Menu

Classical Academy of Arms

A Society for Classical Fencing Instructor Training and Credentialling

Classical Fencing Continuing Education Online

Maintaining Academy credentials require that members, in the ranks of Classical Fencing Demonstrator, Classical Fencing Instructor, Classical Fencing Provost, and Classical Fencing Master, complete a minimum of 12 hours of continuing education each year, as explained on our Ranks page.  To assist in that process we post a continuing education article each month, along with a short multiple choice quiz.  Successful completion of 4 quizzes with a score of 2 or 3 out of 3 correct will be credited as 1 hour of continuing education, and will be recognized with an appropriate certificate.  Individuals who are not members may receive credit for our continuing education topics by contacting the Academy and paying a minimal annual fee. 

Individuals studying the question bank for the oral component of the credentialing process should note that we draw some of the continuing education topics from the question pool.  This suggests that it may be a useful study strategy to include our continuing education topics as part of your examination preparation.

To keep the number of topics posted manageable, we archive each year's (December through November) continuing education topics as an e-book.  You may still use these topics for continuing education.  To do so click on the radio button for Archived topic, and type the month in the Archived topic box.

Archived Topics

These continuing education topics are keyed to the questions included in the question bank for oral examinations for Classical Fencing Demonstrators, Classical Fencing Instructors, Classical Fencing Provosts, and Classical Fencing Masters.  As a matter of usable space on the website we include only the last 12 months of postings.  However, we maintain an archive of all topics by year.  These can be used for study and to help meet our continuing education requirements.  To take the review quiz for credit, use the ARCHIVED TOPIC radio button and include the date of the topic in the answer sheet on the right hand side of the page.

December 2016 - 2017 topics

 

November 2018 - The Theoretical Basis of the One Touch Epee Bout

The theoretical basis for the one touch epee bout originates with the original essential purpose of the Epee of the Salle, as derivative of the weapon known as the Epee of Combat and the Epee of the Terrain, the dueling sword.  In the last two decades of the 1800s Fencing Masters who had to prepare students for the duel came to understand the unsatisfactory nature of training with the Foil as preparation for actual combat with the Epee of the Terrain.  This resulted in a two part change in how the dueling sword was addressed.  On one hand the foil was replaced by a rebated dueling sword so that the student would be prepared for the greater weight of the dueling sword and the differences in its handling.  On the other, as use of the epee rapidly became not just for duels, but also for sport, rules were developed that allowed the Epee bout to more closely simulate the duel.

The changes in the rules resulted, in the classical period, in a bout that had five unique characteristics:

(1)  the preferred venue for epee bouts was outdoors - as duels were generally fought outdoors (although there was at least one indoor dueling venue commonly used in the vicinity of Paris).

(2)  the piste was commonly a gravel path, sometimes of some considerable length.  As late as 1937, the regulation piste was 34 meters (111 feet 7 inches) in length.  Having a piste and penalizing a fencer who stepped off the end, replicated the concept of marking the dueling ground (sometimes not much more formally than scratching a line with the heel of the shoe) and dismissing as a coward an opponent who retreated beyond the agreed limit.

(3)  at some point a time limit was introduced - by 1937 this was 5 minutes.  However, for at least some portion of the development of early epee fencing, there was no time limit, and there is an unconfirmed report that the longest fencing bout in history was a 90+ minute epee bout.  This is not as odd as it might sound - one famous duel between two fencing masters extended for hours, long enough for it to be decided when one could not continue because of a blister caused by the prolonged use of the weapon.

(4)  the allowance of the simultaneous hit directly mirrors the potential for the simultaneous wounding of both participants in a duel in an attack-counterattack (especially the counterattack by tension) or remise against the riposte scenario.

(5)  the one touch epee bout simulates the duel fenced for first blood, the predominant type of duel from the 1890s through 1967.  When duels became a ritualistic event solely to expiate insults to one's honor, honor being restored and the insult cleansed by the first flow of blood from a wound, one touch became a conventional way to end the duel to everyone's satisfaction.   People still died in duels with the dueling sword, but this was no longer the widely desired objective, as it had been in the 1600s through the early 1800s. 

Thus we can clearly see that the theoretical basis of the epee bout lies in the weapon's role as a trainer for the duel, a role that shaped the subsequent development of epee fencing as sport.

Review November 2018

1.  The early classical epee bout fought for one touch is based on:

  • a.  Modern Pentathlon's use of one touch epee bouts.
  • b.  the need to control the length of the bout in a period where there were no standard maximum time limits for bouts.
  • c.  the duel to first blood symbolized by the first touch.

2.  The epee used in classical fencing today is essentially the:

  • a.  the Epee of the Salle.
  • b.  the Epee of Combat.
  • c.  the Epee of the Terrain.

3.  Classical epee bouts were typically fenced:

  • a.  inside in similar facilities to those used for foil and sabre.
  • b.  outside on a gravel strip up to 34 meters in length.
  • c.  outside on the standard 20 foot strip used in the early classical period.

October 2018 - Preparation

What is preparation?  Preparation may be defined as any action that precedes the attack and creates the condition needed for its success.  Typically these include actions that close the distance to attacking (lunge or medium) distance, that remove or control the opponent's blade so that it does not hinder the attack landing, or that cause the opponent to make an incorrect response to the developing situation..  Exactly what actions fit within the category of preparation varies among the published literature of the period - the following is a summary from a variety of sources.

(1)  Preparation by footwork - theoretically any footwork that closes the distance prior to the final attacking footwork is a preparation.  Obvious elements in this category are the:

  • advance,
  • forward pass,
  • and balestra (the jump portion of the jump-lunge).  

In addition, there are two footwork movements that can be used to create an inappropriate response:

  • the half-advance, and
  • the appel.

It is important to note that the advance in an advance lunge combination was a preparation in the classical period.  This is no longer the case in modern fencing as the advance-lunge is effectively considered a single tempo action under current rules.

(2)  Preparation by blade work - blade preparations are distinguished by being initiated with a bent arm.  They include all of the actions designed to control the blade or to physically remove it from the desired line. 

(2.a.)  Engagements.  These can be preparations that the control a line and can actually either move the opponent's blade or cause the opponent to move the blade:

  • engagement,
  • change of engagement, and
  • double engagement.

(2.b.)  Attacks on the blade.  The full range of attacks on the blade qualify as preparations, including:

  • beats, and 
  • presses.

(2.c.)  Actions in the same line along the blade:  The actions along the blade (opposition, glide, coule, glissade, graze, froisement, expulsion) occupy a difficult position in classical fencing taxonomies of actions.  Some Fencing Masters class one or more of them as attacks on the blade, others as takings of the blade.  The situation is further complicated by the variety of subtle differences in meanings assigned to each term.  However, they clearly are considered preparations in period literature.  As a minimum they control the line, and more energetic versions can move the opponent's blade laterally to open an otherwise closed line.

(2.d.)  Takings of the blade.  The full range of takings of the blade, or transports, qualify as preparations, including:

  • binds,
  • croises and flanconades, both vertically downward and upward,
  • envelopments (which may be the same technique as the double bind),
  • double envelopments.

There is one obvious omission, the range of compound attacks.  In the compound attack, the feint prepares the way for the final action by causing the opponent to put his or her blade in motion to deal with the feint.  Why then is the feint not considered preparation?  There are three possible explanations.  First, for some part of the classical period the feint was commonly executed with an extended arm, as opposed to preparation which originates from a bent arm.  Second, all of the blade preparations can be attacked (as attacks into preparation) by deceiving the attempt to move the blade (which depends on blade contact by the attacker); the compound attack cannot be deceived in this way.  Third, the feint itself can become an attack if there is no reaction; all of the preparations require an extension to achieve the status of attack.

October 2018 Review

1.  The purpose of a preparation is to:

  • a.  serve as an invitation to draw an opponent's counterattack.
  • b.  create the conditions needed to ensure the attack's success.
  • c.  serve as a feint for the compound attack.

2.  Footwork preparations may include the:

  • a.  fleche.
  • b.  retreat and jump back.
  • c.  balestra and appel.

3.  The change of engagement, change of engagement, and double engagement may be executed as preparations.  Which of the following possible criteria of a preparation do they meet?

  • a.  they are executed with a bent arm.
  • b.  they are normally combined with an advance before the lunge.
  • c.  they always move the opponent's blade to the opposite line opening the way for an attack.

September 2018 - Characteristics of Fencing with the Sabre

Each of the fencing weapons in use in the classical period (foil, epee, sabre, singlestick, and bayonet) has a core of distinctive characteristics that define how the weapon is taught, used, and judged in the bout.  Knowledge of these characteristics provides an understanding that guides the role of the trainer in preparing the student to fence effectively with the weapon.  

The sabre used for sport descends from the dueling sabre, and thus from the cavalry sabre.  The cavalry weapon was a heavy weapon in the broadsword/backsword family, ideal for shock action, and optimized for use on horseback.  In the classical period the form of the sabre in many armies evolved, but it remained a heavy weapon, typically in the 1 to 1.1 kilogram range.  In contrast, the dueling sabre is a lighter and more agile weapon, typically with a similar pattern, but a thinner blade, and a weight in the 750 gram range.  In contrast, by the 1930s the sabre for sporting use was no heavier than 500 grams and no lighter than 350 grams.

A note - the historical European martial arts community has created a new class of sabre, the "military sabre."  In reality, all sabres are military.  There is no weapon with distinct characteristics that make it a civilian sabre.  Unlike the small sword, there was no fashion of civilian gentlemen wearing the sabre as a fashion accessory whilst promenading around town.  The two exceptions are the dueling sabre (a large portion of the use of which was by military officers), and the sport sabre.  

The distinct characteristics of fencing with the sabre are: 

(1)  Touches are made with both the point (as a thrust), and the cutting edges (as a cut).  The cutting edges are defined as the front or true or long edge of the blade and the rear or short or false edge of the blade.  The front edge extends from the guard to the point of the weapon; the rear edge from the point of the weapon to somewhere between one third to one half of the rear of the blade.  The sides of the blade are theoretically flat and contact with them is plaque or laid on, not resulting in a touch.  Two techniques, the banderole chest cut and the abdominal or belly cut, actually use the point as a cutting surface.  Sabre is the only weapon with a blade that can score with three types of blade action, the point thrust, the point cut, the cut with the front edge, and the reverse cut executed with the back edge.  These capabilities of the weapon define the technical range of offensive action with the sabre.

(2)  The target in sabre is distinctive and reflects the combination of fencing and dueling practice.  At various times the target has included (a) the head, the torso above the points of the hips, the arms and the hands, (b) the entire torso as well as head, arms and hands, and (c) additionally the thigh.  The torso target above the waist is in common with the foil target of the late 1800s which commonly stopped at the waist.  The addition of the head and the forward target of the arms and hands reflects the reality of dueling practice in which these were productive targets. 

(3)  The sabre is a conventional weapon, that is to say one governed by conventions, generally accepted rules that govern how touches are to awarded.  Although priority for the fencer's actions was often defined in a different way than in modern fencing rules during a large part of the classical period, sabre shares with foil the idea that there are practical considerations in the duel that can and should be reflected in the fencing bout.  Rules for bouts in the late 1800s did not define priority of actions in any detail.  However, there were well understood concepts of what makes sense as an action.  For example, if we are fighting with sharp sabres, and I parry your attack and execute a straight fast riposte to the head, you may injure or kill me with your remise, but I will surely injure or kill you with my riposte.  Unless you are suicidal, your response to my parry needs to be to parry or evade my riposte.  These understandings shape the flow of the bout and how the weapon is taught.

September 2018 Review

1.  The term "conventional" as applied to the sabre indicates that fencing with the sabre:

  • a.  was never done during the classical period with electronic scoring.
  • b.  is judged with points for correctness of form as well as for excellence in timing actions and for scoring hits.
  • c.  is based on an accepted understanding of the priority to be given to hits in the flow of the action of the bout.

2.  The use of the point of the hips (effectively the waist when on guard) as the lower limit of the torso target:

  • a.  was selected because in fighting on horseback in battles it was considered ungentlemanly to hit the opponent's horse.
  • b.  increased fencer safety by avoiding hits to the groin.
  • c.  reflects the late 1800s foil target which often ended at the waist.

3.   The classifications of the primary ways to touch with the sabre include:

  • a.  the five simple attacks. 
  • b.  cuts executed with the front and back edges of the sabre.
  • c.  thrusts with the point, cuts with the front and rear cutting edges, and cuts with the point in the banderole chest cut and abdominal cut.

August 2018 - The Appel

The appel is a common footwork element in classical fencing, referenced in a number of period texts and in descriptions of fencing bouts of the last part of the 1800s.  Executed from the on guard position by a slap of the front of the forward foot on the piste, properly done it makes a distinctive, and surprisingly loud, sound.  But the appel has virtually disappeared from modern fencing, leaving the obvious question "what was it used for?"

Answering that question is not as simple as it sounds, because there are at least five answers of obviously varying utility.  Taken from least likely to be effective to most likely, they are:

(1)  To startle the opponent, causing him or her to react in a way that would create an opening into which an attack could be launched.  Commentators at the time evaluated this with words to the effect of if you are startled by an appel into reacting inappropriately, you should take up a much less dynamic form of sport than fencing.  Unlikely to be effective.

(2)  To emphasize the attack.  Executing the appel before the lunge would seem to give the opponent a small, but significant, amount of warning that an attack is coming.  However, it might have also served to influence the jury that the action made with an appel started earlier than it actually started, especially if accompanied by a shout of Voila Monsieur, or its equivalent.  Slightly less unlikely to be effective.

(3)  To emphasize the feint.  If one used the appel to emphasize even one attack in a bout, it may have been at least somewhat effective to also use it to create the impression that the feint was the attack subsequently.  A small amount less unlikely to be effective than its use in the attack.  

(4)  As a crowd pleaser.  There is some evidence that the appel and a shout was a great favorite of spectators at professional exhibition bouts between fencing masters in the late 1800s.  This combination certainly has showmanship element that would make the fencing more exciting to watch, even if it had no actual impact on the outcome of the bout.  Likely to be effective with the spectators.

(5)  As an accelerant.  Interestingly none of the readily available period texts suggest that an appel integrated with the start of the lunge breaks inertia much as the balestra does.  This appel-lunge does not cover extra ground on the piste, but with practice it can be quite quick.  Some fencers may have discovered this by accident, but it is not widely reported in the classical period.

(6)  As a training tool to verify the fencer is in a balanced position when on guard.  This is the most common use in period texts and is incorporated into various routines for coming on guard as a sequence of two appels as the last element of assuming the guard position.  And this is actually a very good test of a balanced position and of the ability to maintain that position while moving the lower front leg and foot to execute the appels.  

So, incorporate the appel in training fencers to assume a balanced guard position.  Experiment with the appel-lunge.  Include the appel as a crowd pleaser in exhibitions of classical fencing.  But don't count on it winning bouts or even touches for you.

August 2018 Review

1.  The appel is executed as a:

  • a.  stamp of the front leg flexing the calf and thigh and driving from the hip.
  • b.  pair of stamps on the piste by the rear foot when in the guard position.
  • c.  slap of the front of the front foot on the piste.

2.  The appel was effective primarily as a:

  • a.  tool for teaching fencers how to assume a balanced on guard position.
  • b.  way to startle, frighten, or distract opponents so that they would make an error openinga line for a touch.
  • c.  means of emphasizing the feint or actual attack.

3.   One use of the appel in bouts between fencing masters in the late 1800s was:

  • a.  to gain points for artistic expression of fencing technique.
  • b.  as a way to startle the opponent and draw counterattacks that could then be countertimed.
  • c.  to add excitement for the spectators.

July 2018 - A Guard in the Center

Occasionally we find an opponent on guard with the blade in the center of the opponent's high line.  In a few cases this is a reference in a book.  And in some cases it is a fencer in front of us.  Is this a good idea?

The argument in favor is that the blade on guard in the center of the high line can move equally quickly in all directions to parry any attack.  This appears to be attractive.  And when we consider that a guard is a position from which offense, defense, and invitations are all possible, it appears that the center position is theoretically correct.  However, there are problems that deserve considerations.

First, it is correct that a guard is a position from which attacks, parries, and invitations are all possible.  However, the general agreement of most authors is that a guard, properly positioned, closes a line to the normal attack (the ceding and angulated attacks are a separate issue).  The central position does not close any line.  When we apply mathematics to the model, assuming that all four quadrants would be equal from the central guard, all four lines are exposed - thus 100 percent of the target is open, and we cannot predict with any certainty which line our opponent will attack.  In addition, it would seem that angulated and ceding attacks might even be made more attractive because the degree of angulation initially required to get behind the blade would be smaller.

In contrast a guard that closes a line reduces the lines available to the attacker, and thus the parrying choices, by 25%.  The picture is even more attractive if the fencer adopts a guard in high inside.  That line is closed, and the available target is further reduced by the greater precision required in an attack into low inside. 

It is important to understand that in the earlier years of classical fencing there was an evolution in which guard should be the preferred guard.  The high outside line in foil was not automatically the first choice.  Colmore-Dunn had an excellent discussion of which line was preferable in his Dunn's Fencing Instructor (1891).  In his view the inside line was less vulnerable because the orientation of the rear shoulder and chest presented a more difficult target for the opponent to gain an arrest.  In contrast the right side (left side in a left handed fencer) is a more attractive target because the chest is closer and flatter.  The guard of fourth (French system) was thus preferred for engagement because the guard secured the inside completely, allowing for a strong parry to be used to cover the right hand side (left side for the left handed fencer).  In fourth the hand was stronger and the blade was already positioned for the circular parry of fourth, a parry much favored at the time. 

Although in the French School theoretically it is possible to engage in any line (engagement in 1st being a stretch), French practice was generally to engage in either 4th or 6th.  By the early 1900s the preferred engagement had shifted to 6th (high outside). 

Copyright 2018 by Walter G. Green III.

  

July 2018 Review

1.  The argument in favor of adopting a central or middle guard is that:

  • a.  unlike the guards in fourth or sixth the central guard allows equally quick movement to any line to defend against an attack.
  • b.  the central guard provides for stronger parries.
  • c.  an opponent's task in attacking becomes more difficult because the position of the blade denies access to the center line of the target.

2.  The argument against adopting a center guard is based primarily on the assertion that:

  • a.  a properly formed guard closing one line makes use of angulated attacks impossible.
  • b.  ripostes from a central guard must travel further to close the line in the attack.
  • c.  the central guard leaves all lines open to attack when compared to a guard closing one line.

3.  Is Colmore-Dunn's adoption of the guard of fourth for engagement consistent with the French School of foil?

  • a.  no - the French School was the primary advocate of central guard
  • b.  yes - the French School taught that engagements should be taken in fourth or sixth
  • c.  yes - but only for fencing masters trained in the Parisian school of French fencing; the practice in the provinces and in French Caribbean possessions was always to use sixth or absence of blade in eighth

June 2018 - The Five Simple Attacks

Simple attacks are one tempo actions, distinguished by starting one line and moving in a continuous flow in the same direction to land on the target.  In the classical period there is some disagreement as to which actions are simple attacks.  However, by the end of the period we can identify the following actions as simple attacks:

  • Straight thrust or cut 
  • Disengage
  • Coupe or Cut-Over
  • Counterdisengage
  • Countercoupe

One category of action, the straight thrust (foil and epee) and straight point thrust or cut (in sabre) is classified as a direct attack.  The direct attack starts in one line and remains in that line from start to finish.  Thus a foil or epee thrust stated from engagement in 6th and landing in 6th or the sabre point thrust in 3rd starting and ending in 3rd are simple attacks.  In sabre, cuts such as the head cut, cheek cut, wrist cut, flank cut, chest cut, and abdominal cut are considered direct cuts, even though the movement of the hand to position the blade in the line may start from a different orientation.

All of the other simple attacks are indirect attacks, distinguished by starting in one line and finishing in another or transiting others.  In doing so, they are executed as one continuous motion.  They can be executed from a full extension or from a bent arm guard position.  Two of these pass the weapon's point around the opponent's guard.  Thus the disengage, starting in 4th can be a lateral indirect attack ending in 6th, a vertical indirect attack ending in 7th, or a diagonal indirect attack ending in 8th, while passing the point under the bell.  In contrast, an indirect attack starting in the low line passes the point around above the bell.  In each case the starts in one line and ends in a different line.  The counterdisengage also passes the point around the bell, but does so while passing through all of the four lines to deceive a circular blade action by the opponent and end in the same line as from which it originally started.

Two other indirect simple attacks also start in one line and finish in another or transit others.  These attacks pass the weapon's point around the opponent's point.  The coupe, starting in 4th is normally a lateral attack ending in 6th, although, with parries that attempt to displace the point from the line with a blade at a significant angle off the vertical, it can be an almost horizontal technique from high line to low line.  Coupes can be executed in the low line.  The countercoupe also passes the point around the opponent's point, deceiving a circular blade action by simply removing the weapon from the opponent's circle and replacing it in line when the rotating blade has passed.  

So when we look at all the possibilities we have a reasonably sophisticated series of options for the simple attack:

  • One direct attack which starts in one line, does not leave it - straight thrust.
  • Two indirect attacks which go around the opponent's bell - the disengage and counterdisengage.
  • Two indirect attacks which go around the point of the opponent's weapon - the coupe and countercoupe.
  • Two indirect attacks that end in different lines from that in which they started - the disengage and coupe.
  • Two indirect attacks that end in the same line from whence they started, deceiving circular movements by the opponent - the counterdisengage and the countercoupe. 

Copyright 2018 by Walter G. Green III      

Creative Commons License
The Five Simple Attacks by Walter G. Green III is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

June 2018 Review

1.  QUESTION:  All simple attacks are executed:

      a.  preceded by a feint or preparation of the attack. 

      b.  in a single tempo.

      c.  to land in the high line.

2.  QUESTION:  The two categories of simple attacks and the actions that fit in each are:

      a.  direct attacks (straight thrust, lunge, disengage, coupe) and counter attacks (counterdisengage, countercoupe)

      b.  direct attacks (straight thrust/cut) and indirect attacks (disengage, coupe, counterdisengage, countercoupe)

      c.  direct attacks (straight thrust, disengage, and coupe) and compound attacks (counetdisengage, counter coupe)

3.  QUESTION:  The two simple attacks that return to the original line from whence they started are the:

      a.  disengage and counterdisengage.

      b.  disengage and coupe.

      c.  countercoupe and counterdisengage.

May 2018 - The Types of Attacks

What are the basic types of attacking actions?  Among classical Masters there are differences in how attacking actions are grouped, to which groups specific actions are assigned, and even if they are grouped into types of actions at all.  Any attempt to develop a common classification system is for our convenience today, and, as noted later in this article, should not override how you describe the actions as taught by a specific Master.

If we look at all the actions that are commonly recognized as being attacks, it is possible to develop a taxonomy that applies in the absence of one specific Master’s guidance.   The following is such a system, subject obviously to modification for dueling sword and sabre:

Class

Type

Category

Example Actions

False Attacks

(attacks not intended to land either to set-up a subsequent action or for reconnaissance)

May be any real attack but executed to determine or draw an opponent’s reaction

 

 

Real Attacks

(attacks intended to land as touches)

Simple Attacks (single tempo attacks)

Direct Attacks

Straight Thrust

Indirect Attacks

Disengage

Counterdisengage

Coupe

Countercoupe

Prepared Attacks

(attacks that require an additional tempo to create the desired opening for the final thrust)

Compound Attacks (multiple tempo combinations of simple attacks to induce the opponent to open a line)

Feint straight thrust disengage

One Two

One Two Three

Double

Attacks on the Blade (actions with percussion to open a line)

Beat

Press

Expulsion

Transports (takings of the blade with leverage to open a line)

 

Glide

Bind

Croise/Flanconade

Envelopment

Complex Attacks (those that use elements of more than one category)

Beat-coupe

Beat-counterdisengage

Glide-disengage

Attacks of Intention

Second Intention

False attack-parry counterriposte

Invitation-parry riposte

Third and Fourth Intention

Counterriposte against second intention

Countertime

Defensive countertime

Counteroffensive countertime

Offensive countertime

Ripostes

(attacks following the parry executed in essentially the same way as the real attack)

Simple Ripostes

Direct Riposte

Straight Thrust

Indirect Riposte

Disengage

Counterdisengage

Coupe

Prepared Ripostes

Compound Ripostes

Feint straight thrust disengage

One-Two

Counterdisengage twice

Ripostes by Transport

Bind

Croise/Flanconade

 

There are several problems with such a classification scheme.  First, fencing terms have different meanings over time and in different schools.  The best example comes from counteroffense – is a time hit done with or without opposition?  A stop hit?  Bertrand (1927) provides a detailed discussion showing that the two names should be swapped. Barbasetti (1932) complicates the matter by not using the term time hit, rather the term counter-action. 

Second, some of these terms themselves have multiple gradations.  For example, what one author terms a glide, essentially a direct thrust with opposition, when examined in multiple sources becomes a range of attack down the blade with only mild pressure to ensure contact all the way (Stonehenge and Wood 1863, Manrique 1920, Deladrier 1948) to an attack that displaces the blade completely from the line (Lidstone 1951).  The situation is further complicated by arguments as to whether the glide is a transport or an attack on the blade (Crosnier 1967 expands this discussion further by saying that it could be either one). 

Third, terms change over time as the doctrine of schools change.  The French croise (a vertical transport of the blade) in the early 1900s could be done starting in any of the four lines high to low or low to high line, inside line or outside line (Manrique 1920).  By the end of the period the croise is only executed as a high to lowline action (Lidstone 1951, Crosnier 1967).

Finally, it has to be applied in the context of the individual Master whose works you are studying.  If your source groups the attacks on the blade and the transports together as one category of actions, that grouping reflects a specific approach to the application of these techniques.  If your source does not address countertime actions at all or only addresses defensive countertime, and does not consider that an attacking or second intention action, but rather related to counteroffense, then spend the time to understand why.  This imposes a responsibility on you as a classical fencing trainer to identify these differences, include them when speaking to others, and discuss them with your students, if we are to have informed dialog.  

Why then should we even bother to try to find a common ground in classifying attacks (or defense or counteroffense for that matter)?  Having a classification system provides a way to communicate, a shared language in a period where not only are manuals written in different languages, but also with different meanings.  In doing so, it allows you to look at the system that you find in texts from the perspective of what is present, what is absent, and what is thought of in a different way.

And perhaps even of more value, it allows you to identify commonalities.  In fencing we tend to stovepipe actions – action A and action B may be for all practical purposes identical.  But we teach them as different things, not different tactical applications of the same thing.  For example, if you look at the type Prepared Attacks, all of these actions work essentially in the same way – they put the opponent’s blade in motion.  They do it in different ways, but the tactical goal is the same, to create an opening that enlarges long enough to permit the attack to hit.  

May 2018 Review

1.  QUESTION:  The essential difference between false and real attacks is that:

      a.  false attacks are executed in a different way using different actions that real attacks.

      b.  false attacks are used as the first tempo of prepared attacks – they are a subset of real actions.

      c.  the intent of a false attack is reconnaissance or to set-up a subsequent action whereas as real attack intends to hit.

2.  QUESTION:  Transports:

  • a.  use leverage to open a line for the final attack.
  • b.  can only be used as prepared attacks.
  • c.  use percussion to open up a line in either a real attack or a riposte.

3.  QUESTION:  A key advantage of a classification scheme is to:

  • a.  allow us to describe classical fencing actions in modern terms.
  • b.  rationalize classical fencing so that it is no longer necessary to teach the work of a specific Master or School.
  • c.  improve communication and the identification of commonalities and differences.

April 2018 - Feints

The common description of a feint is the blade action or actions made in a compound attack to create a false impression of the intended target, causing an opponent to react by opening a line into which the fencer can direct the actual attack.  But is this all there is?

The definition of a feint can and should be expanded to address the objective of a feint, core functions of the feints, what makes the feint, what types of actions may be employed as a feint, and what is the numerical range of feints. 

First, what are we trying to achieve when we execute a feint?  If we reduce this to the simplest and most inclusive case, the feint attempts to cause a reaction on the part of the opponent that can be exploited.  Depending on the tactical situation in the bout, that reaction may be in the form of defense (a parry attempt against the first feint of a compound attack, for example), of a counterattack (a stop hit), or an attack (a feint of parry to draw the final attack in a compound action). 

Second, if we consider the typical classification of fencing actions (understanding that this system is a modern one and not all Masters in the classical period described actions in these classes), we can identify core roles for feints in each of the four categories of actions:

(1)       Actions not intended to hit – feints in the form of false attacks are a commonly described tool for reconnaissance in the early stages of a bout.  The intent is to establish the opponent’s reaction to what appear to be serious threats in various lines and combinations of actions.

(2)       Offense – the feint in the attack is to provoke an opponent’s reaction to close or restore the existing line against the fencer’s feint.  This movement then opens another line for the final action of the attack.  Alternatively, it may be to draw the counterattack, allowing that to be defeated by parry or by stop hit on the stop hit (note that these countertime actions are late developments in the classical period)

(3)       Counterattack – the feint of counterattack is to draw the attempt to parry, allowing the counterattack to deceive the attempt in countertime, an action known as feint in tempo (a late development in the classical period).

(4)       Defense – the feint of parry against a compound attack draws a commitment to the final action of the attack, which can then be met by the appropriate parry for that line.

Third, what do we use to make the feint?  That seems obvious, the blade, and the blade is the most common way to feint.  But that is not the only possibility. 

Although footwork is more restricted on the short classical strip, that does not mean that it cannot be used as a feint. It may be effectively used to draw counterattacks or attacks into preparation.  A short step or half lunge may provoke a response that can be parried and riposted against.  And the advance-feint of retreat combination followed by an immediate lunge into the opponent’s step forward is well suited to a short strip.

Footwork can be combined with another form of feint, the change in cadence.  Slow movement can cause the opponent to slow their own movement, making them more vulnerable to accelerating attacks.

Another footwork tool is the appel.  This noise maker can be used to emphasize actions, draw the opponent’s attention, momentarily break the opponent’s focus, or provoke an attack into the presumed preparation.  The appel-lunge may be effective in exploiting the break in focus.  The advantage is very short-lived, and probably can only be used once in a bout.

The assumption is that a feint is always made with a simple attacking action, most frequently a feint of straight thrust or a feint of disengage.  However, this is only one of several other possible approaches:

(1)  The feint as a change of engagement to cause the opponent to start his own change of engagement to return to the original alignment, followed by your counterdisengage to deceive the change.

(2)  The beat (or press) as a feint to draw either a beat back or a circular parry, which can then be deceived by disengage, counterdisengage, or coupe.

(3)  The feint of glide to provoke a counter of opposition by the opponent to be deceived by your disengage.

Finally, we should consider the numerical range of feints.  Compound actions with up to three feints (a total of four parts when the final actual attack is included) were taught in the classical period.  However, there was general agreement that no more than two feints (a three part action) are practical in the bout.

April 2018 Review

1.  QUESTION:  The fundamental purpose of the feint is to:

     a.  cause the opponent to try to parry the first action of a compound attack.

     b.  conceal the fact that an attack is in progress.

     c.  cause a reaction on the part of the opponent that can be exploited.

2.  QUESTION:  The objective of a feint parry is to:

     a.  parry the feint, allowing an immediate riposte.

     b.  simulate an attempt to parry the feint so that the opponent will commit to the final attack.

     c.  provide false information on your reactions to an opponent who is conducting reconnaissance.

3.  QUESTION:  How could the beat be used as a feint?

     a.  to draw a beat back which can then be deceived by a disengage or coupe as the attack.

     b.  to draw a beat back which can then be beaten by another beat to open the original line for a straight thrust.

     c.  as a feint parry.

March 2018 - Counteroffense

When we talk about counteroffense, it is important to understand that classical period Fencing Masters characterized the actions discussed in various ways.  These may be considered counteroffense, defense, or even offense.  Or a specific Fencing Master may not characterize them at all, simply describing the action.

Counteroffensive actions (also known as counterattacks) are point or cutting edge actions that are designed to defeat the attack.  They do so either by (1) hitting first (in epee), (2) hitting during an error in the execution of the attack, (3) seizing the tempo of the attacker's attack, (4) simultaneously diverting the attack and hitting, or (5) avoiding the attack and simultaneously hitting.  Two actions are considered counterattacks throughout the classical period, the stop hit and the time hit.  Both are executed as attacks into attacks.   

The first of these is the stop hit, a thrust or cut intended to hit either (1) in the midst of the tempo of an opponent's simple attack, (2) when the opponent makes an error in the execution of the attack, (3) to land before the start of the final action of a multiple tempo attack, or (4) to hit while avoiding the attack.  Most stop hits are executed as direct straight thrusts or cuts.  However, indirect stop hits against press or beat attacks or as escapes from takings of the blade may be productivity.  The stop hit is intended to start after the opponent's attack starts, and land before it lands.

The stop hit uses a rich variety of footwork in the counteroffense.  This can be as simple as a regular lunge, or a retreat step with a thrust or cut.  However, there are specialist footwork actions primarily used in counterattacks, the reassemblement being probably the most widely described.  In addition, classical fencing texts describe the rearward lunge, duck, passata sotto, turning passata sotto, diagonal lunge, and inquartata.

The time hit is a stop hit with opposition, intercepting and diverting the incoming attack in its final line.  Theoretically a time hit can be executed against multiple tempo attacks.  However, it requires a nice appreciation of the opponent's intent, and can be deceived by any change in the expected final line.  It is in effect a combined parry and stop hit, and is particularly effective in that role in epee.  British International epee fencer Charles L De Beaumont, in particular, recommended its use in this role.  The time hit is delivered with footwork more reminiscent of the attack, in most cases using the advance or lunge.

Note that time hits have been called stop hits because they stop the opponent from landing while simultaneously stopping the attack by hitting during its forward progress.  Stop hits have been called time hits because they land in an attempt to steal the opponent's tempo.  When studying period texts, it is important to understand exactly what the author intends by the term.

Additional discussion of the variety of stop and time hit descriptions from period fencing manuals is available in our A Variety of Counterattacks continuing education topic from April 2017.

The point in line occupies an ambiguous position.  It has been characterized as offense, defense, counteroffense, and no characteristic at all.  The point in line, established before an opponent starts an attack, typically in the preparation phase, is given precedence if it is initiated at or within threat distance before the attack starts.  Even though the point in line has precedence it is inherently counteroffensive as it forces the offense to consider and deal with it.  If the offense is not successful in doing so (for example, if the point in line derobes an attack to take the blade), the point in line scores.  Over the years the rules as to whether or not the fencer may improve the point in line with footwork movement have varied, but in the classical period the point in line is most frequently describe in the context of being a static position.

The final action that may be considered a form of counterattack is the attack into preparation.  Although termed an attack, and normally considered as such, this action is intended to defeat the opponent's attack while it is still moving to achieve an attacking position.  This is a more modern term that was not in common use until the later years of the classical period, although the action was certainly possible and used.  An attack into preparation is executed to land as the opponent steps into distance or is moving the blade into a position prior to the start of an attack.   Surviving film from the classical period shows the attack into preparation being employed successfully.    Note that the character of this action has been radically changed in modern fencing by the interpretation that a two tempo advance-lunge is a single tempo action and in foil that withdrawal of the blade is actually an attack because it will eventually come forward.

March 2018 Review

1.  QUESTION:  Which two actions are universally considered to be counterattacks?

  • a.  attack into preparation, stop hit
  • b.  point in line, attack into preparation
  • c.  stop hit, time hit

2.  QUESTION:  The time hit:

  • a.  combines the features of a parry and a stop hit.
  • b.  relies on a direct thrust landing before the opponent.
  • c.  avoids the final line of the attack so that it's speed is not hampered by blade contact.

3.  QUESTION:  A stop hit achieves precedence over an attack in foil or sabre if:

  • a.  it lands during the first tempo of the attack.
  • b.  it lands prior to the start of the final movement of the attack.
  • c.  it is initiated into the preparation of the opponent's attack.

February 2018 - Distance and Measure

Distance is one of the critical elements of fencing (with others including tempo, cadence, speed, initiative, etc.).  Over the years the terms distance and measure have commonly been used to describe essentially the same thing, the distance between two fencers.  Typically in classical period texts distance is described as the physical distance between the target areas of two fencers.  But some texts use a more technically relevant definition, the distance that the weapon will have to travel to score a touch.

As such it is a definition of what distance an attack must cover, the distance that a fencer must achieve in order to be able to attack, what distance is needed to be beyond the range of attack, and the separation that must be achieved to be safe from attack.  These sound like much the same thing but they are not.

First, let's consider the familiar instruction given to fencers by their trainers: "maintain distance."  In other words this is an instruction to keep the same distance between the fencer and his or her opponent, normally one at the outer edge of lunge distance.  This is an instruction to maintain a steady state, in which neither fencer can score on an attack.  There is sufficient distance to allow the opponent sufficient time to retreat out of the reach of the lunge.

If you wish to attack and score, you have to close to the distance at which you can execute an attack with an appropriate chance of success.  And the attack must be able to cross that distance, whether because of speed of execution or because of misleading the opponent by feint, taking the blade, or attacking the blade so that the other fencer cannot execute a successful defence.

Similarly, if you wish to avoid being hit, you must achieve a safe separation from the attack by moving to a distance beyond the envelope of success of the attack.  This can be achieved by retreating sufficient distance to make the attack fall short, or by advancing, standing in place, or retreating to the optimum distance for a parry and riposte.

Classical texts typically divide distance into three segments, characterized by the footwork necessary to hit when the fencer makes a full extension of the weapon arm with the weapon:

  • Short (Extension) Distance - the distance at which the fencers can hit each other with a simple extension without any footwork.
  • Medium (Lunge) Distance - the distance at which the fencers can hit each other with a simple extension and lunge.
  • Long (Advance-Lunge) Distance - the distance at which the fencers can hit each other with a simple extension, advance, and lunge.

Note that there is some variability in the names for the segments, and some authors introduce one or more added distances (for example, Siebenharr's half-lunge distance by lean). 

However, this is an oversimplification.  Foil has one distance, that to the torso.  Sabre has two distances, to the forward target, and to the torso.  Epee has at least four, to the forward target, to the foot, to the torso, and to the rear of the torso and the rear leg.  These can be subdivided to account for smaller segments - for example, the foil target has the forward portion of the torso, and the rear portion of the torso, separated by distance, the difficulty of hitting, and the techniques to be employed.

These subdivisions mean that the traditional short, medium, and long distances may exist at the same time for an opponent, and   may have to be considered by the fencer depending on the segment of the target selected for attack.  In epee, an opponent may be at short distance for an attack to the forearm, medium distance for an attack to the torso, and possibly even long distance for an attack to the rear foot (admittedly an unusual tactical choice).    

In addition, the values must be considered in terms of the physical characteristics of the fencers.  A very tall fencer may have the reach to be able to hit with a lunge what a short fencer needs an advance lunge to hit.

There is a curious omission in the discussion of distance in many classical texts.  Distance is defined in the case of the attack, but not defined in the case of the defence or counteroffense.  Defensive distance is every bit as important in two areas.  First, there is the obvious issue of controlling distance to allow an effective parry or counterattack.  But, the interplay of the distance achieved by the attacker's attack with the distance management by the defender sets up the distance requirements of  the riposte.  As an example:

  • Fencer A attacks with a lunge at medium distance.
  • Fencer B stands in place and parries.
  • Fencer B executes an immediate, fast riposte at short distance to hit. 

That is the standard expected of a parry and riposte - that the riposte should hit the opponent with an extension in short distance  before the opponent can initiate a recovery.  But let's consider a more complex case:

  • Fencer A attacks with a lunge at medium distance.
  • Fencer B takes a short step back and parries with a circular parry.
  • Fencer A starts a recovery to guard.
  • Fencer B executes an immediate riposte by either lunge, or depending on A's recovery by advance lunge.

These examples highlight the importance of using defensive distance to both facilitate the parry (the short step back with circular parry) and to define the distance the riposte is required to traverse.  

As a bottom line (1) both offensive distance and defensive distance are important, (2) distance varies by weapon, by the physical characteristics of the fencer, and by the desired target, (3) there are three standard distances (short, medium, and long), (4) maintaining distance is the status quo, to score you must close distance, to defend you should consider opening distance.   

February 2018 Review

1.  QUESTION:  An opponent has lunged, and you have parried, and riposte by an immediate extension to hit without added footwork.  The distance for your riposte was:

  • a.  very short distance.
  • b.  short distance.
  • c.  riposte distance. 

2.  QUESTION:  The most technically useful definition of distance is:

  • a.  the physical distance between two fencers.
  • b.  when fencers are within the range from being able to hit with an extension to being able to hit with an advance lunge.
  • c.  the distance that the attacker's blade must travel to hit the target.

3.  QUESTION:  If you are facing an opponent with a longer reach than yours which of the following distance relationships exist?

  • a.  the opponent may be able to hit me with an extension at a distance at which I must use a lunge to hit.
  • b.  we will be within the same distance at short, medium, and long distances. 
  • c.  the opponent may be able to hit me with a lunge at a distance at which I can hit him with an extension and lean.

January 2018 - An Invitation

Invitations are nice things to receive.  Everyone likes to get an invitation to a friend's party, or a prestigious event.  But then there are the invitations that you don't want to the party with the hosts who insist on showing their slideshow of 400 slides of their annual trip to Hoboken (and Hoboken is, I am sure, a nice place), or dinner with in-laws you dislike who have food fights at the table among their disgusting little trolls of children, or ...  So, when an opponent on the strip gives an invitation in fencing, it is worth asking what you are being invited to.

Invitations are tactical devices to get your opponent to do something that you want them to do.  When you ostentatiously open a line you are asking the opponent to please attack in that line.  You want the opponent to do so because the expectation is that (1) you are  fast enough to be able to defeat the attack and hit the attacker with your riposte or stop hit and that (2) the opponent is either so tactically unaware or so desperate for a touch that he or she will fall for the lure of an open line.  

This description captures a key point about invitations.  They are second intention actions.  The invitation is the first intention action that is not intend to hit - it opens the line so that the opponent will attack.  The parry and riposte or stop hit is the second intention with the action that is intended to hit.

The invitation is made by opening a line, preferably one in which the opponent is normally disposed to attack.  You do not want the opponent to think too deeply about how to conduct the attack; you want the opportunity to overrule tactical analysis of the situation. 

However, if you are going to invite an attack you have to match your invitations to the character of the opponent.  We can identify three basic types of invitation:

(1) the mechanical invitation - the fencer opens the line sufficiently to create an opening that is attractive.  The movement is a mechanical one that starts and finishes as one continuous speed action.  The width of the opening is uniform with each invitation looking very much like the previous one.  This is the invitation of the fencing manual illustration.  An inexperienced opponent will attack and fall prey to your second intention.  However, an experienced opponent will recognize what you are doing and make a false attack to draw your parry and riposte so that they can parry and 1st counterriposte.  This converts your second intention into their third intention action in the sequence invitation (first intention), false attack, parry riposte (second intention), parry counterriposte (third intention).

(2) the subtle invitation - some fencing masters of the classical period identified the issue of the mechanical invitation, and suggested that the invitation should be more subtle to mask the intent.  Now the blade makes a small opening and perhaps drifts slowly out of position over several tempos.  Varied footwork is integrated to bring the invitation within attractive range.  Body language and blade tension conveys that everything is normal.  To the experienced fencer who is not thinking invitation, this is truly an invitation to attack with first intention, an attack that you are ready for because you have camouflaged the invitation as your inattention or fatigue or over-confidence.  Against an experienced opponent you can do this once, possibly only once ever, so make sure that it counts.

(3) the dare - there in illustration of Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon fencing against Jules Stern of France at The Epee Club's Fourth Open International Tournament at the Crystal Palace in 1904.  Duff-Gordon is standing absolutely erect with his feet at 90 degree angles, his weapon arm and weapon fully extended touching toward the ground.  Stern (the eventual second place in the Tournament) is within lunging distance.  There is no subtlety here, and no mechanical execution either.  This was Duff-Gordon daring Stern to attack.  This type of invitation relies on the opponent being psychologically unable to resist the personal challenge to his or her skill and courage.      

The Italians gave invitations a numbering system tied to the guard and the parry, and this system makes sense for application to invitations in any school (generally invitations are not numbered in manuals describing the technique of other schools)..  The theoretical basis for these numbers is that the guard, the parry, and the invitation are all descriptions of the same characteristic combination of blade and hand and arm.  A guard of fourth closes the high line inside and is a position from which offense and defense are conducted.  A parry of fourth operationalizes the guard by moving further to the inside to deflect an incoming attacking blade.  An invitation of fourth moves the blade further to the inside in the same way, but to open further the outside high line.   Thus, if we combine the French and Italian lists of guards invitations in:

  • First - further opens the outside high line
  • Second - further opens the inside low line
  • Third - further opens the inside high line
  • Fourth - further opens the outside high line
  • Fifth - further opens the outside low line
  • Sixth - further opens the inside high line
  • Seventh - further opens the outside low line
  • Eighth - further opens the inside low line

Teaching invitations can be introduced to students at a very early point in their development.  When a trainer opens a line to cue the student to attack, what is the trainer doing?   That is correct, the trainer is giving an invitation.  When student's drill, and one student opens the line to cause the other student to attack, they are not cuing the attack, they are giving an invitation.  Students should be taught to give good invitations, just as they are taught to  make good attacks.  Similarly, students should learn to reject unbelievable invitations.

January 2018 Review

1.  QUESTION:  Invitations are conducted as:

  • a.  first intention actions.
  • b.  second intention actions.
  • c.  third intention actions. 

2.  QUESTION:  What is the relationship between a guard, a parry, and an invitation?

  • a.  there is no relationship, one is a position and the other two are entirely separate actions for different tactical purposes
  • b.  they are related because both the parry and the invitation are based on the guard position, but they move in opposite directions
  • c.  the guard, parry, and invitation all operate in the same line, with the parry and the invitation moving the same direction from the guard.

3.  QUESTION:  What is the relationship between an invitation of 4 for a left handed fencer and the same invitation of 4 for a right handed fencer?

  • a.  the left handed invitation of four opens the high inside line and the right handed invitation of four opens the high outside line.
  • b.  both invitations open the high outside line of their respective fencers, toward the right of the left handed fencer and toward the left of the right handed fencer.
  • c.  the invitations are made in the same direction for both fencers, to the left if the likely to attack to the left, and to the right if the likely attack is to the right depending on whether the opponent is left or right handed.

December 2017 - The School

The term "school" is widely used in discussions of the evolution of fencing, and starts with the concept of traditions of fencing in Medieval fencing, for example the Liechtenauer Tradition.  In the classical period we "know" that fencing was divided into two schools, the French and the Italian.  So to understand this division, we need to understand what is meant by a school. 

Although widely used, school is not widely defined.  Consulting two standard sources for the definition or explanation of fencing terms, Evangelista's The Encyclopedia of the Sword and Morton's Martini A-Z of Fencing, results in nothing found.  So it falls to the researcher to do a qualitative content analysis to determine the characteristics of a school based on what people view as a school.  We suggest that a school is characterized by:

(1)  A regional or national approach to fencing, often accompanied by an emphasis on nationalism or regional pride, or even sometimes justified by a need to develop a specific national approach.  This can be easily observed in the competition between the various Italian schools or in Siebenhaar's Dutch Method.

(2)  Existence over a period of time sufficient to have developed some body of fencers who practice the school.  This may be as short as the life of the founding master in Siebenhaar's case or the founder and his primary student, the case with Sanz and Lancho of the Spanish School.  On the other hand it may survive even the end of a prominent fencing dynasty, as was the case with Kreusslerian thrust fencing.

(3)  A coherent doctrine and technique.  The two great examples of this are the French and eventual mixed Italian Schools.  For decades in the early 1900s a fencer of either of these schools was readily identifiable by how he or she fenced.

(4)  Texts that describe the method of fencing.  A very large volume of fencing texts from the classical period exist, some as lucky finds in an antiquarian bookshop, others as reprints, still others as online documents.  In addition, the growth of the historical European martial arts community has made translations of an increasing number of classical period texts available.

(5)  A body of fencers and fencing masters.  This criteria is difficult to assess, if for no other reason that there does not seem to be any reliable data on numbers of fencers until we reach the era of national fencing organizations.  Even then such data as survives is not necessarily easy to access.  We are left with a small sample of anecdotal reports.  For example, we know that 80 fencing masters attended a conference at the Hague on 24 December 1864 and agreed upon the rules for fencing competitions according to the Dutch Method.  That is a fairly substantial number of Masters, more than are members of the United States Fencing Coaches Association today.  And we know that the Spanish School must have attracted sufficient adherents to be mentioned in other Fencing Masters' texts and significant coverage in the Spanish press.

(6)  A distinctive weapon.  This is not a universal accomplishment.  The French, Italian, and Spanish grips are directly associated with their schools.  There also may be a distinctive Kreusslerian weapon with a crossbar with the bell, but not having the arches, and thus the space,  necessary to allow the fingers to wrap around the crossbar.

When we apply these criteria, it becomes obvious that the conventional view that all classical fencing is either Italian or French is an incorrect assumption.  Instead we have a much larger selection (and the following short descriptions are to some degree an oversimplification of a very complex subject):

(1)  The French School which remains relatively consistent in its descriptions throughout the classical period.

(1a)  The Epee School which appears in France in the last years of the 1800s in reaction to the deficiencies of foil instruction in preparing fencers for the duel.

(1b)  The Naturalists, who appear to be a French and later English group within the French school who pushed for greatly simplified technique and teaching methods.

(2)  A mixed Italian School, which appears after the formal selection of a single approach to fencing in the training of Fencing Masters in Italy in the late 1800s.  It includes elements of the:

(2a)  Neapolitan School, which is distinctly Italian, and the

(2b)  Northern Italian School, which was widely criticized as having been tainted by some elements of French technique.

(3)  Leonardo Terrone's Left and Right Handed Fencing, a unique bilateral development approach to fencing which evolved following 1900, ending with a small group of adherents in the United States interested in fencing with both hands prior to world War II.

(4)  The Spanish School, which appears starting in the 1890s, and survives until the death of its founder and the destruction of its texts in the Spanish Civil War.

(5)  The Hungarian school of Sabre, the product of the combination of existing Hungarian technique with Italian sabre technique in the early 1900s continuing as the dominant force in sabre fencing until after World War II.

(6)  The Dutch Method, a very distinctive, demanding, and quite static approach to foil and sabre founded in the 1850s and which abruptly disappeared following the death of its founder in the late 1880s.

(7)  Kreusslerian Thrust Fencing, a German approach to fencing with the thrust sword evolving in the 1700s, quite distinct from either the French or Italian Schools, and continuing in use into the late 1800s.

(8)  German Academical Fencing, a university based fencing style fought at short range from an essentially static position with sharp weapons, achieving popularity in student fraternities in the 1800s and continuing to this day.

By the 1930s there was a well established trend to move from purity of one school to mixed approaches.  Julio Martinez Castello, trained in the French School, states that at this point he was teaching French Foil, Italian Sabre, and a personal eclectic approach to Epee.  Aldo Nadi, although fencing with an Italian foil, clearly states that his technique was international in its selection of elements favorable to his approach to fencing.  This trend continues to this day.

December 2017 Review

1.  QUESTION:  Which of the following is an element of the definition of a school used by the Classical Academy of Arms? 

  • a.  the school must be recognized by the Federation Internationale d'Escrime as meeting the standards adopted by the FIE in 1914 for schools
  • b.  the school must be national in scope, ie. the French School or the Italian School
  • c.  the school must have texts that establish its doctrine and technique

2.  QUESTION:  Which of the following schools survived the death of its founder?

  • a.  the Dutch Method
  • b.  Kreusslerian Thrust Fencing
  • c.  the Spanish School

3.  QUESTION:  The distinguishing characteristic of the Naturalists within the larger French School was:

  • a.  the insistence on simplifying both technique and instruction.
  • b.  the emphasis on the use of the Epee for preparation for the duel.
  • c.  the incorporation of elements of the Northern Italian School in their technique.

November 2017 - Fencing at the Olympics Before World War I

The Olympic Games of the Modern Era is a watershed event in both the development of fencing and in the overall development of sports in the classical period.  The idea had been considered and rejected more than once, but it took determined and sustained effort by Pierre Fredy, Baron de Courbetin, to carry it to fruition in 1896.  His vision of the games as a meeting of amateur athletes, of the value of participation, and of the role of the games in promoting understanding of other cultures helped to form the idea that individual sports are part of a greater whole and that they transcend national boundaries.  This represented a major change in the direction of sport as part of society. 
 
There were a total of 5 regular Olympics and the 1906 Intercalated Games (which in 1949 were retroactively declared to have been unofficial) prior to World War I:
 
1896 - Athens, Greece
1900 - Paris, France
1904 - St. Louis, United States
1906 - Athens, Greece
1908 - London, United Kingdom 
1912 - Stockholm, Sweden
 
Fencing was present in all of these games.  However, not all fencing events appeared in each games, some to appear, disappear, and reappear, others to appear once or twice and then disappear, and some to become regular events for the future of the games.  Participation by individual fencers and by nations similarly varied, but after World War I showed steady growth.  It is worth noting that fencing was not alone in this turbulence; the line-up of the Games, both in sports and in disciplines within sports, has changed regularly, and continues to change to this day.  When we look at each year:
 
1896
Individual Foil - 8 competitors from 2 nations - won by Eugene-Henri Gravelotte of France
Masters Foil - 2 competitors from 2 nations - won by Leon Pyrgos of Greece
Individual Sabre - 5 competitors from 3 nations - won by Ioannis Georgiadis of Greece
 
1900
Individual Foil - 54 competitors from 8 nations - won by Emile Coste of France
Masters Foil - 60 competitors from 8 nations - won by Lucien Merignac of France
Individual Epee - 104 competitors from 9 nations - won by Ramon Fonst Segundo of Cuba
Masters Epee - 54 competitors from 4 nations - won by Albert Ayat of France
Epee for Amateurs and Masters - 8 competitors from 2 Nations - won by Albert Ayat of France
Individual Sabre - 33 competitors from 7 nations - won by Georges de la Falaise of France
Masters Sabre - 29 Competitors from 7 nations - won by Antonio Conte of Italy
 
1904
Individual Foil - 9 competitors from 3 nations - won by Ramon Fonst Segundo of Cuba
Foil Team - 2 teams from 2 countries - won by a mixed team of Ramon Fonst Segundo and Manuel Diaz Martinez of Cuba and Alberston Van Zo Post of the United States
Individual Epee - 5 competitors from 3 nations - won by Ramon Fonst Segundo of Cuba
Individual Sabre - 5 competitors from 2 nations - won by Manuel Diaz Martinez of Cuba
Single Stick - 3 competitors from 1 nation - won by Albertson Van Zo Post of the United States
 
1906
Individual Foil - 37 competitors from 12 nations - won by Georges Dillon-Kavanagh of France
Individual Epee - 29 competitors from 10 nations - won by Georges de la Falaise of France
Masters Epee - 3 competitors from 3 nations - won by Cyril Verbrugge of Belgium
Team Epee - 6 teams from 6 nations - won by the French team of Pierre d'Hugues, Georges Dillon-Kavanagh, Mohr, and Georges de la Falaise
Individual Sabre - 29 competitors from 8 nations - won by Ioannis Georgiadis of Greece
Sabre for Three Hits - 21 competitors from 6 nations - won by Gustav Casmir of Germany
Masters Sabre - 2 competitors from 2 nations - won by Cyril Verbrugge of Belgium
Team Sabre - 4 teams from 4 nations - won by the German team of Gustav Casmir, Jacob Erckrath de Bary, August Petri, and Emil Schon
 
1908
Individual Epee - 85 competitors from 14 nations - won by Gaston Alibert of France
Team Epee - 9 teams from 9 nations - won by the French team of Gaston Alibert, Bernard Gravier, Alexandre Lippmann, Eugene Olivier, Henri-Georges Berger, Charles Collignon, and Jean Stern
Individual Sabre - 76 competitors from 11 nations - won by Jeno Fuchs of Hungary
Team Sabre - 8 teams from 8 nations - won by the Hungarian team of Jeno Fuchs, Oszkar Gerde, Peter Toth, Lajos Werkner, and Dezso Foldes
 
1912
Individual Foil - 94 competitors from 15 nations - won by Nedo Nadi of Italy
Individual Epee - 93 competitors from 15 nations - won by Paul Anspach of Belgium
Team Epee - 11 teams from 11 nations - won by the Belgian team of Paul Anspach, Henri Anspach, Robert Hennet, Fernand de Montigny, Jacques Ochs, Francois Rom, Gaston Salmon, and Victor Willems
Individual Sabre - 64 competitors from 12 nations - won by Jeno Fuchs of Hungary
Team Sabre - 11 teams from 11 nations - won by the Hungarian Team of Jeno Fuchs, Laszlo Berti, Ervin Meszaros,  Dezso Foldes, Oszkar Gerde, Zoltan Schenker, Peter Toth, and Lajos Werkner 
 
There are some moments in all of this that deserve notice:
 
In 1896 Adolf Schmal was denied victory when the entire sabre competition was refought so that the late arriving King of Greece could enjoy it. 
 
From 1896 through 1906, despite the amateur ideal, professional Fencing Masters participated in the Games in their own events, and in one case a mixed amateur and professional event.  
 
The 1900 epee for amateurs and masters was a pool unique of the top four finishers in the Masters event and in the Individual Epee event.  Albert Ayat won all 7 bouts without a single touch received. 
 
In 1908 Individual Foil was not held because the organizing committee determined that foil was an art form and not a sport. 
 
The Games of 1912 saw the first boycotts - the Italians refused to participate in Epee over the rejection of their proposal to extend the length of the epee blade to 94 centimeters, and the French boycotted the entire fencing competition.
 
In the early days it was possible to win gold in two weapons.  Ramon Fonst Segundo (1900 and 1904) and Georges Dillon-Kavanagh (1906) did this in Foil and Epee, Georges de la Falaise (1900 and 1906) in Sabre and Epee, Manuel Diaz Matinez (1906) in Foil and Sabre, and Albertson Van Zo Post in Foil and Single Stick (1904).
 
Of the two less well known fencing weapons, Bayonet and Single Stick, only Single Stick made an appearance in the Olympics, and then only in the sparsely attended 1904 Saint Louis Games. 
 
In modern fencing teams are restricted to 4 fencers, including 3 fencers and 1 alternate, with the alternates not accorded most of the privileges of being an Olympic athlete.  This is quite different from the pre-World War I period, with the 8 man teams of Hungary in Sabre and Belgium in Epee in 1912 as prime examples. 
 
Throughout we see a relatively small number of nations as participants.  The rosters of winners are heavily European, with only the United States and Cuba from the Americas, and no participation from Africa or Asia.  When we look at the countries placing fencers in the top 8, the list is restricted to: Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Bohemia, Cuba, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.   Fencing was clearly a white European sport.  
 
The biggest difference from today, however, is that women were not permitted to compete in fencing events until 1924 in Foil.   Epee came later in 1996, and sabre last of all in 2004.  It was not that women were not fencing foil, and by the 1920s epee as well.  It was a combination of a misogyny, a patronizing concern that women's organs could not accommodate the stresses of fencing, and a deliberate failure to recognize that women could be serious about sport.

November 2017 Review

1.  QUESTION:  Why do the titles of individual and team events in the Olympics before World War I not include Men's or Women's?

  • a.  because women were not allowed to compete until the addition of Women's Foil in 1924
  • b.  because all events were fenced mixed, with both men and women competing together
  • c.  because women were not allowed to participate in fencing until after 1918 - the large number of male fencers killed in World War I convinced Salle owners to take in female students in order to survive economically 

2.  QUESTION:  The Olympic Games with the smallest number of fencers represented was the:

  • a.  1896 Athens Games.
  • b.  1904 St. Louis Games.
  • c.  1906 Paris Intercalated Games.

3.  QUESTION:  1n 1908 individual foil was not competed because?

  • a.  the small number of entries did not justify holding an event.
  • b.  the decision was made by the International Olympic Committee to restrict the number of fencing events so that medals would be available for the Tug-of-War as a Track and Field event.
  • c.  the organizing committee determined that foil was an art form, not a sport.

October 2017 - New York Athletic Club 1878 Laws for Fencing with the Foil

The appendix to Ben Miller's edited edition of Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery's Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies includes a copy of the New York Athletic Club's Laws for Fencing with the Foil as published in 1878.  This is an important document for several reasons.  It is a rules set that was likely in use at the start of the classical period, at least in the New York Athletic Club, a fencing center that continues to be major influence in the sport even today.  It is an early set of rules in use in the United States.  And it is a set of rules accompanied by commentary of a Swedish trained Fencing Master with a broad range of other training and experience in the use of the sword in military and civil settings.

The New York Athletic Club Laws consists of 8 rules (these have been edited and the wording updated and clarified where appropriate - amplifying comments are in italics):

(1)  The foil blade is 34 inches long, and flat in shape.  The foil is not secured by binding of the hand or wrist that would prevent the fencer from being disarmed.  This provision would seem to prohibit martingales and wrist straps or bindings used with the Italian foil.

(2)  A free thrust which has hit the opponent must be followed by a pause.  The hit is used to define the end of the fencing phrase and a pause in the bout.  How that pause is executed is not described, but it is a reasonable presumption that this resulted in a return to the center of the piste and to guard.  The meaning of free thrust is not explained, but it may suggest a thrust that has not been parried.

(3)  Reprisals or double thrusts are forbidden.  The fencer who has lunged must return to guard to prevent a hand-to-hand fight.  The term "reprisal" is most likely an anglicization of "reprise."  The "double thrust" is more difficult to identify.  The term sounds very much like a double hit, or two simultaneous touches.  However, it is hard to forbid a double touch resulting from both fencers  acting at the same time, and the following rule (4) appears to sort this out by specifying what happens in a stop hit and assigning priority in a true double action to the higher thrust.  The double thrust might be in the context of a remise or redouble.  The combination of an attack with a remise provides the two actions for the double thrust.  The "hand-to-hand fight" implies close combat, or, as we would term it in modern fencing, in-fighting.  The rule can be simplified to "renewals of the attack are forbidden, and the fencer who lunges must recover to guard."

(4)  Time or stop thrusts delivered without a lunge score a hit only if the fencer making the thrust is not hit.  If both fencers are hit simultaneously the fencer who lands the thrust higher on the body scores the touch.  If both fencers hit in the same line, no touch is awarded.  The provision that the higher touch scores reflects the old concept that hits higher than the opponent's hit are more honorable and thus receive preference in scoring (a right of height combined with a right of way to gain the touch).  The provision for hits "in the same line" must refer to hits at the same height on the body (otherwise a higher hit in the same lateral line would not be awarded).  Monstery definitely does not like the priority for a higher attack.  He makes the point that, should the weapons have been sharp, a higher thrust which causes a minor flesh wound in the shoulder should not be given priority over a lower hit that pierces a lung with a fatal thrust.    

(5)  A disarm does not allow a hit unless it is followed immediately by a thrust.  If the foil is lost while making an attack and hitting the opponent it is to count for one point.  The first sentence makes sense and was a standard rule for many years as a provision that an opponent who drops his or her weapon may be hit until the dropped weapon hits the piste.  Monstery disagrees with the first sentence and suggests that it should be that a disarm results in one point to avoid having to hit an unarmed opponent.  The second sentence is not as easily understood, and consulting the equivalent rules for broadsword (sabre) and singlestick are virtually identical, offering no clarity.  The key appears to be the phrase "and hitting the opponent."  The most likely interpretation is "if the foil lands a touch in the attack, but is dropped after the hit, it will count for one point for the attacker."  Allowing the fencer to lose control of the weapon before it hits and still benefit with a point would seem to be an invitation to throw the weapon as a spear. 

(6)  A fencer may not parry or take hold of the opponent's weapon with an unarmed hand.  This rule reflects the final demise of the use of the unarmed hand to parry, a point of contention in the 1800s.

(7)  If one of the fencers withdraws before completion of the bout, he or she loses the bout.

(8)  Bouts will be fenced for no fewer than 5 points and no more than 10, to be determined by the judges or the referee.  The fencer who first reaches the full number of points is the winner.   

Eight rules on one page makes an interesting contrast with the 215 page modern fencing rule book.  On one hand, this suggests that there was a general and common understanding within a relatively small number of fencers of many of the things that are now defined as rules for a large, international population of fencers.  On the other, it undoubtedly reflects the reality that rules and regulations steadily expand to address ambiguities and bad conduct.

October 2017 Review

1.  QUESTION:  In the new York Athletic Club rules, if there is a simultaneous hit with fencer on the left landing higher on the target than fencer on the right does, how is the touch awarded?

  • a.  because it is a simultaneous hit, no touch is awarded 
  • b.  fencer on the left is awarded the touch
  • c.  fencer on the right has the more honorable thrust and is awarded the touch

2.  QUESTION:  A stop hit is only awarded a touch if:

  • a.  it is more honorable than the original attack.
  • b.  it lands before the original attack.
  • c.  the original attack does not land.

3.  QUESTION:  Fencer on the right attacks fencer on the left's blade with a beat.  Fencer on the left loses control of his weapon and drops it.  May fencer on the right hit fencer on  the left?

  • a.  yes, as long as the thrust is immediate
  • b.  yes, but only until fencer on the left's foil hits the piste
  • c.  no, it is ungentlemanly to hit a disarmed opponent

September 2017 - Chalk, Eyeballs, Tin Tacks, and Pointes d'Arret

Foil and sabre appear to have always relied on the human eyeball and the vigilance of the jury to determine the materiality of the hit (whether it arrived on target, off target, nor not at all) throughout the classical period.  The use of chalk (see below) may have been used in foil before 1900, although the extent to which this was the case is unknown.  Although efforts to develop electrical scoring in foil started in earnest in 1937, before World War II, it was not until 1955 that electrical foil its appearance at the World Championship level.  Sabre took even longer; electric sabre's introduction started in 1988.

However, epee went through a series of different approaches to scoring:

Chalk.  The first approach was the used of chalk, transferred from the tip of the weapon to the opponent's target.  In the United States epee fencers wore dark jackets so that the chalk hit would be visible, but chalk appears to have disappeared by 1897.    

The single Pointe d'Arret, commonly referred to in English as the Tin-Tack.  This device looked very much like a carpet tack, and was affixed to the nail head point of the epee.  The Tin-Tack eventually disappears in the second decade of the 1900s.  

The bouton marqueur Pointe d'Arret, the three-pronged point.  This version of the pointe d'arret put a small ball of cotton between the points soaked in phenolphthalein, with the whole assembly bound to the nail head with waxed thread.  The three prongs caught the jacket or the glove, and the phenolphthalein marked the hit location. The three pronged point was in use in the first decade of the 1900s and survived until electrification became general in the 1950s.

The two versions of the pointe d'arret were dangerous, ripping jackets and inflicting lacerations on the fencers' arms.  Epee fencers of the day could be identified by jagged scars tracking up the forearm.  The phenolphthalein left red marks on the jacket which were either marked through with a pencil or daubed out with vinegar.  The vinegar made the uniform and the fencer smell like a pickle and created one of the more imaginative ways to cheat in fencing history.  Fencers with a desire to absolutely not be hit would soak their jacket in vinegar, let it dry, and then let sweat rehydrate the vinegar on the piste preventing the registration of hits.

Electric scoring.  Electrical scoring in essentially its modern form is introduced in Europe in 1931, was approved for use in competitions in 1933, and was first used in the Olympic Games in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  The electric system did away with lacerated uniforms, did not inflict actual wounds on the fencer, and eliminated the vinegar miasma surrounding epee fencing.  Finding a fencer who seriously fenced competitive epee in the pointe d'arret period who misses the wounds, the ripped up jacket, and the pickle smell is a difficult proposition - the point's demise was widely welcomed.

The general attraction of electrical scoring lies in two dimensions.  First, electrical scoring significantly increases the probability that a possible touch will be correctly assigned materiality if it meets the technical requirements of the rules.  Hits that otherwise were missed due to their location or simple error by the members of the jury were now recorded unambiguously and accurately.   

Second, electrical scoring eliminated unconscious bias and even conscious bias in favor of noted fencers and against the unknown fencer.  And as the jury disappeared, it eliminated manifest cheating by judges in favor of clubmates or fencers of the same nationality, a well understood and relatively frequent occurrence. 

This leaves us with three interesting questions.  First, why did epee fencers adopt the pointe d'arret to secure obvious arrests, when foil fencers seem to have been satisfied well into the 1960s with visual judging, unassisted by any device on the weapon?  One is left with the impression that this was a result of some distinct cultural value in the epee community.

Second, why is there interest in fencing pointe d'arret in modern classical circles?  Both versions of the pointe d'arret were dangerous, and acknowledged as such at the time.  Today, with the understanding of the potential for disease transmittal through open wounds, including serious infections, why take the risk, especially given fencers’ predilection for not washing their jackets?

Third, the electric epee clearly is a classical period weapon.  Why should it not be part of classical fencing?

September 2017 Review

1.  QUESTION:  The first Olympics in which electric scoring was used was the _____________ Olympics.

  • a.  1936 Berlin 
  • b.  1940 Rome
  • c.  1948 London 

2.  QUESTION:  The single point pointe d'arret was known as the:

  • a.  bouton marqueur.
  • b.  tin-tack.
  • c.  pointe unique.

3.  QUESTION:  What was used to erase the marks of hits left by the marker fluid phenolphthalein?

  • a.  water
  • b.  art gum eraser
  • c.  vinegar

August 2017 - The Fleche

Among the critics of modern fencing technique, the fleche, a footwork technique for the delivery of the attack, has received its share of negative commentary.  It is not allegedly as extreme a contributor to the destruction of decent and honorable fencing as is the flick, but it certainly receives credit for the degradation of what was beautiful technique.  Classical fencers would never do anything so gauche as run at each other with the fleche.  Christoph Amberger relates in a Spring 2004 article in Fencers Quarterly that even in 1938 after a bout in Budapest, Colonel Verderber asked a Lieutenant Kevey "But Lieutenant, as a professor at this fencing academy, you shouldn't be using such horrid attacks.  Who taught you this kind of thing?"    

 

So let's take a look at the technique of this supposed abomination. The first technical description in English that we have located is Alfred Finckh's Academic Fencing.  Although, based on internal evidence, publication Finckh's manual dates from at least 1940, and possibly after World War II, Finckh states that the core of the work dates from 1928 or before.  Finckh describes the fleche as an attack which "consists of thrusting placing the left foot some eighteen inches in front of the right foot and at right angles.  The lunge is then made by pushing off the right foot."  Finckh is quite critical of fencers converting this into an attack on the run, emphasizing that it should be a controlled movement, and that one foot must remain on the ground at all times.  The level of control should allow the fencer to quickly recover from the initial forward pass back to a guard position to deal with an attack into the movement. 

 

Maestro Julio Martinez Castello's 1933 text The Theory and Practice of Fencing diagrams the progression of the fleche, showing this same model of passing the back foot in front of the front foot, followed by the former front foot coming forward into the lunge.  In Castello's case, the length of the forward movement of the front foot is approximately the same as would be expected from a normal forward pass.  

 

Geoffrey Hett, in his 1939 volume Fencing, provides another descriptions of the fleche.  The attack by fleche is delivered by (the subdivsion of the steps by numbers is our addition to break the technique down into chunk):

 

1.  "Place the rear foot as unobtrusively as possible in front of the front foot,"

 

2.  "which is then brought quickly around to the lunge position."

 

Hett then goes on to note that often, when the opponent realizes what is happening and retreats, the flecheur breaks into a quick rush.  This results partly from being off balance and partly from the desire to hit in what the flecheur perceives as a favorable opportunity.  Hett is a credible commentator, even though not a fencing master, having fenced as part of the British International Team in Vienna in 1931, Budapest in 1933, New York in 1934, as part of the Olympic Team in Berlin 1936, and Paris in 1937.

 

Joseph Vince, coach of the United States Olympic Sabre Squad in 1936, describes the fleche in the 1937 edition of his manual Fencing.  In his description the fleche is executed by placing the left foot in front of the right and executing one or more running steps.  Vince suggests that it is best employed against an opponent who keeps distance outside of the range of an attack by lunge or advance lunge.  The use of the technique as a distance closer against long or out of distance opponents is different from the modern use of the fleche at lunge distance, and probably accounts for the development of its employment in the rush or running attack.

 

Maitre d'Armes Clovis Deladrier, in his 1948 text Modern Fencing, provides a later (although practically not much later, World War II having effectively stopped international fencing for seven plus years) description that retains much of the technique described by earlier writers:

 

"1.  The arm is extended with opposition, the point directed at the target.

 

2.   The weight is shifted from the left to the right leg, and the left foot is brought up to a position slightly in front of the right foot.

 

3.   From this position, the arm and shoulder stretch out as far as they will go, the body inclines forward until it is almost off balance, and the distance is closed with a rush, preventing the opponent from riposting."

 

The last example of the forward pass model of the fleche that can be attributed to classical period training appears in John Kardoss's Sabre Fencing in 1955.  Kardoss, a former Royal Hungarian Army officer, describes and illustrates what he terms a French method fleche that:

 

1.  Is initiated from the guard or half-lunge position, with the extension of the weapon arm.

 

2.  The weight of the body is unobtrusively shifted to the front foot.  This results in a forward lean of the torso.

 

3.  The back leg comes forward to approximately the same distance between the feet as would be expected in a guard position. 

 

4.  The original front leg then swings forward apparently to first touch with the heel and then extend into the full lunge.  

 

What our sources are describing is an attack that is essentially a modified forward pass that flows into a lunge.  Done correctly it is a smooth, flowing movement that covers a significant distance quickly, allowing the attacker to accelerate the attack into any attempt to retreat, as well as very quickly collapsing the distance if the opponent is advancing.  The conversion to a rush or running attack, is not universally approved of or embraced in the classical period. 

 

However, this poses a problem for classical fencers.  The problem is that the fleche is part of the lexicon of fencing in the post-World War I years of the classical  period.  Maitre d'Armes Julius Palffy-Alpar, a graduate of the Toldi Miklos Royal Hungarian Sports Institute, in his 1967 Sword and Masque attributes its origin to the start of the 20th Century.  Castello establishes that the fleche was in regular use by 1933.  Based on Finckh's text, and the tendency of fencing manuals to lag the introduction of new technique, it seems certain that the fleche predates 1928.  By the start of World War II it was clearly in common use in epee and sabre, and making inroads in foil.  If the Master or School you study falls in this time period, you may need to add the classical fleche to your curriculum.     

August 2017 Review

1.  QUESTION:  The classical fleche can be described as:

  • a.  a running attack executed inside lunge distance by compressing the muscle of the front leg, extending the weapon arm and springing forward off the front leg and ending with a run past the opponent..
  • b.  a forward pass transitioning into a lunge as the weapon leg continues forward.
  • c. a slow attack executed by pushing forward with the rear leg, followed by a walk forward with the blade fully extended. 

2.  QUESTION:  In what time period does the fleche become part of classical fencing?

  • a.  it never actually does - although fencing masters wrote about it, fencers in the classical period refused to use such crude tactics.
  • b.  prior to 1900.
  • c.  in the time period of the 1920s and 1930s.

3.  QUESTION: What may be an explanation for the conversion of the lunge in the fleche into a forward run?

  • a.  the use of the fleche to close to hitting distance when the opponent is at long distance or out of distance  
  • b.  the gradual decay of fencing form among the societal changes in Europe before World War II
  • c.  the development of the sports factory model and emphasis on winning at all costs replacing the perfection of self and fencing form as the goals of the sport after World War II.

July 2017 - Tempo

Any discussion of fencing will inevitably involve the word "tempo."  A quick check of dictionaries shows that tempo is defined in most contexts as the speed or rhythm of activity.  In music work it is the speed or pacing at which the work is to be played.  In military operations it is the speed, intensity, and work load imposed by the requirements of war - the "ops tempo." It can be used to describe the pressures of daily life in business.  But this is not the context of its use in fencing.

 

In fencing tempo is defined as the period of time required to complete one simple fencing action.  The actual time length of a tempo depends upon the speed with which the action is executed.  Two one tempo actions executed at different speeds by different fencers will require different actual times for their completion. 

 

This means that, as fencers, we inevitably have to consider two types of time, tempo and actual time.  In foil and sabre tempo is critical, serving as an artificial construct to define the flow of the bout.  Fencer A is going to attack; Fencer B has the choice of defense or counteroffense.  If Fencer A initiates a slow straight thrust, and Fencer B immediately counterattacks with sufficient speed that her action lands clearly before Fencer A's leisurely hit, whose is the touch?  Fencer A, of course, because A initiated a one tempo action.  The governing rule is that a counterattack must land before the start of the final tempo. Actual time in this case is only relevant (1) in determining that Fencer A started first, or (2) in giving Fencer B enough time to instead execute a parry with the blade or by distance.  

When we look at multiple tempo actions, real time becomes critical to the defender in two ways.  The speed with which the actions are executed by Fencer A allow or limit Fencer B's choices.  A fast attack may reduce the time of the two tempos effectively to one tempo for the defender, making it impossible to insert a counterattack to land before the final tempo starts, and forcing the use of a parry.  A slow attack may bring the fast counterattack on the first tempo into play, while still allowing either a parry and riposte of the final action or, for the fast and well drilled opponent, a counterattack-parry-riposte sequence to hit the first tempo and parry and riposte the second.

It is worth noting that this is a relatively modern interpretation.  When we look at rules sets in the early days of modern amateur fencing (see, for example, in Rondelle's 1892 Foil and Sabre​, including his extensive analysis of the determination of double hits, or in Monstery's comments on the New York Athletic Club's rules of 1877), right of way and the interpretation of tempo does not exist in its modern form.  The possibility exists that even a simple attack that is poorly executed may allow the counterattacker's action to be seen to be a scoring or nullifying hit.  By the 1930s the modern interpretation is clearly the governing one.  

This changes in epee.  It is a common error to assume that tempo plays no role in epee.  Tempo remains important in teaching the synchronization of actions.  But it is most important in the timing of multiple intention actions and actions that involve distance, especially those in countertime or to control the opponent's blade.  The ability to understand the actual time of an opponent's tempo and to change speed within that tempo is very valuable.   It should be noted that this is true in all three weapons, but the absence of right of way and the use of actual time to determine the priority of the hit emphasize it in epee.

 

As a final thought, it is important to understand that how fencing is officiated is one of the key elements in determining how fencing is fenced.  Over the years the rules of fencing have grown from 1 to 2 sheets of paper in the 1870s-1880s to a volume of over 200 pages today.  Understanding the rules and how the rules were interpreted in the part of the classical period in which you fence is very important to understanding the technique and tactics of your weapon. 

July 2017 Review

1.  QUESTION:  The understanding of tempo as a determinant of the right to score in the rules:

  • a.  has remained the same from 1880 to today.
  • b.  has evolved as the rules have evolved.
  • c.  means that tempo is irrelevant to epee fencers. 

2.  QUESTION:  What is the tactical relationship between tempo and actual time in foil and sabre?

  • a.  there is no relationship - everything is governed by who initiates the first tempo action
  • b.  the only application is that a counterattack must land before the completion of the first tempo of any attack.
  • c.  the actual speed of an offensive action may control whether counterattack or parry and riposte is the best choice for a multiple tempo attack

3.  QUESTION: Tempo is defined as:

  • a.  the actual time to complete a simple action, and is established in the rules as 1/3 of a second.
  • b.  the time to complete a simple action, and varies based on the actual speed of execution.
  • c.  the actual speed with which a simple action is completed.

June 2017 - Classification of Fencing Actions

In our examination of the wide variety of techniques of classical Fencing (see the current edition of the Classical Fencing Actions Project on this website), we have tried to categorize fencing actions in a logical way.  Surprisingly, this is an area of some considerable variety - terms are not necessarily used the same way and in many cases period authors of texts do not offer a systematic classification system.

It is also an undertaking not without some dispute.  For example, the term "attack on the blade" has been widely used for those actions that are intended to displace the opponent's blade from the line with pressure or percussion (rather than leverage or by feints).  This seems reasonable enough - you hit the opponent's blade and it goes somewhere the opponent did not intend.  It would seem to be an aggressive, attack-like action.  But there has been at least on Fencing Master who held that it cannot be an attack on the blade because the blade is not target, and attacks are aimed at the target.

When we examine period texts, it is possible to understand that Masters tended to group like techniques together.  In those cases where there is a discussion of tactics, that discussion helps us understand how the application of technique contributes to classification.  The simplest and most basic outcomes is three types of actions:

OFFENSE - actions intended to hit the opponent.  These include simple attacks and attacks with a preparation intended to clear the opponent's blade from the final line of the attack, including by feints (compound attacks), by leverage (the takings of the blade), by percussion (the attacks on the blade), and by combination actions that use more than one method (for example, a feint of straight thrust followed by a disengage ending with opposition to prevent an effective parry).  Ripostes are generally considered to be offensive actions following a parry, both because they are attacks following the failure of the opponent's attack, and because they are done using offensive techniques.  A case can be made that invitations, essentially a second intention action (see our discussion of intent in the May 2017 continuing education), belong in offense.

DEFENSE - actions which prevent the opponent's attack from landing.  The obvious ones are parries and the variety of evasions that take the body out of the line of the attack (inquartata, passatta sotto, ducking, and sideways lunges as examples).  In this discussion the definition of parry is a cause for some argument - does a parry only consist of a blade action on the opponent's blade, or is there such a thing as a parry by distance (a step back to cause the opponent's attack to fall short)?  The exact date at which the parry by distance appeared is not well understood, but Parise mentions it in 1884, so this is clearly a classical usage.

COUNTEROFFENSE - actions which steal the attack's time and which prevent it from scoring.  This includes not only the counterattacks as discussed in our April 2017 continuing education topic, but also the Point in Line.  Some authors do classify the Point in Line as a defense, but its primary function is to deny the opponent the opportunity to attack, a counteroffense.  Logically counteroffense might also include other actions designed to hamper the ability of an opponent to attack or to delay the attack in progress (especially in epee).  False attacks to hamper the development of the attack would seem to fit in this same category. 

But there are other actions that must be considered and that logically can be lumped together as:

ACTIONS NOT INTENDED TO HIT - actions the fencer does to create conditions that may be exploited to hit, but are not inherently offensive or counteroffensive in their own right.  Examples include footwork to manage the strip to the fencer's advantage, footwork designed to close or open distance for tactical reasons, and false attacks to gain information about the opponent (reconnaissance) or to force the opponent to retreat.

This leaves an entire category of actions unclassified.  The related categories of multiple intentions and countertime actions are only partly developed in most classical period texts.  In all fairness. these are more tactic (a combination of technique, timing, distance, psychological conditions, speed, initiative, etc.) than technique (how a commonly understood fencing action is performed).  They can consist of elements of two, three, or all four of the other categories we have defined.  And they are commonly at least second intention in nature.  This suggests that there is a fifth category of COMPLEX ACTIONS, not defined as such in most period texts, but described in some, even if not named.

Remember in this discussion that these are general classification categories for convenience in thinking about classical actions.  They are not necessarily aligned with how the School or Master that you study taught, either in general or in detail.  Differences in how specific types of actions are classified usually reflect the unique nature of the tactical doctrine of a system developed in a School or by the Fencing Master.  Your responsibility is to understand your source and accurately reflect the source's doctrine in your teaching.

June 2017 Review

1.  QUESTION:  You attack your opponent.  The opponent parries your attack and ripostes.  You parry and counterriposte.  What is the sequence of your actions by classification?

  • a.  action not intended to result in a hit, defense
  • b.  offense, defense, offense
  • c.  offense, defense, counteroffense

2.  QUESTION:  A point in line is logically which of the following types of actions?

  • a.  action not intended to hit
  • b.  offense
  • c.  counteroffense

3.  QUESTION: Your are teaching the system developed by a Fencing Master in the classical period.  This Master considered counterattacks and ripostes to be defensive in nature.  How should you address this with your students? 

  • a.  I will use the classifications used by the Master whose work I ma teaching.
  • b.  I will avoid explaining that there is a difference in interpretation, and instead use the classification system in this article.
  • c.  I should explain to my students that, although the Master was brilliant in his own way, he failed to understand the real relationship between different types of actions. 

May 2017 - It Is All About Intention

The concept of intention is central to more complex fencing actions, and classical fencing has long recognized the complexity of actions of more than one intention.  So what is intention in a fencing context?  Let's start with what it is not.  If you have ever heard a modern referee comment, as he awards a counterattack priority over a properly executed and first initiated simple attack,  "you did not demonstrate intent," we are not talking about that.  That is a completely bizarre statement which suggests that an attack only exists if the referee somehow divines that the attacker met, or failed to meet, some referee-created standard of evaluation of the attacker's mental state.  Intention is not an examination of anyone's thought process or mental state.

Instead intention is a tactical concept - do I execute this particular part of the fencing phrase with the objective of hitting the opponent, or is it instead executed to create the conditions under which I can hit in a subsequent part of the phrase?  A first intention​ attack is thus an attack in which the objective is to land on the initial attack.  This may be a simple attack, a compound attack, an attack with footwork preparation, an prepared by an attack on the blade, an attack prepared with a taking of the blade, or a riposte (direct, indirect, compound, etc.).   This does not mean that the defender will not successfully parry the attack and riposte.  It does mean that if the attacker has chosen the right moment and distance, and no defensive actions intervene, that the attack is coming to hit.

At this and each subsequent level of intention, the actions you take are planned - I plan to hit on my first action, or on the second, etc.  This is different from attacking, being parried, and descending into a parry-riposte battle with the only goal being survival.

So what is second intention?  Well, the simple answer is a fencing cliché - you attack with a false attack deliberately short to draw the opponent's parry and riposte so that you can counterriposte to hit.  That is "second intention" as it is most commonly taught.  This sequence in the phrase has the advantage of fixing the opponent so that she does not retreat out of your attack (because she sees the opportunity to score easily), and of stimulating the opponent to extend his blade and lunge into your reach for your counterriposte 

But is that all there is?  Ah - no.  Second Intention can be defined more correctly as any planned action that you take to draw a response which creates the opportunity to hit the opponent.  For example, in foil I invite in fourth (understanding that the fourth invitation opens the line in sixth), so that you will attack in sixth.  Your attack is met by my second intention parry and counterriposte. 

Countertime actions are also fundamentally second intention.  In sabre, I execute a slow attack to draw your stop hit, so that I can stop hit your stop hit in counteroffensive countertime or parry and riposte in defensive countertime.  Note that when you read older classical texts the term countertime is used differently - the more complex modern countertime terminology seems to start to emerge between the World Wars,  

But wait, there is yet another intention, third intention.  Third intention actions are executed to defeat the opponent's second intention.  To take our first example, fencer A attacks with a false attack, fencer B answers with a parry and false riposte, allowing fencer A to complete second intention with the first counterriposte, leading to fencer B executing third intention with a parry and second counterriposte.  In epee, two third intentions are the feint in tempo (a disengage of the stop hit to defeat defensive countertime) or the stop hit on the stop hit of the stop hit executed as a counterattack in tempo.

And there is fourth intention, planned actions you take to defeat an opponent's third intention to defeat your second intention.  As might be expected, this is very difficult to realize as it requires an opponent who can be led through the intricate dance involved.  Parise in 1884 mentions third and fourth intention actions but does not describe them.  He suggests that they are almost impossible to execute.  In a more modern Italian text, Mangiarotti and Cerchiari's 1966 La Vera Scherma​, third intention appears, suggesting that third intention survived the intervening years, but that fourth intention had been abandoned at the latest by that date.

Actions of more than one intention approach being a tactical art form, requiring evaluation of the opponent's habitual responses, perfect false actions that create a believable narrative, and a psychological understanding of the opponent's tactical though processes.  From second intention on, this is the chess game requiring thinking multiple actions ahead while understanding what the opponent's responses will be.  As a spectator, the pity is that you can see second intention but that third and fourth intention are invisible, existing only in the fencers' minds.  

A note - the North American Mangiarotti Society's May continuing education topic (at http://mangiarottisociety.org/ce) includes a discussion of Mangiarotti's view of intention.  Mangiarotti's career spanned the end of the classical period and the start of modern fencing, and his perspectives are of value in understanding earlier Italian technique. 

May 2017 Review

1.  QUESTION:  Intention refers to?

  • a.  a planned tactical decision as to whether an action is intended to hit or to create conditions for a hit later in a phrase
  • b.  the sequence of parries and ripostes in any phrase executed by the fencer who first attacked
  • c.  the degree to which you commit to an action.

2.  QUESTION:  Which of the following actions is an example of second intention?

  • a.  an attack delivered with two or more blade movements
  • b.  a feint in tempo
  • c.  an invitation to draw an attack so that you can parry and riposte

3.  QUESTION:  In the following action you are Fencer B.  You have watched Fencer A, know that he likes to use a compound riposte in second intention, and believe that you can successfully defeat the riposte with a stop hit.  Fencer A attacks, Fencer B parries and ripostes with a false riposte, Fencer A parries and compound counterripostes, Fencer B hits with a stop hit against the compound riposte.  What intention is your action?

  • a.  second intention
  • b.  third intention
  • c.  fourth intention

April 2017 - A Variety of Counterattacks

Counterattacks have long been a part of fencing in all three weapons.  As the term suggests by its name, a counterattack is an action made by one fencer to score a hit in reaction to an attack initiated by the other fencer.  With sharp weapons, the counterattack could literally stop the attack as it developed by inflicting a wound that prevented continued forward movement.  With the two conventional fencing weapons, the rules started with a series of propositions as to which type of action had precedence over the other.  This eventually evolved into the concept that a counterattack took the opponent's right of way if it landed before the start of the final action of the attack.  The dueling sword preserved the reality of he who hits first wins.

Central to the idea of the counterattack is the idea of time, both actual time (in the case of the dueling sword) and tempo (in foil and sabre).  Remember that one tempo is the amount of time needed for the completion of a simple action.  However, this has not always been the only definition of tempo.  Paolo Bertelli's 1800 fencing treatise discusses actions in time in the terms of movement, faults of movement, and blade actions by the opponent which create the conditions in which the fencer can launch a time action to hit.  As late as 1884 Masaniello Parise defined tempo in a similar way as a favorable moment in which an action can be executed when the opponent pauses or is distracted.

The following examples show the variety and subtleness of differences between them (and this is not a complete list of contemporary variations).  In 1884 Parise lists four pure blade actions in tempo:

  • Arrest - a straight thrust closing the line against feints or disengages.
  • Appuntata - an action from the lunge to land on the opponent's feint when the opponent detaches to riposte with a feint.
  • Cavazione in Tempo - a disengage counterattack against an opponent who tries to find the fencer's extended blade.
  • Imbroccata - an opposition counterthrust against gliding attacks starting in the fourth or second lines.  

In 1892 Louis Rondelle lists three counterattacks:

  • Time Thrust - a thrust with opposition that intercepts the attacker's final action, preventing it from landing with opposition while simultaneously scoring a hit.
  • Stop Thrust - an extension of the arm at the start of an opponent's attack or in a wide feint to stop the execution of the attack.
  • Tension - condemned by Rondelle as an action of chance driven by desperation, this is an extension of the arm in an attempt to hit the incoming attacker. 

The American translation of the 1908 French fencing manual of Joinville du Pont lists three types of attacks:

  • Time Thrust (coup de temps) - a counterattack that gains one or more tempos on the opponent's attack.  In other words, this is the modern stop hit which seizes right of way by landing before the start of the final attack.
  • Stop Thrust (coup d'arret) - an attack executed on the opponent's advance, whether or not this advance leads to an attack.  This appears to be the modern attack into preparation.
  • Tension - elevated in this source to a simple extension of the arm without cover, a riposte without a parry, and very close to the modern stop hit. 

In 1915 Master of the Sword George Patton described three counterattacks with the epee:

  • Stop Thrust - an action directed at an exposed part of the opponent who is making a vigorous attack.
  • Counter Thrust - a direct action counterattacking the opponent at the psychological moment at which he is initiating his attack and is most unlikely to effectively react.
  • Time Thrust - a thrust made when the opponent is changing position or making a slow or poor feint.

Julio Martinez Castello's 1933 text described two counterattacks:

  • Time Thrust - a counterattack with opposition catching the opponent's blade and preventing its movement to the desired final line of the attack.
  • Stop Thrust - a thrust with complete extension and opposition against a bent arm or wide attack.

In 1948 Clovis Deladrier identified the same basic actions that are commonly used in modern fencing.

  • Stop Thrust - a straight thrust executed on the moment of the advance or the start of the attack to land cleanly before the attack lands.
  • Time Attack - a counterattack by extension closing the line into which the opponent is expected to attack.

When we examine this list, we can identify certain common characteristics for counterattacks:

(1)  delivered against the attack, either when the attacker is exposed, hesitates, or uses actions that require multiple tempos to complete,

(2)  in most cases based on the straight thrust,

(3)  often with opposition, either to control the opponent's blade or to close the line as a precaution,

(4)  requiring the ability to identify the moment, whether that moment is psychological in determining the attack or physical with the start of movement, and

(5)  delivered with decision, speed, and courage,

(6)  and in accordance with the specific theories of a fencing master or a school of fencing.

The variety of terminology and the subtleties of interpretation in defining the varieties of stop thrusts, time thrusts, counter thrusts, tensions, etc. mean that it is important that your teaching of technique and terminology is consistent with that of the texts you use as sources.

April 2017 Review

1.  QUESTION:  Which of the following is the best practice when teaching counterattacks?

  • a.  use the standard terminology that a stop hit is direct and must land before the start of the final tempo and that a time hit is a stop hit with opposition
  • b.  use the most current terminology used by the school that you are teaching
  • c.  use terminology consistent with the fencing master and text that you use as your source

2.  QUESTION:  What function does opposition perform in a counterattack?

  • a.  it encourages the opponent to deceive the opposition with a circular parry which the counterattacker can then deceive by feint in tempo
  • b.  it causes the opponent to attempt to attack in a different line
  • c.  it intercepts the attack or closes the line so that the attack cannot hit

3.  QUESTION:  What does Patton's Counter Thrust attempt to exploit?

  • a.  the psychological moment in the start of the attack in which it is most vulnerable to disruption
  • b.  the tendency of many attackers to fail to properly cover themselves against a counterattack
  • c.  the moment at which the opponent starts to step forward

March 2017 - A Matter of Hands

In a previous month's continuing education, we made passing reference to hand positions.  This is a complicated subject that deserves more attention, because varies are a characteristic of different schools and because it influences the outcomes of combat.

Note that the following descriptions reference blade positions applicable to foil and epee.  The hand positions described are also correct in sabre, but the curve of the blade is sideways when mounted in the weapon, rather than vertical.

The French School defines three basic hand positions for the weapon hand - supination, pronation, and a middle or neutral position. 

  • In supination the hand is horizontal with the palm upward, and the knuckles downward.  The top surface of the blade (the top surface is the wider surface of the blade that is aligned with the top of the grip and with the bend appearing downward when the grip is held in the neutral position) is to the fencer's outside, with any curve to the blade displacing the point toward the inside.  Used in the Fourth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth parries.
  • In pronation, the hand is horizontal with the palm downward and the knuckles upward.  The top surface of the blade is to the fencer's inside, with any curve to the blade displacing the point toward the outside.  In first guard or parry the hand is vertical with the thumb downward and the back of the hand toward the fencer.  Used in the First, Second, Third, and Fifth parries.
  • In middle or neutral position, the hand is vertical with the thumb up and the palm facing to the inside.  The top surface of the blade is upward, and the curve of the blade displaces the point downward.

The French School creates two complete parrying systems, one composed of all the pronated parries and one of all the supinated parries. Texts describing the French School vary as to whether the middle or neutral position is an accepted hand position.  Some exclude it; some include it, and some include it but only for one guard or parry (typically Fourth).  Other schools use variants of the French system:

  • The Spanish School (which combines some elements of the French and some of the Italian Mixed Schools) prefers the use of the middle position for all guards and parries. 
  • The Kreusslerian Thrust Fencing School (German, as described by Roux) uses pronation (Second and Third parries) and supination (Fourth parry). 

Siebenhaar's Hollandsche Methode (the Dutch School) lacks a detailed description of how to hold the weapon.  However, the illustrations and descriptions of technique appear to show four parries with a modified supination, turning the nails "a little down" (Parry Right and Parry Low Right) or "a little up" (Parry Left) in three parries, complete supination in one (Parry Low Left),  and complete pronation in three (Low Right with the Hand Inverted, High Left, and High Right parries).

Italian technique starts with four hand positions (see Bertelli in 1800) numbered sequentially First through Fourth.  These same four positions eventually are joined by two, or three, others to form what we commonly think of as the characteristic Italian system;

  • First places the hand in a vertical, thumb down position, with the knuckles and back of the hand toward the inside and the palm toward the fencer's outside line.
  • First in Second is an intermediate position with the hand turned at a 45 degree angle from the vertical between First and Second positions.  This hand position doe snot appear in all Italian texts.
  • Second is a position of complete pronation with the knuckles and back of the hand upward and the palm downward.  Used in the Second parry.
  • Second in Third is an intermediate position with the hand turned at a 45 degree angle from the horizontal between Second and Third positions.  Used in the Third parry. 
  • Third is essentially the same as the French middle position with the hand vertical, the thumb uppermost, the knuckles and back of the hand to the outside, and the palm to the inside.
  • Third in Fourth is an intermediate position with the hand turned at a 45 degree angle from the vertical between Third and Fourth positions.  Used in the Fourth and Half-Circle parries.
  • Fourth is a position of complete pronation with the knuckles and back of the hand downward and the palm upward. 

Hand position plays a significant role in whether or not the attack or counterattack arrests under the pressure of the bout.  Some period texts emphasize the arrival of the point as placing the point on the target, an approach that values accuracy in point control.  However, the reality is that stress degrades accuracy.  A relatively small horizontal deviation with the thumb and index finger in supination or pronation introduces a probability of a miss.  The same deviation in the hand in the middle position is a vertical deviation with the probability of hitting the target or at least off target.     

There is another variable in hand position that is not generally identified as important as pronation and supination, but obviously is.  Does the grip and pommel remain in the contour of the hand, or is the pommel displaced, with the blade forming an angle with the hand and arm?  French First and Barbasetti's Italian First with the blade vertical requires the blade, grip, and pommel to rotate free of alignment with the horizontal groove of the palm into the vertical groove.  Similar displacement occurs in two of Siebenhaar's Dutch parries.  Depending on the characteristic length of the grip this may be a factor in angulation in attacks as well. 

March 2017 Review

  1.  QUESTION:  In which hand position are the nails and palm up, the thumb toward the outside line, and the back of the hand downward?

  • a.  supination or Italian Fourth
  • b.  middle position or Italian first
  • c.  pronation or Italian second

2.  QUESTION:  The Spanish School, which uses a modification of the Italian family of grips, predominantly uses what hand position or positions?

  • a.  the full range of Italian hand positions, first, second, second in third, third, third in fourth, and fourth
  • b.  the full range of French hand positions, supination, pronation, and middle
  • c.  the French middle or neutral hand position

3.  QUESTION:  Which hand positions offer the greatest tolerance of point displacement errors in the riposte?

  • a.  those with the hand horizontal, the palm up, knuckles down, thumb to the outside
  • b.  those with the hand vertical, the palm to the inside, knuckles to the outside, thumb on top
  • c.  those with the hand horizontal, the palm down, knuckles up, thumb to the inside

February 2017 - Positions, Guards, Invitations, etc.

In our January continuing education post, we discussed lines, specifically including the standard high line, low line, inside line, and outside line.  These lines are numbered in a system that varies with the school and that has as much to do with the historical orientation of the fencer's hand, as it does with the physical space covered.  The lines are an important construct because of what happens in them, and that is our topic for this month.

When we talk about lines we are talking about two static concepts (position and guard), two offensive acts (attacks and invitations), and two defensive acts (closing the line and parries).  All of these are about the same thing, how the space around the fencer's target area is used.

First, for convenience, let's review the lines and the numbering system associated with those lines in the two most commonly described schools of fencing, the French and the mixed Italian (note that (p) indicates hand in pronation and (n or s) hand in supination in the French school):

The Lines

French

Italian

  Inside Line

 Entire line

  First (p)

 

 Inside High Line

  Fourth (n or s)

  Fourth

 Inside Low Line

  Fifth (p),  Seventh (n or s)

  First

  Outside Line

 Outside High Line

  Third (p), Sixth (n or s)

  Third

 Outside Low Line

  Second (p), Eighth (n or s)

  Second

This is admittedly an oversimplification (it omits high and low variants as well as differences between Italian sources).  But it will serve as a convenient basis for discussion.  It should be noted that French numbering creates two defensive boxes, based on hand position: the supinated or neutral hand box of 4th, 6th, 7th, and 8th and the pronated hand box of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th.

POSITION is the actual position of the blade, hand, and arm in one of the four lines relative to the target.  The presumption is that the positions of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th close the line so that an attack into that line without angulation or opposition will not succeed.  There is one additional position adopted by some portion of the contemporary classical fencers, the central position in which the blade is positioned at the intersection of high and low, inside and outside lines.

GUARD is the combination of blade position with body position in readiness for combat.  A fencer who is in a guard of 4th has the inside line closed, the torso, non-weapon arm, and legs in a position that facilitates movement in offense, defense, and counteroffense.  In common usage, position is not commonly referred to, and guard serves interchangeably for describing the line of the blade.

ATTACKS and preparations are executed in one or more lines.  Thus a feint to the inside high line can be described as a feint to the inside high line or as a feint in 4th.  In those schools in which hand position is considered descriptive of the action (such as in French school) the attack is normally described by the appropriate number - thus an attack in 2nd or in 8th depending on whether the hand is in pronation or a neutral position.

INVITATIONS are actions conducted to stimulate an opponent to execute a specific attack so that the attack can be parried, followed by a riposte to score, or can be hit by counteroffense.  English language texts of the French School do not generally make a point of naming invitations.  However, Italian sources name invitations based on the resemblance of the invitation to a parry.  Thus an invitation of 4th resembles a parry of 4th and opens the opposite line, the high outside line.

CLOSING THE LINE is defensive in nature, although it can be both the restoral of a defensive blade position and as a part of an attacking action to prevent a successful counterattack (thus defending the attack from interference).  The fencer closes the line of 4th.

PARRIES are the operationalization of a blade position and the guard to defend the fencer from a specific attack.  Parries are almost always referred to by number, thus a 4th parry defends the inside high line from a high inside attack.  Where the blade ends up in a parry does not always conform to a guard, both because of the type of parry executed and because of the action to deliver a riposte.

Thus these terms are closely linked.  A guard of 4th presumes that the inside high line is closed.  An invitation in 4th falsely opens the outside high line to stimulate an attack in that line.  An attack in 4th tries to fill the opening created by either error or an invitation of 6th.  And a parry of 4th operationalizes the guard to block the attack by closing the line to restore the guard.  It is tempting to say that this is all a matter of word choices.  However, that is not the case.  Each term defines a specific tactical choice - for example, if a line is open you can choose not to close it to leave it open as an invitation or to close it to restore the guard or to execute a parry.  Understanding that each is a choice is important to being able to applying tactics to the bout to reach a positive outcome.

February 2017 Review

1.  QUESTION:  What is the difference between a guard and a parry?

  • a.  there is no difference - a guard properly taken is a parry
  • b.  there is no practical difference between a guard and a parry - when the parry is completed against the opponent's attack it will always form a guard
  • c.  a guard is a combination of blade and body position; a parry is the operationalization of the blade position in the guard to defend against a specific attack

2.  QUESTION:  In the period 1880-1939 how are attacks described in relation to lines in most cases?

  • a.  attacks are described by the line into which they are made, typically by the number of the line (Italian) or line and hand position (French)
  • b.  attacks are described by the line from which they originate, typically by the description of the line, such as a high outside attack
  • c.  attacks are not described by lines, but rather by the correct parry that would be used to defeat them

3.  QUESTION:  Closing the line is described in this article as being defensive.  How can you explain its use in an attack?

  • a.  closing the line is not defensive; it is always an offensive action
  • b.  properly done closing the line prevents the opponent from easily executing a time or stop action into the attack, thus defending the attack from interference
  • c.  this is an example of how fencing terminology creates confusion - there is no relationship between defensive closing the line and offensive closing the line

January 2017 - A Matter of Lines

The term line in fencing refers to two classes of things, one on the piste and one on the person.  Although it might seem that this should be confusing, in reality the two uses of the term support each other, and both occupy an important part of theory of fencing.

French fencing theory did not direct much attention in published texts to the concept that there is a geometrical relationship (as opposed to one of distance) between the two fencers on the strip.  Rondelle does describe the concept of "being in line" as being in a good guard position and in line with the opponent, but does not describe what in line with the opponent means. 

However, Italian theory was more explicit in dealing with relationships between fencer positions on the strip.  For example, Parise defined a Line of Direction (also termed the Directing Line) as a straight line drawn between the centers of the heels of the two fencers along the axes of the fencers’ right feet.  When the fencers were on guard, he described the Line of Offense as the straight line between the fencer’s weapon and the opponent’s chest.  Both of these lines connect the two fencers, as opposed to describing the target or position of one of them.

The French did address Lines of Attack, but in a very different way from the Italians.  Both Rondelle and Castello do identify the concept of a Line of Attack, areas on the opponent into which an attack may be executed.  Rondelle tied these to the normal lines on the person, and Castello frames them in broader regions which could encompass several lines.

However, there was general agreement between the two schools as to the subdivision of the target.  These subdivisions actually serve four purposes: a position of the fencer (as on guard in a line), an invitation to attack (into a line), the attack itself (in the open or opening line), and the parry (which closes the line). 

An imaginary horizontal line from the bell separated High (above the guard) and Low (below the guard) Lines.  A vertical line from the bell divided the target into Inside (to the fencer’s chest and abdomen) and Outside (toward the back) Lines.  The result was four quadrants, each of which was a line: High Outside, High Inside, Low Inside, and Low Outside (also identified in both schools by the guard or parry that defended the quadrant).  These quadrants grew or shrunk in size in relation to the movement of the bell. 

There are any number of fencing manuals that depict the four lines by drawing lines that equally divide the torso.  Earlier versions equally divide the earlier target when it was restricted to the area above the waist.  Even when they were first drawn, these diagrams did not reflect reality.  No contemporary author describes a hit delivered to the inside of the opponent’s blade on an area labelled High Outside on an equilaterally divided illustration of the torso as being a High Outside touch.  But if the division were really related to lines drawn on the torso, they should have said that hit to the inside of the blade landed in the Outside Line, an assertion that would have made no sense.

These lines on the person come back to relate to the Italian lines relative to the piste.  If two right handed fencers come on guard on the Line of Direction, the Line of Attack and the Line of Direction are quite close.  At the same time hits to the Inside Line become more difficult.   And the old practice of engagement in fourth rather than sixth or third makes more sense.  Fourth engagement was used extensively because of the perceived strength and speed advantage of the sixth parry.

However, if the fencer shifts his position laterally to the opponent’s inside even a small distance, rather than a straight Line of Direction paralleling the edges of the piste, the fourth High Inside Line becomes more accessible, and thus more vulnerable.  This is a practice of some antiquity – Saviolo describes rapier play trying to gain the advantage of an opponent’s exposed Inside Line by circular movement to the inside in detail in 1595.  It is useful to experiment with fencing maintaining rigorous attention to position on the Line of Direction to see the difference between fencing to the outside of the line, on the line, and to the inside of the line.

More difficult to understand was the use of a central guard (at the intersection of the vertical and horizontal lines drawn on the torso already discussed).  In the central guard the diagram with four quadrants found in some textbooks becomes truth, as the fencer's bell is positioned at, or close to, the intersection of the vertical and horizontal lines.  The central guard was certainly used, and used by some prominent fencers.  The argument in its favor is that from this guard the fencer could move equally quickly to defend any line.   The disadvantage is that when the fencer was on guard, no line was protected, forcing the fencer to be ready to move in any direction and leaving her exposed in all. 

The Line of Direction and the Line of Attack survive the end of the classical period, being incorporated in Mangiarotti’s text of 1966.  And the Line of Direction is still encountered as the Fencing Line.   

January 2017 CE Review

1.  QUESTION:  Which line refers to the straight line geometrical relationship between the fencers' feet on the piste? 

  • a.  the Line of Direction
  • b.  the Line of Attack
  • c.  the Inside and Outside Lines

2.  QUESTION: You are reading a book about fencing, and when the lines are described the description is illustrated by a diagram showing the torso facing you with the chest fully exposed.  A vertical line divides the torso from neck to crotch, and a horizontal line divides it from approximately above the navel to below it.  Each of these quadrants is labelled with High Outside, Low Outside, etc. and the number of the parry that defends it.  When is this diagram an accurate representation of the lines on the body?

  • a.  always - the line of an action is defined relative to the point at which it occurs on the body; if the attack lands in one of the quadrants it is an attack into that line regardless of where the fencer's weapon is
  • b.  only when the fencer is on guard in a central guard, otherwise the lines grow or shrink in relation to the position of the bell
  • c.  never - lines are defined from the position of the blade of the fencer's weapon

3.  QUESTION:  In Italian theory the Line of Attack or Line of Offense is defined as:

  • a.  the actual movement of the blade in executing the attack,
  • b.  the area of the target that is exposed when a fencer adopts a guard position.
  • c.  the straight line connecting the fencer's weapon with the target.

December 2016 - The Orthopaedic Grip

Orthopaedic grips have widely been blamed by classical fencers for most of the ills of modern fencing.  Criticisms include that they prevent the delicate fingerplay of the traditional French and Italian grips and that they encourage the use of excessive force leading to bad fencing, flicking, brutal fencing, heavy-handedness, all of the fatalities in fencing's recent history, etc.  It is well known that orthopaedic grips did not exist during the classical period.  Therefore, no classical fencer should ever use one.

We admittedly live in a post-factual world, and the classical criticism of the orthopaedic grip is ideally suited for that world.  Orthopaedic grips appear to fall into three basic design categories: (1) grips with a long handle, seemingly built upon the French grip (the Gardere is an example), (2) grips that appear to be modifications of the Italian grip (the Spanish grip is an example), and (3) grips designed to be manipulated with fingers and the musculature of the hand, the true pistol grip (the Visconti is an example).  Some specimens have multiple characteristics, making classifying them an interesting effort.  All appear to have been designed for one or more of three purposes: improved finger control, retaining the strength and power of the Italian Grip, and allowing use by individuals with injuries.  Fencing's orthopaedic grips are one of the first, if not the first, examples of adaptive sports equipment for fencers with disabilities, something of which all fencers should be proud. 

Improved finger control is mentioned by classical period sources, notably Adelardo Sanz in his description of the design criteria for the Spanish grip.  That orthopaedic grips reduce finger control is refuted by no less knowledgeable an authority, Genady Tyshler in the Federation d'Escrime Internationale's current manual for training coaches.  Tyshler emphasizes that orthopaedic grips offer better finger control than a French or Italian grip.

And, if we consider strength, the French critique of the Italian schools has always been the forcefulness of the technique.  Both Castello, Sanz, and Bossini describe the benefits of the Spanish grip as offering the control of the French grip and the power of the Italian grip.  It is difficult to understand how an Italian grip strapped to the wrist is less powerful than an unrestrained orthopaedic grip.

That leaves the fact that orthopaedic grips were not used in the classical period.  Well, actually that is not a fact either.  Thanks to the work of George Kokochashvili we can identify a significant collection of designs of orthopaedic grips that predate the end of the classical period as the Academy defines it (1880-1939).

Approximate Date

Grip

Notes

1895-1902

 Spanish

 By Maestro Adelardo Sanz.  A modification of the Italian grip with different sized archetti designed to be held with the quillons vertical.

Early 1900s

 Terrone

 A straight grip designed by Maestro Leonardo Terrone for right and left handed fencing.

Early 1900s

 Terrone-Perez

 A straight grip designed by Maestro Leonardo Terrone with assistance from Giuseppe Perez for right and left handed fencing.

Early 1900s

 Parise-Terrone-Perez

 A straight grip with modified quillons designed by Maestro Leonardo Terrone as an improvement to the Terrone-Perez model with assistance from Maestro Massaniello Parise for right and left handed fencing.

1905

 Cugnon D’Alincourt

 A straight grip with a paddle near the pommel

1908

 Eugene-Louis Doyen

 A straight grip with finger projections designed to be custom fit to the fencer.

1910-1920

 Athos di San Malato

 A pistol grip with a long rearward extension.

 In the 1920s

 Gardere

 A straight grip with finger hooks designed by Maestro Andre Gardere

1920

 Athos di San Malato

 A pistol grip with a wrap-around rear projection and a thumb trough.

1920-1925

 Herminio Eccheri

 A grip with either a shaped or straight handle and two large circular loops apparently held horizontally designed by Maestro Herminio Eccheri.

1920-1930

 Visconti

 A pistol grip designed by Maestro Francesco Visconti.

1922

 Souzy Aine

 A straight handle with a paddle before the pommel and two short vertical quillons.

1924

 Domenico Triolo

 A short straight handle with two shaped quillons.

1929

 Agesilao Greco

 A straight handle with a single arch on the bottom side of the grip.

1936

 Michele Alajmo

 A straight handle epee grip with two gently curved quillons.

The grips listed are not a complete catalog of patterns.  For example, the Cetrulo and Belgian Pistol grips are certainly pre-1939 in origin, and there are a variety of patterns of Spanish Grip that precede at least 1948, and almost certainly 1939.  The list only includes those for which an approximate date and likely source could be established. 

When one reads the list of grip designs, it is interesting to note that the names of the designers read like a who's who of prominent fencers and fencing masters.  These are not novice inventing a grip that will let them pummel more advanced fencers with undisciplined, heavy-handed fencing.  They are leading practitioners, fencing masters, experienced duelists, formidable competitors of the day, well trained in their particular schools, and presumably valuing sentiment de fer and blade and point control to as high a degree as any other fencer of the day.

If you wish to use an orthopaedic grip in classical fencing we do have several guidelines that you should follow:

(1)  choose a grip that you can establish without doubt was in use between the years 1880 and 1939, and that is consistent with the specific school or master whose work you are studying.  This may create challenges.  For example, the manuals and notes of Adelardo Sanz were destroyed prior to his suicide and any writings of his primary protégé, Angel Lancho, were almost certainly destroyed during the Spanish Civil War.

(2)  train to use the grip the way it was used by adherents of the school.  If your fencing is French School from the late 1920s-1930s and you want to use a Gardere grip, then practice to use French fingerplay with that weapon.  Don't decide you will do Italian fencing with a long handled orthopaedic grip or French fencing with an Italian design, unless you have supporting evidence.

(3)  from time to time go back to the older French and Italian grips as appropriate and practice with them.  Doing so will help you better understand your orthopaedic grip.

(4)  understand that fingerplay is a useful concept as long as your pulse rate stays below approximately 115 beats per minute.  Above that fine motor control starts to disappear, and you must be prepared to shift to hand and even arm control of the blade.  This is a physiological reaction that appears nowhere in the classical manuals.  If you want to do high quality finger work with an orthopaedic grip, work on relaxation and lowering your pulse rate.

December 2016 CE Review

1.  QUESTION:  One of the advantages of the orthopaedic grip was that these grips allowed fencers with hand or arm injuries to continue to fence.  However, based on comments at the time which of the following was a primary reason for the design of orthopaedic grips?

  • a.  to provide the ability to apply even more power to blade actions than the Italian grip could
  • b.  to reduce the technical ability required for beginning students to be able to fight successfully in duels  
  • c.  to improve control and accuracy in fingerplay

2.  QUESTION:  The orthopaedic grips designed during the classical period prior to World War II were overwhelmingly designed by:

  • a.  individuals who hoped that a weapon capable of exerting a great deal of force would compensate for their lack of skill and competitive success. 
  • b.  highly accomplished and well known fencers, duelists, and fencing masters
  • c.  the premise of the question is false - orthopaedic grips may have been designed but were never actually used in the classical period; only the French and Italian grips can be considered classical grips

3.  QUESTION:  The earliest documented design for an orthopaedic grip for which we can establish a date was:

  • the Belgian pistol grip designed specifically for use with the electric foil and epee in 1952.
  • Adelardo Sanz's Spanish grip patented in 1895.
  • Athos di San Malato's modification of the Italian grip by adding a heavier pommel, offset quillons, and a differently shaped handle in 1920.