161113 The Flow of Combat

Fencing has a very simple objective – to win you must score a hit, sometimes just 1, sometimes 5, 10, or 15.  If you do not score a hit in the time period of the bout(1, 3, 6, 9 minutes or less, plus one minute overtime), and your opponent does not score a hit, a coin toss, the spinning pencil of death, or the random number generator in the scoring machine determines the result when it establishes priority.

You fundamentally have three ways to score a hit – offense, the riposte after a parry (defense to offense), and counteroffense (stop hits, time hits, points in line).  Of these offense represents the greatest risk to the fencer (at least that is the theory in foil and sabre), and in the right of way weapons as currently interpreted has a significant advantage over defense to offense or counteroffense.   The interpretation of the advance-lunge (two or three tempos) as a single tempo action means that a continuous advance essentially retains the right of way because any attempt to attack into it will be met by the advancing fencer simply finishing the attack.  This can be defeated, but it requires excellent technique and practice.  This means that the plurality of touches will be scored on the offense, with defense to offense and counteroffense dividing the remainder.

In epee the lack of right of way and the tactics of the double hit mean that the attack is not so dominant.  However, it still is the most common scorer.

What gives offense that advantage?  First – the attacker seizes the initiative.  By moving first, he gets inside the reaction time and movement time (the physiological explanation) and inside the OODA loop (the psychological explanation) of the opponent.  The opponent is reacting to movement already in progress.

Second, she controls where on the strip at what distance and when in the bout the action occurs.  Controlling the terrain, distance, and timing is a significant advantage.  The attacker has to be continuously looking for the right combination of circumstances, but that is psychologically an advantage over the average defending fencer who must maintain a high state of defensive awareness and is constantly under threat.

Third, the attacker controls the tactics of the bout.  He can false attack, first intention attack, second intention attack, or countertime.  She can choose how to create openings with preparation.  He can choose how to use tempo to advantage.  The defender or counterattacker is reactive to the preparation or the attack.

These realities generate a flow of combat which can be classified as the flow of (1) the tactics of the phrase and (2) of the bout.  The essential structure of this is:

(1) the preparation of the attack


(2) the attack

(3.a) the counteroffense

(3.b) the defense to offense

(4) persistence or renewal of the attack

(5) withdrawal

So the attacker prepares the attack and attacks.  The defender counterattacks or parries and ripostes.  We have made much of the advantage of the attacker, so let’s look at the advantages of the defender.

The defender has two courses of action that are different and that pose different problems for the attacker.  In counteroffense, the point in line creates a barrier the attacker must deal with, and that may successfully derobe the attempt to remove the blade.  The counterattack itself forces the attacker to decide whether to ignore it and accelerate the attack or to attempt to countertime it.  The feint of counterattack may force the attacker to commit prematurely, creating an opportunity for the defender to parry or, in epee. to counterattack in tempo.

Defense creates its own set of problems.  Every line is defended by at least two possible parries and their variations, some by three, and the riposte when transitioning to offense may be direct or indirect or involve a blade taking.

There is another problem – you might have thought that I created a typo by typing (1.a) above and not following the number with text.  No – that was deliberate.  Every attack must consider whether the opponent has, in fact, created a trap for the attacker.  That trap may be a footwork action that causes the attacker to commit in response to the defender’s initiative rather than her own.  It may be a blade action in which the defender has closed lines to hamper any attack (Harmenberg’s concept of destructive parries, for example).  It may be a tempo change that allows a fast attack into preparation (which is, for all practical purposes, counteroffense).

An attacker may determine to persist in an attack by eyes open deceiving the defense (trompement), by rolling off the parry, or by ceduta (a ceding attack by angulation).  These actions must be fast and accurate to be successful, which requires, again, practice and planning.  And there are the three traditional renewals, the remise, redouble, and reprise.

Finally, if no hit resolves the phrase there is the problem of withdrawal.  This is fraught with danger for both fencers.  A recovery from an attack requires an automatic shift to defense (or in epee the counteroffense threat of point in line) on the moment of recovery.  This can be a closeout to prevent two lights or readiness for a traditional parry and riposte.

What all this means is that every phrase is a tactically and technically complex situation in which both fencers have multiple opportunities to gain the hit and must be prepared to deal with multiple actions by their opponent to deny that hit.  Often we practice single techniques in drills.  This week’s topic is all about bringing everything you have to the phrase.

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