Continuing our series on fundamentals, this week we look at extensions. Extensions? What is an extension? Simply put an extension is the forward movement of the weapon arm with a trajectory such that the blade threatens the target with the point (all three weapons) or the cutting edge (sabre). In sabre it really is no longer the cutting edge because you can complete the circuit and cause the lights to blink with any part of the blade, but there is still significant merit to make cuts in a way that uses the traditional front and back cutting edges.
More than just that, the extension is, depending on the referee’s interpretation of the rules, either the start of the attack or a component of the attack (if the referee accords any forward movement the status of an attack). You can’t hit an opponent with the bits that cause the scoring machine to react if you do not shove the blade at them in some point during your attempt to attack (unless they simply run or fall onto it).
But why devote a post to extensions? After all, as noted above, you just shove the arm out until the blade makes contact, don’t you? Actually, like most simple things, the problem of extending the blade is far more complicated than that. To be successful, you need to understand both the technical and tactical components of extension. Technical first …
The technique of blade extension differs between point and cut actions. In all three weapons, the extension to hit with the point is initiated with a finger movement to lower, or in the low line raise, the blade from the guard to establish a direct line to the desired target. If the blade is in French fifth in foil or epee or sabre fifth or in a parry that has taken the point or edge well away from the fencing line, the extension has to start with a coordinated forearm, wrist, and finger movement to bring the blade back into line and the point or edge threatening the target. Although this may be marginally less important in sabre because of the electrification of the entire blade, it is vital to prevent off targets in foil and sabre or the flat hit or a point past the target in the foil and epee.
The technique of the extension also depends on flow. Because you are trying to hit a moving and uncooperative target that may be small and projected, not seen (for example, hits to the back or under the arm in the low line), you need blade extension to be smooth and with its speed coordinated with your movement and the targets movement. Sometimes this will be one smooth, fast action. Sometimes it will be slow, broken tempo, and then acceleration. Sometimes it may be fast suddenly slowing. But it should never be a jerk or a shove. Think that your blade is pulling your attack forward, not that you are shoving it out with force and awkwardness. End by placing the point on target, not by trying to ram it through the target.
The extension may be a direct action straight to the target with no contact with the opponent’s blade. But this is not all there is. Extensions may be:
(1) Direct when the line is open and the opponent is unlikely to close it in time.
(2) With angulation (vertically or horizontally) to penetrate the opponent’s defense from an unexpected angle around the blade.
(3) Ceding, pivoting immediately on contact on the opponent’s attempt to parry to land with angulation.
(4) Delivered with the flick to land with a rapidly accelerating blade and point or to access an otherwise obscured target.
(5) With opposition to either close the line against any counterattack or to capture the foible and displace the opponent’s poorly formed attempt to parry.
The direct and opposition extensions are bread butter techniques that any fencer should master. Angulation requires the ability to control the distance and elongate the lunge because it reduces your reach. Ceding is probably the most difficult because it requires exquisite timing and the creation in the opponent’s mind of doubt in the efficacy of his or her parry with the resulting need to continue to engage your blade instead of riposting. Flicks are one of the most misunderstood techniques in fencing, and to be anything other than brute force efforts to curl around a parry or a body part require constant practice.
The end of the extension is as important as the beginning. The distance must be correct – a blade bent almost double in an extension is a sign of someone who has not correctly used forward body movement to land the extension. There must be some bend to deliver enough pressure to the foil or epee target to depress the point and to get the necessary travel. However, bend significantly beyond that is a signal that you are too close – if something goes wrong you have brought your target into easy hitting range where the tactical speed of the riposte will make a successful defense against it almost impossible.
And the height of the arm should be correct. Every attack carries with it vulnerabilities. Proper technique reduces those. The bell of the attacking weapon offers a chance to close the line and control opponent’s counterattacks. And proper arm height gives you maximum reach. For epee the guard at one half to one full diameter of the bell above the shoulder and for foil at shoulder height meets those two requirements. At sabre the bell should be slightly below shoulder height to allow avoidance of attempted fifth parries, but still high enough to protect the arm against counterattacks above the bell.
A final technical consideration is the delivery of the cut in sabre. Using the arm or the wrist to cut is slow, opens the arm to counterattack. and results in heavy hits. The cut should be delivered with the fingers, much as the flick is, at the end of the extension to deliver the final acceleration for the attack.
Tactically the extension is used in five ways:
(1) the attack. Timing of the extension in the attack depends on how the referee defines the attack. If a referee expects the attack to start with the extension, then you have to show at least enough extension to catch his or her eye. However, against fast, mobile opponents, the longer and earlier the extension, the more vulnerable it is to parries or counterattacks that take or displace the blade. Timing also depends on feints and blade preparations – prepare or feint, and then flow immediately from the preparation into the attack to create one progressive movement. In any action that uses feints or preparations (and I personally believe that a feint is a preparation), the transition from the preparation to the attack must be small, controlled, and fast to deny the opponent the opportunity for a response. It is also important to remember the key technique of making sure that the blade is in a line that will result in a hit as the final extension starts.
(2) the counterattack. Actions by counterattack depend on hitting the opponent as early as possible, at a range that allows escape (with the exception of epee deliberate double hits). Extensions in these actions tend to be direct, but can be indirect. Extensions that close the line with opposition against the opponent’s attack (the time hit or time cut) are particularly useful.
(3) the riposte. It is doctrinally correct to think of the riposte as an attack. However, in terms of the extension, increased attention must be paid to making sure that the point or blade comes into line with the target as early as possible. Failing to do so increases the potential for a miss, off target, or flat hit because, at the moment of initiation of the riposte, the opponent is at or very near to short distance. Extending first and then worrying about accuracy is not a good idea in this situation. And the extension gains value with opposition to prevent a remise or simple continuation of the forward push by the opponent, an especially important consideration in epee and in foil and sabre with a referee who judges by the lights, not the flow of the action.
(4) the recovery. Many fencers in the recovery to guard, recover their arm first or simultaneously with the legs. As the blade goes back it creates a vacuum, allowing the opponent to penetrate with his or her blade deeper into the fencer’s tactical envelope. The blade can be left extended to threaten any attempted penetration and to counterattack any riposte. This should only be briefly and not done every time, as it exposes your blade to being beaten or taken, but done judiciously, it increases the difficulty of the opponent’s decision making as well as opportunistically scoring an occasional stop hit.
(5) the point in line. The point in line is an extension threatening target, established when the opponent is within threatening distance but has not initiated an attack. It is fundamentally a counter-offensive action designed to deny the opponent an opportunity to attack without assuming considerable risk. In all three weapons this requires the full extension to be at shoulder height, to not be withdrawn, and the blade to not leave the opponent’s target area, even when deceiving an attempt to beat or take it. The point in line establishes right of way in foil and sabre and is potentially mobile with advance, retreat, or lunge. The point in line requires well delivered finger play to control the blade and evade opponent’s attempts to dislodge it.
As noted above, the extension is a simple technique that, like most things that seem simple, is complex. Plan to practice your extension throughout your fencing career. It is one of those things that you absolutely must attend to if you are going to achieve significant results as a fencer.