If you ask the average beginner or intermediate fencer what the purpose of a parry is, the standard reply is “to prevent the opponent’s attack landing as a hit.” From time to time you will hear “so I will get the right of way.” At various times in my life, I have said the same thing. I am even sure that I have said the same thing in one of these blog posts, maybe as recently as last year. But the nice thing about writing a weekly fencing blog is that each week you have to review your understanding of fencing, incorporate what you have learned during the week, question the materiality and validity of your current knowledge, and perhaps come to a new conclusion.
A parry does a number of things. Possibly the least consequential is that it prevents the opponent’s blade from triggering the opponent’s light on the scoring machine for long enough for other things to happen. Notice that I did not say “keeps you from being hit.” An opponent’s simple continuation, remise or redouble, leaving the point in line in the recovery, or just plain luck may result in a hit being registered on you immediately after a parry. The critical issue in foil and sabre is that the parry allows you a chance to gain right of way; with a competent referee, this negates the validity of the opponent’s action after the parry.
The second thing to notice is that the parry allows you a chance to gain the right of way. By common agreement, we live with the fiction that an immediate riposte instantly following the parry is faster than the remise or the forward inertia of the attacker’s blade that remains after the parry. Make an immediate fast riposte with no hesitation or kinks in the movement and hit and the touch should be yours in the right of way weapons. In epee the situation is different – the parry offers a way to hamper the opponent’s attack and renewal for long enough for you to score or gives you the opportunity to control the opponent’s blade with opposition or prise de fer so that he or she cannot hit.
Third is that the parry sets up the riposte. Most attacks offer multiple ways to parry, each of which sets up a different geometry for the riposte. Take for example, the disengage attack from sixth to fourth; the opportunities include (1) lateral parry in fourth with a direct, disengage, or coupe riposte, (2) circular parry in sixth returning the blade to original line with a direct, disengage, coupe, or counterdisengage (against an opponent wo habitually uses a circle six parry on recovery to clear the line) riposte, or (3) an intercepting semi-circular parry in second or eighth with a direct low line riposte or a disengage high line riposte. If the opponent has reason to expect and is prepared for a lateral four parry and direct riposte, each of the other choices of, first, parry and second, the riposte forces him back into the OODA decision loop, increasing your chance of scoring.
And this leads us to an understanding of the purpose of the parry. Parries are not defense, even though generations of Fencing Masters have categorized them as such. Their purpose is to hit the opponent. The way we win fencing bouts is by scoring touches – if all you do is parry, your score at the end of time is 0. That means that everything we do should be focused on scoring touches. But, you might argue, we don’t score touches with beats or invitations or false attacks or footwork traps or …. That is true, but what are those? That is right, they are preparations of the attack, actions taken to create the conditions that allow the attack or counterattack to hit.
So, if we think about what is happening when an opponent attacks, she is actually offering her blade for you to use in preparation of your attack. The opponent has positioned that attack in a specific line. By selection of the parry you can prepare you riposte to take advantage of the opponent’s blade to change the geometry once (with the parry) or twice (with a riposte that is not direct) and to further complicate the opponent’s decision making by adding control of the blade through taking the blade of the original attack. Just like a feint, or attack on the blade, or a taking of the blade prepares the final action of the attack, the parry prepares the riposte.
Does this mean that you parry doesn’t have to deflect the opponent’s blade with contact by the proper part of your blade? Of course not. The parry is successful because it controls the opponent’s blade for a moment as part of the preparation. But it is most successful when it uses the effort to control the blade to change the geometry, along with an indirect or prise de fer riposte to move beyond the habitual response of parry-in-the-same-line-as-the-attack-riposte-in-the-same-line-as-the-parry … in other words to prepare your attack in answer.