The attacker has the advantage of the initiative, of the choice of where on the strip the attack will take place, of the possibility of surprise. of controlling the tempo of the attack, of the choice of target and tactic to hit that target, of the psychological moment. Statistically, attacks score more touches in all three weapons than defense (considering the riposte as an integral part of defense) and counteroffense. These advantages seem to argue that attacks, once started, should not stop until the attacker scores the touch. And yet the underlying assumption in a large part of fencing instruction is that attack is followed by defense or by counteroffense, and that is that as someone is hit. In reality, you need to be able to continue the attack with blade action, with footwork, in any combination for as long as a reasonable chance of a successful outcome exists.
When you attack, you know what the technique you start with will be. You know the tactical situation you have set up to allow the technique to work. And you know the range of the opponent’s options. To simplify (I am going to avoid the defender’s option of collapsing the distance on the parry for this discussion), the defender can:
(1) counterattack with a stop hit or time hit.
(2) parry and riposte.
(3) parry by distance and riposte (yes, I know that people will argue that there is no distance parry and that there can be no riposte unless there is a parry – if you are of that belief persuasion, substitute pull distance and attack on the failure of the fencer’s attack – I tend to use Mangiarotti’s logic of parata di misura on this one).
(4) parry with no riposte.
(5) retreat with no offensive action.
You goal in all of this is to score, and defeat the opponent. You have three tools to achieve that end: (1) your blade and footwork, (2) time, and (3) the remaining distance on the strip. So, how do we do this?
First, your blade and footwork. The attack stops when you hit. It does not stop when the opponent parries and ripostes or counterattacks or you fall short. If you view the phrase in those terms you are accepting the defeat of your attack. The opponent’s defensive or counteroffensive action exists only to allow you to capitalize on the presentation of his blade or the fixing of her in position as the riposte or stop action is executed. The clearest examples of this reality are second intention actions:
… the second intention with your parry and counterriposte against the opponent’s parry and riposte against your attack,
… the three countertimes (defensive, counteroffensive, and offensive) against the opponent’s stop hit against your attack,
… the remise or redouble as counterattacks against the opponent’s riposte (or as renewals against the parry without riposte), and
… the reprise with forward recovery against the opponent’s parry by distance.
Thus when you attack, you must have a planned response to each of the opponent’s five options and be ready to immediately execute that response.
Time is normally considered as a tool to be exploited either when you are ahead (by running out the clock) or for the critical touch that does not allow the opponent time to mount a new attack in the remaining seconds. However, time has a broader impact. Every action you take when you have the initiative forces the opponent to react, to go back into the physiological response time and the OODA loop decision cycle. Constant forward movement and renewals of threat keep the opponent’s decision processes and movement continually reacting to your continued attack. The more this can be compressed, the greater the chance of the opponent making an error or simply getting too far behind to gain control of the action.
Third, the physical relationship of where the combat is on the strip has associated psychological factors that impact both your, and your opponent’s, decision making. The ideal is to keep the opponent under constant pressure so that he loses situational awareness and is pushed off the end. That happens to even world class fencers (admittedly not very often). The next to ideal is that pressure builds for the average opponent as the rear boundary of the strip gets closer (and yes, there are fencers who train specifically for fighting in the last meter and who are perfectly comfortable there). Associated with that, the option to retreat with no offensive action or parry by distance becomes more and more risky. These drive up the potential for bad decisions, rushed actions, and errors.
However, at the same time, driving the opponent to the last meter creates pressure on you to do something – you have done all that work to get him there, so you have to score. It is important to understand this. Continuing the attack in this case cause you to rush the final action or make a sloppy attack. If you don’t see the opportunity you need, convert forward movement to a pull to gain distance to allow for a well considered final action. The pull may facilitate that psychologically without giving up the actual initiative and control of the flow of the action (understanding that the referee will view your pull as giving the opponent the right of way).
The end question is when should your attack stop … when the risk of continuing is not justified by the value of the outcome. Some indicators that this is the case is a declining ability to control precise movement by blade and feet, out of physical balance, declining energy state and speed, the action becoming action for action’s sake without conscious decision making, tunnel vision, and the nagging suspicion that it is all a trap.
The bottom line is that we need to practice not just an attack, not just an attack and a recovery with a defense, but rather a series of second, third, and fourth intention actions. This is not practice to do specific techniques. It is practice to main control of the extended phrase while moving and while making tactical decisions to gain the hit.