One underlying tactical reality of fencing is that the success rate of attacks increases when the opponent’s blade is moving away from the line into which the attack is being directed. This seems rather obvious. Unfortunately, it is obvious to the opponent as well, and few opponents do this willingly, unless as an invitation to create the opportunity for them to score. That means that you must create the motion.
There are three basic categories of ways to put an opponent’s blade in motion. You can:
(1) get the opponent to do the work himself – a feint that draws his response in the wrong direction.
(2) use leverage to move her blade – the family if takings of the blade (binds, envelopments, etc.).
(3) use percussion to drive the blade out of the line – the attacks on the blade (beat, press, etc.).
This week we are going to concentrate on the attack on the blade, specifically on the beat. A beat is a sharp blow on the opponent’s blade, preferably with the middle or stronger foible of your blade on the middle portion to weaker foible of the opponent’s blade, with the intent of setting the blade in motion in the direction toward which the beat is delivered. The beat is a blade preparation. The beat itself does not score; rather the attacking action immediately following results in the hit. This creates the interesting reality that the most common beat attack can theoretically be described as a two tempo action, first for the beat, second for a straight thrust. However, a beat-straight thrust delivered in the lunge is so quick that it is effectively one movement in real time.
Execution of the beat depends on good hand and finger strength, timing, distance, the position of the opponent’s blade, and blade control. All of these are important, but probably the most important is delivering the beat as a surprise. Understanding the surprise factor requires that you understand the nature of the beat as a symbolic action. In foil and sabre you do not have to drive the opponent’s blade into the next county, only to deviate it from the line in a way that conforms to the rules that now define a beat as being executed on the outer two thirds of your opponent’s (t.56.4.a and t.78.a). Even a relatively light contact under these conditions will deviate the blade significantly. Done as a surprise, this forces the opponent into a decision loop with his blade in motion that must be stopped and reversed, providing a clear path for the attack.
The situation differs in epee because there is no right of way, only the priority of the hit. That means the beat does not have to keep you from being hit, but only delay the opponent’s hit so that it lands more than 40 milliseconds after yours (1/25th of a second). The greater the surprise and the smoother the action, the more likely it is that she will not be able to react with a return beat as a parry or stop hit in time.
The beat and following attack has two imperatives: surprise and smooth, fast execution. Surprise can be gained in a number of ways. However, specific to surprise in the beat is how you execute the beat itself. Many fencers start their beats by pulling the blade away from the intended direction of the attack, almost as though to cock it to gain enough force for the hit. This detachment from the blade was necessary in the classical period when fencers fenced from engagement. However, fencing with blades engaged is not the dominant condition in any of the modern weapons. Today cocking your beat signals the opponent that the beat is coming and provides sufficient time to deceive it. Instead the beat should go directly from where the blade is at the moment the fencer conceives of the attack. It is executed with fingers, hand, and wrist; execution with the forearm should be practiced as a backup when fatigue or elevated pulse rates degrade fine motor control. This will provide a strong enough beat to deviate the blade without providing extra warning to the defense.
Smooth, fast execution comes when the beat preparation flows seamlessly into the intended attack. Do not beat with a motion at 90 degree to the line of the final attack, bring the blade back into line, and then attack as some do – it is far too slow. On the moment of contact the blade should be flowing forward in the desired attacking action, whether straight thrust, disengage, or coupe. The result is almost a trampolining action, with the beat coming in as a forward moving glancing blow that then departs the opponent’s blade at a similar angle to that of the beat itself. The blade is closer to the opponent at the moment of the beat, and is moving faster off the beat, creating a much quicker attack.