Envelopes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and are used to convey a wide variety of things. In this post we are talking about envelopes in fencing, specifically your tactical envelope, what it is made of, and how it is used.
The concept of a tactical envelope is actually fairly simple – it is the combination of time, space, and distance in which you function most effectively for the conditions on the strip and in which you wish to fight your bout. You may already be aware of the concepts of parries as envelopes with the blade and hand positioned anywhere in the possible vertical, lateral, and horizontal envelope that represents a parry. Thus you can have high, low, advanced, or contracted parries, all in the same basic line. The possible place of the actual parry of the opponent’s blade thus covers a large sweep of space.
The tactical envelope is similar, but more complex because it involves more factors. To determine it, you need to ask yourself the following questions?
(1) What are my preferred actions in attack, defense, and counteroffense? No fencer is proficient in everything. Most fencers have techniques in which they are proficient but not excellent or that they do not like – we are looking for the actions you can count on to score (understanding that the purpose of defense is to position yourself to score with the riposte). That may be a mix of all three categories, or two, or even only one. It may be one or two techniques, or as many as five or six.
(2) How far away can I reliably hit the opponent? A simple view of this is in one tempo and two tempo actions. A more nuanced version is in intra-tempo (the stop or time hit), one tempo, collapsed two tempo (a fast beat attack or an advanced parry-riposte for example), two tempo, or two tempo with a continuation by renewal or by riposte against the opponent’s action. These are all different physical distances. The question becomes more refined when we follow up with the question “how far away to I want to hit the opponent?”
(3) What are my safe distances in attack, defense, or counteroffense? In other words, how close in time and distance am I willing to allow the opponent to penetrate into my envelope?
(4) Against the opponent, what is my response time? How quickly do I see and assess what is happening, make a decision to act, and then carry out the desired technique? This time changes the physical distance at which you want to fence.
(5) How much risk am I willing to accept? Being down 13-14 in the last 8 seconds of the final may have a very different willingness to accept risk and change the envelope when compared with the first touch in the first pool bout.
(6) Where do I want to execute my blade actions? What line or lines? Advanced target or core? What level of preparation, what feints, and what intentions will I use?
If you plot those answer as numerical values on graph paper, you arrive at an actual depiction of your preferred tactical envelope. In most cases it becomes a series of rules by which you fence the bout. Your tactical goal is to fight in your tactical envelope and deny the opponent his or her preferred envelope by closing or opening distance, by closing lines, by hampering actions, by invitations, by counterattacks, etc.
However, it is important to understand that that the envelope is dynamic in the bout and against different opponents. If I am old and slow, fencing a faster opponent, and on defense, my envelope expands in distance and time so that I have more time to assess what is happening and get my defense moving. On the attack my envelope shrinks as I become more risk averse and as the distance to which I have to penetrate in order to be assured of a hit becomes more challenging.
The envelope, whether as a mental picture of space and time or as a series of rules, is thus very important in your bout planning. You should not plan normally to fence outside your envelope. You should plan to deny the opponent their envelope. You should be ready to change your envelope as the conditions of the bout change. And you should be willing, when opportune, to violate all of the rules with a surprise action to defeat the expected performance of the opponent.