Tempo is a key concept in fencing. One tempo is the time that it takes to perform one simple action … a quick step advance is one tempo, a disengage is one tempo. A tempo thus becomes one unit of fencing time. However, the important thing is that tempo is highly variable. For example, if I attack at my fastest speed with a straight thrust or cut it is one tempo; if I attack at a glacially slow speed it is still one tempo. Tempo is thus an artificial construct that we use in thinking about fencing actions and that drives referee decisions of right of way. For example, a stop action in foil and sabre must land before the start of the final action (or final tempo) of the opponent’s attack.
But reality can, and does intrude, because fencing actions happen in actual time, as well as in fencing time. No where is this more obvious than in epee. If my stop action lands more than 1/25th of a second (40 milliseconds) in front of your attack, there will be one light. If my stop action lands within the 80 millisecond window before and after your attack (1/25th of a second before to 1/25th of aa second after), there will be two lights (actually the time interval between touches may be as long as 50 milliseconds, or a 100 millisecond window, and still remain within the acceptable limits for a scoring machine). The same thing happens with the 120 millisecond lockout time in sabre (actually 110 to 130 milliseconds, and soon to be 170 milliseconds). Although not generally a factor, foil has a 300 millisecond lockout time, plus or minus 25 milliseconds. Actions which are decided by lockout time disabling one fencer’s scoring light are thus in real time, regardless of tempo.
But tempo is still important in all three weapons, because varying the length of one tempo provides opportunities to invite, to confuse, or to catch the opponent off guard. Fencers tend to adjust the length of their one tempo to the length of the opponent’s as an unconscious agreement of how fast the world on the strip should move. Lengthening the tempo by slowing down creates an opportunity in the mind of the opponent; compressing it by accelerating tends to be perceived as a threat. That means that if you can create a mismatch in speed you can manipulate the character of the bout.
A simple example will make the point – all of us at one time or another (or maybe a number of times) have been hit by an opponent who starts with a relatively slow advance (setting our perception to slow) and a rapid accelerating lunge. It is almost a cliché. So let’s examine some possibilities for invitations by tempo:
… a slower opponent moves into range and we attack – only to be hit by a fast parry and riposte. If you have ever been hit by an opponent with slow footwork and fast hands you are a testimonial to the effectiveness of this.
… we execute a relatively slow attack that falls short, opponent parries and ripostes (conveniently fixing themselves within range), and we counterriposte with acceleration in second intention.
… we start a slow attack, drawing a stop action, which we parry and riposte (defensive countertime), beat or bind (offensive countertime), or stop hit (counteroffensive countertime), again with acceleration.
… we advance quickly and slow down or hesitate, drawing an opponent’s attack into what they perceive as an opportunity against preparation, followed by our action to finish with parry or counterattack.
… we push several steps at moderate speed, retreat one a slower speed, and accelerate to hit as the opponent is pulled forward (another cliché).
Manipulating tempo must be considered against the belief set of your referee. For example, a referee who blindly gives priority to the fastest footwork is not a good candidate for slow starts and quick finishes. A referee who automatically sees any slowing as an abandonment of the attack even though smooth forward movement and a threat is maintained is not a good candidate for actions that vary tempo on the advance. If you plan to play a tempo game in a right of way weapon, study how the referee is calling the action