In all three weapons the beat is an effective preparation for both simple and compound attacks. So, it is important to understand what it is and how it is used most effectively. First, the obvious simple definition – a beat is an attack on the opponent’s blade with percussion to expel the blade from a line. That was pretty straight forward.
Except that it isn’t that simple. Beats can in fact be used for a variety of purposes, all of which have a role, and all of which have different characteristics and applications.
(1) the stupid beat – this is a favorite of an opponent who has no idea what to do with their blade. As a result, they beat the opposing blade incessantly with no formed idea of an attack, merely with the hope that something interesting might happen. As a result, they become focused on making the beats, wasting time and exposing themselves to being hit by the opponent who understands what they are doing. Like any other action on the piste, the beat should always be intentional.
(2) the distraction beat – a light beat, foible to foible, with the intent of annoying or distracting an opponent, breaking his or her tactical train of thought. One or two of these are enough – continued distraction beats become a predictable, repetitive action and give away your timing for an opponent to exploit (unless you hope to annoy an inexperienced opponent enough that he will make a poorly formed attack just to stop the beats).
(3) the reconnaissance beat – a medium strength beat, executed further down the fencer’s blade, to determine the opponent’s reactions. Like any reconnaissance, you do this once and store the information you have gained. More than one reveals your intent.
(4) the denial beat – if you are employing destructive parries to close a line and channel an attack into your preferred tactical envelope, the beat can form part of your apparently random acts.
(5) the beat in preparation for an indirect or compound second intention action – now the beat is part of the attack. This is still a medium strength beat, hard enough to force a reaction to defeat a straight stack, but not so hard as to delay your change of line. The intent is to draw the expected reaction from the opponent, so that he creates an opening line for your attack.
(6) the beat with the simple direct attack – again the beat is part of the attack, preparing the way by putting the opponent’s blade in motion out of the desired line. The strength of this beat should be calculated to create the opening, and its execution to transfer energy to the opponent’s so that it moves enough to create the opening. Depending on the opponent and the situation this may be anything from a light to a strong beat.
(7) the beat in the counterattack or as the parry – in this application, the beat serves the same purpose as opposition, preventing the opponent’s hit from arriving and opening the line for the stop hit or riposte. The most recent interpretations of the rules completely depart from the theory of fencing by declaring that beats can only be with the top two thirds of the blade, and anything in the last third is a parry, rather than applying the obvious standard that a beat is part of the attack, and a tac-au-tac (beat) parry is defense. As a result, who knows how an individual referee on the day will call this action. Make certain there is only one light.
(8) the beat with the riposte – with a fast hand, a slow opponent’s recovery, and exquisite timing, the beat can be used to clear the line for the recovery in either a direct riposte or a flying riposte, but it requires lots of practice.
(9) the beat to draw the counterattack in second intention – if the opponent reacts to beats with a counterattack, particularly in epee, the beat provides the invitation needed to draw the counterattack into your parry and riposte (defensive countertime) or stop hit on the stop hit (counteroffensive countertime).
This menu of possibilities should offer a reason for every fencer to employ the beat in some capacity as part of their game. Regardless of your intent in using the beat, its execution has two important parts. First, beat from where you are; do not cock the blade. Doing so gives an opponent an obvious warning that you are coming for her blade, and to be ready to deceive you. That means that if you are in contact with the opponent’s blade, the press is a more viable choice.
Second, the beat is a finger movement. The more hand, wrist, and arm you put into the beat, the slower its initiation and the greater the probability that your blade with deviate significantly from the target. This requires significant finger strength and increases the value of the projections of the orthopaedic grip.
Third, when you beat, you are theoretically trying to open a line, not carry your point and blade into the next county. When the beat transfers its lateral energy into the opponent’s blade, you blade should have stopped its sideways motion be extending directly at the target with no discernable delay. The action is not beat, recover to desired line, thrust or cut. It is beat-thrust or beat-cut as one action, with the preparation tempo and the attack being indistinguishable. The only time this is not true is when you are counting on an opponent’s reaction, and need the opponent to start that reaction in order to complete yours – for example, the beat-disengage, or the beat as an invitation for countertime.
So go practice these choices. Find one that works as part of your tactical skill set. Develop your fingers and your timing. And beat!