In last week’s blog we discussed how to defeat an attack, and suggested four possible approaches. But defeating an attack and riposting or stop hitting does not guarantee you the score. You still have to get by the opponent’s defense to land. And the same problem confronts you if you are the one making the initial attack. How do you make his or her defensive efforts to defeat your action irrelevant?
The answer is surprisingly simple – you either get to a critical distance (and there are several ways to do that) or you put the opponent’s blade in motion. We are going to focus on the blade in motion this week.
What do I mean by “put the opponent’s blade in motion?” The essential problem for the offense is a stable opponent, one in a balanced guard, with controlled movement, the weapon in a steady position, mentally rehearsed, and all sense attuned to detecting the start of your attack. An attack against this opponent into a closed line will result in being hit by a parry-riposte combination (or a stop hit, especially in epee). And an attack against this opponent in an open line will result in … you guessed it … being hit by a parry-riposte combination (or a stop hit, especially in epee).
To score on the stable opponent, you need that opponent to have a blade in motion closing one line and opening another line. The science behind that is based on the physiological and mental processes of reaction to an attack. From a motor performance point of view, the opponent with a blade in motion has to recognize what your attack is doing, determine the appropriate course of action, stop the movement in progress, initiate movement to parry with signals to the muscles, and actually move to a parrying position. That is not instant, and in a typical weekend athlete takes somewhere around 300 milliseconds for the reaction plus the movement time. Highly trained athletes can do it faster because they have optimized the recognize what is happening and select the proper course of action part of the problem through thousands of repetitions in deliberate practice. But it still takes time.
If you think about this from a decision science point of view, the opponent has to execute the OODA Loop to trigger movement. That means observe what is happening, orient to the tactical situation, decide on a course of action, and act. For an opponent who has a good visual library of what blade and footwork actions look like and stays constantly aware of the tactical situation on the strip, there is still deciding on the correct course of action and then acting. OODA and the motor performance approaches say essentially the same thing – the difference lies in how you view what you do in the fight.
What all this means is that a form of inertia takes over – anyone with any science background will recognize the idea that inertia means that a body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Not only does the opponent’s arm and blade tend to stay in motion in the direction of closing one line and opening another, but it requires added time to reverse that direction and initiate new movement. The blade in a steady position ready to respond will react to your attack faster than the blade that is already moving in the wrong direction.
So how do we get the opponent’s blade in motion in a direction to create an opening into which we can attack? There are four essential ways:
(1) A feint as part of a compound attack.
(2) An attack on the blade.
(3) A taking of the blade.
(4) A provocation resulting in a commitment of the blade.
The use of the compound attack has special merit, both for our sense of irony and for the impact on the opponent’s decision making. The feint convinces the opponent to put his or her blade in motion in the wrong direction, opening the line we want so that our attack will be successful. The opponent helps us score. Of course, this requires that the opponent has to be susceptible to a feint. That vulnerability is increased if I have established a real threat to, or scored in, the line into which I intend to feint. This means that we should consider each successful action as a possible feint for the next action. In turn this requires that the feint be executed in the same way as a real attack had been or would be executed (same distance, same timing, same degree of commitment, etc.). A half-hearted feint will only deceive a much less skilled fencer. Against an experienced an opponent a poorly executed feint wastes a tempo, discloses your plan, and actually increases the probability that you will be hit by either a stop, a parry-riposte, or a parry by distance-riposte.
The next two choices require that you put the opponent’s blade in motion. Attacks on the blade (the beat and press) do so by percussion. Your beat or press literally removes the opponent’s blade from the desired line by force. These actions must be a seamless combination of the beat or press with the straight thrust so that the action appears to be one continuous forward movement, not allowing any time, howsoever brief, for an effective reaction. The attack on the blade tends to draw an immediate beat or press back to reestablish the line – this makes attacks on the blade productive as a feint for a disengage final (or even a counterdisengage if the opponent executes a change parry in response). In doing these actions make certain that your technique is in keeping with the definition of a parry adopted by referees. It is perfectly possible to remove an opponent’s blade by a strike on the lower third of the blade, only to have the referee call your successful beat as the opponent’s parry.
Takings of the blade remove the blade from the line by leverage, using the forte to seize the opponent’s foible in a progressive movement down the blade. Because the standard bind, croise/flanconade, envelopment, double bind, and double envelopment ideally require a straight arm to work against, these are often employed as parry-riposte combinations. The glide is the one technique in this family that works well against a bent arm, seizing the foible with the forte and progressing down the blade. This is differentiated form the thrust with opposition in when the opposition is applied. In the glide the opposition is from the start, in the thrust with opposition application is closing the line in the thrust. Much like the beat and press, the glide can be used as a feint to draw a lateral response that can be deceived by a disengage.
So we can get the opponent to put the blade in motion in reaction to our feint, or we can remove it ourselves by percussion or leverage. That leaves the issue of provocation. There are several variants of this, but the two simplest are second intention family actions. In this case second intention means that we have no intent to hit with our initial action and that we are attempting by draw an attacking response that we can exploit. The value of the provocation lies in the opponent committing to trying to hit you – you know where her blade is, and you do not have to worry that it is doing something that will have the time or the right of way to hit you. For example:
(1) Classic Second Intention – if I know that you are faster than I am or if I want to fix you in place so that you don’t retreat from my attack, I:
(first) execute a false attack, deep enough to draw a reaction by parry and riposte, but shallow enough so that I retain enough distance to counter your speed and do not cause you to retreat.
(second) you parry and riposte.
(third) I parry and counterriposte to hit as you come forward in your riposte.
(2) Classic Counteroffensive Countertime – if I know you like to counterattack, I:
(first) start a slow enough attack that it appears vulnerable.
(second) you stop hit.
(third simultaneously with second) I accelerate and stop hit your attempt to stop hit me (in what appears to be an accelerating a simple attack to the referee in foil and sabre).
We could do the same thing with defensive countertime or offensive countertime, but I used the stop hit on the stop hit because it is clean, looks like one continuous action, and has nothing that the referee might interpret as giving the right of way to the opponent in the right of way weapons.
The bottom line is that we want the opponent’s blade in motion. We can achieve that by a combination of successful (or even unsuccessful but close enough to scare) attacks with feints, percussion, and leverage. We can manipulate the opponent into attacking or counterattacking under conditions that maximize our probability of hitting with provocations. In short, it is good to be an attacker.