As part of our series on fundamentals, this week we will look at the parry. In previous blog posts I have emphasized certain truths about the parry. These are worth restating to establish the context of this technique:
- Parries are defensive actions. They do not result in a touch being scored by themselves. If all you do is parry, you can neither score nor win (unless perhaps you have benefited from a red card for your opponent and successfully run out the clock against an opponent who simply cannot hit).
- The parry is the initial preparation for the riposte. Hence it is an essentially offensive action. The selection of the parry determines the geometry of the riposte and sets the tactical conditions under which it is executed.
- The parry does not give you the right of way automatically for the riposte. It creates a neutral condition with the first fencer off the blade moving forward earning the right of way. By convention, this is always the riposte if the riposte is immediate. Hold the parry, and now your opponent’s action can seize the right of way from you.
- Parries, to be judged a parry by the referee, must, in foil and sabre, be executed with the lower one third of the blade or the guard. Your probability of having your parry recognized as such by the referee increases significantly when it is executed in form that looks like a parry as taught in each of the weapons. The closer the blade is to parallel to the opponent’s blade the lower the probability of it being recognized in the right of way weapons.
- Parries are not prolonged acts. The requirement is that the parry remove the opponent’s blade from the line, EVEN IF ONLY FOR AN INSTANT. You do not have to hold the parry until the blade is pushed so far away as to be unable to hit or held for so long that the opponent gives up in boredom. a click of the blade and be on your way to hit.
So what is so fundamental that it is important enough to devote time to as critical to parries? Actually, quite a lot …
First, parries do not keep you from being hit. An opponent has three options when he or she feels the blade contact of your parry: (1) recover to guard, parry, and counterriposte against your riposte, (2) push straight on through with a continuation of the thrust or cut in the hopes that the referee will believe that the parry was unsuccessful, (3) execute a remise or redouble to hit if there is an error in your parry-riposte offensive action. In cases (2) and (3) in foil and sabre there may well be two lights, and you are now subject to how the referee sees the action. In epee, if the opponent is fast enough, there are now two lights and a double hit.
Second, a parry does not have to keep you from getting hit. It only has to keep you from being hit before you can gain the right of way (foil and sabre) or for long enough for you to get a 40 + 1 millisecond advantage in the timing of the arrival of your point. Thus the parry either prevents the opponent’s hit or hinders it for long enough for you to score.
Third, banish from your mind the idea that the goal is to hit without being hit. Centuries of dueling practice showed that this was not the case in a huge number of duels. Your goal is to not be hit when the rules say that the opponent has the right to hit. You may well want to be hit. In foil or sabre, with a competent referee, and my good parry and immediate riposte, I would much rather that the opponent attempted to remise. I know where the opponent’s blade is, I know what their course of action is, and I know that I will get the touch. In epee, if I am ahead in a direct elimination bout, an opponent hitting at the same time as I do means that they are buying into my staying ahead.
Fourth, there are three ways to parry and riposte. Each has a slightly different tactical logic. The beat or tac-au-tac parry (now simply in the referee’s eyes a beat), clears the line momentarily for your fast riposte or sets up the indirect riposte as the opponent reacts to return with a beat. The opposition parry with detached riposte allows both direct and indirect ripostes, as well as greater flexibility in target selection (in epee this option is dangerous because of the value of the remise as a stop hit against the riposte). The opposition parry and riposte with opposition allows continued control of the opponent’s blade during the riposte.
Fifth, parries exist in an envelope. They are not fixed positions. There are two parts to the envelope. First the blade – a parry may be executed far out with a largely extended arm as an advanced or forward parry. This intercepts the attack before it can fully develop, interferes with preparation, and allows the riposte to be very quick. Or the parry may be executed close in to the target area to ensure that what is being parried is the final action of the attack, and to draw the opponent fully out, forcing defense against the riposte in the recovery. The parry may be taken higher than the normal hand placement to increase the strength of the parry against a higher than normal attack, or taken lower than normal to defend the underside of the arm or upper low line of the target. Thus the parry operates in a large expanse of spec in front of you, not just in the narrow area defined by the pictures in a fencing textbook.
The second part of the envelope is supplied by the feet. At its most expansive the parry by distance removes the need to use the blade to parry as the opponent falls short (although there is a case for a parry well out on the opponent’s blade for the referee who has difficulty determining when the attack ends). Closer in we can make the parry with a short step back to give more time to form the parry and to ensure you are dealing with the final tempo of the attack. If you are confident of the opponent’s action and your ability to meet it, the parry can be done from a static position relative to the attack – now the extension of the riposte or a short forward movement gets the riposte to the target. Or you can step forward to collapse the distance and the time.
So how do we parry? The first step is to determine what the opponent’s action is. If you can anticipate the character of the attack, or if you can recognize what the action is very early in its development, your chances of making a successful parry are greatly increased. This requires good reconnaissance to identify the opponent’s skill set and identify the tells that inform you of what action is in progress. It requires understanding the opponent’s tactical progression during the bout. It means that you must be alert to an attack any time you step forward. And it requires that you have seen and are able to recognize a large number of attacks as the movement unfolds. It is very important that you use drills to train yourself to identify all of the attacks that you can expect at your level of fencing.
At the same time, and even before, you must have a clear view of your parrying choices, what you want to do with a riposte, and a plan for execution. Having a well practiced, automated system of parries is the foundation for this. If every attack is a surprise, and you have to invent a new response for each one, you are in trouble.
Second, you must correctly apply the correct parry to the situation. This means you must use footwork to achieve the correct distance for your planned action. The blade must be in the correct parrying position in the envelope that encompasses the opponent’s attack, with the arm, wrist, and hand correctly aligned to provide maximum strength. The angle between your blade and the opponents must clearly show that you have blocked the attack. The opponent’s blade must be caught on your guard or the closest one third of your blade (the greatest thickness of the forte).
Third, your blade placement must facilitate the riposte. Although there are parries and complete parrying systems in which the blade is displaced from the line to one side or the other, in foil and epee maintaining a threat when you parry means that the blade has the shortest distance to the target and a reduced chance of sliding flat along the inclined target of the torso.
Fourth, on contact immediately start the riposte, with opposition or detached, direct or indirect, simple, compound or with taking of the blade, and with the footwork needed to deliver your blade to the target.
The parry is an important defense and an even more important preparation of the riposte, and is a core element of many second intention actions. If your parry is not working, start working now to make it better. If your parry is working work to increase the options it gives you and to polish your technique. If it is truly superb, practice to maintain it.