Strategy and tactics for beginners – an overview

First things first: This page is a work in progress about fencing tactics, intended to be structured akin to the Dicta Boelcke, since those 8 rules are both easy to learn, and they are simultaneously specific enough so as to give actionable advice in common situations, and at the same time being general enough so as to cover many cases. I will have many occasions to revisit and rewrite this page, so be sure to revisit it.

Oswald Boelcke was simultaneously one of the best figher aces of World War I, leader of the most successful air force battalion in that war, and – most importantly – the father of air force tactics. In that last role, his legacy lives on to this day. Quite the giant upon whose shoulders I intend to stand.

Primary target audience: First and foremost, this is intended for the epee fencer who is at beginner to early intermediate level, and parents of those fencers. More advanced fencers will hopefully have figured out a lot of the following on their own. Concerning fencing with priority weapons: I would like to assume that there is a lot of transferability, but that is for you to try out. Let me know how it works out, I appreciate the feedback.

A few related topics covered elsewhere: What follows below deals with tactics and strategy in a competitive match, during the match itself. For anything concerning tactics and strategy during training bouts, look here. On how to prepare tactics and strategy for a specific opponent before the match against him, look here. On how to evaluate your tactics and strategy against a specific opponent after the match against him, look here. (Note that all those pages also are works in progress unless otherwise noted.)

So, on to the meat of this page:

Tactics and strategy during the match – a few suggestions

So, you have memorized the match plan that you and your coach put together before the match, and you are clipping in to the floor reel, the match beginning within the minute. What now? My suggestions below are structured into three parts: Questions, exhortations, and errors. They form three lists, and I hope that the list format make them easier to remember.

Questions to ask of yourself: When you want to get an answer to why something is not going according to plan, it goes much faster if you already have useful questions, and a few possible answers. That is important, since time is of essence and concentration is limited. So, when possible (between Halt and Allez, or when there is a lull in the fencing) and necessary (when things are going badly) go through these questions:

  1. Why has a previously successful type of attack stopped working? Here, there are two main answers: You became sloppier in execution of the attack the last time, or your opponent has caught on to what you are doing, and is prepared. If the former, you might try to do the same attack again, but done better. If the latter, time to move on and try some other type of attack.
  2. What is the appropriate level of risk-taking, given the time and score? If the score is 4-3 with 10 seconds left, the leader should completely focus on reducing risk, while the trailing fencer can – and must – take all risks to level the score. In most cases, the contrast is not that stark, but the general idea is that the worse your situation is, the higher level of risk is acceptable.
  3. Is the opponent fencing about as was anticipated, or is he presenting a completely unexpected fencing style? If the former, continue using your match plan. If the latter, toss it out, try to get the fencing to be so that you can search for weaknesses, and then use them.
  4. Are uncovered targets by your opponent mistakes to capitalize on, or invitos intended to goad you into an attack that he will parry and riposte on? If the former, they can be easy ways to win the match. If the latter, they can lead you to toss away a lead that you worked hard for. How to spot the difference is the topic for a page of its own.


Exhortations on what to do: Once you have answers to the questions above, the following exhortations will help you greatly in deciding exactly what to do.

  1. Make the fencing to be all about your strengths and your opponents weaknesses – not the other way around! If you forget this one, you can do just about everything else right, and still lose the match.
  2. If a particular type of attack is working, by all means continue with it. If your opponent is a beginner it will take him a while to catch on, and you might well have won the match by then.
  3. Stick to your overall plan, even if provoked by your opponent. This warrants a page of its own.
  4. There is one major (scoring) and four auxiliary (exploration, time-burning, tiring, and triggering) goals with a fencing phrase – make up your mind on which of them to pursue before the Allez. If you have no clear goal with what you are trying achieve before the next halt, then you are reduced to responding to your opponent´s actions.
  5. There are two main ways to deal with an opponent strength – be aware of them and chose well. If your opponent has a particularly dangerous offensive capability, there are two main ways of dealing with it. Firstly, you can focus on defence so that he never gets the opportunity to use that capability. Secondly, you can set him up to use that particular capability, but have a way to deal with it and score on him instead planned out. The former method is generally safer. The latter is riskier, but gives the opportunity to score and shatter your opponent´s self-confidence at the same time.

To be fleshed out extensively.

Common errors to avoid: Avoid the following (nonexhaustive) list of in-match errors:

  1. Do not look at the clock during the time that it is running. It breaks your concentration, and half of the time you will have to turn your head around.
  2. Do not argue with the referee. He has seen more fencing than you, and in any case, his word is final.
  3. Do not try to listen for detailed instructions from your coach during the time that the match is running. If you did not hear it the first time, move on and fence on your own. (Not to mention that such coaching is against the rules!)
  4. Do not give up territory without making the opponent fight for it. If you back off several meters for the slightest scare, many opponents will figure that out and do it again – and you find yourself close to the back line, and nothing to show for it.
  5. Do not get stuck with your heels too close together. It messes up both balance and acceleration.
  6. Do not move your blade with big and slow movements up/down or sideways. If you are far away from your opponent it does not accomplish anything, and if you are close it gives him opportunities for simple attacks.
  7. Do not purposefully leave targets open for a long time, intending to goad your opponent into a predicted attack that you can parry and riposte. If he does not take the bait early on, he has probably seen right through it.

I will discuss these errors in more detail, including a what-to-do-list instead, in a separate page.