160731 The Problem with Parries …

Blades crossed in a parry

Foil parry of sixth.

… is that there is an almost inconceivable variety of them.  Foil and Epee have it the worst with:

Foil – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, all of which can be performed in the thumb vertical position and 4 each of which are possibly performed as supinated (palm up, 4th, 6th, 7th, and 8th) or as pronated (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th).  That is the French and general international set of modern parries – there are still followers of Italian foil who use up to 8 different hand positions with either 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th or 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, depending on who you believe.

Epee – 1st, 2nd, lifted 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, lifted 7th, 8th, and a parry with the blade raised and the point to the far inside often termed 9th.  And what we said about hand positions and Italian parries in foil applies to epee as well.

Sabre – has standardized in the modern era on 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th, although you sometimes still see 6th, and 7th enjoyed a brief revival in the 1960s.  But then both 3rd and 4th used to be done as low 3rd and low 4th, and as high outside and inside cheek parries.

As if this is not enough, parries actually offer an envelope of protection.  They are not one specific place.  Rather they are fluid, sometimes being relatively high, sometimes relatively low.  For example, 1st in all three weapons can be anywhere from the blade almost vertical, point down, to the blade close to horizontal, point down.  Sabre 2nd can be a simple rotation of the wrist from 3rd to 2nd with the arm low (the modern conception of a parry to protect the underside of the arm or a parry taken with the arm at shoulder height (the older concept of a parry protecting the flank.

But that is not all of the envelope.  A parry can be a forward or active parry, searching out and intercepting the attack with the arm significantly extended.  This allows early contact and a very quick riposte, and shoves the parrying envelope forward to arms length.  In contrast a parry can also be close in to the fencer’s body to ensure that at the last moment the parry will meet the final, fully committed attack.  The envelope that this far out to close in range creates is further expanded by a short retreat on the attack or collapsed by a step into the attack.

The concept of the envelope is important because the attack must pass through the full potential scope of the envelope, which may still be expanding rearward as the attack develops, in order to reach the target.  The attacker must be prepared to deal with the defense at any point in the envelope by creating conditions that the defense cannot counter.  Similarly, the envelope allows the defense to parry at a point in the envelope which creates the most problems for the attack.

If parries were simple, single events with no moving parts we would be finished this discussion.   But they are not.  They can be classified by the mechanism of blade contact:

… opposition parries deflect the opponent’s blade from the line by leverage and keep the line closed for the riposte.

… beat parries which displace the opponent’s blade from the attacking line by percussion, usually resulting in a detached riposte (and yes, I know the rules say that there is no such thing as a beat parry – under the current rules blade contact is either a beat, farthest 2/3 of the blade, or a parry, nearest 1/3 of the blade – you either have a beat or a parry, a definition that makes no tactical sense).

Or they can be classified by the number of tempos they use:

… simple parries, which are one tempo actions in which the blade moves in the same direction throughout.

… compound or composed parries, generally two tempo (although some fencers can find a third tempo if they can maintain distance control) actions, the first of which is a feint of parry against the opponent’s feint in a compound attack, followed by the second as the parry against the final committed attack.

They can serve specific tactical roles (the last two are courtesy of Harmenburg’s analysis):

… actual parries intended to block the attack with immediate conversion into a riposte to score.

… destructive parries intended to deny one or more lines to an opponent so that any attack must come in a line that favors the defender.

… confusing parries intended to confuse the opponent as to the intent of the defender by seeming to have no useful purpose.

Or they can be defined by their movement pattern, to both meet the threat and set up the riposte:

… lateral parries with which horizontally across the target (from 3rd to 4th or 7th to 8th, for example).

… semi-circular parries which sweep the vertical line as they move from high line to low line or the reverse (8th to 6th or 4th to 7th).

… diagonal parries which sweep across the target from one high or low line to the diagonally opposite line (from 4th to 2nd).

… circular parries (which are teardrop shape, not actually circular) which pick up an indirect attack and return it to the original line.

… change parries which use circular movement to take an attack from its original line to the laterally opposite line.

The result is a very large number of possible combinations beyond the ability of any fencer to use at a high degree of proficiency in the bout.  Even if you could be expert in all of the combinations, Hick’s Law pretty much guarantees that you would be so slow that you would be an easily picked grape.  The fencer’s challenge is to find a system of a small number of parries that work well for him or her, develop a standard tactical approach that maximizes the value of these parries and that forces an opponent to attack into the envelopes in which they can be employed, and practice until a highly proficient and fast execution will result in a successful parry and riposte when the opponent appears in the envelope selected.

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