Compound attacks are commonly defined as multiple tempo blade actions, the last of which is the final attack and all previous of which are feints. As a practical matter a compound attack is actually a prepared attack (attacks which work by using preparatory actions to create opening lines through which the final can pass to hit). Compound attacks are traditionally composed by using simple attacks (direct thrust or cut, disengage, counter-disengage, or coupe) as building blocks to assemble the sequence of blade actions. And they are not just blade actions – footwork is essential to achieve hitting distance for the final action and to ensure that the blade and footwork are synchronized.
That all seems fairly straightforward. But the devil is, like most things in fencing, in the details. First, to footwork. The compound attack theoretically can be delivered by just a lunge if both fencers are static at lunge distance. In modern fencing that is an unlikely scenario. In reality, the attack is more likely to arrive at the end of at least an accelerating advance-lunge or the final advance-lunge preceded by footwork to get to attacking distance. In the advance-lunge sequence three specific things happen: (1) the front foot moves, (2) the back foot moves, and (3) the lunge is launched. This is true whether you are doing quick step, marching step, or a patinando. The balestra lunge is a special case with effectively only two movements.
If we use each movement to deliver some portion of the compound attack, we have the following possibilities:
(1) front foot moves with the feint, back foot moves, lunge moves with the final – the disadvantage of this sequence is that the blade is committed and potentially exposed for an extended period of time. Because the feint is complete for some period prior to the start of the lunge acceleration is lost. Equally dangerous is that it gives an opponent additional time in which to assess the attacker’s possible courses of action and prepare a defense. The advantage is that it can be used as an invitation to draw an attack into preparation or counterattack that can be countertimed.
(2) front foot moves, back foot moves with the feint, lunge moves with the final – the disadvantage of this sequence is that it is subject to referee interpretation that the step forward is preparation, not a part of the attack. The advantage is that the feint will flow seamlessly into the attack, and that it facilitates acceleration by putting the arm and feet simultaneously in motion prior to the lunge. Tactically, the attack is not committed on the front foot movement, and an attack into the preparation can be dealt with somewhat more easily.
(3) front foot moves, back foot moves, lunge moves with the feint and the final – this risks the referee correctly interpreting the step forward as preparation subject to the opponent’s attack. In addition, it compresses all the blade movement into the lunge requiring the opponent to react early in the lunge to create the opening – if he does not, the risk of the attack parrying itself is increased. The advantages are that the attack can be held through a series of advances until conditions are most favorable, the fencer retains the ability to deal with counteractions until in the lunge, and the opponent is faced with significant time compression in the lunge.
Although 3 part attacks are not as common as they were, and 4 part actions rare, using each foot movement allows multiple feints to be packed into the attack:
… Three part actions – (1) back foot with feint, front foot, lunge with feint and final, or (2) back foot, front foot with feint, lunge with feint and final, or (3) back foot with feint, front foot with feint, lunge with final.
… Four part actions – back foot with feint, front foot with feint, lunge with feint and final.
In all of these combinations the feints are critical to success of the final action. Compound attacks work when they achieve two facilitating goals. First, the opponent puts his or her blade in motion to attempt to parry a feint, thereby creating an opening line. Second, the opponent is forced into multiple OODA loops during the action with response falling further behind with each time she is forced back into a decision cycle.
That suggests that the quality of the feint is important. The simplest, and in many ways best, feint is a successful (or even unsuccessful but clearly fully committed) action in the line opposite to the line you wish to attack now. An opponent may expect you to (1) attempt to repeat the success or (2) to try faster and harder on the next action. They are now predisposed to believe an action in that line will be a real attack. Building on the previous action makes your previous action part of the narrative of your feint, increasing its realism.
The feint itself must appear to be real. Waving the blade carelessly about well outside the line of attack is not real. Executing the feint with a jerk is not real (unless your attack is normally a cacophony of jerks and starts and hesitations). Halting the feint a foot short of the opponent’s guard and waiting with an expectant look on your face is not a feint. Posing with arm gestures and body movements is not a feint. A feint is something that looks as close to real as possible, is in the line to hit if it continues, communicates deadly purpose, and penetrates deep enough into the opponent’s space to force a response if the opponent does not want to be hit.
Let’s think about that for an additional moment. We are conditioned to think that a compound attack has to go somewhere else after the feint is made. This is where the idea that this a two (or more) tempo action becomes very important. At the end of the feint you make a conscious and milliseconds-quick decision (if you are fencing eyes open) to make the final attack. What is the criteria for that decision? Yes, normally it is that the opponent has put their blade in motion to deal with the feint. You then attack into the desired opening line.
But what if you make your feint and the line of the feint remains open? The opponent may have lost focus or have diagnosed that your intent is that he will open the line you want … and thus has every intention of keeping that line closed. You have achieved significant penetration into the opponent’s space, you have the advantage of movement in progress while the opponent has to overcome inertia … what are you to do? That is correct, you initiate the final action of the compound attack – the straight thrust to hit.
Some people express this as finishing the simple attack. That interpretation of this action is incorrect. There are two clear blade movements. A feint of straight thrust-straight thrust is just as much two blade movements as a feint of straight thrust-disengage is. The fact that the action appears to be one continuous straight thrust to the referee, the spectators, and the opponent you hit is interesting, and gratifying, but not determinative. You executed the feint, made a decision, and executed the final attack, even if the action flowed with no outwardly perceptible change in purpose.