Let’s review what we know about distance:
(1) There are at least 5 definable distances: out of distance (beyond advance-lunge distance), long distance (advance-lunge distance), medium distance (lunge distance), short distance (extension distance), infighting distance (distance at which unconventional movements are required to position the blade to score).
(2) These distances vary for each fencer based on height, leg length, arm length, flexibility, and the quality of the fencer’s technique.
(3) These distances very for each opponent based on his or her height, leg length, arm length, flexibility, and the quality of the opponent’s technique.
(4) There is a critical distance at which the opponent cannot react quickly enough to defeat an attack. This is highly variable based on fencer response time (reaction time + movement time), surprise, the opponent’s concentration, and the attacker’s commitment.
(5) The distance depends on the target selected for attack or counter-attack. In epee there can be as many as 5 or more distances, ranging from the hand to the back leg or even foot. Sabre has at least 3 distances. Even foil has 2 distances – to the forward chest or to the back shoulder.
(6) The rate of change of distance depends on surprise, the opponent’s response time, the fencer’s acceleration, quality of distance stealing or opening technique, and relative movement of the two fencers.
In previous discussions of distance in this blog, I have noted the importance of regarding distance as a tactical management problem. We can define three states of distance on the piste:
(1) Opening Distance: The distance between the two fencers is increasing due to the footwork actions of one or both fencers.
(2) Closing Distance: The distance between the two fencers is becoming shorter due to the footwork actions of one or both fencers.
(3) Maintaining Distance: The distance between the two fencers remains the same due to cooperative footwork actions by both fencers.
Let’s take maintaining distance first. Maintaining distance is a cooperative action between the two fencers in the sense that one fencer moves either forward or backward on the strip and the other fencer mirrors that movement in both direction and length. In previous blog posts, I have expressed the view that maintaining distance does not produce touches (assuming the distance is lunge distance or better). Therefore maintaining distance just to maintain distance is a tactical futile act by itself.
However, there appear to me to be four situations in which maintaining distance is useful:
(1) When the fencer needs time to make quick adjustments in tactics and technique as the basis for scoring.
(2) When the fencer is waiting for the opponent to make an error, for example an attack into the advance of what becomes an advance-lunge attack in the right of way weapons.
(3) When maintaining distance is part of the preparation of the attack.
(4) When maintaining the distance puts the opponent under increasing pressure. If the fencer can, through psychological pressure or physical threat, force the opponent to maintain distance by retreating, eventually the touch will be fought in the last meter to inches of the piste. Under these conditions the opponent has few movement options and is under great pressure … unless, of course, the opponent has trained to fight in the meters to inches and is both experienced and comfortable in doing so. Against an opponent who is comfortable in the warning area, the attacking fencer may be under an equal pressure to score with unfortunately results.
So, if we are to maintain distance, what should that distance be? It all depends on your objectives. On the defence, the fencer should open distance to a distance that allows a retreat to facilitate the parry or to make a parry by distance. This has to be based on the speed of acceleration and the reach of the attacker. If, however, the fencer’s intent is to draw and defeat the attack, the distance should be just inside the opponent’s hitting range. With highly trained athletes with excellent response times and superior speed and acceleration these distances can be reduced. Similarly when facing such an opponent consideration should be given to a longer than normal distance.
On the attack, the fencer should close to a maintaining distance at which the opponent can be hit. For the attacker the distance is not to where the opponent is now, but to where the opponent will be when the attack finishes. An advantage in acceleration and speed is a significant factor in selecting a distance at which the opponent can be caught.
All of this sounds like you should spend a lot of time at maintaining distance. Not so. The goal is to hit. Time spent maintaining distance is time not spent hitting.
That means that attackers should rapidly close the distance or maintain distance in pursuit against an opponent who is retreating in order to rapidly accelerate into a final attack. Defenders should open the distance to parry by distance, stay in distance to use the parry as preparation for the riposte, or close the distance to advanced parry or disrupt the attack and rapidly hit.
Unsaid, but very important in all of this is that initiative is critical. Initiative on the strip, as opposed to in the interpretation of the referee, belongs to the individual who initiates the phrase. If I step forward without an indication that I am attacking, the opponent attacks, and I parry-riposte to hit, the average referee will never understand this as a second-intention attack on my part. I seized the initiative, got the opponent to give me his or her blade, used my parry to prepare either the direct or indirect riposte, and hit. Always understand that if you step forward because opponent stepped back you are being pulled. And if you step back because the opponent stepped forward you are being pushed.
The combination of closing, opening, or maintaining distance in order to be able to close or open, combined with initiative is the fundamental model of managing distance in the bout.