Quite the break in blogging!

I have set myself the goal to blog once every three days, a goal that I have not fulfilled at all recently. Apart from blogging, coaching, and refereeing, I am also a member of the calendar committee of the Swedish Fencing Federation, and work in that last capacity has taken up a lot of the time I can dedicate to fencing recently.

Fairly recently, one of the youngsters at my club came up with way of parrying that he had not been taught. It sure surprised his opponent, and would have given him several points by riposte, would his riposte have come reasonably quickly after the parry. He was however not at the time able to come up with the mechanics of an appropriate riposte on his own, so those situations generally ended with a point for his opponent after some infighting. I did commend him for his creativity after that training bout, and showed him the appropriate followup riposte. Those parrying sequences went like this:

  1. Attacker (right-handed) extends and attempts a straight line hit to torso
  2. Defender right-handed) engages the attacking blade in quarte
  3. Defender parries laterally to his left, bringing the tip of the attacking blade from a position where it aims at the right side of his torso to a position where it aims to the left of his torso, and below the navel of the defender. While doing that, the weapon hand of the defender was moving not only to the left, but also downwards. Early on in the parrying motion, the defender caught the foible of the attacking blade both with the forte of his blade, and with his bell. He was also retreating.
  4. During all of stage 3, the attacker was continuing the extension of his weapon arm, and doing advancing footwork. He did not attempt any disengages to sixte.
  5. Once the weapon hand of the defender had reached its final point of the parrying motion, he pronated his hand so that the position was a quinte with a quite low hand. At that time, the tip of the defenders blade was at upper arm height of the attacker, and it was – from the perspective of the defender – to the left of the attacker´s upper arm.

This is where the defender could not capitalize on his advantageous position by instantly riposting on an opponent that is fairly close, and furthermore still moving towards him. Had he simply disengaged and gone for an angulated attack to the closest target he would in all likelihood scored a point before his opponent would have been able to do anything with his now-free blade – the weapon arm of the parried attacker was almost completely extended in the final parry position, so the reach advantage was completely on the riposting side. My guess that the parrying fencer was afraid of a loose tip and wanted to riposte in opposition, and got mentally bogged down when figuring out how to do so.

All that inspired the rest of this blog post.

Apart from the usual ways of parrying – with pressé, beats, opposition, counter – one can also execute the parry by taking the foible of the opponent blade and then softly pushing it laterally while at the same time pulling backward one´s weapon arm. Done correctly, this ends with the situation that the opponent foible, near the tip is in contact both with your own forte and bell guard. while your arm is quite bent while at the same time your opponent´s arm is fully (or nearly so) extended. The geometry of that situation means that you have much better leverage than your opponent, giving you a whole lot of options immediately after the parry should you act decisively and not dawdle.

Here we run in to one of all those terminology issues that plague fencing: The type of parry that I just described has by some been called a ceding parry, while by others a yielding parry – and at least the term ceding parry has been used to denote another action altogether. If the FIE could get every coach to agree on a consistent vocabulary that would be quite fine, but I am not holding my breath on that one. I am, for the time being, purposefully not choosing either term but instead hope that the reader will recognize the type of parry that I am writing about.

So, what is the tactical difference between this type of parry and all the previously mentioned ones?

To put it shortly: when the opponent realizes when he has been parried.

Any fencer above the level of rank beginner will instantly recognize that he has been parried when you parry with a beat, and fairly early on in his development as a fencer that recognition will trigger him to do something else than continuing with his attack. That type of quick recognition will come a bit later with the other common types of parries, but it will come if he keeps fencing.

So what? The point of a parry is to deflect an attack! you might respond. Correct, but that is not its only purpose. Ideally, a parry should not only deflect a parry, but also set up a situation in which the (hopefully!) immediate riposte has a large possibility of succeeding.

So what are the factors that influence the chance of the riposte succeeding? A non-exhaustive list is: distance between the fencers, how much the tip must move both vertically and laterally in order to hit the intended target of the riposte, the proficiency of the riposting fencer, and importantly, the awareness of the parried fencer of the danger that he is in.

Let us focus on that last point. In the more common parry types, a competent opponent will be aware of your parry very soon after you have executed it, giving him some time to do something constructive – attempt a degage, counterparrying, retreating, passing forward, or whatever. But he will not do any of those activities unless he is aware that the initiative has passed from him and he is the one in most danger at the moment. So, the later he becomes aware that he has been parried, the less time he will have to do something. Conversely: the longer it takes from the time he is parried until he becomes aware of that, the closer he is liable to come to you (since his original offensive action likely included some forward motion by some other body part than his weapon arm) and the less time he has to reverse the offensive motions.

So how does the ceding/yielding parry figure into all that? If done correctly, your opponent will not feel much opposition to his forward blade motions. It is entirely possible that he is so preoccupied with his attack so that his mind does not register what little force you are exerting on his blade during he whole parrying motion. Remember that the momentum that you can impart on your opponent´s blade is the product (integral, if you want to picky!) of the force that you apply, and the time you apply it for. Since the blades graze along each other, the contact time is long, and the force needed to impart the necessary momentum to deflect him part your closest target is thus low. In contrast, the beat in a beat parry is of exceedingly short duration, so the force during those milliseconds of contact must be correspondingly high, a force that is that much easier to notice. As an added bonus, the ceding yielding parry does not demand that the parrying fencer is especially strong – it can successfully done by a fencer who is weaker than the attacker.

So if the parrying forces have not been noticed by the original attacker there is nothing that forces him to change from an attacking to a defending mindset, and the riposte will already be underway when the original attacker starts doing something defensively. There is also the possibility that the parrying forces are felt by the original attacker, but that he misidentifies them as too weak presse parry, or that he recognizes them as a parry but does so late so that he chooses not to defend himself, hoping that a continued attack will hit while the riposte that is already underway will miss.

More generally, in any fencing bout between two reasonably evenly matched fencers the initiative will switch back and forth between those fencers. Each such switch will be followed shortly by the fencer taking the initiative confirming – and thus noticing – that he has indeed taken the initiative, and shortly thereafter, the fencer who previously had initiative noticing that the initiative has been taken away from him. Once that one switch in reality and two switches of perception have happened, both perceptions are lined up correctly with reality again, and the cycle restarts. In most cases the fencer who takes the initiative will be the one that notices the transition before the one that loses it, simply because in most cases the change in initiative is due to some deliberate act by the former, and confirmation bias works in his favor. The fencer with the initiative has the larger chance of scoring the next point – but his chances are even larger during that fleeting window in time when he is aware of his initiative, but his opponent is not aware of his recent loss of initiative.

So, how does one use use these observations, apart from doing drills that train just this type of parries?

The obvious solution is to analyze videos of bouts, both of those that one has taken part in oneself and those featuring fencers that one expects to come up against.

  1. If you were scored against in a situation where you thought that you were going to score and the point against you seemingly came out of nowhere: Look at the video, if at all possible in slow motion, and see if you were parried in the manner described above. Were you aware of it during the match? If so, in time to take action or too late? Can you rule out other reasons for not scoring (missing in lateral or vertical directions, your attack being too short, weapon malfunction, something else)? Does it look like the riposte of your opponent was well on its way when you started to do something to counteract it? If this happens to you too often, bring it up with your coach.
  2. If you are looking at a video of a presumptive opponent: Apply the questions in #1 above to your opponent, to see whether other fencers have found them vulnerable to this type of parries. If so, work on these types of parries, with immediate ripostes so that you have them in your repertoire. If not, continue looking for other weaknesses in their game.
  3. If another fencer relies on these types of parries, and seems to think that he is good at them: Consider feeding into his ego, and feint-attacking him into his preferred parry. Let him think that he has parried you without you noticing that, and slide along his blade for a scarily long distance. Then, just before his riposte, you do a semicircular disengage and put your tip close to his forearm on the other side of his arm compared to where your original feint was aimed at. This might take some split-second angulation at the end of the disengage. If he starts his riposting movement, or is moving forward, he might well put his target on your tip more or less on his own. This is an attack that requires really good timing and thus needs a lot of drilling. The upside is that if you pull it off not only will you have scored a point, you will also have done something directly against what your opponent thought was his strong suit. That can be quite demoralizing.