200329 The Idea of Defense

In modern fencing we typically classify fencing actions as offense, defense, and counteroffense. The objective of offense is to hit – it includes the simple and compound attacks, the attacks on the blade and takings of the blade, the riposte, and the renewals of the attack. Defense attempts to prevent the attack from landing – it consists of the blade parries and the avoiding movements. And the counteroffense attempts to stop the opponent’s attack by hitting during its tempo.

These definitions and classifications are fuzzy. There are some actions that seem today to cross from one category to another such as the remise – is it a renewal of the attack or is it a counterattack against the riposte? Is the point in line, properly established, offense, defense, or counterroffense? This exposes the problem with classifications – they are based on what the blade does and, in some cases, on the content of the rules rather on the actual intent of the activity.

The traditional classifications may no longer be actually relevant. Let’s consider what fencing is about. The traditional statement that fencing is about hitting without being hit is an ideal but one that was never actually true. The history of dueling shows that both duelists had a reasonable expectation of being wounded and that the duel ending with one fencer politely wounded sufficient to draw blood but not too much blood only applied when both duelists agreed. German academical fencing has always accepted that both participants might be wounded, and that the fight only ended with relatively significant wound. The number of fencers who have won a major tournament with no hits scored against them is vanishingly small in the history of the modern sport going back to the 1890s.

Fencing is about hitting the opponent more times than the opponent hits you within the constraints of the current rules (or for the duel and academical fencing hitting so that the opponent can no longer continue).

In that reality we have to consider what defense does. The traditional idea that defense prevents the opponent from hitting you by either blade contact, the parry by distance, or by avoidances such as ducking, the inquartata, the passato sotto is nice. But let’s consider the outcome. If I attack you 20 times, you block all but 1, and you never attack, what is the outcome? If you said that you lose 0-1, you would be correct. Defense does not score touches.

But what about the other statement you often hear “defense gives you the right of way”? First it is not true. A parry creates a neutral situation. By convention the first attacking movement after the parry has the right of way – the immediate riposte is considered to be the first attacking action for right of way (in epee the action that immediately closes, or maintains closed, the line bestows the advantage in the riposte versus remise contest). Right of way is only useful if it is immediately used; otherwise a delay forfeits this advantage.

So, what defense does is to be the preparation for the riposte by controlling the opponent’s blade (the parry), controlling the distance (the parry by distance, commonly and incorrectly known as “pulling distance and taking over the attack”), managing the geometry of the action (ducks, inquartata, etc.), or controlling the tempo (the lost time actions).

If we accept the idea that there is defense followed by offense (parry and riposte), we accept the idea that the two are separate actions. Certainly you can conduct a preparation for the attack, and not attack if conditions are not favorable. Similarly you can prepare the riposte (attack) with a parry and not execute the riposte if conditions are not favorable. But the idea that the parry is an isolated event is pernicious because it loses the most important benefit it presents as a preparation, the ability to set up a riposte that the opponent will not expect. If we concentrate on defending ourselves and not on using the parry to prepare an unexpected riposte, we waste the availability of the wide variety of parries available to fundamentally change the geometry of the exchange to our advantage.

For example, our opponent disengages from 6 (3) to 4, we execute a lateral parry of 4 and riposte in 4. That is so predictable that it is a cliche. If instead we take a parry of 8 (2) to intercept the disengage and riposte in the low line under the arm, we have prepared the unexpected riposte. We have executed an integrated offensive response to the opponent’s attack. And that is only one option …

We should also consider the counter attack. We execute counterattacks (stop hit/cut or time hit) and the one-tempo renewals of the attack to prevent the opponent’s attack from scoring. Especially with the time hit where opposition is used to intercept the attack, closing the final line, the resemblance to the parry-riposte is significant. The stop hit works either by acting against a break in the tempo (or a feint or error) of the attack or by managing distance and time to time out the attack – essentially the way the parry by distance causes the attack to fail.

What is the bottom line? What blade actions do is fuzzy if we adhere to a model of three (or five) types of actions. The blade action against the opponent’s target is the only way to score a hit. This suggests that we may profit by considering everything either attack or a preparation for an attack, regardless of where it sits on a diagram of the classification of fencing actions. If we execute a preparation, we should have a clear hitting outcome in mind.

Copyright 2020 by Walter G. Green III

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