The disengage is a simple attack taught to beginning fencers in foil and epee and often ignored in sabre. Once the initial instruction (or ignoring) is over, there is often an assumption that revisiting the mechanics and timing of the disengage is pretty much a waste of time because as a simple attack it is so, well, simple. That is an error – simple actions require as much revisiting and further development as the most complex, and probably more because they form such a large part of our technical repertoire.
At the beginning level we learn that the disengage is:
… a simple attack executed in one tempo
… done when the opponent presses on our blade in an engagement,
… and executed by going under the blade to the other line laterally, and then extending with the thrust OR extending fully and then going under the blade into the new line,
… only in foil and epee
But that is not really the truth, is it? Yes, it is a simple attack executed in one tempo, but lets think about the pressing on the blade in an engagement. First, we teach engagement in all three classical weapons, but on the modern strip how often does your opponent actually engage? I suggest that the answer is rarely. In our beginner’s class we teach that the disengage is executed for three reasons:
(1) an opponent beats or presses on your blade. If this happens in the real world it is likely to be a press in their attack, in which case you are disengaging to free your blade as you retreat or to execute a counterattack into an opening line. Or it may be a redouble or the first initiation of a new attack when the opponent holds a parry.
(2) the opponent is searching or sweeping to take your blade – in this case your disengage is a derobement to take advantage of the shift of right of way when you avoid blade contact. This includes when all three weapons are in point in line.
(3) because you can. If you are at one tempo attack distance, theoretically any one tempo attack can score. If there is any indication that the opponent is not paying attention or is starting to move their blade, a disengage is as good as a straight thrust.
Second, disengages do not go under the blade; the point goes around the guard. A disengage from high line to high line goes under and around the bell. A disengage in the low line goes over and around the bell. A vertical disengage from low to high or high to low goes around the outer side of the guard. And a diagonal disengage goes around the portion of the guard needed to move diagonally.
Third, a disengage is a progressive movement in one tempo, starting with the arm bent and ending with it accelerating to fully extended as the transit around the bell is completed. If you do the go around the bell part and then the extension part, you have converted a perfectly good, quick, one tempo action into two slower tempos. And if you extend your arm first, any situationally aware opponent will either attack or take the blade you have stuck out into space to be exploited and hit you. Obviously correct execution requires that the movement around the guard is fast and tight and that the blade stays within the box with the point always moving toward the target.
Fourth, the disengage works every bit as effectively in sabre as in epee and foil, with the advantage that it can be a cut or point action (or for that matter look like a cut and end with the point). It makes no sense to restrict sabre point thrusts to straight actions in one line.
In foil and epee in disengages ending in 4th and in sabre point actions ending in 3rd there is a complication. If you are fencing for a single light in these cases, the disengage must conclude as it moves into the final line with opposition to block counterattacks. This is an action that requires practice to integrate the onset of opposition with the developing blade action in the final line.
Timing for execution of the disengage requires practice. In the lunge it is reasonably obvious. However, practice it from the advance, from the retreat, with an advance-lunge, and with a series of accelerating steps. Keeping the timing right while you are trying to keep your movement coordinated requires … practice.