In fencing doctrine, defense consists of two classes of actions: parries and evasions. Parries are fairly obvious – the set of possible blade actions that prevent or delay an attack landing on the fencer by contact with the opponent’s blade, typically numbered after the guard positions and lines they close. Evasions are another story – there used to be a cornucopia of evasions, some simply to avoid the blade, some to facilitate the counterattack, including the simple retreat, duck, backwards jump, backwards lunge, passata soto, inquartata, the turning passata soto, and the reassemblement (see the Classical Academy of Arms’s Fencing Actions Project for an explanation of this list). The list is shorter now, and perhaps not as well defined, but the idea remains – get out of the way of the opponent’s blade.
The problem is that evading the attack is only one third of the problem. The next two thirds of the problem are (2) taking over the attack and (3) scoring a hit. Evasion, and parries do not score hits. If all you do is evade, at the end of time your score (absent any penalties) is going to be zero. To score, you have to hit. And if the opponent has attacked and you have successfully defended, you are potentially in an excellent position to make that hit.
However, doing so requires that we understand distance. In the immediately previous post we discussed distance in general, with a bias toward the attack. To think about distance in terms of defense, if an opponent has attacked and you parry and remain in place, you are automatically at what distance? Yes, I know it is obvious, but short distance. In the attack the opponent has extended his or her arm and carried that extension forward with footwork. At the moment of the hit the footwork has carried the opponent’s body (or advanced target if the attack is to your advanced target – the forearm in sabre or epee) to her extension distance, and you can hit him with a simple extension. Traditional classical fencing doctrine is that the immediate riposte should be able to score on the target with no more than the extension.
But you have three choices to meet in incoming attack: remain in place, retreat, or advance. If you remain in place you end up at short distance with your opponent, even if only for a very short time as the opponent initiates recovery (or a longer time if she decides to parry and counterriposte from the lunge). At short distance your footwork/bladework combination is either the extension from a static position, or a step forward or lunge with the extension if the opponent has initiated the recovery.
The problem is more complicated if you decide to take a short retreat to force the attack to fall short, to give you more time to parry, or to improve your leverage position on the incoming blade for a beat parry or a transport in the riposte. By definition, as you have made the attack fall short in all three cases, you are no longer in short distance. Rather you are on the edge of medium, or lunge, distance. Now you must either advance or lunge to hit if the opponent remains in the lunge, or be prepared to advance-lunge to catch the recovery.
The other alternative is to close the distance by stepping in on the attack. This forces you into either very short or infighting distance. Your footwork now must initiate during his attack, allow the parry on the opponent’s blade while it is still moving forward, and control the distance so that your selected riposte can be delivered accurately. Even if the opponent is very fast and initiates recovery, you are still within extension distance.
The message is that in defense you can use footwork to control the distance for evasion, but whichever option you select you must be prepared to use footwork in its management. Step forward – control the distance to allow an accurate riposte. Remain in place – extension to lunge. Retreat with parry – lunge to advance lunge. And these all require regular practice, not only in drills, but as conscious decisions in practice bouts.