What is a simple attack? This is something every fencer should know by heart as foundational knowledge in our sport. So, cover up the following lines of texts and see if you can come up with an accurate description of the simple attack. To help you, the following are the simple attacks:
- Straight Thrust
- Disengage (cut or thrust in sabre)
- Coupe (cut or thrust in sabre)
- Counterdisengage (cut or thrust in sabre)
- Countercoupe (an admittedly extremely rare technique)
- and the Direct Cuts and Banderole Cuts in Sabre
Those should give you a hint, so write down your answer. Then compare that answer with the discussion below.
You should be writing now. No looking for the answer or answers until you have finished.
The classic definition is that a simple attack is an attack that is executed in one tempo. This is not as helpful as it might seem, because the definition of one tempo is the amount of time required to execute a simple attack. If we combine the two, the definition becomes: A simple attack is an attack that is executed in the amount of fencing time that is required to execute a simple attack. Rather circular isn’t it? So we have to go further.
There are two basic categories of simple attacks, direct (those that move directly from guard to land in the same line) and indirect (those that change lines during the attack). This eliminates the categories of attacks on the blade which require a beat or press preparation, transports which involve leverage preparation, and compound attacks which require a feint in preparation. This clarifies the situation somewhat – simple attacks have one bladework movement.
Then we can look at the nature of that movement. In each case, when properly executed, the blade moves in a consistent flow in one direction in relation to the opponent or the opponent’s blade to land on the target. Simple attacks don’t change direction. The straight thrust goes direct to the target. The disengage moves circularly around the opponent’s bell. The counterdisengage goes on a road trip following the circular movement of the opponent’s change of engagement or other circular attempt to take the blade. The ones that seem to be an exception, the coupe and countercoupe, prove the rule by moving around the opponent’s point in one continuous movement to the opposite line.
And this is where the tempo definition makes sense – changing the direction (for example, in a one-two) or continuing past one rotation (the counterdisengage into a double) is the change into a second tempo.
It is important also to say that in modern fencing the basic simple attacks are all executed progressively. The very old idea that you execute a disengage, for example, by fully extending the arm and the disengaging around the opponents blade and then lunging converts a one tempo action into two or three tempos and screams to the opponent “beat me, take me, parry me, make me look like an idiot, and hit me.” Yes, there are exceptions. Simple attacks can be executed in broken tempo, but then by definition they no longer are simple. All simple attacks must be executed as a progressive and synchronized combination of bladework and footwork.
Fencing texts generally do not classify simple attacks in terms of the distance needed for their execution, but doing so adds to the understanding. A classical view would be that a simple attack could be executed at medium (lunge) or short (extension) distance, or even at long distance (advance and lunge). Today that is not exactly correct. A simple attack requires:
(1) an open line inside of critical distance, the distance at which this particular opponent can be hit without him or her being able to react in time to parry or successfully counterattack.
(2) an open line with the opponent advancing so that your attack will be executed in critical distance due to the opponent’s closure, in other words someone who is either careless, is focused on their plan and is ignoring what is happening in front of them, or who is a victim of your footwork trap.
(3) an opening line with the opponent being within lunge distance, and with the indirect attack directed to that opening line.
(4) an unstable opponent with questionable control over balance, footwork, and bladework who is either closing or static.
Lunge distance is problematic against an opponent of equal or superior speed who can open the distance to avoid, make you fall short to take over the attack, or gain added time to parry. Advance lunge distance is suicidal – leaving your blade out or even travelling into an extension in the same line over an advance and a lunge means that any alert opponent of any speed will either be waiting with a unfortunate solution for your efforts. An accelerating advance-lunge launched at lunge distance is more survivable and more likely to catch the opponent if you clearly have the initiative and are not being led into a course of action by superior tactician.
How about speed? If you can get to maximum point hit speed inside the critical distance to hit, your simple attack has a good chance of success. Simple attacks are comparatively fast because they have only one blade movement to execute. If you are behind in the score and time is short, a simple attack is a fast solution if you can set it up. Second, although the simple attack has one blade movement, that does not mean it has to be executed at one speed. An accelerating blade and footwork attack can be executed with a simple attack to get inside an opponent’s reaction. And don’t forget deceleration – starting fast and finishing slow against an opponent who reacts early and fast may well convert a closed line into an open one for your attack.
So what is a simple attack? It is: a direct or indirect attack executed progressively in a single continuous movement in a consistent direction with the initiative to hit an opponent at a distance, with closure, in an available line, and with a speed that prevents effective reaction. If you have those elements in place, you have a reasonable chance of scoring. The traditional one tempo definition is true, especially in the view of referees, but it is of little utility in developing your technique or thinking about your tactics.