According to Article t.7 (old 10) of the FIE rules of competition, “the attack is the initial offensive action made by extending the arm and continuously threatening the opponent’s target.”
A threatening action is one that will hit the opponent if no defensive action is taken. A threat means moving towards the target. Trajectory complicates matters as for indirect (compound) attacks or those of a cutting action, the trajectory may not be smooth or in a single line.
Hesitation and movements of the blade away from the target will usually be perceived as a break in the attack or treated as a preparation of the attack.
The attack begins when the arm begins extending, not once it is fully extended. It is not even necessary that the arm become fully straight, although that is normal for attacks at medium and longer distances. Retraction of the arm, withdrawing the weapon, will usually be interpreted as a break in the attack.
An immediately straight arm is not an attack, but a point-in-line and is treated slightly differently in the rules. We’ll tackle that one another time…
A further complexity is that an attack does not threaten unless the blade is aimed at the target. The definition of an attack is the same for cuts and thrusts, so cuts and cut-like actions (including coupés and “flicks”) must threaten while the blade is still out of line. Generally, an attack threatens if it is moving towards the target as part of a continuous, unbroken movement, regardless of where the point is located when that movement begins. This makes judging more challenging.
Consider a bent arm or point out-of-line; interpreted as a preparation, many fencers will gamely attack into it. However, if the bent arm is extending or the point out-of-line is moving towards the target, this interpretation is usually false under modern fencing conventions. A successful attack into preparation must clearly precede the opponent’s final movement, or else arrive in fencing time ahead of that final action.
Sabre fencers must also consider Article t.75 (old 417) of the Rules of Competition, which states when the attack must land relative to the footfalls of a lunge, advance-lunge, (and fleche, historically). Attacks that arrive after the prescribed footfall are deemed continuations, and do not have right-of-way over the counter-attack. Sabre fencers must also remember that whip-over touches can be interpreted as remises, and not mal-paré’s.
Image credit: Pan-America games, Rio de Janeiro by Wilson Dias/Abr