You are fencing a bout, and your opponent attacks you. There is one way to deal with this – you parry and riposte. Right? And you run into his second intention parry and first counterriposte to become just another V on his line on the score sheet. But, but, but … you did what you were supposed to do – you parried and riposte so you should have gotten the touch, right? Well, no you did not and should not …
Defeating the opponent’s attack is not just doing one thing, the old, familiar parry and riposte. It requires understanding the opponent’s range of tactics and techniques, how to deny the opponent the same information about your defense, the tactical flow of the bout, using all of the tools you have available, and choosing the best combination of technique, distance, time, and even provocation for the situation. Let’s look at these elements:
(1) Opponent’s range of tactics and technique – although it is possible that an opponent will use a tactic or technique that she has never used before, or even that he will invent one unknown to fencing, it is not likely. In a competitive bout opponents are likely to use their best, most practiced techniques in a familiar tactical setting. Your challenge is to use reconnaissance, with scouting data, observation of bouts when you are not fencing, and false attacks and provocations, to identify what the opponent is likely to do.
(2) The counter-reconnaissance battle – just like professional sports team scouts opponents, elite fencers scout theirs. And everyone in a pool is sitting there on the sidelines watching your bouts. You are surrounded by reconnaissance efforts to understand your game. That means you have a problem; by the time you step up on the strip for the last bout in the pool, your opponent should completely understand how you fence. The challenge is to mask your capabilities to as great a degree as possible during the pool so that you have something different to complicate the job of each opponent you face.
It is, by the way, worth your time to look at the bout order. Depending on the pool size, you may fence the fencer closest to you in seeding in the first bout, and the fencer with the greatest distance from you in the last. Although seeding is not an absolute predictor of results, it may be prudent to manage your bout planning so that you have a surprise left in the most difficult bout. The same applies to the direct elimination. If you have ever lost in the first round of the direct elimination to a fencer you beat in the pools, you faced a different opponent in the direct elimination, one who now understood your game and was prepared to defeat it.
(3) The tactical flow of the bout – an amazing number of fencers do not understand that if you do X several times in a row, the opponent will successfully counter with Y at some point (unless your X is world class and you can create with certainty the conditions under which it works each time). Although the tactical wheels do not actually work the way some think they do, the great benefit of the tactical wheel as a training tool is that it teaches you to understand what the opponent is likely to do if you do X. So if you have done X and hit, take what you know about the opponent and what the possible answers to X are, and you may be able to predict the response.
(4) Using all your tools – the attack can be defeated by at least six different approaches to the problem it presents:
… Open the distance and make the attack fall short. This does three things. In the right of way weapons (foil and sabre) it allows you to take over the attack and hit (you have parried by distance and then make a riposte). In the weapons with an advanced target (sabre and epee), it draws out the arm, leaving it as a target for a counterattack as you open the distance. And in all three weapons, it creates the opportunity to follow the opponent’s recovery with your blade, allowing a deeper penetration into her defensive envelope.
… Parry and riposte. The parry can be a lateral, circular, semi-circular, diagonal, or a change parry. The riposte can be direct, indirect, compound, flying, with opposition, as a flick, or executed with broken tempo. Although the riposte is an expected response, the variety available, and the options that the parry offers for setting them up with an unexpected parry, means that varying the choices greatly complicates the opponent’s problem.
… Avoidance combined with a counterattack. The avoidance and counterattack combination includes ducks and the inquartata, and works by simultaneously removing the target and extending the arm in the stop hit. When properly timed, this achieves surprise in this phrase as well as forcing the opponent to have to consider a possibly moving target in following phrases.
… The counterattack. In epee the counterattack is a core technique for dealing with the opponent’s attack. In sabre it can be productive if combined with good management of distance. In foil it is difficult and requires exquisite timing. If combined with displacement of the blade by opposition in the time hit, the counterattack works in all three weapons.
… The provocation. A final way to deal with the attack is to encourage it to happen in the line you want. There are two ways to do this; the first is by invitation. By creating an apparent opportunity to hit, the invitation allows you to meet the attack in your desired line, at your desired distance, and when you want the attack to generate the highest probability of defeating it.
… By channeling the attack into your preferred tactical envelope. Distance, tempo, timing, and all of the above can be used to draw an opponent’s attack into the line and point in space and time which offers you the greatest opportunity to defeat it and to hit the attacking opponent. Two specific additional categories of parries may assist in this: the destructive parry (a random parry-like blade action that unpredictably closes lines, leaving only the desired line for the attack reliably open) and the confusing parry (a parry or series of parries which seem to make no tactical sense by managing distance carefully and closing lines other than the one in which the attack is being made). Harmenberg in Epee 2.0 and Epee 2.5 has done some of the more interesting work in defining tactical envelopes (which he calls areas of excellence) and describing the destructive and confusing parries.
(5) Using the best combinations of tactics and techniques – the best combination will vary based on the opponent’s action, the opponent’s physical and mental state, your physical and mental state, the score in the bout, what actions you have used before in the bout and the pool, etc. You can improve performance by diligent deliberate practice to achieve automaticity in responses based on observed opponent actions. You can improve performance by reconnaissance and by assessment of the opponent’s actions. You can improve performance by having and using a mental decision-making drill between halt and fence. And you can improve performance by having a plan for each bout. All of this requires disciplined fencing.
We all have to deal with attacks. In doing so, it is to our advantage to make the attack as difficult as possible for the attacker, while simultaneously varying the techniques we use to maximize our ability to score. An attacking blade offers one of the best opportunities to hit our opponents. We know where the blade is when we parry it or when we execute the stop or time hit. From that we know that the opponent’s target is at short or medium distance (both in sabre and epee). And we know that our blade is potentially inside his blade. Depending on the timing we may also have a response time advantage. So what should we do? That is correct hit her. And that requires deliberate practice in using all of the tools we have available.