In my next-to-latest post, I stated that I would cover a team sport (with which I did not mean team fencing) in my next post after that. That did not happen – it was followed by a post concerning fencing tempo, with no OODA loop content. This post will revisit the topic of the OODA loop, but I will not cover that team sport – I will at last cover fencing from an OODA loop perspective. That might seem a roundabout way of doing things, but reader input convinced me that it is about time that I quit hiding the good stuff!

(For those of you who wonder why I was planning on posting yet another post on the OODA loop in a non-fencing context, that being the fifth such post, my thinking was that I should introduce the quite difficult concept of OODA loop in a stepwise fashion, taking care not to make any one step too big.)

Let us go back to the post on fencing tempo. I wrote:

Here comes the crucial part: The increase in fencing tempo tends to happen in stages, not as a gradual process. That means that when the fencing distance becomes shorter, one fencer will go into a high fencing tempo somewhat before the other one. That late-to-change fencer will then be forced to either deal with a fast-moving opponent blade which is close to him (which delays his own offensive actions) or to start an offensive action after the opponent is both close and moving quickly. Neither options are conducive to him winning the phrase.

Conclusion: The fencer who is the first one to increase his fencing tempo once distance collapses is at a very significant advantage.

Let us look at that from an OODA loop perspective. When the fencing distance is large, neither fencer can score a point until some sort of preparatory footwork has been done. Since there are no arm-only fencing actions which can threaten the opponent, a high blade tempo will be of little use, and that is why the blade tempo is relatively low in that case. From that large fencing distance, the fencer must Observe his position and that of his opponent, their relative speeds, and based upon that Orient himself whether a preparatory footwork action would be enough to diminish the distance sufficiently so that a final offensive action could be successfully started. He must (or at least, should!) also have had Observed his opponents previous habits, strengths, weaknesses and combine that with prior self-assessment of his own strengths and weaknesses, and combine all that to Orient himself as to which types of attacks are most likely to end well for him. That is a lot to keep track of, but at least he is not forced to think alot about complex blade movements.

From here, the fencer has three options:

  1. He can Decide that none of the possible attacks have a good enough reward/risk ratio, and Decide to continue to fence at a long distance. A typical case of that might be when he is leading 14-13, and there is only 10 seconds left on the clock.
  2. He can Decide that he wants to close the distance as right now, and leave the Decision on which type of attack for later.
  3. He can Decide upon which type of attack he wants to perform once he is within range, but do so while he still is outside of range. It is quite possible that the opponent´s blade is placed in such a position so that the attack needs some sort of preparation (beat, feint, etc.) once within range in order to have an acceptable chance of success. In order to do so, he must Observe the relative blade positions, Orient himself on which type of preparation is possible, and Decide upon one of those. Once he has done that, he must Act by closing the distance through footwork, and Act again by performing the preplanned preparatory action, Observe whether that action actually created a situation in which the final attack has a reasonable chance of success, and if so Act yet again by launching that attack. There is a lot that can go wrong there, which is a partial explanation of why epee is so defence-oriented.

If the fencer chooses the first option, no big change happens, and we are still in the same place in the OODA loop.

If the fencer chooses the second option, he gives his opponent very little time to think. On the other hand, he exposes himself to the very real risk of a straight extension by the opponent. If the opponent has something preplanned, the fencer is one step after in his OODA loop. If the opponent then Acts instantly, the fencer must Observe the counterthreat, Orient himself of its nature, Decide how to protect himself, and Act accordingly. That, or hope that the countering action by the opponent misses from a short distance. That does not seem to favor the fencer choosing the second option, which matches my observation that it seems to be an uncommon choice.

That said, there are few special cases in which option #2 is a good choice:

  1. The fencer is down one point and absolutely desperate on time. Then it can be the correct choice to get within striking distance first, and hope that something unplanned works out in flurry of blade movements during the dying seconds of the match.
  2. The fencer is chasing his opponent down the piste, and the opponent does not seem to be aware that he is about to step over his own back line. No point in letting up and giving the opponent to get his bearings.
  3. The fencer has concluded that the opponent is very good at planting misconceptions in his head, but amenable to forceful bladework. Then it can be the best course of action to disregard all signs prior to stepping into short distance, and once within it observe the opponent’s blade and deal with it before the final attack.
  4. The opponent does something unexpected and highly damaging to his own position, such as stumbling. Then it can be a good idea to rush in to capitalize on a sudden situation in which the opponent cannot defend himself, but he will be able to regain that ability very soon.

However, when those four cases are not at hand, it is the opponent to the fencer that steps in that will be the one that most likely will be the one that will increase the blade tempo first.

This leaves us with the third and final option – deciding on the preparatory action before stepping in to short fencing distance. Here the fencer has front-loaded the thinking (OOD), leaving only the Act tasks to do once he steps into short fencing distance. In that way, he minimizes the time needed to finish off the fencing phrase to his advantage. Of course, the Act can fail to produce a score, in which case the whole OODA loop continues until someone scores, time runs out, or the fencers get out of short fencing distance. If the fencer gets the Act right, he will have a large chance of scoring in that fencing phrase, and even if he at first fails, his chances are not bad if his opponent does not have something preplanned. That opponent must then either counterattack (and hope that he does so in time), hope for the incoming fencer to do an unforced error, move so fast so that he either gets into closed or long fencing distance before the incoming fencer scores, or do something defensively with his blade, which somewhat delays his ability to do a strictly attacking movement. All in all: if one fencer has a plan before he steps in and his opponent does not, the former has the advantage. That – importantly for this discussion – means that the former fencer will be the first to increase his blade tempo, since he is the one that does not have to think about what to do.

Consider the sentences that are both bolded and in italics. What they mean is that in both option #2 and #3, the fencer that increases the blade tempo will be the one that is most likely to score in the fencing phrase.

That means that the OODA loop explains the phenomenon described in the previous blog post. I will try to explain how the OODA loop thinking can explain other observations that we see on the fencing piste in subsequent blog posts.