Understanding fencing requires that you understand the idea of building blocks. As children we played with wooden blocks of various sizes and shapes, plastic bricks, legos, Lincoln logs – all of which kept us engaged because we could put them together in various ways to make something the same or something different each time. Assembly was helped in the plastic bricks by a series of protrusions and holes that allowed us to lock the bricks together – no glue, but the effect was the same. One block by itself was important, especially when you needed just that type of block to finish the project, but a whole bunch of blocks were a magical invitation to create that could keep you engaged for hours.
Fast forward to today. As a fencer you don’t fence with legos or any of a hundred other types of building blocks. But we assemble actions in exactly the same way. And this means that you have to have the same imagination, the same ability to see what the blocks can become, that you had in building houses, forts, etc. with children’s blocks. So let’s look at how this works.
The basic building blocks of fencing are:
(1) simple attacks – one tempo actions that move in one direction to hit the target.
(2) actions that remove the opponent’s blade from the line – the feints of simple attacks, attacks on the blade, and takings of the blade.
(3) simple defense – the range of one tempo parries.
(4) simple counteroffense – the simple attacks used as stop hits
(5) simple actions that draw an opponent’s reaction – the invitations and false attacks
(6) simple footwork – the one tempo footwork movements
Each one of these blocks can work in its own right. But each works in only one way. For example, a one tempo parry of circular 6 can defeat an opponent’s disengage into the inside line. This is pure defense; no touch results. But if we build on the circular 6 with a straight thrust (a simple attack), we have a parry and riposte that can give us the desired hit. And the variety is seemingly endless (for an idea of how complicated blade actions can become, take a look at the Classical Academy of Arms’s Classical Fencing Actions Project at http://classicalacademyofarms.org/actions-project). Some examples:
… two simple attacks can be combined to form a compound attack (the first a feint, the second the final).
… an attack on the blade can be combined with a simple attack (the attack on the blade clears the line for the simple attack).
… a simple attack can be combined with a renewal of that attack after the opponent’s parry to form a remise, reprise, or redouble.
… a simple attack as a false attack can be combined with the parry and counterriposte (a simple attack) of the opponent’s parry and riposte to form second intention.
… a simple attack can be used to draw the opponent’s stop hit to be parried and riposted against in defensive countertime.
Unlike with our building blocks we have to use glue in fencing actions assembled with more than one block. That glue is the smooth and instantaneous transition from one block to another. In a parry-riposte it is the transition from the parry to the riposte. In a prepared attack it is the transition from beat to disengage. And with each action added, it is one more point at which the transition must be added – compound attack, recover, parry the opponent’s riposte, indirect counterriposte. In that sequence we use six different simple actions, 4 blade and at least 2 footwork. Without the glue of fast, smooth transition you have clunky actions that allow an opponent the opportunity to exploit the transition points, seize the right of way, insert a counterattack, etc.
We make an error when we think of actions of assembled parts as each being unique actions, learned separately and used separately. Doing so restricts our understanding of the possibilities, and restricts us to executing the one technique we have been taught. If we learn how to do a beat-disengage, we do not know how to do a beat-counterdisengage. But is we learn that both the beat and the press can be combined with either a disengage, coupe, or counterdisengage, we have the capability to not only employ a wider range of actions but also to react eyes open to opponent’s reactions to the first block of our attack. And that is an extension of our ability that is very valuable.