Just like attacks can be simple or compound or prepared, parries can be simple or compound (also called composed because they are composed of two or more parts) or prepared. Let’s dispose of everything except simple parries at the start, so that we can focus. Compound parries are parries that are executed with an initial feint parry (or more) and then a final parry intended to intercept the opponent’s attack. And I suggest that there is such a thing as a prepared parry, the use of distance, invitation, or timing to increase the effectiveness and value of the defensive action (much as preparation of an attack creates the conditions for its success). There, we have put down a marker for a future post, and we can go on to deal with the simple parry.
The objective of a parry is to create the conditions for a successful riposte. A parry by itself has no great value; if you do nothing but parry you do not score, and eventually even the most incompetent or inartful opponent will eventually score on you. The parry gains value when it:
(1) deflects the opponent’s blade from the line creating an opening into which you can insert the riposte (all three weapons),
(2) hampers the opponent’s attack for a sufficient period of time to allow the otherwise double hit of your action to be one light (especially in epee),
(3) prevents the opponent landing on you while your riposte is enroute to the target (for those times when there absolutely must be only one light),
(4) allows you to control the opponent’s blade with leverage to facilitate your hit (In all three weapons), or
(5) allows you to seize the right of way (in foil and sabre).
When we examine parries, it is important to note that descriptions in fencing texts are almost universally written for right handed fencers. Considering that left handed fencers in certain weapons at certain times are in the majority, and that in general the left hand is the weapon hand on average of roughly 30 percent of competitive fencers, this seems a trifle right hand centric. I will describe the parries in terms of their relatively line of protection, instead of left or right. Thus:
- High inside line is to the fencer’s left if he or she is right handed, and to the right if left handed – in other words towards the fencer’s chest and abdomen.
- High outside line is to the fencer’s right if he or she is right handed, and to the left if left handed – towards the fencer’s back.
- Low outside line is to the fencer’s right if right handed, and left if left handed – towards the hip and thigh.
- Low inside line is to the fencer’s left if right handed, and right if left handed – towards the abdomen and groin.
If we take the typical French system for foil and epee parries as an example, this means that we have two distinct parry systems, the 1-2-3-5 system and the 6-8-4-7 system. These eight parries are as follows:
- First or Prime – protects the high inside line with the hand in pronation (knuckles up, although in the case of prime the hand is actually rotated so the knuckles face the fencer). Ripostes from first are awkward.
- Second or Seconde – protects the low outside line with the hand in pronation, and is a powerful parry that allows an angulated thrust to the abdomen.
- Third or Tierce – protects the high outside line with the hand in pronation, and is an awkward parry.
- Fourth or Quarte – protects the high inside line with the hand in thumb up position. Note that I believe supination (with the knuckles down) is a suboptimal means of parrying, and that the traditional supinated parries should be fought thumb up).
- Fifth or Quinte – protects the inside low line with the hand low in pronation and the blade angled further to the inside.
- Sixth or Sixte – protects the outside high line with the hand held thumb up.
- Seventh or Septime – protects the inside low line with the hand held thumb up.
- Eighth or Octave – protects the outside low line with the hand held thumb up.
Sabre parries are fewer in number, and can be considered in two triangles, the 3-5-4 system and the 1-5-2 system. Although classically sabre had the greatest number of parries, simplification has reduced the choices to these five:
- First – protects the high inside line with the hand in pronation – a relatively rare parry with a difficult riposte.
- Second – protects the underside of the arm and, when done from shoulder height, the flank, with the hand in pronation.
- Third – protects the outside high line with the hand thumb up.
- Fourth – protects the inside high line with the hand thumb up.
- Fifth – protects the head with the hand thumb down.
Sabre parries are uniformly made with the blade 45 or fewer degrees from the vertical in relationship to the thumb. However, foil and epee parries are typically delivered in one of three ways:
(1) With the blade parallel to the fencing line (the line between rear foot heel, front foot heel, front foot toes, and the opponent). This offers a fast riposte and a strong parry.
(2) With the blade at various angles but with the point consistently threatening the target. This offers the fastest riposte and maintains a clear threat.
(3) With the blade in line with the fencer’s forearm. This does not require wrist and finger movement in the parry and is powerful. However, the blade will normally be displaced from the target in the parry, driving a more complex riposte.
But we are not finished. So far we have talked about the parry as though it was taken from a guard in the same line. The guard is a position from which offense or defense is conducted, and the parry is the operationalization of the guard in the defense. But relatively few parries are taken against an attack into the line of a stable and correct guard. That means that we have to consider the character of the movement. First, we have lateral parries in which the blade remains in either high or low line and moves directly, horizontally across the body:
- Inside high line to outside high line – 4th to 6th in foil and epee, 4th to 3rd in sabre.
- Outside high line to inside high line – 6th to 4th in foil and epee, 3rd to 4th in sabre.
- Inside low line to outside low line – 7th to 8th in foil and epee, 1st to 2nd in sabre.
- Outside low line to inside low line – 8th to 7th in foil and epee, 2nd to 1st in sabre.
Next are the semi-circular parries. In these in foil and epee the blade sweeps toward the center line and back to close the vertical lines:
- Outside high line to outside low line – 6th to 8th in foil and epee, 3rd to 2nd in sabre.
- Outside low line to outside high line – 8th to 6th in foil and epee, 2nd to 3rd in sabre.
- Inside high line to inside low line – 4th to 7th in foil and epee.
- Inside low line to inside high line – 7th to 4th in epee and foil.
Then we have the diagonal parries which move from one line to the diagonally opposite line:
- Inside high line to outside low line – 4th to 8th in foil and epee, 4th to 2nd in sabre.
- Outside low line to inside high line – 8th to 4th in foil and epee, 2nd to 4th in sabre.
- Outside high line to inside low line – 6th to 7th in foil and epee.
- Inside low line to outside high line – 7th to 6th in foil and epee.
We can’t forget the circular parries. These take a blade that has disengaged from one line to another and returns it to the original line. We describe them as circular, but in reality they are more properly executed as a teardrop. Although theoretically you can do circular parries in any line, in general the circular parry is largely a high line parry in modern fencing:
- Outside high line (returning a blade that has penetrated from outside to inside high line) – circular 6th in foil and epee, circular 3rd in sabre.
- Inside high line (returning a blade that has penetrated from inside to outside high line) – circular 4th in foil and epee, circular 4th in sabre.
Finally, there are the change parries. Although mechanically these are similar to a circular parry, with, in the case of relatively wide attack, a lateral parry added, they do something tactically very different – taking a blade that started in one line of attack and remained there, and putting it in a new line. Although theoretically you can do change parries in any line, in general the change parry is a high line parry. In older texts you will see these described as contraction parries because they pull the opponent’s blade across your target:
- Inside high line to outside high line – change 6th in foil and epee, change 3rd in sabre.
- Outside high line to inside high line – change 4th in foil and epee, change 4th in sabre.
So what do all these variants do for you? First, they block an attack that starts in one line and remains there. This is a primary role of the lateral, semi-circular, and diagonal parries. The parry opens two tactical choice for the riposte: (1) you may riposte with a direct riposte back in that same line (a response your opponent will probably expect), or (2) use an indirect riposte to hit a different line laterally or vertically.
Second, they allow you to sweep space in front of you to intercept and gather up an attack that is changing the line, including while it is doing so. This is a role of the semi-circular, diagonal, and circular parries and the lateral parry against disengages. The semi-circular parry sweeps from the outer margin of your target to the center line and back to the margin. The diagonal parry sweeps from outside to inside or inside to outside. The circular parry sweeps the cone of its movement, returning the blade to the original line. And the lateral parry sweeps the high or low line. In the sweep the line is cleared for a direct riposte, or against an opponent who resists the sweep an indirect one.
Third, the change parry operates as a transport, completely changing the geometry of the action by moving the opponent’s blade to an unexpected lateral position. The circular parry returns the geometry of the action to its starting point. Both direct and indirect ripostes are possible.
Fourth, each parry creates at least two opportunities for ripostes – the lateral, semi-circular, and diagonal parries allow a direct riposte and an indirect riposte (in most cases by disengage). The circular parry and the change parry do more. They change the expected geometry of the action introducing a possible range of four combinations. For example, against an attack disengaging to end in high outside, you have four choices that the opponent must be prepared to respond to:
- Lateral parry with direct riposte into the final line.
- Lateral parry with indirect riposte into the original line.
- Circular parry to position in the original line with direct riposte into the original line.
- Circular parry to position in the original line with indirect riposte into the final line.
Note that in each case we are applying a parry to achieve a specific opportunity to hit with the riposte. If all you want to do is parry to keep from being hit, any parry will do. The ones with awkward or slow ripostes are as valuable as the ones that permit fast ripostes with opposition, because you are not parrying to facilitate a riposte. You are just parrying to parry. But if you want to score touches (the objective of a fencing bout is not to not get hit, it is to score more touches than the opponent does), then you need to select parries that will allow you to confuse the attacker’s expectations of where you will riposte, exploit weaknesses in his or her defense, and present constant challenges to the attacker’s decision making. In other words, you have to realize that the parry is not defense, it is a vital part of the preparation of your effort to hit the attacker. You have to think tactically about your parry. If you don’t, well, welcome to the bottom half of the tournament results. Someone has to be there and you will have earned it.