In foil and sabre, the priority or ‘right of way’ is one of the most difficult concepts in fencing to understand. For these two weapons, there is no such thing as a double hit; only one fencer can score at any moment in the bout.
If only one light comes up for one side or the other, no one has to worry about priority. The priority rule determines who is the attacker and who is the defender when lights for both fencers come up on the scoring box.
For two coloured lights, only one is awarded a point according to priority. It is possible to get a combination of a coloured light (on target) and a white light (off-target) in foil. Here, priority determines if the coloured light was in time (scoring a point) or out of time behind the off-target hit (no one scores any points).
Priority of attack is gained by a fencer initiating an attack before their opponent. It is closely linked to the concept of fencing time, or how long it takes to complete an action.
According to the rules, an attack is an action moving forward which continuously threatens the opponents target area. This is typically the blade moving toward the target with an extension of the arm. Foil and sabre may be refereed with more nuance, but we’ll save that for another book.
Whoever initiates their attack first has priority or ‘right of way’. If both fencers go forward and score valid hits, the referee will judge who has right of way.
First Past the Post
For example, foil fencers Smith and Jones step into measure (hitting distance) and Smith immediately extends, lunges and hits Jones on target. Jones as an instinctive reaction extends and hits Smith on target. Both fencers’ coloured lights come up on the scoring box.
The referee halts the bout:
“Attack from Smith is valid, on target. Jones’ attack is out of time. Smith scores; one-zero.”
Smith declared the attack first. The priority rule says Smith takes right of way, Jones must defend before attempting to land an attack, but didn’t.
When both fencers hit at foil or sabre and one is judged to have priority, only one fencer can score.
However, a fencer can lose right of way if their attack fails – when it misses, or is parried (blocked) by the defender. When the attack fails, it is over and priority passes to the opponent to attempt to score. The roles are reversed and the initial attacker must defend before they get a second chance to attack.
Renewal versus Riposte
Next example: foil fencers Smith and Jones step into measure and Smith immediately extends and lunges. Jones parries the attack, seizes priority and hits Smith with an immediate riposte on target. Only Jones’ coloured light comes up on the scoring box to be awarded the hit.
However, let’s say Smith attempts an immediate renewal of attack just as Jones, with priority starts to riposte. Both fencers hit on target, both fencers’ coloured lights come up on the scoring box.
The referee halts the bout:
“Attack from Smith is no, Jones’ parry-riposte is valid, on target. Smith’s renewal is out of time. Jones scores; one-all.”
Smith lost priority when the attack was parried and did not defend while Jones had priority, therefore Jones’ attack scores.
Parry and Riposte
Third example: foil fencers Smith and Jones step into measure and Smith immediately extends and lunges with priority. Jones parries the attack, seizes priority and responds with a riposte against Smith. However Smith parries, seizing back priority and ripostes against Jones. These two are on fire in this bout. Jones parries Smith’s attack to re-take priority and riposte…
The bout could go on like this for as long as the two fencers are able to parry and riposte. Priority changes sides each time one of them parries, causing the opponent’s attack to fail. It doesn’t matter how many times priority changes sides, only the fencer with priority can score with a hit on target. If the final action at the end of the phrase results in both fencers hitting on target, the referee will award the point to whoever had priority on that final action.
A big pause
Final example: foil fencers Smith and Jones step into measure and Smith immediately extends and lunges. Jones parries the attack, taking priority, but clearly hesitates. By not attacking immediately, Jones gives up the priority gained. In this moment, neither fencer has priority. Smith reacts first with a renewal of attack in a different line, seizing priority and hits on target. Smith’s coloured light comes up on the scoring box indicating a hit.
The initial attack failed, losing priority, but there was no immediate follow up, so Smith took the initiative and re-gained priority.
With practice, you will start to understand who has priority at any moment in the fight and therefore who has the upper hand should lights come up for both fencers.
It is possible, however, that both fencers could step in and lunge at exactly the same time, both hit on target, no one parries. The referee will call “simultaneous” as there was no separation of actions to determine priority. Neither fencer has clear right of way, no points are awarded. Fencing begins again where the fencers left off.
This applies for both foil and sabre.
Experienced foil and sabre fencers are aware of the priority or ‘right of way’ rule and understand well when to defend.
Epée fencers can score double hits and regard the priority rule with amusement believing theirs is the harder weapon to fence. Foil and sabre fencers believe theirs is harder for the very same reason.
Image credit: Final – Challenge International de Paris 2013-01-26 by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons