movement the determinant of right of way?
All this suggests that you have to understand your referee’s belief system. If the referee truly believes, and applies the belief, that the attack originates with a forward movement of the blade and that the movement is continued until it arrives on target, then give the referee the start of your extension. If not, don’t give the opponent your blade early in the lunge.
Also understand that extending the arm does not mean sticking all the way out before you start the lunge. Doing so gives the opponent increased opportunities to parry and riposte with a forward parry, attack your blade, or take your blade before you have had the chance to fully develop your attack. The extension should be progressive – as the lunge moves forward, the arm moves further out in its extension, and accelerates in the last portion of the lunge.
(3) the front foot initiates a kick forward. The classic kick starts with raising the toes inside the shoe resulting in a fast forward extension of the foot with minimum visual signature that the kick is starting. The term visual signature means the movement that tells the opponent that your action is in progress.
There is a common school of thought that the foot kick is started by lifting the heel. Sydney Sabre has an excellent piece on their website advocating the heel lift. If your weight is forward in a leaning guard position, the heel lift makes sense, especially in a fast advance. However, if you are balanced it is slower, and has a distinct knee movement that says movement is coming.
(4) at the same time the rear leg extends completely. Completely does not mean with the back leg bent – it means with the back leg straight. Extends does not mean that you wait until the front foot is planted – it means that it extends completely while the front foot is in the air. The muscle groups of the rear leg are a tremendous source of power and thus of speed in the lunge. The speed of extension may be maximal as quickly as possible (especially at shorter distances) or it may be initially slower, allowing explosive acceleration at the end.
As the rear leg drives, the rear foot remains flat on the ground. We have known since at least the 1700s that a flat rear foot provides purchase on the ground for the back leg extension. If your power is such that you do slide forward in the lunge, and we all tend to for some distance, even if only inches, keep the back foot flat as you slide. Rolling the back foot over, a common problem, increases the potential for ankle injury and means that to recover rearward, forward, execute a radipopio, you first have to rotate the foot back into a flat position.
(5) the back arm extends rearward. It is an article of faith among modern fencers is that the classical arm drop is an outmoded and downright stupid affectation. Perhaps so, but several factors point to the article of faith being the stupid part. First, rearward movement of the back arm helps to turn the torso to minimize the target. Second, it helps keeps the shoulders level so that your head is upright and you maintain a consistent picture of the target. Third, the resulting torso rotation increases reach by as much as 6 to 8 inches. Fourth, there is some experimental evidence that the rear arm movement adds to acceleration. Fifth, the torso rotation adds speed. So, keep your rear hand forward at your side where it either covers target or gets hit and your chest turned flat toward your opponent if you want, but don’t do so claiming that it makes a better lunge.
(6) if your referee believes that attack starts with any forward movement, now is the time for the extension. You have held the blade back to reduce the opponent’s chances to tamper with it. Now it explodes forward to accelerate the attack at a point where it will be difficult for the opponent to react in time to the change in speed.
(7) and at the very end comes the flick in foil and epee or the cut in sabre. This accelerates the point so that when you hit you have leg speed still driving + arm speed extending + torso rotational speed adding to the extension + flick speed accelerating the point, in other words the culmination of maximum point hit speed at critical hit distance. These have to be synchronous – each one that is missing reduces the speed on target.
And then you should hit. Hit while you are still in the air. If you land in sabre and then hit you have exposed yourself to a stop cut by any opponent because your attack stops when the front foot is down. In foil and epee, if you hit after you are front foot down, you have just lost rear leg speed and power.
(8) the front foot and leg lands in the pipe smoker position – so called because the leg on impact of the heel resembles a colonial clay pipe. On landing, forward movement is keyed to the front foot coming down. When the front foot is flat forward movement should have stopped with the knee directly above the ankle. Allowing the thigh and torso to continue forward so that the knee is forward of the ankle increases stress on the knee and makes recovery to guard slower.
All of these steps have to happen in a coordinated sequence – for the legs the kick, extension, and landing, for the arms the torso rotation, extension, and flick. It is not a this, and then this, and then this. Instead it is this starts and continues, and then this starts ands continues, etc. They have to result in the synchronous delivery of maximum point speed on target while the lunge is still in the air. And then we recover, forward, backwards, into a radipopio, whatever – another topic for another post.
There is a second component to success in the lunge – attacking at the right distance. The longer your lunge, the tactically slower it is. By this I mean that the time required to complete the lunge is longer – a simple time, speed, distance math problem. If the speed is the same but the distance is longer it will take longer to complete the lunge. It is tactically slower because the longer time in the air gives the opponent more time to react and counter your action. Well executed long lunges are pretty to look at, but they are inherently risky unless you have a significant speed and response time advantage over your opponent. This means that you either need to use preparatory footwork to get to the right distance for a medium length lunge or use accelerating advance-lunge or balestra lunge attacks.
There is another problem with long lunges – their inappropriate use at shorter distances. A large bend in the blade on the hit indicates that the fencer has used more lunge than necessary to get to the target. It looks dramatic, but the closer your target comes to the opponent, the greater the risk that you will be hit if the attack is blocked or misses, or if the opponent collapses distance. It is important to have reserve movement in your lunge to allow you to elongate if the opponent starts to move back, but employ that when it is needed, not routinely. Have a fast short lunge (the half lunge) and a fast medium lunge as well as a long lunge. Surprisingly enough, lunges do not all have to be the same length.
The final component to address is how much reach you have available for the lunge. We tend to think that vulnerability to an opponent’s lunge is defined by where their front foot is. It isn’t – it is determined by where the lunge is coming from, the back foot. You can see the impact of this easily. Let’s pick some illustrative numbers (they numbers don’t matter, the process does):
… assume that your feet are 1 foot apart, rear foot to front heel (total distance from rear foot to front toe is 2 feet), and that you wear a size 12 shoe.
… and that in this position you can lunge 2 feet more (a total of 4 feet from the rear foot) to hit an opponent at 6 feet distance from your front foot to their torso.
Using this example, what happens if you move your rear foot forward in a gathering step to the heel of the front foot? Now you can hit an opponent who is at 7 feet to their torso
But lets leave the rear foot in its normal place and advance the front foot to a wider guard stance of say 2 feet between your front and rear foot. Now the opponent appears to be closer torso to torso. But you can only move 1 more foot in your lunge – you can still hit him or her at 6 feet. You have not suddenly improved to hit at 7 feet.
There are obviously a number of variables to this, and the computation is an over simplification, but a couple of minutes experimenting will demonstrate that, given the same total length of lunge that you can produce, the effective reach in a scenario depends on your back foot’s location.
Yes, I recognize that a bunch of things have to happen in preparation before the lunge starts, and yes there are opportunities and imperatives after it lands. Watch for next week’s blog post for perspectives on these. In the meantime, practice your lunge, again and again and again …