To talk about attacks on preparation, it is important to understand that there are two completely different forms of fencing on today’s strip. Epee retains the essential character of fencing, that it is a combat with swords – bear with this discussion, we have right of way weapons to address first. Foil and sabre have been fundamentally changed from combat with swords into combat with movement by the rule that the advance-lunge properly executed has the right of way starting with the advance (see Rule t.56.1 and t.56.2.c for foil and t.75.1 and t.75.4 for sabre). This has led to the attacker coming down the strip waiting for a counterattack to be the trigger to lunge, using the last step before the counterattack as the advance of a correctly executed advance-lunge. The attacker becomes reactive, waiting for initiative on the part of the defender to allow the lunge in reaction to that initiative. In this environment, the defender is at a substantial and intentional disadvantage. This disadvantage is justified by the theory, expressed several years ago by a senior international coach to a group of referees being briefed at a North American Cup on current international interpretations of fencing, that the attacker takes all the risk so should be allowed essentially free range to create the attack. All of this means that simply attacking an opponent who is advancing in foil or sabre is a dangerous action.
So what are these attacks on preparation, and how can they succeed against the advance lunge? The rules state for foil that:
t.56.2.d) Actions, simple or compound, steps or feints which are executed with a bent arm, are not considered as attacks but as preparations, laying themselves open to the initiation of the offensive or defensive/offensive action of the opponent.
t.56.3.d) Continuous steps forward, with the legs crossing one another, constitute a preparation and on this preparation any simple attack has priority.
The Federation Internationale d’Escrime manual for development of coaches (Tyshler and Logvin 2015) lists a variety of actions which may be preparations: invitations, false attacks, maneuvering footwork, threats of attacks, reconnaissance, displacements of the blade without contact, distractions, and masking actions. A preparation is essentially anything that an opponent does to create the conditions for the final action of the attack.
But wait, you might say … is not the advance of the advance-reactive lunge a preparation? In the real world of epee, absolutely true. The answer in foil and sabre is complicated, but simple. The rules for foil (t.56.2.c) require the start of the arm extension for the attack prior to the end of the advance. The rules for sabre are more complex – t.75.4. requires the initiation of the extension of the arm for either the attack or the feint before the advance. In practice, it is risky in the extreme if you are the defender to assume that the referee will apply this distinction, or even the bent arm provision of t.56.2.d., especially in division level events. Essentially the lunge provides its own justification. And remember, if you are a sabre fencer, that the referee may interpret two short steps in the box as equivalent to one advance in the immediate advance lunge off the command “fence.”
So how can you attack in preparation? In all three weapons the answer is simple. You need two things (1) an opponent who makes an obvious mistake (not just a mistake you can see, but one that will be glaringly obvious to the referee), and (2) clear, absolutely technically correct, and unambiguous action on your part. Part (2) in foil and sabre requires that you be able to show the referee by your timing, footwork, and blade action that you have the command of the bout and have seized the initiative at this moment in time. Part (2) in epee requires tight controlled action that wastes no time and gives no opportunity to hit to the opponent.
There is a special case for the right of way weapons. The advance lunge as correct attack does not confer immunity to attack to the step before the advance-lunge. If you jump back a sufficient distance to cause opponent to be outside of advance-lunge and then immediately attack you may catch the opponent in a preparation step forward to close the distance and get to where she believes she can execute the advance-lunge combination. This requires a nice sense of timing, fast legs, and a referee who understands the action.
Part (1) is a bit harder. When you look at the variety of preparatory actions that could be attacked, some, such as the invitation, false attack, or blade displacement (such as moving to absence of blade), require your instant attack while the opponent is starting their action and their blade is committed to a direction of movement that creates the opportunity for you. For example, the opponent who advances and invites at the same time must be attacked as both advance and invitation start. If you wait, both the footwork and bladework is complete and stable, allowing the quick parry and riposte with lunge to complete their action. The blade presentation of the false attack can be attacked in its early stage before the attacker can be ready for a second intention parry-counterriposte. Shifting from high line to absence of blade is vulnerable while the blade is in motion.
Other attacks into preparation require an error on an opponent’s part. An opponent who habitually beats with no attack can be deceived and hit or be hit on the recovery from the beat. An opponent who advances and then lunges, as opposed to the smooth, accelerating advance-lunge, can be attacked as the front foot comes down on the advance. The opponent who tries to find your blade can be deceived on the search, beat, or press and hit. The opponent who hesitates anywhere or who withdraws his blade once committed to the attacking sequence is vulnerable.
Finally, you can improve your attack into preparation with strong opposition or a beat. If you find the opponent’s blade and remove it from the line, there is a strong presumption that you have gained the right of way.
Of course, you can always attack in preparation with none of the technical requirements above as a decision based on risk with the assessment that (1) your opponent is likely to miss or (2) that your attack itself will cause the opponent to commit an error, such as trying to parry, that will either lead to one light or the referee will see as giving you the right of way.