180930 A Primer on Parries

Everyone who fences learns parries.  It is an article of faith in fencing that one must be able to parry to defend oneself.  And yet many of us do not take them seriously enough to critically examine their characteristics and employment.  So, we are going to do that in this post.

First, it is important to define a parry.  We know that parries are one of two types of defense, the other being avoidances.  We know that parries do not score touches.  We are sure that they have to be blade actions, and that now under the rules of fencing they only occur with the bottom one third of the blade.  We know that when we parry we automatically earn the right of way in foil and sabre.  And we use the term parry-riposte somewhat glibly to describe what happens after a parry.

Barbasetti stated that any action that renders an opponent’s attack harmless is a parry.  This is overly broad, and Barbasetti restricted himself almost immediately to discussing the parry proper, the one executed with the blade.  However, his words actually fit well with the modern reality of the defense.  Although the rules of fencing (USA Fencing 2018-2019 rules) establish that the parry is made with the weapon to prevent the arrival of an offensive action (t.9.2.), this is not completely true.

First, a parry does not have to prevent the opponent’s action from arriving.  Actions are messy, flicks come around blades and continuations (not renewals of the attack made as separate actions) barge through after a fast, light, but completely correct parry.  In all three weapons a parry does not have to prevent the arrival of the opponent’s hit.  It only has to:

(1)  prevent the arrival of the opponent’s hit while that hit retains the right of way (foil and sabre), and/or

(2)  delay the hit until lockout time occurs (sabre and epee) so that there is only one light, and/or

(3)  hinder the opponent’s blade action to ensure that your hit triggers a light on the scoring machine before the attacker’s light is illuminated if the referee is relying on which light illuminates first as his or her determinant of right of way (foil and sabre).

Second, the blade only definition ignores the traditional Italian parry by distance.  Today we describe this as making the attack fall short and then taking over the attack, a 10 word mouthful for the traditional distance parry and riposte (4 words).  Structurally the taking over the attack description makes no sense, in the rules or otherwise.  The attack ends when it falls short (however the referee defines that state).  There is then your new attack.  And your attack after your parry is called a riposte.  The step back to make the attack fall short meets the requirement of preventing the arrival of the hit with the right of way and renders the attack harmless.  Conceptually, when considering the flow of action in the bout and the transfer of right of way, this makes it effectively a parry.  Regardless of what people call these actions, if you consider distance as a parrying technique, it will make your fencing more internally logical.

A quick review of some basic mechanics:

… parries can be performed with the hand in pronation (nails down, knuckles up, or in sabre with the back of the hand toward your face), supination (nails up, knuckles down), or thumb up.  In general, we advocate that most parries should be executed with the thumb vertically upward.

… the traditional universe of parries in foil and epee is:

  • First – pronated parry protecting the inside line
  • Second – pronated low line outside parry
  • Third – pronated high line outside parry
  • Fourth – supinated high line inside parry – we teach as a thumb up parry
  • Fifth – pronated inside low line parry
  • Sixth – supinated outside high line parry – we teach as a thumb up parry
  • Seventh – supinated inside low line parry – we teach as a thumb up parry
  • Eighth – supinated outside low line parry – we teach as a thumb up parry

… in sabre the regularly useful parries are:

  • Second – low line outside parry with the hand pronated
  • Third – high line outside parry
  • Fourth – high line inside parry
  • Fifth –  high line head parry

… the traditional mechanics of these parries are based on two principles of defense – deflection or removal.  The opposition parry deflects the opponent’s blade by leverage continually applied so that the blade passes harmlessly to one or the other side of the target.  The beat, or tac-au-tac, parry removes, even if only for a very short time, the opponent’s blade from the line by percussion.  The recent change in the rules essentially has reclassified the beat parry as a beat, a preparation for the attack, not a parry, based on what portion of the blade is used to deliver it..

When we look at how parries are performed, they can be divided into clear categories:

(1)  Simple parries – parries that are executed in one tempo with a continuous motion.  These can be:

(1.a.)  Lateral parries – those that move laterally to close a line or to move from one high line to the opposite high line or one low line to the opposite low line (6/3 to 4, 4 to 6/3, 7 to 8, 8 to 7).

(1.b.)  Vertical or semi-circular – those that move vertically from low to high or high to low line on the same side.  Traditionally these are done with a semi-circular movement to ensure intercepting the opponent’s blade, but can be done with a direct vertical movement (6 to 2 or 8, 3 to 2 in sabre, 4 to 7, 7 to 4, 8 to 6) (sabre 5 head parries are traditionally executed as a semi-circular vertical movement).

(1.c.)  Diagonal parries – parries which move from a high line to the low line on the opposite side or from a low line to the high line on the opposite side (6 to 7, 4 to 8, or their reverses).

(1.d.)  Circular parries – parries which pick up a lateral attack into a new line and return the opponent’s blade to its original line with a teardrop shaped motion (typically circular 4 and circular 6/3 in the high line) .

(1.d.)  Change parries – parries which pick up an attack in its original line and move it to a new line (typically change 4 and change 6/3 in the high line – the change designation indicates the line to which the opponent’s blade is moved).

(1.e.)  Lifted parries – parries which preserve the blade orientation of a low line parry while lifting it into the high line (lifted 2 and lifted 7 are typical in epee).

(2)  Ceding parries – parries which use the pressure of the attacking blade to change the geometry of the blades transitioning into a parry

(3)  Compound parries – parries which consist of one or more feint parries with a final actual parry to meet the opponent’s attack.

(4)  Parry by Distance – a parry executed using a step back to cause the opponent’s attack to fail by falling short.

(5)  Destructive parries – parries that are executed continuously and essentially randomly to deny an opponent the ability to attack in his or her preferred tactical envelope and to force the attack into your preferred defense.

(6)  Confusing parries – inappropriate parries executed against attacks that can be otherwise avoided to cause momentary doubt or hesitation on the part of the opponent.

So why do we need all of these variations of parries?  You can defeat an opponent’s attack with a very small universe of parries properly timed.  In fact, the fewer parries you know and use, basic motor performance science (Hick’s Law in this case) has validated that the faster you will be in executing them.  This is the basis for Imre Vass’s suggestion that fencers should use a system of as few as three parries that provide a coordinated and integrated defense against the vast majority of likely attacks and that fit well with the fencer’s tactical doctrine.  This makes a tremendous amount of sense.

The secret of the variations lies in the actual purpose of the parry.  Defense does not score touches.  If two fencers spend the entire bout successfully defending the score will be 0-0.  You score touches with offense and counteroffense.  Yes, the parry denies the opponent a hit, but its value lies in its role as preparation of the riposte.  The variety of parries allows the fencer to select a parry that is most valuable in preparing the best conditions for the riposte and that creates the most confusion for the opponent, and that is next week’s subject.

Copyright 2018 by Walter G. Green III

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A Primer on Parries by Walter G. Green III is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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