Priority weapons and the Circle of Attacks

Fencing at the 2012 Summer OlympicsBy Robin Catling.

Teaching foil and sabre is never as easy as you’d like it to be, chiefly because in modern sports fencing, we have the challenge of ‘fencing time’ and the rules which make foil and sabre ‘priority weapons’.

I took up most of a group lesson with the following examination of the priority weapons and the circle of attacks.

Let’s start with the old school definitions:

Fencing time: the length of time it takes to complete one action (a step, a lunge, a beat, a parry)

You can’t measure fencing time on a clock because it is dependant on the speed of the two fencers in the bout. It’s all relative. I wonder what Einstein would have made of it?

The important thing is to be able to count the number of actions on each side of the bout, to determine the relative timing of actions of each fencer.

With the fast-pace of competitive bouts, it is crucial to know who hit, when, and in how many periods of fencing time.

Priority or ‘right of way’ is the basis in foil and sabre fencing to determine which fencer is the attacker at any point in the bout; in foil and sabre the attacker gains priority and the defender must defend; parry, evade, retreat or otherwise prevent the attack from landing on the target.

Both fencers and the referee should be able to recognise who has priority in the moment. When they don’t, or when the fencers gamble on a simultaneous hit, it is down to the referee to determine who had priority, or, to anul both hits; there are no double hits at foil and sabre.

Attack: this is my most old-school of definitions – the blade moving forward, continuously threatening the target.

This has a direct bearing on the priority weapons, as declaring an attack gains you priority, whilst any of the following annuls or cedes priority to the opponent:

  • Pausing (stopping)
  • Bending the arm to withdraw the weapon – note this is not the same as changing line.
  • Retreating

In other words, not moving forward and no longer threatening the target.

We can all argue the current state of top-level competition and what is judged ‘an attack’ – but let’s not right now.

Broadly all of our attacks fall into the following categories:

  • Direct attack – one action, landing a hit on target
  • Compound attack – two or more actions (usually including a change of line) designed to draw a reaction from the opponent – usually a parry to open a different line
  • Counter-attack – which logically can only be an attack into a preparation. This is an attempt to break time against the opponent who uses a compound action, by hitting in fewer periods of fencing time than them; the prime example being a direct attack used to break into a compound action.

Which brings us to the (virtuous?) circle of attacks and the means to beat them. The circle assumes that we know the difference in the type of attack (and can recognise the intention), that we can count periods of fencing time, and that we can, in the moment, select the appropriate response:

Diagram: virtuous circle of attacks

In the simplest terms, then:

  • Direct attack is beaten by the parry-riposte
  • Parry-riposte is beaten by the compound attack
  • Compound attack is beaten by the direct attack (counter-attack)

which brings us full circle.

In fencing time, the direct attack in one action cannot be beaten in time – the defender must defend in order to gain priority – parry and riposte. Everything after that is the tactical game of cat and mouse.

In use:

Knowing the defenders’ preference for parry-riposte, the attacker draws the parry with a compound action (feint-disengage, feint-cutover), evades the parry and scores in the new line. There is no engagement of the blades and priority stays with the attacker throughout.

The defender, recognising the attacker’s preference for compound attacks, uses fencing time to counter-attack direct in one action to break time against two or more actions.

Translating this into clear thinking, in the moment, on the fencing strip, is a challenge; one where hours of practice and careful dissection of bouts is the only reliable teacher – otherwise known as ‘experience.’

Finishing this week’s lesson with carefully examined bouts in a group was one of the most valuable exercises I’ve run.

We spiced the discussion with a quick look at intention; was that attack intended as a compound action or was the phrase altered by a reaction to the opponent – as in ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’?

Intention is something of a red herring. In the bout, ‘intention’ doesn’t matter, it is what the referee sees in the phrase that is judged, and the periods of fencing time that count. RC