Modern fencing is all about the distance. If an opponent can close, accelerating to critical distance, the distance at which you cannot avoid an attack, you are in a fair way to being hit. If you can open distance at the critical moment you can force the opponent’s attack to fall short and take over the attack to score your hit. If you can manage distance in the fight you can ensure you can control the opponent’s blade in either offense or defense. If you can manage distance in the fight you can exploit fully the stop hit.
Traditionally, there were three distances:
(1) Short or extension distance – the distance at which you could hit an opponent with an extension.
(2) Medium or lunge distance – the distance at which you could hit an opponent with the lunge.
(3) Long or advance and lunge distance – the distance at which a closing footwork movement was required to get to lunge distance.
These three are essentially static distances – they assume no movement by the opponent as you execute your attack. Then we recognized that there really are two added distances that are a bit more fluid:
(0) Infighting distance – the distance at which it is no longer possible to wield the weapon in a conventional way and in which unusual body movements and extreme angulations of the weapon are needed to score.
(4) Out of distance – the distance at which preparatory footwork will be required to get to advance and lunge distance.
What complicates the picture is that the modern game is not static – it is highly mobile. The attack which starts at medium distance is likely to be converted to long distance as the opponent reacts with a retreat step. Or, at least in foil or epee, it is likely to be rapidly closed to short distance as the opponent steps in, and then through short distance to infighting distance. This is not new fencing. When we examine German longsword play in the Liechtenauer tradition in the 1400s, we see the fight starting out of distance, with an attack delivered with a forward pass when the opponent enters zu fechten distance, followed by a transition to krieg short distance, and finally to grappling.
The one exception to this picture lies in sabre after 1 August when the so-called Russian box of death becomes effective – sabre will revert to something that looks very much like the old static game with both fencers being at lunging distance at the command “fence.” I should say we really don’t know, but tests run at the Summer Nationals and by Sydney Sabre, among others, suggest that much of sabre during the three month test period will not be the current highly mobile game.
So, what are the implications of this?
First, the distances are starting distances, not finishing distances. If I start at medium distance against a mobile opponent, I will need to be able to do an accelerating advance lunge to hit the opponent who reacts to the start of my extension with a rapid retreat step. If I start at long distance, I will need the ability to use preparatory footwork to accelerate and catch the opponent or to create a footwork trap to either fix him in position or lure her to step forward. Even at short distance against the fast opponent, the step forward or lunge may be required.
Second, this means that footwork must meet three requirements. It must be fast and capable of accelerating. It must be error free and synchronized with bladework. It must be capable of instant eyes-open modification as the tactical conditions of the phrase change.
Third, it means you can never be static on the strip. You cannot root. You cannot pose. You can’t do fancy little weight shifts as invitations and wait for the opponent to figure out that he should attack them. You have to be continually ready to move or be moving. You have to be able to attack or defend at any point in any footwork movement. You have to be able to elongate any attack or immediately reprise any attack.
How do we get to the hit under these conditions? The answer is neither simple nor fast. And on any given day it may be boring:
(1) analyze your current footwork – use videos, use mirrors, use a smart fencing friend, use whatever you have available.
(2) then perfect the footwork movements that you know.
(3) and add the footwork movements you don’t know.
(4) practice – practice changing direction instantly, practice accelerating and decelerating, practice converting each movement to a lunge, an advance-lunge, a fleche/flunge, a jump-back.
(5) practice – elongating and shortening your action in the action itself.
(6) practice – until it is smooth and seamless, and fast and slow, and short and long, and planned and instinctive.
(7) practice – in the attack, on the riposte, in the counterattack.
(8) and then practice continually to keep your skills up to the demand of winning at one level higher than you believe you are capable of.