Distance or measure is the distance between the target areas of the two fencers on the strip, specifically in the context of whether one fencer can reach the other’s target area with a hitting attack. It is also a tactical paradox. On the one hand we want distance to be long enough that our opponent cannot hit us. On the other we want it to be short enough that we can hit our opponent. Absent a significant difference in the reach of our extensions, lunges, or advance lunges, both requirements cannot be satisfied at the same time.
That means that the question becomes when and how to close the distance to achieve a touch and when to open it to avoid one. The second part of the problem, the avoidance, is a tactical choice routinely addressed in defensive training. Therefore, this session will focus on the closing the distance part. Closing the distance itself is really two problems – how to close distance (again a commonly addressed skill) and how to collapse the distance. The collapsing part the more interesting topic to focus on.
For the purpose of discussion, let’s define collapsing the distance as a tactical action in either attack or defense to rapidly close with the opponent to significantly hamper his or her response (parry riposte or counterattack on the attack, counterriposte or remise or redouble on the defense). This means getting to short (extension) distance or closer, infighting distance, or corps a corps to avoid the touch.
To deal with these in reverse order, corps-a-corps to avoid the touch is a Yellow card offense, and the antithesis of good fencing. The difficulty is that it requires the referee to decide what the fencer’s intent is, not an easy task. Perhaps the best (or actually worst) example of this problem is the Prescod-Guyart bout in women’s foil in the Rio Olympics. Every action resulted in infighting and corps-a-corps. The referee finally, in order, yellow carded Guyart when she used jostling to open the distance enough to hit, the yellow carded Prescod for forcing yet another corps-a-corps, and then a fencing bout broke out. But it took over a dozen corps-a-corps for the apparently deliberate corps-a-corps to be recognized as such. The most ridiculous example was the fencer in a sectional championships in Norfolk in the 2000s who would drop the weapon and hug the opponent with both arms to prevent a counteraction – amazingly it happened three times in a bout with no cards …
Infighting is a potential result of collapsing the distance. The danger in infighting is that it is suicidal in sabre, and unpredictable in foil and epee. You can practice around the head and through the legs and around the back and reversing the shoulders to clear the blade (not such a good idea now in foil) and asymmetric up and down movement until the cows come home, but you are so close to the opponent that the outcome is unpredictable and almost accidental. This is high risk fencing. Foil and epee fencers should practice it, a lot, but …
That leaves collapsing the distance to short distance. The big advantages of the collapse to this distance are increased speed of your hit, the hampering of any counteraction, the control it demands of the opponent for a successful counteraction, and the psychological stress it generates for an opponent. There are two primary ways to achieve this:
(1) Forward recoveries or reprises – this leaves you at short distance against an opponent who does not move, or, if the opponent does move backwards, well within lunging distance.
(2) Stepping forward with the parry or the counterattack – this will rapidly collapse the distance on any attack.
In both cases you have achieved three things that improve the potential outcome of your blade action. The distance your point has to move to hit is shortened from feet to inches, making your forward blade movement time very short (and therefore tactically very fast). Because the blade movement time is short the opponent has less time to observe, orient, decide, and act. And with the shortened distance the opponent has to move blade (in a parry) or body (in avoidance) a greater distance to counter your action (the economies of movement from cutting down the angles at lunge distance are gone).
For, you as the collapser, there are some requirements that demand practice. First, you have to understand where the opponent’s blade is and what it is doing. Second, you have to adjust the collapse to the distance at which you can still maneuver your blade without having to pull it back, while getting inside the opponent’s blade. Third, you must be controlled and accurate – a key to this is not starting to extend until you have point (or edge in sabre) aligned with target. Fourth, this is an aggressive action – you must not let what the opponent will perceive as being very aggressive turn into a hyperaggressive rush of your own. This is fencing that must be done calmly and coldly – just another day at the office – if it is to work.