Let’s go back to fundamentals. Even the best fencers have to routinely review, correct, and practice fundamental actions. This is particularly important because of the prevalence of simple actions today in all weapons, combined with the very old rule that 80% of your touches should be scored with simple attacks.
So today we address the direct simple attack. An attack is a blade action executed with the edge (sabre) or point (sabre, foil, and epee) with the intent to arrive at a touch. Simple attacks are attacks that are executed in one tempo, in other words, one part actions. Direct attacks are that class of actions that start in a line and finish in that line without departing it. So, a direct simple attack is a straight thrust (in any line) or cut (head, flank, chest, cheek, belly).
But things are a bit more complicated than that. The direct simple attack forms the basis for a variety of actions – certainly the straight thrust/cut as an attack by itself, but also the riposte (the attack after a parry), the attack in preparation, the counterattacks, the point-in-line. It can form a key part of compound attacks, either as a feint or as the final action. And it can be the end of actions that attack the blade or take the blade. In other words, direct simple actions are core building blocks of fencing, by themselves or in combination with other actions.
How do we do this? First let me offer some general observations:
(1) The straight thrust is done either with fingerplay or with controlled forearm movement. Positioning of the blade for the thrust (or cut) is a fingerplay function. There are differences in the timing of how this is done between the weapons, but if you are doing it solely by hand movement you are doing so in a way that is relatively inefficient and relatively inaccurate. This is true up to the point when elevated pulse rate levels start to degrade fine motor control – after that forearm control of movement becomes important.
(2) The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The straight thrust/cut wants the shortest distance because it inherently only has speed and tempo to provide an advantage over the defense. Travelling the shortest distance means the fastest attack (speed = distance divided by time) and the most efficient acceleration. This means that point and blade control are critical.
(3) Practice for the direct attack must be relentlessly realistic. The habit of many fencers to attack wide in drills so that their drill partners can easily parry is a grotesque evil that leads to inaccurate attacks and wide, lumbering parries, both of which will be ruinous against a serious opponent in competition. Recently one of our fencers faced an opponent in a tournament who made every attack to a point 6 to 12 inches wide of the target – our fencer won the bout with stop hits on every attack. The opponent was fencing as he had trained, attack wide so the training partner could parry and riposte. If you want to train your partners parries, drill in accurate, on target, fast direct attacks. That is what he or she will have to face in the real world. No puff balls!
The actual procedure is deceptively complex. Parsed into individual components, it looks like each is simple, but the devil is in the synchronization to get smooth fast execution:
First – do the observe and orient part of your OODA loop. Is the distance right, are you in the correct balance/stability to launch an attack, is the movement pattern positive, is the timing right, is the opponent susceptible to either surprise or to the inevitability of being hit, etc.?
Second – pick your target. Know where you want to hit. Mentally aim your attack.
Third – position the blade for the attack. In foil, this is starting to lower the point with your fingers to an attacking position. In epee the mechanics of the movement depends on how you are controlling the blade, but even in pommeling is still largely a finger movement. In sabre, wrist rotation may be necessary, but finger control is critical to getting the correct configuration for the final accelerating finger snap.
Fourth – start forward movement. What you move forward first depends on the interpretation of right of way by your referee in your pool on the day. A long time ago, the theory was that the arm had to be completely extended before leg movement in order to obtain right of way. Then came arm starting to extend followed by the leg, which theoretically is still the rule. But at some point fencers started to realize that sticking the arm out even a little can expose the blade to an opponent’s action and slows down that final arrival of the blade on target. A solid case can be made for leg first with extension relatively late in the process.
Fifth – continue to aim, adjusting with your fingers, hand, arm, and leg as necessary for opponent action.
Sixth – accelerate to hit. Use everything. You want your hit to land with maximum speed. That includes leg speed driven by the lunge, arm speed driven by a smooth extension keeping to the shortest track, torso rotation speed (remember that raised hand and back arm that everything thinks is stupid old-fashioned stuff – dropping that adds a component of forward thrust, as well as from 3 to 6 inches of reach), and finger acceleration speed (the cut in sabre, the flick to the lower arm in epee). The hit should land when all of these reach their maximum acceleration before the leading foot lands (after that everything slows down). Each element has its own time-speed-distance equation based on how fast the part can move and how far it has to move. Getting all of these elements synchronized requires regular practice but will lead to a rapidly accelerating attack that gets inside the opponent’s response time.
I should add that the leg and arm speed contribution coms from Harmenberg’s Epee 2.0, and that I owe the ideas of timing of the extension to Maitre Gil Pezza’s demonstration of an extension with the back foot of an advance. The torso rotation is mine. And the finger portion is inspired by a video of Maestro Toran teaching the flick, and my realization that the flick and the sabre cut are the same basic mechanism, although I should have remembered that Maestro Leon Bertrand came to the conclusion about the acceleration of the cut in his 1926 classic Cut and Thrust.