The purpose of the first action in a compound attack is to destabilize an opponent’s potential defense by inducing them to put their blade in motion. We term this first action a feint, and all subsequent actions prior to the final attack are also termed feints. However, it is important to think about feints in a much larger context if we are to make our compound attacks successful.
The fundamental cause of the success of a feint is that the opponent believes that the feint is a threat that must be countered. If a feint does not generate a perception by the opponent that it intends to hit, he or she has little incentive to attempt to parry it (or stop hit if the attacker’s intent is to set up a countertime action). How then do we create a feint with spurious intent? The answer comes in two parts: what happens before the feint, and what happens in the feint itself.
First, before the feint, the fencer must create an expectation in the opponent’s mind that the feint will be a genuine attack. The underlying tactical theory is that every action becomes potentially a feint for the next action. If, by a combination of timing, distance, and movement, the fencer hits the opponent with a straight thrust in 4th (or in sabre we will use the case of a straight head cut), what will the opponent expect when the same conditions present themselves coupled with the added stimulus of a forward blade movement in 4th? Absent other information gathered by scouting or reconnaissance, the opponent is forced to treat the forward blade movement as a genuine attack in 4th and attempt a parry.
Second, in the feint itself, the blade action must present in a convincing way. Most fencers have developed a good sense of what an attack looks like when it is coming at them. Better fencers develop a finely tuned ability to identify how much intent the opponent has put into that attack. The feint has to mimic that intent, looking enough like a real attack to trigger a response relatively early in the compound attack. That means blade action is really not enough – the fencer’s footwork and body action have to be that of a real attack. To catalog what this looks like:
(1) weapon visibly coming forward. The forward movement does not have to, and should not, require a full arm extension. Fully extending the arm prematurely (before the development of the final action) unnecessarily exposes the blade to a parry, especially an active parry. Several inches of movement should create a long enough visual signature from guard movement that the average opponent will start to react, especially if the distance is such that the point is near or inside his or her guard.
(2) blade is a threat. A feint delivered by sticking the arm and blade out at a significant angle from the fencing line does not convey a threat. The opponent has to believe that if no parry is attempted, a hit will result. The natural tendency is to feint wide to avoid the opponent’s attempt to parry. Instead rely on your speed, eyes open ability, and knowledge of the complete action (the opponent only has partial knowledge of what is going to happen) to make a successful transition to the final. The problem is simpler in foil because of the rule interpretation that almost any blade position conveys a threat to almost any part of the opponent’s target if the body moves forward, including having the point aimed straight out to the side or trailing behind the fencer.
(3) footwork supporting the blade movement. A static feint is only believable if you are at short distance, and if you are at short distance you should be able to hit with a simple action. The footwork should propel the body with the same pattern of acceleration that the opponent sees in any attack. Movement can be slower, but not excessively slower. You want the opponent to think that the feint can easily be parried.
(4) body movement should look like the early stages of a lunge. Watch your lunge in a final attack in a mirror. Then watch your feint in a mirror. Be very critical – if you see obvious differences, so will the opponent.
All of this leads to synthesis of the before and during of the feint. A feint that looks like an action that has previously hit the opponent and that is technically well executed has the greatest chance of drawing a response, destabilizing the defense, and creating the opportunity for a successful final action.