Nothing is simpler than the straight thrust, right? You just stick you arm out and hit the other fencer. No great thought, no sophistication, you go fast at the right moment and you are a touch richer and closer to being a fencing hero (with apologies to the YouTube series “I am a fencing …). Well, in reality, not so much.
The first thing to understand about the straight thrust in foil and epee (and to some degree in sabre) is that we do a lot of them. This is a core technique that stands in its own right and forms the final action of a whole range of compound attacks (or in this case an enabling feint), attacks on the blade, takings of the blade, ripostes, and counterattacks. You may remember that this blog has discussed the tendency of theory in our sport to divide technique into stovepipes so that a straight thrust simple attack, a direct riposte, and a direct stop hit are all completely different actions. Grab a training partner, try each of these actions, and then tell me with a straight face (sorry, I could not resist) that these are different things.
In understanding the implications of the paragraph above it is critical to understand that every fencing action has two components, the mechanical execution and the tactical application. Mechanical execution is the process of getting from the previous state to carrying out the steps that form the action. Tactical application is how and under what conditions you initiate and carry out the mechanical steps. Both have to be done correctly in order to result in the best opportunity for a hit and touch.
Let’s look first at the mechanical execution. The straight thrust is a finger, hand, and arm movement. If the fencer’s pulse rate is in the range which permits fine motor control the sequence is:
(1) On the decision to intitiate a straight thrust, the fingers start to lower the point or to direct it to target if the blade is not in the high line).
(2) Milliseconds later the arm starts to extend toward the target as the point lowers into position.
(3) As the extension starts to move forward the needed footwork to reach the target starts.
(4) Based on the phasing of the footwork the arm accelerates in forward movement.
(5) At the moment of the hit, the point is moving at maximum speed (with the combination of arm speed, hand and finger speed (for the flick if used), torso rotation speed, and leg speed – the first part of the fencer’s action to land is the point with the arm fully extended, then followed by the foot.
If the fencer’s pulse rate is the range at which fine motor control is degrading or has been lost, the initial direction of the point is made with first with the hand if sufficient control is retained or with the forearm if the pulse rate is very high.
The exact timing of extension with the arm and footwork movement depends on tactical choice by the fencer – and on how the referee interprets an attack. If any forward movement is an attack, there is value in holding the extension back to protect the blade and to allow for a maximal acceleration at the end. If the referee, on the other hand, wants to see the blade move first, that movement must be first, but it should not be completed until the acceleration.
Each of these five steps has to form an integrated, smooth flow from start to finish. Each step fires in sequence, progressively, and while the previous steps are still ongoing. There should be no pause, howsoever small, in the flow (unless an action is deliberately in broken tempo).
Now, lets think about tactical application.
(1) Against an opponent who is slower and at the right distance, has a significant fault in their movement pattern or guard exposure, or one who is in preparation, the straight thrust is effective as a primary attack.
(2) After an opponent’s attack or riposte, the straight thrust is an effective (but overused) riposte or counterriposte delivered from the guard, lunge position, or forward recovery. In this case its initiation must be instantaneous following the blade parry or parry by distance.
(3) On an opponent’s attack, the straight thrust is the fastest counterattack, whether direct uncovered, or with opposition as a time hit. In this case, evading movement, a close out, or a parry and riposte of the opponent’s attack must be integrated into the delivery unless you desire a double hit (in epee). Evading movement must also consider the ability to maintain accurate aim and to be timed to not reduce the probability of hit by withdrawing pressure on the point (foil and epee).
(4) In other actions the straight thrust performs either as a feint or as the final action. In each case of the final action, the preceding preparation must allow the thrust to be accurately delivered. Some examples:
… a feint in a compound attack – feint of straight thrust, disengage.
… as the final of a compound attack – disengage, straight thrust (eyes open when the opponent does not react to the feint by disengage).
… in an attack on the blade – beat, straight thrust
… an attack by taking the blade – bind with straight thrust
… defensive countertime – a feint of straight thrust followed by a parry and riposte by straight thrust.
The danger is that you will consider each of these actions as different things – tactically they are, but mechanically they all use the same straight thrust. If you stovepipe, the odds are very good that your accuracy in the straight thrust by itself will be as good as your level of practice allows, but your ability to hit in at least some of the other actions for which the straight thrust is a building block will not be. This means that the straight thrust should be the subject of deliberate practice in all of its forms in which you plan to employ it.