190120 Ripostes

In last week’s blog we reviewed the framework for the parry-riposte as preparation and offense. After reading that post, one could come to the conclusion that, after doing all the work to make the preparation successful, the riposte has to be able to do its job. And one would be right. So let’s think about how to make the riposte more dangerous to our opponents and more successful for ourselves.

Although I do not have research data to accurately characterize ripostes, anecdotal reports indicate that the vast majority of ripostes are simple, direct attacks – straight thrusts or direct cuts. This would seem to make sense for a number of reasons. The first way a riposte is normally taught to beginning fencers is as a simple, direct action. The way students practice a riposte tends to be as a simple, direct action. The fastest way to execute a riposte is as a simple, direct action. And traditional fencing doctrine has been for generations that a correctly executed simple, direct riposte will hit the opponent before the opponent can escape in the recovery (although, with the speed of modern fencers, this is no longer a given).

So we should make all our ripostes direct and simple, correct? Well, not really. If you reread the paragraph above, what is the tactical implication of the simple, direct riposte? Go ahead, read it again, think about it …

If you went back and reread the paragraph, there is one obvious conclusion. The direct, simple riposte is predictable. One of the greatest advantages, if not the greatest, you can give an opponent is to be predictable. And yet, we have trained generations of fencers to be predictable.

The answer to this problem is simple … don’t be predictable. There are 5 simple attacks that can be used as ripostes, 1 direct and 4 indirect. Then there are compound attacks if the opponent is parrying your simple ripostes, ripostes taking the opponent’s blade if she is trying to escape, broken tempo actions, and even attacks on the blade. Nothing compels you to go direct other than your habitual response informed by your training.

In this post I am going to focus on indirect ripostes because of three factors. The bladework is simple (although the cadence of execution may not be). They are quite fast, almost as fast as the simple direct riposte. And they exploit the opponent’s tendency to expect your riposte in the same line as the attack. With that expectation is a pre-commitment to a parry in the same line as the attack, and in many cases a habitual automatic recovery to cover that line. At the least you can force the opponent to rerun their OODA loop; at the best the opponent will actually start movement in the pre-conceived line.

The power of this habitual response cannot be underestimated. When I went to Germany for the Academie d’Armes International Maitre d’Armes course in 2005, I had been fencing sabre for 40 years. I had been thoroughly drilled during a summer at Salle Santelli with Maestro Santelli and Neil Lazar in 1966 in cut head, recover to 3rd. I had been doing that for 39 years. The German Olympic Team trainer I was working with wanted me to cut head, look for his response, recover to close that line. I could not do it. It took the entire lesson to overcome my habitual recovery to 3rd … once. You can imagine the frustration level of both of us …

So what are the choices? The family of simple indirect attacks is: disengage, coupe, and counterdisengage. All of these can theoretically be done as either point or cut actions. I did say there are four simple indirect attacks. The last is the rare countercoupe which requires not only skill with the coupe, but also a very nice sense of timing. Work on that one only after you have the other three approaching perfection.

How do we employ these? First, the disengage. If the opponent habitually recovers to parry in a specific line the disengage allows you to target the opposite laterally or vertically:

3/6 -> 4,

4 -> 3/6,

3/6 -> 2/8,

2/8 -> 3/6,

and although the same principle applies to a 4 -> 7 or 7 -> 4 combination, the depth and relatively small size of the 7th target makes this a low payoff target.

Theoretically it is possible to disengage diagonally, and this may work in a 4 -> 2/8 combination.

The coupe provides the same lateral opportunities as the disengage, although it is more difficult to execute until the opponent starts to lift the blade in the recovery. It can be executed in the low line as a combined flying parry-coupe with a step in to get inside an opponent’s point. And it has the advantage of being able to be executed from the foil 5th parry to the low line, again with closing footwork. It is a staple of sabre fencers, is useful in foil, and has surprise value in epee (although it must be done with the fingers and careful attention to how much arm you expose).

The counterdisengage as an attack requires that the opponent attempt a circular action to change engagement or to take your blade. As a riposte it is effective against an opponent who habitually recovers with a circle 6th or 3rd parry to clear the line in front of them.

We now have four solid techniques that can be applied to the riposte. How do we employ them? If all you do is disengage ripostes, it will take an opponent a bit of time to figure out that you are predictable. But once that realization sets in, your action is not significantly more difficult to defeat than a direct riposte.

The answer is to approach this problem in a tactical manner. First, if you believe that you have equality or an advantage in speed of your riposte versus the opponent’s recovery, riposte direct. If that is successful, and the opponent did not move to parry, consider a second direct riposte. A note here – the tactical wheel is often taught “when they parry you, change to …” This is incorrect – you change when you believe the opponent has a significant chance to parry on the next one. Giving up a hit to figure out that it is time to change is giving the opponent a free touch – try it some time in a 4-4 bout and see how well it works for you.

One or two direct ripostes should be sufficient to create an expectation by the opponent that you will continue to riposte direct. If the opponent is faster that you are, even a first false riposte may suffice, but it had best look very realistic while giving you a chance to escape. Once the expectation is set, change to indirect ripostes. Vary the type of indirect riposte and consider reverting to a direct riposte once the opponent has started to react to your indirect ones.

The riposte offers a significant opportunity to score when the opponent has brought their target to you. Don’t waste that opportunity by not thinking about the situation in the context of your overall bout plan.

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