At what speed shall the fencer move from the guard line immediately after Allez?

I have seen that question dealt with regard to sabre, but not so far in an epee context. That sabre writers bring it up is natural, since the the fast pace of that weapon makes it necessary to make tactical decisions while on the guard line before fencing starts – if a sabreur does not do that, he is a sitting duck, and that is obvious to sabre fencers from the beginning.

This post deals with one tactical decision in an epee context: At what speed shall the fencer move from his starting position until he comes into contact with his opponent, immediately after Allez?

Short answer: Move forward at a speed that balances the demands of a controlled defence, while not giving up initiative to the opponent, which includes not giving up territory needlessly. There are situations where other speeds are justified, but those are quite specific and do not occur all that often. They are discussed in more detail below.

Long answer: In my opinion, one can classify these speed decisions into five groups:

  1. Backwards movement
  2. Standing still
  3. Moving forward at a slow pace
  4. Moving forward at a measured pace
  5. Moving forward at a fast pace

This leads to the question: For each of these speed choices, which situations are the situations that make it a good choice? My answer to those questions are as follows:

Backwards movement: Once you start moving backwards, one of three things will happen: you will go behind your back line, your opponent will catch up with you, or you will have to stop moving backwards. None of those alternatives do you any good offensively. Therefore, this option can only be good in a defensive context. From this it follows that the only situation where this a good choice is when you are leading by one point and there are only a few seconds left. If you move backwards then you will delay the time until your opponent can reach you and thus get his first chance at scoring a point. If there is only a few seconds left, you will not back off the piste before this happens, and every second in delay will cut down his offensive opportunities a great deal.

Standing still: This option has none of the advantages of the forward-moving options, and it gives all the initiative to your opponent. You do not even delay the onset of opponent contact as is done in the previous option. The only case where it is a good option, in my opinion, is when you are leading by at least two points and the remaining time is so short that your opponent cannot score enough points so as to reach equality before time goes out, even if you fail defensively at each contact. If you are leading 14-12 with 2 seconds left, your opponent must both cover 4 meters of distance between your guard lines and score on you in one second, twice in a row. That is not going to happen, so you do not need to do anything active – he has for all practical purposes already lost at that time.

Moving forward at a slow pace: There are (at least) three downsides with this option: You have no chance of catching your opponent unawares, you will not intimidate him, and if he moves faster than you, he will have a longer reserve of distance behind him to his back line that you have once you come into contact. However, there are some upsides also: You lessen your own chances of doing something that is badly thought out, you get a few more seconds to observe your opponent, and you might lull your opponent into a slow fencing tempo.

If you are leading by one point – or have priority – and the remaining time is so long so that you simply cannot run away from your opponent, this can be a good choice. Your first priority in those cases should be to prevent your opponent from scoring, since that leads to a even score, or a loss. If you are leading 4-3, 44-43, or have priority the bout has obviously been quite even so far, so your opponent cannot expect to just go in and score a single light unopposed – if he could do so, he would not be in the bad spot he currently is in. Therefore, your opponent must find a time where you are sloppy in your defence, or create an opening – and do that under time pressure and also knowing that any major mistake from his side will cause him to lose instantly. He cannot prevent time from running, so as long as you do not make any mistakes the pressure will only grow on him. He will then be forced to take great risks, giving you opportunities.

So, if you advance against him and he is the type of fencer that follows – at least sometimes – the other fencers tempo, you will create some extra margin behind yourself and your back line, while not triggering decisive action on his part. You cannot prevent contact between yourself and your opponent, but you can delay the time until he has prepared a situation from which he thinks that he can safely launch an attack. Keep on delaying until he gets stressed – after all you do not need to score.

Moving forward at a measured pace: This is the correct choice unless there are special reasons to choose any of the other four alternatives. You do not get into a disadvantage regarding the distance reserve between you and your back line, you do not make it easy for your opponent to control distance, and you are still in sufficient control of yourself so you have the possibility to react to your opponent’s reaction, should your initial attack fail. No wonder that this is the most common choice in real fencing. One note: if you think that you are moving forward at a measured pace and repeatedly find yourself scored against immediately after (or within a short fencing phrase) after you contact your opponent on his side of the middle line, then odds are that what you consider a measured pace is a bit too much for you to handle in this bout against that opponent. In that case, slow down a little bit after the next Allez.

Moving forward at a fast pace: The advantages of this option are: You create a bit of intimidation – should your opponent be vulnerable to that – you waste as little time as possible before coming into contact with him, and you have the chance to catch him unawares. The big downside is that you create significant defensive risks for yourself, which is why it is a so seldom used option in epee fencing. In sabre, on the other hand, Right of Way and the mechanics of that weapon create defensive risks to the fencer who does not move forward, which explains what happens after a an Allez in a sabre bout.

There are a few situations where the advantages outweigh the big disadvantage of this option. Firstly, if you are down on points and the remaining time is short, you simply do not have time to wait for your opponent to make a mistake, or to create an opening. You have to score enough points to (at least) reach point equality before time runs out – there simply is no other option. Secondly, you might be a fencer who has significantly lower cardiovascular conditioning than your opponent, while at the same time being better than him in other respects. In that case it might be a good idea to try to get the bout over with before you get tired and he can wear you out. Thirdly, you might have a points lead and at the same time think that your opponent is not in perfect mental balance due to something, most likely that you just scored a point that demoralized him. If you quickly score another point, you can mess with his head pretty badly. Due to the big defensive risks, this is a high-risk proposition if you lead with only one point – he can then equalize, and the overall match situation changes quite a bit since you no longer have time on your side. A good example of this in action can be seen at the time 03:24:00 into this team event. The match features Russia versus France, in women´s team epee. With seconds left to spare, Kolobova simply has no other options.

In short: moving forward at a measured pace after the Allez command is the overall default option, and the other options should only be used if the situation specifically call for them. In contrast to many other tactical choices, this is a choice in which there is one correct answer in the great majority of cases, and the choice is simpler than in most other cases. Consequently, a fencer who is not a complete beginner should be expected to choose the right option in that great majority of cases.