This week we will focus on the riposte and on what creates the opportunity for the riposte, the parry. It is tempting to think of the parry and riposte as a parry-riposte, and, therefore, as a defensive action. After all, parries are defensive actions intended to keep you from being hit. If you have parried you have achieved something important, and the riposte is the secondary part of the action. If you don’t mind losing, this is just fine as a mind set. But offense wins bouts – not defense.
The reason we parry is to gain control of the opponent’s blade, either fleetingly with a beat parry (and yes, under the current rules there can be no such thing as a beat parry in foil and sabre – thankfully epee retains a full measure of common sense) or for a prolonged period with an opposition parry. That control gives us the ability to launch an attack without worrying about being hit. So, in simple terms the parry positions the riposte for success – the two actions exist linked as a whole for one offensive purpose, scoring the hit.
That means we must think very seriously about what we do when we parry. Theoretically, if we look at the classical French parry set, using only the thumbs up half-supinated parries, there are 4 combinations of lateral parries, 4 combinations of semi-circular parries, 4 combinations of diagonal parries, and 4 circular parries. And you at least double that if you use the pronated actions. One reasonably recent epee text lists 11 epee parries. And these totals are without going into ceding or flying or destructive or confusing parries. That is a lot to learn. Once upon a time an accomplished fencer was expected to know the full lexicon of the actions of the sport, including all these parries.
The problem is that there is an unfortunate truth known as Hick’s Law, applicable in every sport. For every action that you add, you increase reaction time, and you increase it very significantly. The fencer who knows and uses 8 parries is going to be significantly slower than the one who knows and uses 4. We get faster if we can reduce the number to 3. What this means to the offensive role of the parry is that we have to look very carefully at each parry, and decide if what we gain in control of the opponent’s blade and effectiveness of riposte is outweighed by the cost in speed. For example, one of the prettiest movements in fencing is the sabre prime parry followed by a moulinet riposte to the head. It is also slow; the blade has to travel a long way to sweep into prime and then a long way to make the moulinet, and in the moulinet the weapon arm is vulnerable to time out by stop. Do we add that to our skill set, or do we just stay with an ordinary parry 4 and direct riposte? One quick action, or two actions, one quick, one slow and vulnerable, plus a significant amount of time added in the decision phase of reaction time? If you have to think about this …
This means that every parry you learn has to be learned in terms of execution of the riposte. For example, if I want to defend under my bell in epee, there are two options, 8th and 2nd. If my primary riposte is going to be either a direct thrust back at the flank or a disengage into high line to the arm as the opponent recovers, 8th is my choice. On the other hand, if my preferred response is to try to hit abdomen with a step in, a strongly opposing 2nd is my choice.
The result is a system of ripostes and parries that set them up. Imre Vass in his epee text Degenfechten advocates for systems of parries; this is one step further. What is the minimum set of parries that will (1) cover your target in a way consistent with how you fence and (2) meet the requirement for a fast response? For each parry, consider carefully what ripostes are possible in your weapon. Which one of these is your most effective (accurate and very fast with good opportunity to close the line and control the opponent’s response)? If you can’t match a good riposte with a selected parry, discard the parry and start over. What is your best second choice riposte to deceive an opponent who can handle your first choice? Try to reduce the parry set to 3 if at all possible, and no more than 4. Pair each parry with 1 or at most 2 ripostes.
Now go practice this system. Not just a couple of times but for a minimum of 1000 repetitions of each action, in drills and in practice bouts. Every time you do a parry or a riposte in a practice bout that is not part of your system, give your training partner the hit. Every time. Then go practice some more. If one of your selected actions is not generating hits reliably after a serious effort to make it work, don’t be sentimental – discard it, find a different solution, go practice it, and then practice some more.
The goal is to score the touch. There are three conditions for this:
(1) you control the opponent’s blade sufficiently to delay it landing until after your rapid riposte and the lock-out time of your hit (epee and sabre).
(2) you gain the right of way and your opponent lands only as a remise or continuation that is defeated by your fast and accurate riposte (foil and sabre).
(3) your parry and line control in the riposte prevents the opponent’s attack from landing at all (epee, and foil and sabre for a referee who does not recognize your parry).
To do this you must have an effective parry that gains control of the opponent’s blade to set up an effective riposte to your desired target – all as a well practiced system. So define your system and go practice.