Compound attacks are a traditional staple of fencing. Fencing has become more and more a footwork sport, and less and less dependent on skilled traditional bladework, with blade actions now far more opportunistic and likely to be executed in infighting distance and/or at angles from well outside the target box. In some weapons and age groups the only attacks are now simple attacks executed as fast as possible with little to no consideration of the opponent’s course of action. In this environment, a case could be made that the traditional compound attack is obsolete. That would be wrong.
What has happened is that the compound attack must now be employed not as a technique, but as a tactic as part of the bout plan and as a strategy. So let’s start by defining compound attacks and considering their characteristics.
A compound attack is traditionally defined as an attack composed of more than one blade action, the last of which is the actual attack with the preceding actions being feints. It is thus a multiple blade tempo action. In the period of classical fencing from the 1880s up to World War II, a wide variety of two, three, and four tempo blade actions were taught as compound attacks. Masters of the day conceded that three actions were the most that could be practically done in the bout, but that teaching four actions was useful from the standpoint of skill development. By the 1960s the compound attack had shrunk to a feint and a final and that I largely where it remains today.
The combination of feint and final is achieved by combining two simple attacks, giving us 16 possible combinations. All of these are theoretically possible in foil and epee, and can be executed as final cuts or point thrusts in sabre:
- Feint of straight thrust, disengage
- Feint of straight thrust, counterdisengage
- Feint of straight thrust, coupe
- Feint of straight thrust, straight thrust*
- Feint of disengage, disengage (the one-two)
- Feint of disengage, counterdisengage (the double)
- Feint of disengage, coupe
- Feint of disengage, straight thrust*
- Feint of counterdisengage, disengage
- Feint of counterdisenagge, counterdisengage
- Feint of counterdisengage, coupe
- Feint of counterdisengage, straight thrust*
- Feint of coupe, disengage
- Feint of coupe, counterdisengage
- Feint of coupe, coupe
- Feint of coupe, straight thrust*
All of these should be executed seamlessly with no hesitation between feint and attack (unless you are deliberately doing broken tempo to exploit a characteristic of the opponent’s reaction). All should be done progressively, with continuous forward movement in the feint and the final action.
And all should be coordinated with the footwork tempo. An advance-lunge has four points at which a feint can be executed:
… before the start of the advance, if you are not really attacking and want the opponent to attack into your preparation.
… on the front foot movement, if you want to draw a counterattack for a countertime action.
… on the rear foot to be complete as it land and the lunge starts, if you are inside the opponent’s movement time and OODA loop.
… in the lunge itself, if you want to compress the opponent’s time for reaction and can maintain good blade control.
The actions marked with an asterisk (*) might seem to be nothing more than finishing the simple attack when the opponent does not react to the feint. That is incorrect. They result when the fencer fences eyes open:
(1) first tempo – the feint,
(2) the attacker looks for the very start of the expected reaction,
(3a) second tempo – if the reaction is an expected parry, the attacker executes disengage, counterdisengage, or coupe to hit,
(3b) alternate second tempo – if the reaction does not happen, the attacker executes the straight thrust into the open line.
The key item in all of this is that the opponent has to react to the feint for most compound actions to work (those starting with a disengage, a straight thrust, or a coupe – actions starting with a counterdisengage require an attempt by the opponent to circularly take your blade or change engagement). If there is no parry reaction to the feint, you are facing three possibilities:
(1) the opportunity to do a second tempo straight attack. Taking this opportunity must be tempered by your assessment of whether or not the opponent is stable and simply waiting for a deeper commitment to execute the parry of the final action.
(2) a counterattack into your attack – a dangerous situation because winning by executing the second tempo depends on the referee not interpreting your feint as a failed attempt to search for the blade or as some form of hesitation in the attack or as delaying the attack so that the counterattacker lands before the start of your final.
(3) an attack launched simultaneously with your feint – now there is a very real possibility that the referee will award the hit against you because of everything we said in (2).
Situation (2) has always existed, but situation (3) has become much more frequent.
What all this means is that we have a type of technique that can be employed in many ways, but that we have to create the conditions in which it has a chance of success. The first and most important step in this is to know how the opponent reacts to being hit by a simple attack and having a touch awarded to the attacker.
If the opponent responds by trying to counterattack or simultaneously attack by just going faster with more power, there is no future in executing compound attacks. You have to use other approaches, for example, distance control with a parry and riposte or countertime action.
If, however, there is a reasonable expectation that the opponent may attempt to parry, you have a chance to build a story line. This is not a technique selection issue; it is a basic question of how you manage your tactics in your bout plan. Your first simple attack that scores or that frightens the opponent badly enough to induce an attempt to parry becomes the baseline. Effectively it is the feint that lets the next attack be a compound attack. Now your the feint of your second action must look like the start of the previous action that hit and be close enough to be indistinguishable by the opponent under the stress of the bout. If that compound attack succeeds, you have a reasonable probability of being able to score with another compound attack, perhaps different type into a different line, for a third touch. At this point, if the opponent is a competent fencer, you should seriously consider changing your technique to use another class of preparation, as well as considering how to vary the other elements of tactics (including speed, distance, footwork technique, timing, acceleration, exploitation of the strip, and choice of the psychological moment).
But I also mentioned that compound actions can be part of strategy. If you have perfected a technique and its tactical employment, someone will have noticed. If you fence in a pool, someone will comment on that to one of the other fencers, but the time to solve the problem you present will be limited. Not so between tournaments. Now people can go home to their Fencing Masters and “say I got hit by this – what do I do about it?” If you can expect to fence the same community of fencers in the next tournament, you can expect that someone will be working to beat what you do so well. This presents you with two strategic choices:
(1) if you have the bouting time, group lesson time, and time on the Master’s plastron to continue to develop and refine the technique and to build basic options to defeat the attempts to defeat it, work with much greater intensity to perfect the perfection of the technique and creating the conditions under which you can employ it.
(2) employ deception. Perfect a second choice, and maybe a third. Maintain your original choice, warm-up with it with your trainer, use it in warm-up bouts – people will notice. Even use it against weaker opponents or opponents who do not know you in the pool. And then, against the people who know you, it may be time to pull out something completely different … They will be looking for the predictable second tempo and it won’t be there.