How does your point (in all three weapons) or your cutting edge (in sabre) get to the target? That is an easy question – you just stick your arm out, and there you are. But don’t you lunge or fleche or something else footworky? So maybe the point/edge to target does not depend on the arm, but on footwork? After all, you can keep your arm in the guard position or even pull it back behind you and still carry the blade to the target with your feet. To steal from a local, and very annoying, automobile dealership commercial, “yes, yes you can.”
So, bottom line, we don’t need to extend our arms at all to attack the opponent.
But to attack the opponent with an acceptable probability of scoring and surviving the action without being hit in short, medium, or long distance is an entirely different matter. Now we have to deal with the rules, the tactics, and the mechanics of what the arm does in combat.
First, the rules. The current United States edition of the Fencing Rules defines the attack in these terms:
- Rule t.7. The attack is the initial offensive action made by extending the arm and continuously threatening the opponent’s target, preceding the launching of the lunge or fleche.
That is clear and to the point (or edge). We all know that this is interpreted in various ways by referees. And we know that in foil just about anything is now called an attack if the blade is dragged forward in anyway, even if the point is pointing 180 degrees away from the target, on the theory that it might be converted into an attack. However, regardless of whatever another fencer gets away with, the rules are the rules and may be applied inconsistently against you if you do not follow them. You have to be prepared to fence to the rule, and the rule says three key things:
- “Extending the arm”
- “Continuously threatening the opponent’s target.”
- “Preceding the launching of the lunge or fleche.” (This blog has already addressed the sequencing of the extension with the lunge in the immediately prior post, so we will not focus on that part of the problem in this post.)
In today’s discussion, extending the arm as a continuous threat is critical to earning right of way for the attack.
Second, the tactics. Establishing the initiative and earning the right of way by extension of the arm is obviously important to the success of any attack. However, it is not the only important tactical consideration. We routinely see bent arm attacks by beginners and even intermediate fencers. It is as though they are incapable of actually reaching for the target (and this infects even those fencers who are willing to bend their legs to generate power in the lunge). This is a fatal error in shortening the reach of your attack and in requiring more time to reach the target. This slows down the final attack, robbing you of point hit speed, and makes it easier for an opponent to defend with a parry, including a parry by distance, or counterattack. To score with a bent arm attack you have to close closer to the target, increasing the time that you are within the opponent’s range for an attack into your preparation or a counterattack. Let me restate, bent arm attacks are potentially fatal errors – in other words they have an increased probability of failure and an increased probability of getting you hit, especially if there is any mechanical fault in your technique.
So what is a bent arm attack? It is an attack in which your arm is bent – any attack in which your hand is not extended to the full distance to which you can physically reach from the shoulder joint.
There is a second part of this. Extensions directly from the shoulder parallel to the surface of the piste and straight on the fencing line to the target give you the greatest reach. As your weapon hand rises above the parallel line in epee or sinks below it in sabre you lose reach (see the mechanics discussion below). As an experiment try standing with a full extension at shoulder height on the fencing line with your point resting on the surface of a target and then raising and lowering your arm and moving left and right of the line. When you attack to the low line, attack with angulation, or attack with a ceding attack you are already giving up reach as a valid tactical choice to hit a particular target. If you try these actions with a bent arm, you are shortening an already shortened reach. In a sport in which millimeters count, a half-inch or inch of difference can be the deciding factor in whether you win a 4-4 bout or go on to the next round of the direct elimination.
And if there are two problems, and problems come in threes, there must be a third tactical problem with the bent arm. And, yes, there is. In all three weapons, the guard provides cover for the fully extended arm. When your arm is bent you at showing your epee or sabre opponent target. In sabre a bent arm increases the probability of a permanently disabling hit to your elbow. In foil, you are weakening the quality of your opposition in closing the line of your attack.
If you are going to make an attack, commit to that attack. Do a full extension in the final action (yes, you do not fully extend in preparatory feints or in the first stage of broken tempo actions – we are talking about the last dash the target). Reach to the target as though your life depends on it. Your score and chance of winning certainly do. If you don’t want to commit, don’t waste your time with fencing, go do something that requires no commitment, perhaps just watching the grass grow.
Third, the mechanics. There are four critical components to the arm extension: hand orientation, hand height, deviation left or right of the fencing line, and opposition. Starting with hand orientation, your tactical choice of how to execute an attack may demand a hand position different from that of your normal guard. The simplest version of this is moving between pronation, thumb up, and supination. The most complicated is the full Italian system of first, first in second, second, second in third, third, third in fourth, and fourth. Turning the hand into a different position changes the angle of the blade and orientation of the thrust, and is useful in any action involving angulation. If you do not routinely work with varied hand positions, some (especially full supination and the Italian first) may induce stress in the arm and hand, reducing speed and accuracy. So practice is a must to both develop accuracy from odd angles and to habituate the arm and hand to the positions so that they will not cause undue tension in their execution.
Hand height in the extension is important in all three weapons. In foil delivery with the hand at shoulder height provides a closed high line and maximum reach. In epee the bell should be at least shoulder height and preferably somewhat above it to eliminate counterattacks and ripostes over the arm. In sabre the guard is slightly below shoulder height to allow rapid conversion from head to flank or chest cuts.
Those guidelines are for normal high line attacks. Low line attacks involve lowering the arm to allow a direct movement to the target (with the exception of the high-line to rapid drop of the point attack to leg or foot in epee or the upward angulated low line thrust in foil). When angulated and ceding attacks are used the hand and arm are raised or lowered or moved left or right with the hand directing the blade and point in the opposite direction around the opponent’s arm and blade.
Deviation left or right of the line to the target may be angulation as described above. Or it may be a deviation of the arm and blade in a straight line to a specific target. This carries risks of exposing the arm to a counterattack in sabre and epee, and it clearly indicates to the opponent the intent at the start of the extension. However, the shortest distance to the target is a straight line, and thus the fastest time to the target is also a straight line, making this a choice based on your assessment of the risk involved.
Opposition is a factor in all three weapons. The reality is that two lights on the scoring machine significantly increase the probability of a hit being awarded for your opponent. This makes preventing two lights important, and, in bouts where your understanding of the action differs from that of the referee, absolutely vital to your survival. Opposition delivered too early in an action invites derobement. Opposition delivered too late results in two lights. Opposition should close the line of the attack, or counterattack, to any counteraction based on the opponent’s reaction to your action. If there is no reaction, opposition can be quite late finishing as the hit lands. If there is a reaction, such as a counterattack, opposition should be initiated immediately with the reaction, closing the line en route to the target. If you have made a parry and the concern is the viability of your riposte, it should be delivered with opposition from the parry. And if possible, opposition should establish a dominant blade position of forte on foible so that even an attempted parry that is not correctly formed will be trapped by it.
The bottom line – if you are going to attack, commit to a full extension in the final component of the attack. Use good mechanics to both maximize your chance of hitting and reduce the opponent’s ability to avoid that hit. Practice. Practice against all sorts of opponents in the Salle. Practice in tournaments that are practice tournaments for you. Get the arm out and hit the target early, fast, and often.