When we start to move beyond the very most basic actions to develop the ability to prepare our attacks, the beat becomes an important tool. To understand the beat, we must understand the whole idea of preparation. Unfortunately, preparation as a technique, has become muddled by the rules of the Federation Internationale d’Escrime. Today, referees effectively consider preparation anything that happens outside the final advance lunge, a view resulting from the definition of the advance as part of the attack proper when the attack is correctly executed (see rule t.83 for foil as an example). From the standpoint of refereeing this is correct. However, from the standpoint of the construction of technique and tactics it is seriously misleading.
Preparation is traditionally defined any blade or footwork action that creates the condition for the success of the final attack. In my opinion this may be too narrow a definition – actions are taken to ensure the success of a parry, such as feint parries, and distance management, there certainly is psychological preparation of the attack, and a careful application of tactics results in continuous preparation throughout the bout. But for this discussion, we will use the traditional concept.
The beat potentially can be delivered for three purposes:
(1) to annoy or distract an opponent, traditionally with light beats, but also including physically tiring the opponent by hitting the weapon as hard as possible. The recent case of a fencer literally knocking the point off an opponent’s weapon in an international competition is an illustration of the level of force sometimes employed.
(2) to perform reconnaissance to determine the opponent’s reactions, and
(3) for prepararion of the attack.
As preparation of the attack the beat serves in three roles:
(1) clearing the opponent’s blade from the line of the final attack. For example, from a position of sixth (3rd in sabre), a change beat deflects an opponent’s blade in the guard position of sixth (3rd in sabre) further to the outside, clearing the line for the final attack in fourth.
(2) provoking a reaction that can be deceived. For example, a beat against the opponent’s blade in fourth might trigger an attempt to beat back or to parry in fourth, opening the line for disengage into sixth or eighth (3rd or 2nd in sabre).
(3) defeating the parry by removing the ability to perform it in time. There is a subtle difference between clearing the line and defeating the parry – in the first case we expect some element of surprise enough that the opponent’s blade is an object in the way that has to be moved, but the opponent has not conceived of the parry yet. In this case we know, or reasonably expect, that the opponent expects our attack and is preparing to close the line with a parry.
So what makes a good beat? The first prerequisite is no warning. You can still find textbooks that talk about detaching the blade from the opponent’s blade and then coming back to hit with a sharp beat. If we fenced from engagement that would make sense, but we do not do so today. The beat is executed from some separation between the blades. The less movement needed to connect with the opponent’s blade, the smaller the chances that he or she can react in time to deceive the action.
Second, the beat is progressive. You don’t hit the opponent’s blade from a traditional guard position, follow it for a short distance, then come back to the center, and then lunge. Make the beat with some degree of forward arm movement and then, on contact, translate that into the final action so that the blade continues to move toward the target throughout the beat and transition to the final attack. Wandering about the countryside with your blade gives the opponent time to react.
Third, the beat is an energy transfer. The energy in your blade transfers to the opponent’s blade so that it moves – at the same time the bleeding off of that energy from your blade should stop the sideways movement so that your forward arm movement flows toward the target. Obviously, if you have delivered the beat with a mighty swing you won’t be able to stop your blade or your arm. But that is not really necessary. The beat, like the parry, is symbolic – you just need to deflect the opponent’s blade long enough and far enough that your blade gets well inside his or her blade.
Fourth, think about the footwork. In an advance lunge there are possibly three points at which the beat can be executed:
On the front foot movement of the advance – with a quick opponent who expects your action this allows time for a counteraction (recovery to parry, counterattack, etc.). If you wish to provoke a counterattack, this may be a good choice.
On the back foot movement of the advance – now the beat can flow directly into the lunge or into a feint in the first part of the lunge. The opponent still has time to react if they are fast and expect your beat, and that reaction may clear the way for your final attack after the feint.
In the early stage of the lunge – now you have significantly compressed the opponent’s reaction time, but the beat must be tightly controlled leading instantly into the attack with a simple action.
What this all adds up to is that the beat requires (1) good technique, (2) a clear understanding of how it fits into the preparation of your attack, and (3) skilled execution. So go practice your beats …