Preamble: I like nonobvious titles, analogs, and long introductions speaking about something that appears to have nothing to do with the overall topic at hand. In this blog post, I let those preferences have free reign, much more so than in my other writings. If you dislike those things, this might not be the blog post for you.
Readers of a certain age might recognize the quote: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. Let me state an addendum for point weapon fencing:
Confuse like a dragonfly!
Ever tried to catch a dragonfly bare-handed? They spend a lot of their time hovering still, and they are quite large compared to most insects. What gives? Why are they so hard to catch? Mosquitoes are smaller, move faster, yet are easier to hit!
Their ability to switch from being nearly still in one place to quickly move to another, just far away enough so that a hand going for the first place will miss them when they are in the next place.
How those very fast switches from very low to high speeds make them so difficult to catch can be understood in the perspective of a OODA loop:
- The dragonfly is still. Its size, and overall stillness, make them easy to spot. (Observe)
- The would-be catcher focuses on where the dragonfly is. (Observe)
- The dragonfly sees the would-be catcher with its huge eyes. (Observe)
- The would-be catcher, who cannot predict the direction in which the dragonfly will flee, tries to catch it where it is. (failed Orient, Decide, Act)
- The dragonfly flies to someplace where the would-be catcher is not. (All OODA steps)
- #1 – 5 repeat until the catcher either gives up, or the dragonfly has flown somewhere else.
Put otherwise: the fast switches focus the attention on the catcher to the place where the dragonfly is when the catcher decides to start the catching – not where the dragonfly is when the catcher is ready to grasp. The would-be catcher gets stuck in the OO parts of the OODA loop, because the Orient does not incorporate information on anticipated direction of evasive flight, and the DA parts then completely fail. Since the catcher does not leave the OO parts of the OODA loop, he will not focus on any other possibly useful information.
How does this tie in to epee fencing?
Simple – consider your blade as the counterpart to the dragonfly.
There are a few possible choices regarding how to move an epee blade. Among them are:
- Onwards to the target as part of an attack.
- Beats and other movements to displace the opponent´s blade.
- More or less still.
- Actively hunting the opponent´s blade, in order to deliver a beat (or some other action intended to displace it).
- Move it quickly around in some more or less random manner, so that your opponent cannot focus on your blade.
- Waving it around in a big and slow manner.
- Move it in such a way so that it is mostly still, but the transitions from position to position is very fast
#1 is purely offensive, and needs some precursor – either a preparation from you which opens up a target, or an error on the part of your opponent. #2 are immediate precursors, and #4 is a precursor to #2. While attacking movements are necessary to win (duh!) they are not what I am going about here. From no on, I will write about the blade movements that happen either when no attack from either side is imminent, or are intended to prevent your opponent from setting up and executing an attack. Thus, on to alternatives #3-6.
#3 is a perfectly valid choice when the distance is long enough. Your opponent can see your blade well enough, but that does not matter much when you are too far away for him to beat on it. You are not doing much, but you are conserving hand strength and mental effort for when they become crucial.
#6 is a mistake typical of beginners. They seem to think that any blade movement will prevent beats, but if their own movements are too slow they do nothing to prevent incoming beats. Also, when the tip wanders all over the place tip control suffers once an attack is launched, something that beginners can ill afford. On top of that, the wrist and hand targets get inadvertently exposed when beginners do this. Most beginners will soon learn, in the school of painful experience, that this a mode of movement that is completely detrimental to any success on the piste.
#5 is what quite a few fencers do, once they have recognized the futility of #6. They realize that the slow movements of #6 make the Observe and Orient stages of the opponent´s OODA loop too easy, so they decide to speed things up a bit. This is a big improvement on #6, and it works as long as the opponent is not too good.
However, there are significant limitations. First of all, if you are trying to move your blade quickly without any break, wrist tiredness will set in, and you will be become easier to beat once you stop the quick blade movements. When moving the blade around quickly, there are two options: a simple swinging motion where the blade moves essentially in one plane, or a much more jerky fashion where the tip moves both in vertical and lateral directions. In the first case, the opponent cannot catch your blade at any desired exact spot, but you are still predictable. Any fencer above low-intermediate ability will see that even if they cannot execute a beat that hits your blade on the exact desired spot, they do not need to. They can instead execute the beat in such a way so that they use the fact that your blade is moving in a plane, and with the right angle of their beat it will become effective enough no matter where in that plane they catch your blade. Not to mention a well-executed froissement – half of the time it will hit your blade when your blade is already going in the direction that the froissement is deflecting it to, and the combination is devastating. If you choose the second alternative, you will become quite a bit more unpredictable, but at the cost of the wrist tiredness setting in even faster. Also, in order to make it truly unpredictable, you must think about where (and when!) you are going to move your blade in the next tenth of a second, and do so until you either open up the fencing distance, or either of you start an attack. That thinking tends to eat up mental effort, and as a consequence you are prone to missing things worth noticing, including that your opponent has decided to start a straight attack since he is gambling on that you are preoccupied with moving your blade around!
From an OODA loop perspective, your opponent has Observed that your blade movement is quick and jerky, and together with other Observations has during the Orientation stage come to conclusion that you are trying to make your blade an unbeatable target. Unfazed by this, he uses his experiences from previous matches and concludes in the Orientation stage of next round of the the OODA loop that he he does not need to beat your blade before launching an attack, if you are too preoccupied with keeping the blade unbeatable. He then makes the Decision to expressly wait for signs that your attention is too focused on your own blade movement, and once he Observes those, already has a front-loaded Orientation to act upon them, and the Decision to attack, and the Act to do so, becomes almost automatic.
This brings us to movement mode #7. This mode has, in common with #5, high velocities and difficult-to-predict movements. The key difference is that the blade is still (or nearly so) most of the time. During those periods of near-stillness, the opponent must focus on the blade, since it is ready to start an offensive action. Also, the stillness makes it easy for your opponent to focus on the blade which makes a beat-attack seem like a reasonable proposition from his perspective.
So, if you can manage to get the right balance between relative stillness and lightning-fast transitions, you can get him to hunt for your blade and then miss it – making the fencing phrase an exercise in frustration for him. If he does not get himself out of that mindset, your chances are good that he will become reactive, rather than active, and will in due time misplace his own blade so that you can either beat-attack to get an open target, or go for a target that your opponent opens for you when he chases your blade around.
Some comparisons between weapons are instructive here.
The sabre is a lighter weapon than the point weapons, especially the epee. That makes the maximum acceleration rate of a sabre higher, especially in rotational movements. Compared to the point weapons, the sabre fencer does not need to put the point on target, it is sufficient to get any part of the blade, so less precision aiming is needed. Compared to epee, the attacking sabre fencer is protected by right of way, so even if there are two colored lights he has a chance of getting a single point. Finally, the combination of a really flexible blade and the entire blade being able to core make the parry-riposte combination really risky proposition as a primary game plan. All those factors make sabre the most attack-centric weapon, and it is strategic suicide to spend long times keeping the blade out of reach of the opponent – he will just go for whichever target area that is open.
In contrast, the heavy epee blade and the need for precise on-point placement makes simple attacks a whole lot less likely to succeed. The epee defender only needs to deflect the attacker´s point a few centimeters after the attacker´s point has moved forward several decimeters, making parry-riposte a viable primary game plan. In response to this, the epee attacker must do something to provoke errors from the defender, which is where movement mode #7 comes into play.
Finally, foil is a point weapon just as epee, but it is significantly lighter. As in sabre, right of way is an issue. Foil, alone among the three weapons, does not have any close targets. That means that it is not possible to pick off short-extension hits to the lower arm, as is the case in epee. The light weight makes it easier to keep moving the blade at high accelerations without tiring. Right of way means that if one fencer attempts to score a beat-attack, but the other deceives the beat and then goes directly on the offensive, that the latter will get the priority since the first mover will have his movement analyzed as a attack-no/remise, which does not have priority over the counterattack done by the deceiver. All those factors together make foil the weapon in which movement mode #7 is most common.
In short: If you are a point weapon fencer, and can make your point move around like a dragonfly, you will be helped by that ability. In foil, the ability is most useful, and at higher levels, a necessity. It is not that much of a factor in epee – but if you learn it early on, you will be getting a lot of easy points against other fencers of comparable experience level who have not yet learnt that skill.