What is an attack? In simple terms it is an offensive action in which the blade is extended with the point or cutting edge threatening the opponent’s target area. When the attack starts is specified by the rules for foil and sabre. Regardless of what the rules say, the attack is defined by the referee’s interpretation of the fencer’s actions and the referee’s subjective judgment of whether sufficient intent is shown for the attack to be an attack.
But is that all there is – stick out your arm before or after you start moving your legs (depending on the referee) and act like you intend to attack, preferably followed by a loud scream and furious gesticulations immediately after the lights on the scoring machine go off to sell the intent and the correctness of the attack to the referee? Well, functionally, yes it is, except in sabre where you have to make certain that your hit lands before the front foot does in your lunge.
However, that definition is somewhat unsatisfying. You read it, and five minutes later you realize you are still hungry. As an advertisement for a fast food chain once said, “where’s the beef?” The reality is that the attack is far more complicated. Let’s spend some time looking at the actual fencing elements involved.
INITIATIVE – To attack successfully you must seize the initiative, either creating or provoking the conditions that you need to score or seizing the initiative from the opponent. In first intention actions your attack is obvious. In second intention actions, the initiative may appear to belong to your opponent, but that is a chimera. Your actions have created the conditions into which the opponent is drawn so that you can score.
DISTANCE – The separation between you and your opponent must be either steady or closing, and it must be such that you can reach the opponent. Closing effectively means that you must be (1) advancing and the opponent either static or also advancing or (2) static with the opponent advancing. Closing can occur if you are advancing faster than the opponent can retreat. Note that I said can retreat. An opponent may retreat at a rate that allows you to close, while reserving the capability to parry by distance on your attack.
In an ideal world you should be able to attack from critical distance, the distance at which an opponent cannot react quickly enough to defeat your attack. Perhaps more important is that you should attack at a distance in which you can achieve and sustain maximum acceleration and point hit speed in the critical gap for scoring.
SPEED – The attacker who is faster in all tactical relevant elements, reaction and movement time, footwork speed, blade speed, and speed of acceleration, is at a significant advantage over a slower opponent. In all combat sports, speed is a must-have.
ACCELERATION – Speed is good, but the ability to rapidly accelerate from the speed at which you are doing preparation through the attack to achieve maximum point hit speed is really good.
COURAGE and RESOLVE – Executing an attack requires personal courage, the mental resolve to win, and the willingness to go all out to get there. Hesitancy, indecisiveness, timidity, fear of failure, and second guessing yourself are completely counterproductive.
PSYCHOLOGICAL DOMINANCE – In every bout there is a dynamic at work that involves each fencer in a dance to determine who is the better fencer and who will give in and get hit. “Better fencer” does not means who has the best footwork or bladework. It means who is going to win the bout. Fencers with better technical skills lose with some frequency to fencers who simply refuse to lose, who dig in and fence with controlled fury or icy calm, and who convince their opponent that the opponent cannot win.
PREPARATION – Preparation is any action that is taken to create the conditions needed to make the attack successful. Essentially any attack that requires more than an advance-lunge to hit requires footwork preparation to get to hitting distance. Bladework that displaces the opponent’s blade from the target with a beat, press, or taking of the blade is preparation. Foot and bladework in the preparation should normally be integrated with the blade and footwork of the attack so that the preparation makes a smooth transition to the hitting action. Note that second intention actions and countertime actions are prepared actions.
FOOTWORK – It is a given that footwork carries the attack forward. Therefore, the quicker, smoother, and more distance conscious your footwork is, the more likely the attack will be successful. Hesitant or mechanical or slow footwork create opportunities for defense or counteroffense.
There is a common assumption that all footwork is essential linear down the directing or fencing line. In reality, the piste has width. That means that footwork that moves laterally as well as forwards has the potential to discomfit the opponent and to create openings and new angle of attack. Your entry fee pays for you to use the whole strip …
BLADEWORK – In the attack all bladework should be purposeful and only as wide or as out of line as is absolutely necessary. Bladework that is sloppy increases the travel of the blade, slowing the speed of the attack, while simultaneously making the direction of the action more obvious – in other words making it much easier for an opponent to run their OODA loop and come to an unfortunate conclusion for you as the attacker. Keep the point threatening the target. If all else fails the opponent may accidentally run into it.
THE NARRATIVE – Attacks should make sense to the attacker and be part of a plan to lead the opponent through a series of wrong choices. Each action, whether successful or even unsuccessful, is potentially the feint or other preparation for the next action. A successful attack is more likely if you are executing a planned action under conditions you have created.
STABILITY – Your stability is important. Unbalanced and overcommitted movement increases the probability that you will miss, that recovery will be difficult, and that the riposte will catch you. Every movement should be purposeful and should result in a position from which you can fight. As the attacker you want stability to launch the attack while the opponent is still reacting to your previous movement and is thus unstable. Note that stability does not mean static; rather it is the point at which body position is balanced relative to movement, footwork is controlled, and bladework is tight and capable of immediate movement in any desired or planned direction.
TIMING and SURPRISE – Timing of the attack is a very significant contributor to success. An attack launched when an opponent is unstable, for example on an opponent’s step forward or in their reaction to a feint, forces the opponent to simultaneously run a new OODA loop and stop what they are doing to be able to act in a new direction. If the attack achieves surprise by picking the right psychological moment, being launched when the opponent is committed to instability, applying an unexpected technique, or changing the narrative the opponent expects, the value of timing is increased.
That is a global view of timing. But timing also applies to the very specifics of actions. When to beat or press, when to feint, the moment to apply broken tempo while concealing the blade under the opponent’s arm, etc. all offer timing opportunities that when correctly executed increase the probability that the attack will succeed.
THE FLOW – The attack should flow with preparation and execution as one smooth accelerating action. The advantage is that not only do attacks that flow work well and result in hits, but the continuous movement looks intentful (our own blog-word for full of intent) to referees. There is an exception, broken tempo actions. These flow up to the point of the break, pause, and then flow again. The break allows the opponent’s movement to create the opportunity. Making a broken tempo action that lacks flow increases the potential for the opponent to recognize their peril and take action.
So, that (and probably more) is an attack. A student recently asked “isn’t that just making it too complicated, there is too much to learn?” But even the simplest of attacks is a complicated interaction with many moving parts. We learn it by working on one part, then another part, sticking those two together, adding another part, etc. until it is a well practiced and almost automated movement. Go pick a part and practice it mentally with visioning and physically in drills and on the piste.