The term “counteroffense” describes actions taken to hinder or defeat an opponent’s attack. The term sounds very broad. However, it is generally interpreted to mean actions that are counterattacks into an opponent’s attack with the simple first intention to disrupt and score on that attack.
When we define counteroffense in this way, we are really dealing with only two classes of actions:
(1) Stop hits – direct thrusts or cuts at the opponent’s target to hit with no attempt to close the line or displace the opponent’s blade. It is also possible, and even desirable, to stop hit with a line change (an indirect stop hit or cut).
(2) Time hits (an alternate modern term is “stop hit with opposition,” “time hit apparently having too few words and being too old school) – these are direct thrusts or cuts at the opponent’s target with the line closed and the opponent’s blade displaced by opposition. The time hit traditionally is executed by intercepting the opponent’s blade in the final line of the attack, requiring a unique combination of opponent assessment, patience, clairvoyance, and disciplined commitment against compound attacks.
Properly timed and executed stop hits and time hits result in a single light in your favor. However, stop hits exist in a difficult tactical environment. In sabre and epee, stop hits can theoretically result in success when done to the body, but the depth of commitment and exposure required means that an opponent can simply finish their action to score. This means that the forward target (wrist and arm) is preferred. In foil, the stop has to be to the torso, result in a deep commitment of the blade and often an evasion to escape the finish of the attack.
The two right of way weapons are also problematic because of the way the rules in foil and sabre are written. These essentially allow any combination of forward foot work steps ending in a lunge to be the attack. All the opponent has to do is lunge to finish the attack when the stop hit is seen and two lights will result. In the absence of any fault in execution, the opponent will get the touch.
This means that a good rule of thumb for the stop hit is to hit the opponent as far forward as possible, to try to hit before the attack is fully developed, be fast, use evasion, and do not hesitate or lose focus – commit to the action. Practice is obviously key to this.
In epee the stop hit occupies a specific tactical niche – the accomplishment of a double hit. Because epee allows the double hit, there is an incentive in the direct elimination to double hit when you are ahead. The pools are a different story. There the double hit adds to your opponents touch count for indicator based seeding – that means that it is probably a last ditch technique when unable to parry.
The stop as an invitation is a common technique in foil to exploit the rules and the opponent’s assumptions about the combat. We know that all the advancing opponent has to do to score against a stop hit is to finally commit to the attack. This creates an opportunity for a feint stop hit. The advance is on, out comes an action that looks like a stop by the retreating fencer, the advancing fencer commits to the attack, the retreating fencer welcomes the incoming blade with a parry and riposte. What is that called … yes, you are correct defensive countertime.
There are two additional actions that are, in my mind, counteroffensive, but are not commonly defined as such. The first are attacks on preparation. The attack on preparation differs from stop hit/cut and time hits in that those two actions are delivered against an attack in progress. The attack on preparation is delivered before the commitment of the attack, into the opponent’s preparation. It will look like an attack, typically with a lunge, on its own merits. Effectively that means before the start of the final advance-lunge sequence, clear forward movement of the attack, or a hesitation that breaks the execution of the attack. I consider this counteroffense because the opponent clearly intends to push you down the strip until he or she can catch and hit you. That is offensive, even if not the rulebook definition of the attack. By attacking in preparation before the opponent can initiate the attack you are, in fact, defeating his or her offensive intention.
It is also important to note that in foil there is a specific rule that multiple forward passes are preparation, allowing any attack on preparation to succeed.
The point in line is the second action that seems to me to be counteroffensive. It has the character of offense in that when properly executed as a threat to an opponent’s intent to advance-lunge to hit it gains and retains priority, whether advancing, retreating, or standing still. Others believe that it is defensive in that it keeps the opponent from attacking until it has been removed. In reality, it is a stop hit with priority in waiting.
When you examine the point-in-line’s use in videos, what do we see? First, it is most often based on deterring an attack while the fencer is retreating. Second, it’s successful use as an attack against the advancing opponent depends on either the opponent hesitating or on the failed attempt to take the blade to allow the point-in-line fencer to attack. Third, the technique depends on a very limited range of movement. Unlike attacks and defense, where the range of motion approaches infinite in modern fencing, the point-in-line must not leave the limits of the opponent’s target, the blade must remain in full extension, it cannot parry or beat the opponent’s blade (this is not to say that it cannot, but if it does it loses the character of a point in line), the point-in-line is interpreted by referees as requiring landing with the point (in sabre it cannot land as a cut or graze, even if the scoring machine signals a hit), etc. These characteristics are shared by the stop thrust.