Every fencer is at some point taught that there are three distances (we teach that there are at least 5 in foil, more in sabre, and even more in epee). When our attack falls short we know that it is because the distance was not right. If we are a sabre or epee fencer, we understand that there is an advanced target that is closer than the torso, and therefore theoretically easier to hit. We know that taller opponent can reach a lot farther than we can, and shorter opponents less far. And we have been trained to keep (or maintain) distance, and in tournaments our coaches still yell at us to keep distance. We can be confidant that we know about distance.
And yet our knowledge is incomplete, in many cases unimportant, and a lot of the time just plain wrong. Let’s start with keeping distance. If both fencers keep perfect distance (so that they cannot be surprised and hit but still attack if the opponent does not keep perfect distance) for 3 minutes, what is the score at the end of the bout? Yes, it is 0-0. If the opponent gets priority, and you keep perfect distance for the next minute of overtime, who wins? Yes, she does.
Instead of focusing on keeping distance, the requirements is to be able to do four things:
(1) close distance when you wish to prepare and attack.
(2) maintain distance when you are looking for the opponent to make an error that provides you the opportunity to close distance with an attack or when you need to plan or rest.
(3) open the distance to prevent an attack or cause an opponent’s attack to fail.
(4) collapse the distance to disrupt the opponent’s attack and counterattack or parry and riposte.
To be able to do these things it is very important that we understand distance is not about the physical distance between the two fencers. It is about time. It does not matter how close you are to the opponent – if your movement takes more time to execute that the opponent requires to frustrate that action you will not hit (assuming all other factors are equal). Try the following experiment. With a partner come on guard at maximum lunge distance for you (the greatest distance at which you normally hit with an attack with a lunge). When you lunge have your partner take a single retreat step. What happens? You fall short, don’t you? Now try with an advance and a lunge (two distinct movements) and your partner retreating twice. What happens? You fall short, don’t you?
This is not rocket science. From the guard, your blade has to move forward the distance between its starting point and the target. To do that you have to initiate movement, overcome inertia, and cross the intervening distance with your lunge. That provides sufficient time for the opponent to identify what you are doing, choose the appropriate remedy, overcome inertia, and retreat. The time of flight of your blade is longer than the time for the opponent to retreat sufficient distance to cause the attack to fall short (unless the opponent is significantly slower than you are). You can increase the probability of hitting by reducing your time in the lunge, either by closing with the opponent so that the time of flight is reduced, by accelerating your attack, by both, or by inducing the opponent to step forward into the time envelope for your attack.
The impact of time is clear when we do the same scenario of a short accelerating advance step flowing immediately into the lunge. The advance step should be a quick step, and a short quick step, because its primary purpose is fix the opponent’s attention on solving the requirement to take a retreat step and to get inside the opponent’s OODA Loop and response time, not to close the physical distance. Properly done, you will catch the opponent with your lunge just as he starts the second retreat step. The same effect can be achieved with the balestra.
The same effect can be achieved with a patinando. There are a number of different descriptions of a patinando, but for the purposes of this post it is an advance step with a gather of the rear foot forward, flowing immediately into the lunge. By increasing the distance effectively covered by the forward gather of the rear foot, it reduces the time required to reach the opponent.
There are additional parts to the problem that have to be considered. The first is the opponent’s reach. Leg length, flexibility, and (in kick lunges) leg strength certainly increase reach. If your intent is to hit the torso, arm length contribution, unless a fencer has abnormally long arms or is very short, is minimal among adult fencers. However, in looking at reach, understand that the longer the lunge is, the longer the fencer is in flight, and thus the tactically slower the lunge is by virtue of offering the opponent more time to deal with it.
With reach comes the importance of understanding the relationship of the arm and the forward target in sabre and epee. Assuming that both fencers are using the same length blade, all that is necessary to create an imminent threat to the forward target is for the attacker to get her blade past the guard. Because both blades are the same length, arm length does not become determinative of the ability to hit the target first until one fencer can reach the torso and the other cannot. Obviously, the relationship changes if the attacker is angulating, thus shortening reach, or the epee defender’s arm is a particularly difficult target due to the slickness of the glove and uniform.
The second factor is perhaps a little bit more complex. Blade time to target is a factor of blade movement. The English speaking fencing world has known since at least the publication of DiGrassi’s manual in 1591 that circular actions travel further and take more time than the equivalent thrust that follows the shortest path between two points. Because the blade has to travel a greater distance, wider actions are slower, and the difference in time between the wide and the direct actions has to be considered as an operational addition to distance.
So, work on distance. Work on using different size steps to close or open the physical distance. Work on changing tempo and acceleration to exploit time. Remember that arriving on target is a time problem, and in solving that problem learn to manage distance to open, close, or collapse distance to achieve your tactical goals.