Counterattacks pose a difficult problem. You are in the midst of an attack, which means that you are committed to going forward, and suddenly the opponent attacks into your attack. Your focus is on the successful completion of the attack, not on dealing with an attempt to hit you. You have overcome the inertia of not moving to replace it with the equal inertia of your body in motion forward (remember the basic physics of a body at rest tends to stay at rest and a body in motion tends to stay in motion). Even if you are fencing eyes open, your mental plan is probably focused on how to react if the opponent attempts to parry.
Into that comes a counterattack. Unless you expect it because of what you know of your opponent’s tactics, he or she has suddenly executed surprise, especially if you were mentally prepared for a parry instead. You are forced into running your OODA loop to generate and initiate a new course of action. In the process you may have to stop or change what you were doing. At the same time you have to try to salvage your attack, if possible. And you have to do all of this while committed to your body moving forward to help the opponent score on it.
So how do you survive un-hit and salvage your attempt to hit?
First, understand that the rules are deliberately slanted to give the attacker the advantage in Foil and Sabre. There are two families of rules that address the rights of the attacker. The first is the statement that the correctly executed attack must be either parried or avoided (rule t.83 in foil and rule t.101 in sabre). Although the two weapons have minor differences in the rules descriptions of the timing of the execution of the parts of a correctly executed attack, the intent is clear. You as the attacker, if you make a correctly executed attack are very difficult to stop.
Rule t.88 (foil) gives a glimmer of hope to the counterattack, but only a glimmer. It allows a stop hit against the compound attack, but the stop must arrive before the start of the final tempo of the attack. Realistically this requires that your feint must be slower than molasses running uphill on Mount Washington in the middle of the winter. For reference, Mount Washington in New Hampshire is widely regarded as the location having the most severe winter weather in the continental United States. If you have not figured it out, I am saying that a stop hit against your two tempo compound attack by an equal opponent is very difficult to execute successfully, all other things being equal.
In epee there no such regulations, giving the counterattack a level ground and a reasonable probability of success.
Thus the first rule of surviving a counterattack in foil and sabre is to execute your attack correctly by the rules as the referee on your strip is interpreting them. No hesitations, no slow as molasses – just a fast, smooth simple or compound attack from the lunge or advance lunge. If the opponent executes a stop, finish your attack. Depending on speed and accuracy, this may make sense in epee, especially if you are fencing in the direct elimination and are in a position where double are to your advantage.
Of course it is not quite that simple. You have three things to manage in doing this. First, you have to be in distance the whole time. It is not enough to be in distance at the start, you have to be in distance where the opponent will end up at the end of the attack. The opponent who executes the stop is not going to stand still to get hit by your finish of the attack. Retreats, backwards lunges, and jumps back, combined with a close out or parry-riposte, give the stop hitter the ability to control the distance (and the line) so that you do not land. Be prepared for the stop hitter to move backward with a parry by distance to make you fall short.
Second, beware of the time hit or intercepting stop hit. There is a difference between these two: a time hit is executed to close the line and counterattack on the final movement of the attack, the intercepting stop hit intercepts and closes the line to hit on movement from the feint to the final line. The good thing is that these are effectively attempts to parry and can be deceived if you have planned for them.
Third, evasions are now all the rage, and are often practiced to the point of achieving automaticity. This makes them a predictable response. Just as you attack to the distance where the opponent will be, be prepared to attack to land where the evasion will be. This suggests that a slightly slower attack to draw the automatic evasion and allow you to eyes open direct your blade or point to finish with the hit may be of some value.
Understanding what the opponent is trying to do with the counterattack is also important. Counterattacks serve two purposes. First, the traditional purpose – the counterattacker time hits or stop hits or disengages in tempo to hit you in the first intention. Finishing the attack or countertime (see below) offer satisfactory answers.
However, that is not the only reason people counterattack. One of the problems the opponent you are attacking as you march down the strip faces is to get you to attack so that he or she can parry and riposte. In this case your drive to finish the attack is a trap of your own making. The opponent offers a false counterattack or even a feint of counterattack, and what do you do … of course, you finish your attack. And what does the opponent do … of course he or she parries your attack and ripostes (or stop hits in epee) to score. You have given your opponent your blade as a gift.
This means that you have to study your opponent. The opponent who habitually offers multiple feints of stop hits at the fencers facing them are pretty obvious. I have seen a well known fencer in international competition offer 6 successive feint stop hits in a single retreat – it did not take a genius to figure what he was trying to do. The dangerous opponent will only do this occasionally for a single touch at the psychologically most valuable moment. Be prepared to either close to a distance where the opponent cannot parry in time and finish with an indirect attack, or to deceive the attempted parry.
The other player in this game is countertime. Countertime is a second intention action against an opponent’s attempt to steal your time. Commonly it is defined as your parry and riposte against a stop hit that you have provoked. Some will argue forcefully that this is the only way you can execute countertime – there is no other. They are incorrect in this argument.
To understand countertime you must understand the purpose of countertime. Simply put, it is to do something to draw an opponent’s stop hit so that you will have their blade to play with. The conditions of the bout mean that the most common way to do draw the stop is to start a slow or apparently faulty attack. Against some opponents you may be able to achieve this with footwork (although this risks a referee interpretation that the opponent is attacking on preparation, which generates a different tactical calculus).
The answer to the resulting stop hit can be one of three types of countertime:
(1) Defensive Countertime – a slower attack draws the stop hit which you parry and riposte. Termed “defensive” because you use a parry to defeat the stop.
(2) Counteroffensive Countertime – a slower attack draws the stop hit which you then stop hit. In the right of way weapons, the referee will assume that you are simply finishing the attack. This is not the case – it is a planned provocation to draw the stop so that you can stop hit it. Termed “counteroffensive” because you use a stop hit.
(3) Offensive Countertime – a slower attack draws the stop hit which you defeat by an attack on the blade or taking of the blade. Called “offensive” because you use an offensive preparation (a beat, for example).
Although countertime actions sound complicated, they are no more complicated than any other second intention action. You first action does not intend to score but to set-up the conditions for your second action to be successful.
The larger purpose in countertime, and in fact in all answers to an opponent’s counterattack, is take away a tool from their tool kit. By decisively defeating one counterattack, you force the smart opponent to change his or her game. Of course, by decisively defeating the counterattack of the not-so-smart opponent, you may encourage him or her to try harder, faster so that they can continue to give you hits.
Copyright 2019 by Walter G. Green III