200906 The Iconoclast – a new approach to fencing doctrine

Over the years I have been a strong advocate of adherence to established fencing doctrine. That doctrine has evolved over the part 600 years and continues to evolve to codify the best way to hit an opponent within the constraints of the social context of the use of the weapon and the rules of the time. However, in the last two to three years I have started to dip my toes in the bubbling brook of iconoclasm to challenge cherished beliefs in our sport on the simple grounds that they are wrong. You have seen some of these in other posts, but I am going to try to tie them together in this week’s and next week’s posts as a coherent doctrine for our fencers.

First Premise – the traditional expression of fencing doctrine is that the sport is about hitting without being hit. The problem is way more complicated than that. First, in modern fencing it is almost impossible to be hit without the other fencer hitting you or at least making a very good effort to do so. If we examine this, the actual premise 1 is that we wish to hit with priority (in epee at least 40 milliseconds ahead of the opponent). With priority it does not matter if the opponent hits you – in fact it is to your advantage that they try to do so because they are committing their blade to a failed attempt to score, rather than to something that might disrupt your attack.

There are caveats to this. First caveat, it requires a referee who can accurately and fairly determine priority. Absent this the course of action becomes to do whatever will result in a single light in your favor. You have to be rigorously honest about this – if there is a fault in your technique that causes a fair referee to believe that you have lost priority, stop doing the fault so that you can restore the value of priority to your actions. If the referee simply calls every two light result against you (and yes, that does happen), you must hit without being hit within lock-out time.

The second caveat applies to epee. Your tactics may legitimately be to provoke double hits. In this case you have an 80 millisecond window (40 before and 40 after the leading action) in which to score.

Second Premise – the doctrinal view is that there are three types of actions: offense, defense, and counteroffense. To examine this we have to understand that fencing bouts are now, and always have been, determined by scoring touches. If you do not score, you cannot win (yes, it is possible to have a pool bout end in regulation time with a score of 0-0, and then be given priority in the overtime, which you run out for a final 0V-0D score, but this is a very risky way to fight a bout).

Offense is pretty straight forward – you are attempting to hit the opponent with a first, second, third, or even fourth intention action or by a renewal of your attack.

Defense seems to be straight forward – any action taken to avoid being hit. This includes parries with the blade (but not the riposte), parries by distance (but not the riposte), and esquives (avoidances but not the counterattack). However, defense by itself cannot score touches and can only win bouts by successfully gaining priority in the overtime and avoiding being hit. The only way defense can score is if it is completely integrated with an offense – the riposte as an example. So in effect, the parry of any sort is preparation for the attack, and evasion is preparation either for an attack or a counterattack.

Counteroffense seems to be even more straight forward – the opponent attacks and you hit them with a counterattack. But what is the purpose of a counterattack – defeat the attack and avoid being hit. So what is the difference between defense and counterattack? There is only a mechanical difference, not a difference of fundamental intent – to hit the opponent with priority. intent

The problem is that we have been thinking about actions in terms of techniques. Technique A exists, and therefore we must stick it into a specific category. Because it is in that specific category it must be that however it is used.

The problem is that these categorizations miss the point. A parry must be defense. This leads to a misunderstanding of what really happens. For example, the simplest of second intentions, usually taught as the second intention, is false attack, opponent parries and ripostes, you parry and counterriposte. It is a false attack, a battle of parries in the defense, and the riposte in the offense. But that is a complete misunderstanding of the modern game. The second intention starts with a false attack, the opponent attempts to regain priority, and you finish by using the parry to prepare the flow of the bout to score with a direct, indirect, or what-have-you riposte.

The names of techniques are important in that they define a specific mechanical blade or footwork process. If we think about it honestly we have built stovepipes where we teach this technique as A, exactly the same technique used for a different purpose as B, then C, then D … We should still name techniques, but those names do not have magical properties; they are only relevant to the construction of tactical application.

And application is where we fall afoul of the reality of combat, not combat as the referee calls it, but combat as the fencer conceives of and executes it. The true question is what set of movements at this point in time on this strip is the embodiment of initiative and intent. The standard answer is that initiative belongs to the fencer who starts first to extend the arm in one smooth, integrated flow of arm, body, and feet. And that initiative and priority is retained until it is parried or avoided. So let’s test that answer with two cases, both second intention.

The first second intention, described above, is the sequence false attack, parry and riposte, parry and counterriposte. The false attacker has the initiative and priority when he starts, loses it when the opponent parries and ripostes, then regains it with his parry and riposte to score. In reality, the initial attacker makes a false attack to fix the opponent in place, and to get the opponent to offer the blade so that the parry can prepare the final riposte to hit. The original attacker retains the initiative throughout because he has created the sequence to achieve success through every step, his and the opponent’s, increasing the chance of the final hit.

The second example – a fencer invites, the opponent attacks, the fencer parry-ripostes to score. How does the referee view the action? The opponent has priority, and that priority is then lost when the fencer parry-ripostes. The invitation is not even considered in the analysis. And yet the invitation establishes the fencer’s initiative, drawing the commitment of the blade in attack, and scoring with the parry-riposte.

In both of these actions there is a parry. Is it defensive – no. It is as much a part of the attack as the initial extension.

The second premise boils down to this – it does not matter how we classify actions, it matters how they contribute to the initiative. And all actions in a bout are either situations in which you have the initiative (even if it appears to observers and the opponent that you do not), or they are situations in which you are reacting to the opponent’s initiative.

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