In previous blog posts we have discussed the concept of distance in some depth. In today’s post I am going to review those quickly, and then focus on the questions about distance you need to ask yourself when you are fencing. So, to quickly review:
(1) Traditionally there were three distances – short (you can hit with an extension), medium (you need to lunge to hit), and long (a preparatory step is needed before the lunge).
(2) In modern fencing we need to think about – infighting distance (unusual attitudes and blade movements are needed to hit at very little separation between the fencers), short (you can hit with an extension), medium (you need to lunge to hit), long (a preparatory step is needed before the lunge), and out of distance (a series of approach steps are needed).
(3) But these characterizations of distance are not really true. It is perhaps unfair to say they were never true, because at some point social conventions viewed a retreat in the face of an attack as being somewhat dishonorable. The problem is that an opponent is not welded to the floor – even with one foot off the rear end of the strip, there is the possibility for maneuver. Distance has been defined as one dimensional – my distance from a static target. In reality, it has always been two dimensional – the opponent can remain static, but he can also advance to collapse the distance (medium distance suddenly becomes short if he is the only one advancing or infighting if you are also advancing), or retreat to open the distance (medium becomes long, and your attack falls short if you don’t have a follow-up action for your lunge).
(3) Thus against a mobile opponent who can be expected to retreat, today short is actually medium distance, medium distance is actually long, and long is out of distance.
(4) And the problem is more complex because it is actually three dimensional (in the sense of having three determinants of the spatial relationship, not that fencing has suddenly become vertical chess). The fencer who approaches the strip as a field of maneuver, rather than as something you have to have to fence on, will move laterally on the strip, as well as along the strip’s long axis. This changes distance subtly, as well as opening up or closing lines, and can be used to force movement to avoid exposure.
So, what do we do with this information? The natural thing is to say “so what, I have read almost all of that in a blog post before, I thought about it for a couple of minutes, moved on with my life, and haven’t seen any need to change what I am doing on the strip. I am improving steadily – my scores have improved from 0 or 1-5 to a regular 2-5.” That would be an error. Modern fencing is not about complex blade action. It is about distance and timing. As a fellow Maitre d’Armes (and Veteran World Champion sabre fencer) said at a clinic in Oregon in 2005, “you can score with a piece of electrified spaghetti if you get to the right distance at the right time.” The spaghetti probably does need to be rather al dente, but …
So the question is “what is the right distance?” Good question. It is really a series of questions that define your tactical choices on the strip:
FIRST QUESTION: where will the opponent be when I complete my attack?
ANSWER: to answer this one you have to understand your opponents habitual responses, tactics, movement pattern, typical length of movement, and available space.
FOLLOW-UP: what do I have to do to get my blade to where the opponent will be?
SECOND QUESTION: am I in range of the opponent’s attack now?
ANSWER: if so, you are vulnerable to attack, and had best be prepared to deal with it.
FOLLOW-UP: what do I have to do to open or close the distance when that attack comes, and am I ready to do that now?
THIRD QUESTION: if I move forward to close the distance or to simply gain territory on the strip, will I be within the opponent’s attacking reach?
ANSWER: if so, expect that he or she will attack in the middle of your step forward.
FOLLOW-UP: am I vigilant and prepared to defeat that attack?
If you have positive (and realistic) answers to questions First, Second, and Third and their follow-ups, you have a good operational understanding of distance. If not, you are vulnerable to having your attacks fail and the opponent succeed in attacking you. That is not a recipe for victory – go work on fixing it … today, every day.