One of the keys to success in any form of combat is maintaining control of the flow of the action. Nowhere is that more evident than in fencing, and one of the best examples in fencing is the parry-riposte-counterriposte battle. This is a highly risky situation in which miscalculation, habit, predictability, etc. can all combine to lose a perfectly good touch that you should have scored or to, even worse, being hit unnecessarily. First, let’s analyze what is happening:
(1) one fencer attacks
(2) the other fencer parries and ripostes
(3) the first fencer parries the incoming riposte and executes the first counterriposte, and
(4) the other fencer parries the incoming first counterriposte and executes the second counterriposte.
I am going to stop the analysis there because I am reasonably convinced that if you don’t score (and have not been hit) by the end of the second exchange, it is time to get out of Dodge if you have successfully managed the distance and can. Anything after two exchanges starts to incur unacceptable failure risks just based on the statistics. For example, if you have a 20% chance of making a significant error in your action each time, the potential for error in the above scenario looks like:
(1) one fencer attacks – 20% chance that you make significant error
(2) the other fencer parries and ripostes – 36%
(3) the first fencer parries the incoming riposte and executes the first counterriposte – 49%
(4) the other fencer parries the incoming first counterriposte and executes the second counterriposte – 59%
This is an admittedly unsophisticated analysis. It does not balance your chances of error against the opponent’s capability to exploit that error or the opponent’s own errors, it assume all errors will be of equal value, it does not factor in the increasing pressure of the situation, etc. And I have not defined what a significant error is (although a good first cut at a definition might be something that either gets you hit or that causes you to miss a touch you could have scored). However, I think you can see the point I am trying to make, that by the third exchange you have an equal chance of success or failure caused by error, and that it only gets worse with more tries.
So how could you manage the exchange series to reduce the errors and maximize your chances of controlling the flow and making the hit?
First – have a standard drill for multiple parry-riposte situations. Know what your options are and practice them regularly.
Second – introduce variety. If both of you do the same parry, riposte in the same line as the attack, etc., success devolves to whomever is faster and less error prone. A different parry, indirect riposte, etc. increases your chances of success.
Third – don’t rush. You may be executing actions at a high speed, but if you feel the pressure to rush the action you will tense and your ability to put point (or blade) on target will suffer. Have patience as a general rule, and a specific rule in indirect actions where you have to clear the opponent’s blade.
Fourth – manage tempo. Don’t accelerate until you are coming into the final line (for the attack) or until the opponent’s attack is clearly committed. Accelerating too early may well end up with you parrying yourself or missing the final attacking action.
Fifth – don’t stay on the opponent’s blade unless you need the opposition (a definite factor in epee, less so if foil and sabre). Make the parry and go to the riposte. Be parried and either roll off or start the recovery.
Sixth – manage the distance. Use forward or rearward recoveries, short lunges, steps forward and back, advance-lunges, on the attack and the riposte and the counterriposte as needed to get to hitting distance, avoid hitting distance, hamper the opponent, etc.
Seventh – commit when you have the clear opportunity to hit. Use all of your speeds (foot, arm, torso, hand and finger) to accelerate in the last part of the attack to beat the parry.
Eighth – go over your execution in lessons and drills slowly, find the errors, fix them, and develop the ability to flow through the action smoothly before you need the ability to fight the counterriposte in a tournament.