If you buy a textbook on fencing, virtually any text, you will find either drawings or pictures of fencers perform the standard sets of parries for the various weapons. There they are, in a good guard position, with their arms and weapons properly positioned at just the right angle at just the right distance from the torso. The problem is that the pictures do not reflect reality. So let’s think about the parry. This blog has made many of these points before, but today we are going to wrap them all up in one bundle.
First, the purpose of a parry is … to hit the opponent. Parries are typically classified as defense in the actions not intended to hit, offense, defense, and counteroffense scale. You do not score touches with parries. You score touches with offense and counteroffense. If you fence an entire bout using nothing but defense you will score 0 touches (remember that the riposte is offense). You might win on a coin toss for priority, but you still will not have actually put a point or an edge on the target.
What this means is that the parry is preparation for the attack (the riposte) and should be regarded as such. The parry allows you to gain right of way in sabre and foil and diverts the opponent’s attack in epee, in each case giving you the fencing time (foil and sabre) or real time (epee) to score. A preparation establishes the conditions for a successful attack and that is what the parry has done.
But that is the simple view. The parry also does two other things in preparation. First, it gives you control of the geometry and timing of the riposte. From the standpoint of geometry, the entering assumption in an attack is that any riposte is most likely to come in the same line as the opponent’s successful parry and thus as the attack. The attacker can predict the geometric solution that he will face if the attack fails.
However, any attack can be met by at least two and probably more parries. A disengage attack into fourth can be parried by the standard fourth parry. True enough – that is what we teach beginners, and it is probably what happens in the majority of cases. But that is not all there is – a circular six forces the attacker to rethink the problem as you transfer the attack out of the expected line and back into where it started. And a second parry that intercepts the disengage now transfers the action into the low line.
Now time become a factor. If you then do an indirect riposte by disengage to deceive the attacker’s parry against your new expected riposte, you have forced the opponent to consider at multiple options in the parry OODA loop and at least two options in the riposte OODA loop. The more options you give the opponent, the slower the choice is operationally, and the more times you force the opponent back into a decision loop, the slower the response is. It may be milliseconds, but enough milliseconds add up to useful time.
Controlling the geometry and controlling time are clearly elements of preparation. But is that all. Not really. The parry increases the variety of attacks that you can use as a riposte. If you detach from the blade after the parry, you have three options, direct riposte, indirect riposte, and compound riposte. But the opponent has given you his or her blade, and if you maintain contact with that blade as your riposte you also open up the entire range of takings of the blade with leverage. Simple opposition, keeping the line closed, hinders any attempt to remise or parry. The larger transports, bind, croise, flanconade, allow you to change the geometry yet again, while greatly increasing the difficulty of a parry. And even the riposte as cedute, using the opponent’s blade as the pivot point for your angulation, is possible.
But what about your feet. Footwork is part of preparation normally, and it is in the parry as well. The images in a book are static. In real life you have three basic options, close with the attack, stay in place, or open the distance of the attack. Manipulating the distance between the attack, parry, and riposte is a key part of the preparation.
(1) Closing with a step in to collapse the distance is gutsy and requires a stronger than normal parry, but at the same time it greatly increases the tactical speed of the riposte (because the distance is shorter) and may well get you inside the point at foil and epee. In most cases you will end up at short distance with only an extension, and maybe not even that being necessary.
(2) Remaining in place means that the riposte may be delivered with an extension (if it is immediate and the opponent is slow in initiating recovery), with a lunge against a fast recovery or aborted attack, or an advance-lunge against a jump back.
(3) Stepping back allows you to have the added time needed against an attack launched inside the maximum lunge distance or to execute a circular or compound parry. It also increases the distance so that to some degree the parry also becomes a parry by distance. Now you will need a lunge or advance-lunge or possibly a pursuit.
But all this time we have been assuming that the arm and blade of the parry looks like the picture. Not necessarily so. The functionality of a parry comes from using the strength of the forte to deflect the business end of the opponent’s weapon from your target. That means that you can establish that deflection in a wide variety places. In the classical period, for example, Breck listed 9 sabre parries and Hutton 17. Similar proliferation was to be found in foil. The problem in the right of way weapons is that you are dealing with the interpretation of what is a parry by a referee who (1) in the vast majority of cases does not know the history of fencing technique, (2) is looking for a parry he or she recognizes with an angle between the two blades that makes the defensive intent obvious, (3) the sound of metal on metal, and (4) no immediate light on the attacker’s side of the box.
However, if we regard the accepted parries as baselines, we should also accept that they are envelopes of three dimensional space. A parry can be taken at the textbook position. However, the hand can be raised or lowered to expand the vertical volume of the parry, second and high second in epee are an example of this, as is seventh and high seventh. The blade orientation can be changed, more sharply up, to the side in preparation for a coupe from high to low (the fourth to fifth conversion in foil), etc. The parry can be made extending into an attack as an opposition parry, beating the attack as the beat parry, or pulling back along the blade in the flying parry. The parry can keep the opponent out of the central core (the standard opposition parries) or move through the central core to reposition the opponent’s blade (semi-circular, diagonal, circular, change, and transport parries). All of these options have the potential to increase the value of the parry as preparation by altering the timing and the geometry of the action.
There is one last part to this – speed. Some parries are taken at the very last moment to ensure that the attack is too far committed to be changed eyes open. These result in a tactically slow riposte because the point has to travel farther to hit. Similarly, parries which pull the point away from the target add time to the travel of the riposte and make the opponent effectively farther away that the distance between targets would suggest. Alternatively, to prepare the fastest possible riposte, the parry should start moving to intercept the attack as the opponent’s attack starts. This becomes an action similar to a time hit, with the parry executed advanced well forward, arm largely extended, the opponent still in the lunge. The parry itself has a good chance to break up the attack before the start of any second tempo, the arm in motion overcomes inertia to increase acceleration, and the parry occurs with the tip of the blade very close to the opponent. Done with elan it can be quite useful.
If you want to score when an opponent attacks, you must use the full and very complex character of the parry as preparation to your advantage. So go practice these ideas when you bout, find the ones that work best for you, and never again think that the reason to parry is to do anything other than to hit our opponent.