181111 The Guard

From time to time it is important to go back to fundamentals.  Why?  Because they are, well, fundamental.  In any sport, and in the vast majority of things in life, there are core skills upon which everything else is built.  You can’t go through the educational process and earn a Doctorate, the highest level of achievement, without being able to read (excepting accommodations for those with disabilities), a skill the basics of which are mastered in the first grade of elementary school.  You can’t be a world class race car driver without knowing how to turn on the ignition, a skill learned when you first learned how to drive a car.  And the list goes on …

Some fundamentals are easy.  Some are difficult.  Some are difficult even though we think they are easy.  And as a result we tend to take the easy ones and the perceived easy ones for granted.  So it is with today’s topic, the on guard stance.  By the end of the first lesson every beginner knows that they know how come on guard.  Certainly every fencer who fences in competition thinks that he or she knows how to come on guard.  And yet they are often wrong.

To understand the guard position you have to understand its purpose.  The guard is the basic fighting position of fencing.  All attacks are executed from the guard (the attack by extension or the riposte) or flow from the guard with additional footwork (advance, lunge, advance lunge, balestra, fleche, etc.).  The great majority of defense is conducted in the guard.  Counterattacks are executed in or flow from the guard in the same way as attacks.  The vast majority of movement, forward, sideways, or back, is executed from the guard position and maintains its basic body position.  The guard is the mobile platform from which we fight on the piste.

The guard position consists of two key components.  First is the physical stance of the fencer.  The position of legs, arms, and torso provides the basis for actions when the fencer is static or when the fencer is moving.  Second is blade position.  Blade position includes the position of the supporting hand and arm and the orientation of the blade.

Blade position is a critical tactical element in fencing.  To understand this we have to first understand the lines.  In fencing, lines define the areas of attack and defense and are commonly referred to as being high or low, inside (toward the chest and abdomen) or outside (toward the back when on guard).  Unfortunately generations of fencers have grown up on basic textbooks that display diagrams of where the lines are located that can only be described as ignorant or incompetent.  The high and low, inside and outside lines are not defined by dividing the fencer’s torso with a vertical and a horizontal line into four equal quadrants.  I am sorry, this should not be new news.  The basic theory of lines goes back into the 1400s, was well defined in essentially modern terms in the enlightenment and classical period, and nothing has changed since.

The division of the target by lines is based on the location of the bell of the fencer’s weapon.  This is critical to the guard position because as the bell moves some lines increase in the amount of exposed target area; at the same time the opposite lines decrease.  At some point the idea that the bell should be position in the center of the target took hold – now when the opponent attacked you could move to close the line with equal speed in each direction.  The problem with this is threefold.  First, some movements from the center to close the line are slower and have less strength than others.  Second, not all target area is equal.  The time to target for the attack into high outside is less than to high inside by a considerable margin – the central guard has the potential to increase the success rate of high inside attacks.  Third, with a central guard 0% of the available lines are closed to the attacker.  By positioning the blade to close one line, 25% of the lines are closed (in foil or epee, the computation is a little more complex in sabre).  That is a tactically significant difference.

Blade position fills a number of important tactical considerations.  Standard numbered blade positions are used to describe the lines of attack, the parries, and the invitations.  Thus a guard of fourth is where the blade is positioned, a parry of fourth is the operationalization of the guard to defeat the incoming attack, the attack in fourth is executed in the same line, and the invitation of fourth exaggerates the blade position to create an increased target in the opposite line (3rd in sabre, 3rd or 6th in foil and epee).

The physical stance is equally important.  Here there are four key issues: balance, alignment, minimizing target, and maximizing acceleration.  Having a balanced guard position allows rapid movement in any direction; if your weight is on one foot, to move in that direction requires a weight shift that both telegraphs and slows movement.  A balanced guard increases your stability when you have to move in combat, and reduces the possibility that you will lose your balance and face or butt plant on the strip.  In general, you want your center of gravity within the triangle formed by the sides (1) heel of the rear foot – heel of the front foot – front toe, (2) front toe – rear toe, and (3) rear toe – rear heel.

Alignment is important because it contributes to stability; when the feet are not maintaining the classical L shape, balance suffers as the front foot moves to either the inside or the outside.  But it is also important because turning the direction of the front foot off the fencing line (the line connecting you with your opponent) has two negative consequences.  The weapon arm tends to follow the front foot, creating on opening in the guard.  The attack tends to flow in the direction of the front foot, increasing the difficulty of maintaining the intended direction to target and opening target for the riposte.

And there is one more alignment issue which includes both the stance and the blade position.  In the guard and on defense, the blade should be aligned to close the line AND threaten the opponent.  If the blade and point are aligned out of line the distance the blade has to travel to land on the target increases, the possibility of a flat hit increases, and the tactical speed of the action (the apparent speed resulting from a shorter distance to target) is slower.

Minimizing target has led over time to a number of oddities in fencing position.  The oldest one is fencing with the rear shoulder of the torso forced back so that the torso is parallel to the fencing line, supposedly to reduce target.  However, this increases strain on the knee joint and on the back, may reduce speed, and, unless the opponent is anorexic, has a minimal impact on target size, often substituting one increased area for a decreased area.  However, this is not a license to fence with your chest perpendicular to the opponent’s point from shoulder to shoulder.  A reasonable angle of the torso across the hips is in the 45 degree range.  At the same time leaning forward should be avoided, as it brings the upper target closer to the opponent and helps solve his or her reach and tactical speed problems.  Fencers should not adopt the low crouching positions with the weapon arm covering target that are popular today.  Not only is balance impacted, mobility impaired, and the lunge constricted, but the back is opened up to even a modest flick, and the back of the neck and head can be dangerously exposed.

Finally, when we want to attack, or counterattack, a good guard position should facilitate maximum acceleration to the desired distance.  Although fencers who adopt a classical guard position with the rear arm up are often ridiculed for their old fashioned and un-trendy stance, the classic position is ideally suited for acceleration and increased reach.  There is a small body of research on arm position and lunge speed, but what is out there suggests that the rearward movement of the rear arm in the lunge contributes to speed.  What is undeniable is that, coordinated with torso rotation, it contributes to both the torso rotation speed component of an accelerating lunge and to reach of the attack.  Oh, and by the way, in epee and sabre a rearward position of the arm (raised in epee, hanging behind the shoulder in sabre) removes the rear arm target from easy reach, and in all three weapons eliminates the considerable pain of having you ungloved hand impaled by the opponent’s blade or having its knuckles rearranged by a hard sabre cut.

When on guard with a line closed the fencer is in a stable position, defended in one line against easy attack, balanced for movement in any direction, capable of quick reaction for attack, counterattack, or defense.  Sounds sort of like something that it might be good to work to optimize …


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