This week we are going to consider the simplest actions, the simple attacks, a significant component of anyone’s fencing repertoire. Simple attacks are called simple because they are single tempo, single movement actions. The definition of a tempo is based on simple attacks: “the time period that it takes to execute a simple attack.” But that is about all that is simple about them.
As a review – simple attacks are: (1) the straight thrust in all three weapons and direct cuts in sabre, (2) the disengage in foil and epee and the disengage point or cut in sabre, (3) the coupe in all three weapons, predominantly as a cut in sabre, and (4) the counterdisengage in all three weapons, as a cut or point in sabre. Simple attacks stand as offense (including as the riposte) in their own right, or can be combined as building blocks with preparations to become compound attacks or attacks on the blade or taking the blade.
In all three weapons simple attacks share some key characteristics. First, because they are one tempo actions they are typically execute in conjunction with one footwork movement. That movement can be a lunge, fleche, flunge, step forward, or from a static position (for the purposes of this discussion I am counting standing still as a footwork choice). Any other footwork is preparation to get the fencer to the distance at which the final piece of footwork and the attack is launched. This is not how a referee watching a final advance-lunge with a straight thrust in a series of advances is going to call the action – he will see the advance sequence as all part of the attack. That is a modern concoction to give any forward action the right of way. I am concerned with what is actually happening.
The difference lies in when the fencer commits to the actual movement of the blade that constitutes the attack. Yes, yes, I know that any forward movement is an attack in many referees’ eyes. And I embrace body movement before arm movement as having very significant advantages in the delivery of the blade. But the final decision to initiate a simple attack always comes with the final footwork movement – you may think you are going to attack, but, until the final lunge, step forward, etc., you retain the ability not to commit. In contrast, you are effectively committed to any two tempo attack when you initiate the first blade tempo – the feint in a compound attack, for example.
This means that the actual attack takes a shorter time than a prepared attack with more than one tempo of blade action. The opponent has less time to react, and that increases the possibility of success. But that advantage is balanced by the single tempo not giving the opponent as many things to react to, which means that, all thing being equal, the opponent’s reaction will be faster. As a result, the simple attack is most successful if it is executed at a distance shorter than your long lunge distance against an opponent who is advancing, static, or, if retreating, is doing so at a slower speed and at a moment after you start your attack (in other words an opponent you are pushing and whose OODA loop execution is behind yours). Getting to that distance is critical to the success of the simple attack.
The simple attack also requires a cooperative opponent. I don’t mean an opponent who dutifully does the right cues in the same way as a drill partner. Rather, you are looking for an opponent who has flaws and does not fix them or whose movements are not purposeful – and there are a lot more of these opponent’s out there than you might think. All of the four most common simple attacks work best in a cooperative environment – the opponent who:
(1) does not close a line when on guard – one line closed will normally mean 25% of the opponent’s target is closed, 25% is probably inaccessible, but 50% is available to hit. No line effectively closed increases the available to hit percentage to 75% or higher. Vulnerable to straight thrust or direct cut, coupe, or disengage.
(2) drifts – the line was closed, but the fencer lacks the kinesthetic awareness to maintain the closure. Vulnerable to straight thrust or direct cut, coupe, or disengage.
(3) closes a line but does not react correctly to angulated attacks. Vulnerable to straight thrusts or direct cuts or disengages with angulation.
(4) closes the line weakly, either physically having weak control of the blade or relying on the foible to provide significant resistance. Vulnerable to straight thrusts or direct cuts, disengages, or coupes with opposition.
(5) moves the blade laterally or vertically without purpose. Vulnerable to disengages, coupes, or counterdisengages, or even well timed straight thrusts or direct cuts.
(6) wants to take engagement, to push on your blade, or to beat executed with a cock in the opposite direction. Vulnerable to disengages, coupes, or even fast straight thrusts or direct cuts with strong opposition.
(7) does invitations that keep moving for far too long and that go far too wide from the line. A good invitation should be complete, and the opponent ready to parry or counterattack milliseconds before you start your action based on where you think the opponent will be. Vulnerable to fast straight thrusts or direct cuts, including with opposition.
(8) loves to go in circles, either attempting to take your blade or as habitual circle parries on recovery from an attack. Vulnerable to counterdisengages.
In many cases these actions are the result of poor training, of early success against weak opponents forming the context of the opponent’s skill set, or of habit reinforced by drills or by what the opponent has observed other fencers doing. They are cooperative because they create favorable conditions for your simple attack. However, be cautious – observe your opponent carefully in the pool before you fence and consider some judicious application of reconnaissance to make certain that the presentation you see is not a carefully structured invitation concealed as a mistake.
A note on training – drills tend to execute simple attacks by rote with cues that are not realistic. The next time you work with a partner try several of the above scenarios executed as you would see them in the bout. They will sharpen your ability to hit with the simple attack.