Fencing demands that you place a small point or blade edge on a target. When we say small, the diameter of the scoring tip in foil is from 5.5 to 7.0 millimeters (rule m.11 subparagraph 1), in epee the diameter is 7.95 to 8.05 millimeters (rule m.20 subparagraph 4.b), and in sabre the button is a minimum of 4 millimeters in with by 4 to 6 millimeters (Material Rules Figure 12). The cutting surface of the sabre blade is measured at the tip as a minimum of 4 millimeters by 1.2 millimeters (Material Rules Figure 12). It is probably not accurate to call these small; tiny when compared to other sporting equipment that is used to score is more accurate.
The hitting problem is further complicated by the reality that the blades are flexible – in a bench test with a 200 gram weight 4 to 7 centimeters for a sabre blade (Material Rules Figure 12), 4.5 to 7 centimeters for an epee blade (Material Rules Figure 9), or 5.5 to 9.5 centimeters for a foil blade (Material Rules Figure 8). Acceleration or deceleration of the blade means that the point may or may not be where you expect it to be.
And then there is the reality that everything is moving, and moving at unpredictable speeds. The weapon moves. The fencer’s fingers, hand, wrist, forearm and upper arm moves, sometimes with and sometimes in a different direction from the blade. The torso moves forward and black, laterally, and with rotation changing the surface of the target and the vectors of the force applied to the weapon. The fencer opens or closes the distance, at varying speeds. And exactly the same thing is happening on the opponent’s side of the strip.
If we are to hit, all this discussion means that we have to deliver our actions with considerable precision. How do we get there? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. A high percentage of hits results from one thing, deliberate practice. This is not fencing bouts. This is not doing some drills in the Salle. This is not shopping around to find a better coach or a club that has all the best fencers. This is not picking up your weapon for 5 minutes or so at home a couple of times a week. It is long, hard, painful work to improve your performance in a disciplined way.
Deliberate practice requires that you take a hard look at your performance, identify where you need to develop new skill, where you need to improve your existing skill, and where you need to fix execution. When you look at one specific area, precise blade control so that you hit what you want to hit, look for the following things:
(1) Can you identify the target? Targets come in several types:
… the high payoff target – the target area where the probability of arrest is highest, the size of the target is practical for your level of control, the time to target short, the level of commitment into the opponent’s hitting envelope is limited, and the ability to deliver the blade at the highest speed through synchronization of leg, arm, torso rotation, and finger speed at the moment of the hit is maximal.
… the risky, but tactically attractive target – the target area which can be exploited with a specific opponent because of that fencer’s skill level or tactical choices.
… the high risk target – the target that requires you to go deep into the opponent’s hitting envelope in an attempt to hit on a surface on which it is difficult to make an arrest.
Ideally, you want to be able to hit each of these targets, but you must be able to hit the high payoff target.
(2) Can you see the target? There are some targets that you literally cannot see, but that you can reach. In some cases they are only exposed for a very short period of time. You have to be able to envision their location and attack to the location that you see in your mind.
(3) Can you attack to where the target will be when your attack arrives at its end? Unless you have a completely static opponent, the target has a good probability of not being where it was when you started your action. Opponent’s step back, collapse the distance, or use body movement to avoid the attack. You must be able to understand the movement and direct the attack to intercept the target’s movement.
(4) Are you relaxed? You cannot be completely relaxed, but having all of your muscles tensed for a forceful execution means that the agonist muscles (those that are trying to execute the movement) are opposed by the antagonist muscles (those that would execute the opposite movement). The result is a slower execution than you are capable of, plus irregular movement.
(5) Are you moving the point or cutting surface to the target? There are timing differences between the three characteristic fencing movements, the thrust, flick, and cut. However, in each case the scoring surface must lead the final movement. In the thrust the point leads the extension coming into line early in the movement. In the flick, the finger movement of the flick must be timed to bring the point into line to the target immediately before the hit (otherwise you end up flat). In the cut, the blade holds back the cut until the optimal moment for the fingers to accelerate the cut to the hit. In each case finger movement must be synchronized with the path of the blade and the point.
(6) Can you move the point and the hand on different vectors while maintaining control? This is critical to successful execution of angulated and ceding attacks in which the blade is attacking inside of the opponent’s blade.
(7) Do you maintain a steady hand orientation? Small movements in the orientation of the hand can cause large deviations in the direction of travel of the blade. Rolling the hand to pronation or supination from a thumb upward position in the foil and epee is an important skill in some angulated attacks. However, the shift from one to the other changes the direction of blade movement from vertical to horizontal, a direction that allows a higher probability of a miss from even a small deviation.
(8) Can you use your fingers to control where the weapon is pointing? The reason we have modern orthpaedic grips is that Fencing Masters in the late 1800s started to look for grips that provided better control with the fingers than the traditional French and Italian grips. If you are control a pistol grip weapon with your wrist, you are missing the whole point of the grip.
(9) Can you control your weapon with finger play and with forearm movement? As pulse rate increases fine motor control eventually starts to decrease. At some point fingerplay no longer provides the most accurate control – learn to control your weapon with movements of larger muscles.
(10) Is what you are doing tight? Excess lateral motion does one thing – it adds to the distance that your blade and point have to travel to get to the target. The longer the distance, the more opportunity for the opponent to respond and defeat the attack. Let’s take a simple example, the travel around the blade in a disengage. Looking just at the semi-circle around the blade, if we maintain a track 2 inches from the outside of the opponent’s bell, the diameter of the circle the point travels in foil would be 8.7 inches (assuming the opponent has the maximum size 12 centimeter guard). Remembering our basic math, the circumference of a circle equals pi times the diameter, and we are going to go a half circle, so:
… travel = (3.1416 x 8.7) / 2 = 27.33 / 2 = approximately 13.67 inches or 1 foot and about 2 inches
Now let’s take the case where you avoid the opponent’s blade by 1 foot:
… travel = (3.1416 x 28.7) / 2 = 90.164 / 2 = approximately 45.1 inches or 3 feet and about 9 inches
Even if you failed 6th grade math four times and have hated math for your entire life, it does not take a mathematical genius to figure out that the larger semi-circle takes longer, a lot longer.
(11) Is what you are doing smooth? Smooth is several things. First the obvious one – get rid of hesitations, catches, hiccups in your movement. Some of this comes from poor technical execution. But second, some comes from a lack of commitment and second and third and fourth guessing yourself. When you attack, attack, regardless of whether it is a first, second, or third intention attack, a riposte, or a counterattack. Commit to your selected course of action. And then get rid of poor movement discipline by making sure that your actions synchronize all of the moving parts into one smooth flow.
(12) Can you hit a moving target? The traditional ball on a string or the more modern light based targets offer excellent training in increased response time and hit accuracy. Don’t just do this static – hit the target with a lunge, advance lunge, balestra lunge, fleche or flunge, and then add a preparation step, and then do it from pursuit.
(13) Can you hit a target reliably with your eyes closed? Yes, everyone has at one time or another thrown out an arm in an eyes-closed flinch … and sometime hit. I am talking about sitting down on guard, seeing the target, closing your eyes, visualizing it, and hitting with a thrust/cut, from a step forward, a lunge, and an advance-lunge. If you can you have a good sense of the quality and repeatability of your movements. You need that so that you can launch an attack without tunnel visioning in the hopes of praying the point to the target.
All of these are things that you should practice, not for 5 touches, not for bouts in the Salle, but daily. Most of them have components that you can work on at home, even without a weapon in your hand. Start slowly, painfully slow execution. Critique every repetition, and concentrate on fixing each deviation each time. This is work you have to do. This is hours every day worth of commitment to excellence. Our trainers cannot do it for you. But if you work daily to get to be better, to achieve a high degree of precision in executing these factors, you will become a more successful fencer, a better athlete, and an individual with a better control of your body and your movement in any form of physical activity.
So just do it. Now.