It used to be that contact between the fencer’s blades was the expected part of any bout – many felt that without engagement at the start it was impossible to actually fence. The development of sentiment de fer (the ability to sense the opponent’s intentions through contact with his or her blade) was the expected basis of good technique. Vestiges of those days remain. Fencers are still taught by some instructors to cock their blades before delivering a beat (you had to detach to beat if you were engaged). And the relatively recent return to fencer s having to come to an on guard in sixth or third is a symbolic tip of the hat (even if unintended) to the “must be engaged before it is fencing” days of classical fencing.
Today, however, you will rarely see fencers with their blades in contact unless actively preparing, attacking, counterattacking, defending, or closing out. If you are in contact, you are vulnerable to engagement and change of engagement in preparation, percussion actions on the blade (beats and presses), takings of the blade (binds, croises, envelopments, oppositions), or parries. As a result it becomes important to understand how to avoid the undesirable outcomes of contact.
The first, and simplest, way to avoid contact is simply not to give the opponent the blade. Do not offer the blade for engagement – instead fence with absence of blade. On the attack hold the full extension of the blade until the last moment to commit to accelerate the hit.
Option two is to withdraw the blade when it is attacked or taken. Depending on the distance, this can be an arm withdrawal or arm and retreat step. This has two benefits. You may completely avoid the opponent’s action by removing your blade from his range, or you may slide your blade back to the point where you have his foible under the control of your forte. This shifts the take from him to you, effectively as a parry, allowing your riposte with full control of her blade.
Option three is derobement or trompement. Derobement by disengage, counterdisengage, or coupe deceives (avoiding the intended contact) the opponent’s attempt to take your blade in his attack. In the right of way weapons this causes the attacker to lose the right of way. Trompement, in your attack by disengage, counterdisengage, or coupe, deceives the opponent’s attempt to take your blade with a parry. Trompement is an eyes-open response to the opponent’s defensive response.
Option four is angulation. Strong angulation avoids the contact of an opponent’s parry by displacing the weapon hand and arm laterally or vertically so that the blade angles in behind the parry.
Options one through four are based on avoidance of the opponent making contact. We also need appropriate fixes for when the opponent is successful in making contact and gaining control of our blade (or so she thinks). For these we add options five through seven.
Option five – when the opponent successfully beats, immediately stop hit. This is difficult in foil, unless your opponent has accuracy issues, but manageable in sabre at the advanced target, and a staple of epee technique, again against the advanced target. This technique benefits from the reality that the opponent is coming on a predictable trajectory and is solving your distance problem by bringing the target to you.
Option six – in your attack, when the opponent parries, immediately on the sensation of contact execute strong angulation, laterally or vertically, moving the weapon hand and arm in the direction of the movement of the parry. This technique is known as a ceding attack. It works by using the opponent’s blade as the fulcrum around which your attacking blade can pivot. Because of right of way it is risky in foil and sabre, unless you have an opponent who is slow to initiate a riposte after the parry.
Option seven – the ceding parry. If the opponent’s attack is pushing your blade, relax and go with the flow of his action. Again you use the opponent’s blade as the pivot point rolling your blade into position to parry and riposte. In doing this maintain contact with the pressing blade. There are four common ceding parries:
- against pressure on the outside of your blade in the high line – rotate the point down and carry the arm across into prime.
- against pressure on the outside of your blade in the low line – rotate the blade over the opponent’s blade into fifth (foil and epee- a low fourth in sabre).
These first two with pressure on the outside of the blade end in parries with which most fencers are familiar. The two with pressure on the inside of the blade are different and are restricted to foil and epee (although theoretically you could do a cede against high inside pressure by ceding to sabre seventh, this is an unlikely scenario). In both cases, you have to wait to allow the opponent’s point to cross to the outside of your bell:
- against pressure on the inside of your blade in the high line – relax and allow the opponent’s point to cross over to the outside of the bell, lift your hand into a lifted eighth or second, and riposte to the low line.
- against pressure on the inside of your blade in the low line – relax and allow the opponent’s point to cross under to the outside of the bell, drop your hand into a lowered sixth or third, and riposte to the high line.
This gives you a full menu of technical applications to the tactical problem of the opponent on your blade. They are not one size fits all; some will be more applicable to one fencer and not to another. Practice against a variety of opponents to develop the ability to assess what your best tactical approach will be to avoiding and defeating contact.