The simple attack is, well, just plain simple. It is a one tempo action with the blade moving in a single continuous path to the target. How complicated can that be?
Complication starts with the reality that there are five simple attacks. Wait a minute, you thought there were just four? Let’s look at the catalog of possible one tempo, continuous path attacks:
(1) Straight thrust (also the straight cut in sabre) – starts in one open line and continues in that line to hit.
(2) Disengage – starts in one line, passes around the bell of the opponent’s weapon, and moves to a second line either laterally, vertically, or diagonally in response to an opponent’s blade movement to attempt to press, beat, engage or close the line, or in search of a better target in the absence of opponent blade action.
(3) Coupe – starts in one line, passes around the point of the opponent’s weapon, and moves to a second line, usually laterally in the high line, in response to an opponent’s blade movement to attempt to press, beat, engage or close the line or in search of a better target in the absence of opponent blade action..
(4) Counterdisengage – starts in one line, passes around the bell of the opponent’s weapon in a circular movement to avoid a circular blade action by the opponent to engage or take the fencer’s blade.
(5) Countercoupe – today a rare action but still possible – starts in one line, passes around the point and blade of the opponent’s weapon in a coupe to avoid a circular blade action by the opponent to engage or take the fencer’s blade.
These five actions offer a range of tactical characteristics. One of these is a direct attack, an attack that stays in one line, the straight thrust. Four are indirect attacks, attacks that move through more than one line, the disengage, counterdisengage, coupe, and countercoupe. Three can be done with or without initiating action by the opponent (such as an attempt to close the line or a beat), the straight thrust, disengage, and coupe. Two require the opponent’s initiating action, the counterdisengage and the countercoupe, both of which require the opponent to be executing a circular action against the fencer’s blade (such as a change of engagement or an attempt to take the blade). Two go around the bell, the disengage and counterdisengage. Two go around the point, the counterdisengage and countercoupe. All of them can be done with the point (in foil, epee, and sabre) or with the cut (in sabre). And all of them can be done either as an initial attack or as a riposte.
This means that:
(1) if you want to hit the opponent in the same line as your current blade position – straight thrust (whether he is moving the blade to open the line further for some purpose of his own or she has simply failed to close the line properly).
(2) if you want to hit the opponent in an opening line as she attempts to close the line in which your blade is located or beat or press – disengage to go around the bell or coupe to go around the point.
(3) if you want to hit the opponent as he ties to engage or take your blade with a circular movement – counterdisengage or countercoupe (if you have practiced this and want him to have a “what the …” moment).
Classical fencing doctrine held that 80% of a fencer’s touches should be scored on the initial attack, with the majority of these being delivered by simple attacks. Depending on the weapon, the percentage is not as high for hits on the attack today, but still substantially more than the counterattack or riposte. What is clear is that fencing technique is undergoing simplification, driven by the increased athleticism of fencers and the primacy of distance control and timing as predictors of the success of an attack. That means that you can expect a majority of opponent’s attacks to be delivered by simple attack, and that your most productive scoring opportunities can be achieved by a similar reliance on the simple attack. You must be able to control the distance, close to critical distance when you have a timing advantage and are inside the opponent’s decision loop, and execute a fast simple attack to score.