Defense against a well delivered compound attack with the correct timing and distance is a difficult proposition. To get to a defense we first need to understand what a compound attack is. The simple definition is an attack executed in more than one tempo, starting with a feint and ending with the final attack. It is a building block action, assembling feints and the final tempo action from a library of simple attacks: straight thrust/cut, disengage, counterdisengage, and coupe. In the classical period of fencing, multiple feint actions (with theoretically as many as four feints) were consider a normal part of a fencer’s technique, reaching their peak of artfulness with the Tour d’Epee (double change of engagement, coupe, disengage). However, today multiple feints are too risky, and the set of practical actions is effectively limited to:
- feint of straight thrust, straight thrust (an eyes open action)
- feint of straight thrust, disengage (eyes open or programmed action)
- feint of straight thrust, counterdisengage (eyes open or programmed action)
- feint of disengage, straight thrust (an eyes open action)
- one-two (eyes open or programmed action)
- double (eyes open or programmed action)
- coupe-disengage (rare)
- coupe-coupe (even rarer)
And in sabre:
- feint of cut to one line, cut to a different line (the exception to the multiple feint rule as multiple feints on the march do occur) (eyes open or programmed action)
- feint of cut to one line, disengage point or cut to another (eyes open or programmed action)
- feint of cut to one line, cut to that line (an eyes open action)
- feint of coupe and cut with a second coupe or disengage (eyes open or programmed action)
Each of these actions succeeds by drawing a reaction from the opponent that sets his or her blade in motion, opening the final line. As a defender you are forced to decide whether to:
- execute a parry in the feint line and then in the final line (risky because commitment to the parry of the feint is exactly what the opponent wants and needs),
- execute a feint parry against the feint and a committed parry in the final line (successful when you have read the action correctly, and the opponent believes you are actually trying to parry the feint),
- commit to an active parry to intercept the feint far forward (requires exquisite timing – a missed active parry leaves you completely exposed with minimal chance of recovery),
- hold the parry and commit it close in only when the final attack is revealed (dangerous if the opponent is fencing eyes open, is ready to convert the feint into the final attack, and has the capability to deceive a parry even in the final)
- counterattack into the action with stop or time hit (dangerous in the right of way weapons).
Let’s dispose of the counterattack first. Against a modern, fast, two part compound attack the stop hit has little chance of success in foil unless the attacker commits an error. It has some chance in sabre when the fencer can control the distance at the critical moment, and a reasonable chance in epee if the opponent makes even a small error in execution. The time hit (stop thrust with opposition in the final line of the attack or intercepting the attack as it transitions to a different line) is theoretically more successful, but requires nice timing and a good understanding of where the opponent is going to be in the final attack.
The active parry is similar to a time hit in its movement pattern, although against a compound attack the timing demands that it be committed against the feint. If you miss the feint, you have to be able to simultaneously withdraw the arm and parry in the final line, a difficult proposition at best. This is not a closeout, which depends on having already hit, and withdraws the blade with sufficient force and speed to reduce the chance of a successful riposte.
As to the standard parrying options, executing a committed parry of the feint has the advantage of allowing the riposte early in the attack while the opponent is still moving forward. If the feint successfully deceives the parry, you now have to parry the final, requiring that you have a fast hand, are able to control the distance to gain time for the second parry, and are probably faster than your opponent at that moment. It should be obvious that both the first and second parry must be very efficient and only as wide as absolutely necessary to get blade contact.
Holding the parry for the final action requires good distance management, the ability to sense when a feint is a feint, considerable composure, and an opponent who is running a programmed action as a play. If you can manage distance well and have nerves of steel, you can absorb the feints by making them clearly short, and only react when the opponent is in distance for the final attack.
The creative solution is to give the opponent what he or she wants to see – react to the feint of the attack with a feint of parry. The feint of parry does not have to be a big action – the opponent cannot afford to wait to see if you complete a full parry. In fact you need it to be tight and without commitment of power, as you have to be able to immediately change direction when the final movement of the attack starts. You have to think of it as a feint, with the decision to move to the final parry already made so that you are not forced into another decision cycle when the opponent changes direction. The intent of your feint parry is solely to trigger the opponent to commit to the final attack, with the added benefit that you know the opponent is not attacking the line in which you have made the feint parry. The feint of parry draws the attacker’s commitment to the final line and distance, and lets you control which blade movement is the final attack.