Fencing Theory


Various articles on fencing

(which you might find interesting)


1. The Value of Timing in Tactics by Zbigniew Czajkowski

2. Foil Fencing: Concepts and Terms by David Glasser

3. ...


The Value of Timing in Tactics



by Zbigniew Czajkowski


"Fencing is a game of subtlety, and bluff can be met with counter-bluff" Charles L. de Beaumont

The following could be considered among the most important aims of atactical fight and the most salient aspects in fencing.

  1. Very generally one may say that the main purpose of a fencing action is toforestall or be ahead of the opponent. In epee this is literal.One has to forestall the opponent in time. A hit, to be valid has to be afraction of a second earlier. In sabre and foil forestalling takes a form. A sabreur or foilist, when counter-attacing, must eitherclose the line of the opponent's attack or be ahead in a period of fencing time. In offensive actions he fights to be ahead in gaining the right of way - he must be first to initiate the attack and that not only in his own but,above all, in the president's opinion. The conception of forestalling or keeping ahead of the opponent is expressed not only by the mere speed ofmovment but also, and perhaps above all, by the necessity for moreselective and acute perception and by the necessity for fastertranslation of information. To put the idea colloquially the fencer has tobe a thought ahead of his opponent.

  2. A factor of immense tactical importance is surprise - the ability to act in a way unpredictable for the opponent. The more skillful the fencer in exploiting this element of surprise, the less his opponentwill be able to anticipate the time, speed type and intention of the action employed.

  3. A very important feature and aim of tactical combat is the ability to gain the appropriate distance in a situationmost inconvenient for the opponent. For example, if, after maneuvering,one gains lunging distance at a moment when the opponent is concentrated and waiting for an attack, it is not sufficient. It is far more valuableto gain the distance when the opponent is temporarily off balance, not concentrated or expecting something quite different. Generally speaking,one may state that practically all fencing actions and the footworkaccompanying them aim, in a way, at gaining "nearness" while preserving combat initiative.

  4. Of equal importance in tactics is recognition and understanding of theopponent's actions and intentions, at the same time concealing one's own.and misleading him (confusion of display).

  5. Tactics in their application are connected with technique and otherfactors of training and fights. This point will be discussed below.

  6. The main task of tactical fencing activities are: a) to avoid beeinghit, b) to prepare an action and, c) to score a hit. These tasks are givenhere in a logical time sequense, but in preactice they are intermingeles.

Purposeful and efficient application of tactical principles on thestrip depends upon the general physical fitness, tecnical skill and degreeof psychological prepardness.

The ability to conduct a bout and use proper tactics is closley connectedwith the fencer's psychological state, his power of concentration andself control Undue nervousness, over exciatation, lack of confidence,overestimation of the opponent's strenght, apathy, insufficient warmingup, prevalence of inhibitory processes - all these factors may hamper thefencer in conduction a tactical bout, realisation of tactical solutionsand display of his tecnical abilities. Conversly, self control, adequatedegree of excitation and consciousness of his own experience and tecnicaland tactical abilities positivley influence the pyschological stat of thefencer, increasing his calm assurance, dexterity and courage in action.

Choice of time (l'a propos)

L'a propos est la faculte qui nous permet de choisir le moment le plusfavourable a l'execution d'une action d'escrime" Paul Pattesti and Louis Prost

For tactics to be successfull careful attention must be paid to choice oftime. Every fencer, even one who has just begun to do loose play, has beentold and realises from experience how important it is to choose the righttime for attacking his opponent. Of course we realise that the expression"choice of time" is inadequate. There is also a question of distance,tactical situation and taking the opponet b surprise, all of which make avery complicated phenomenon nerly as difficult to describe as the conceptionof time or space.

It has been noticed long ago that certain situations are more conductive toscoring a hit. This has been called in English "timing" or "choice oftime", in Italian "scelta di tempo", in french "L'a propos". Theexpression used by Polis fencers "zaskoczenia" (literal translation -"surprise") or "wyczucie zaskoczenia" (feeling of surprise) better depictsthe situatuin than an expression which only considers the element oftime.

Most fencers textbooks, while stressing the element of "choice of time"delicately side step the difficult problem of defining, describing and discussing it.

The well-known fencing masters Paul Battesti and Louis Prost simply callit the ability to choose the moment most favorable for the execution of a fencing action.

Kazimerz Laskowski, the director of the military school of fencing before the war in Warsaw stated that "tempo or surprise is the moment of taking unawares an opponent who, at that particular moment, is hit mosteasily by an unexpected action".

Janos Kevey gives his conception of timing as follows: "by the expressionTempo we mean the moment which is the most favourable for thebeginning and execution of fencing action... in such a moment the opponentis helpless and not capable of makeing a defensive moment".

The Hungarian author of a known textbook on sabre fencing Zoltan OzoraySchenker wrote "a fencer must catch the moment when his opponent it totally or partially incapable of an action", and "such favorable moments occur when the opponent executes badly thought out purposeless blade movements or footwork, when his attention is distractedand his readiness for action is diminished. Such moments occur also when the opponent is, for example, preoccupied with planning the bout or is distressed by its unsuccessful course".

"L'a propos... c'est l'art de profiter des inattentions ou des fautesadverses a l'instant precis ou elles se produissent". Paul Clery.Well known to British readers, Professor Leon Bertrand in his "Cut andThrust" describes timing in sligtly more detail and in combination withother elements. He advises that, in construction of attacks the fencershould employ three essentials: "what the Italians call 'scelta di tempo -choice of time, judgement of distance and speed. They are three further lodes in the main stratum. The first is by far the most important of the tree. Assuming the possession of the highest technique, the sabreur standsor falls by the precedence or lack of this vital sense. Choice of time meansthe selection of psycholociga moment to launch the offensive. It meansexecuting the movment when your opponent is unprepared or least expectsit. That is choice of time in broadest significance. The final definitionof 'scelta di tempo' is the seizing of the precise fraction of a secondto move at the slightest sign of mental irresolution on the part ofyour rival. He may be keyed up to the highest pitch of concentration yetthat fractional measure of time must come when, by some movment of thought,that concentration wavers. This lapse must be reflected by some sign,infitesimal perhaps, but it is your "cue", your signal, and on this goldenopportunity you must act immediateley. If we could imagine a higlysensitive machine registering a graph of your adversary's mentalconcentration, we should visulise an undulation line and we should attackwith every downard turn of the pen, with the recording of eachdepression".

Generally it is accepted that when a fencer catches his opponent by surprise,when the opponent is off balance and not fully concentrated that the fencer haschosen the right "tempo". Everybody knows that it is extremly difficult tosustain the highest concentration of attention for a very long time and invariablylapses of attention occur in a bout; a fencer, concentration on his own attack,may forget about his defence; a competitor manouvering on the stip may exposehimself dangerously to his opponent's action; a fencer executing blade movmentsmay open certain lines of his target - such and similar situations may betaken advantage of for surprise action. The ability to take advantage of andinstantly take advantage of such situations is usually inborn but it may befurther developed by special exercises and constitutes the "sixth sense" of afencer.

When describing the clever seizing of opportunity to score a hit and in themajority of definitions (see above) the expression of "movment" and "time" arecommonly used. Even the names given to the "sixth sense" of the fencer byvarious fencing schools are closely connected with the conception of time. And yet it is very obvious that this is not a question of mere time. Theopportune application of an action in a bout, taking the opponent unawares isclosly connected with many factors of the tactical situation such as distance,movments of the two fencers, the opponent's state of attention etc. etc.

"Timing" or fencers "feeling for surprise" may be, perhaps, a little moreexatly described as the choice of occasion, closley connected with theopponents activities and attitude with the general situation of a bout, mostfavourable for the successful execution of an action.

A fencer may take advantage of potentially suitable situations or he mayhimself create situations suitable to his purpose by careful preparatoryaction.

The above definition, like all attempts at simple definitions of complicatedphenomena, is inadequate. In order to better understand the "scelta di tempo", socomplex and difficult to define, and yet so important in fencing, we have todiscuss it more fully on the base of personal experience as competitor andcoach, observation of many tournaments, reflections and literature.

The right choice of time using the expression in English for as I know nobetter expression in English, means, in a very broad sense,: to surprise, toattack, to take by surprise etc.

Prof. Tadeusz Kotarbinski, one of the creators of praxeology, writing hisgeneral teory of conflict, when talking about surprise, stated: "We may assumethat taking the opponent unaware derives its techical value fromanticipation and from misleading the opponet or, at least, from takingadvantage of the opponent's mistakes or lack of knowledge" (this lasthere meaning lack of information or inadequate appreciation of thesituation).

Let us now analyse this element in a fencing fight. Since a tacticalintention (task, resolution, solution) has changes of success only whenit is executed in the right time (Greek "kairos", French "l'a propos"Russioan "moment") and is adequate to a given solution it is obvious that it isvery important a) to be able to seize the opportunity to launch anattack or any other, b) to display psychological resitence in view ofthe opponent' sudden attack.

Every manifestion of "timing" ("fencing surprise") understood as anopportunity to score a hit, has two aspects:


  1. a situation - a complex of conditions - giving possibilities ofreciving a hit (beeing caugth unawares, beeing attacked when one leastexpects it.). This might be called "negative time" or "negativesurprise".

  2. a situation favourable to scoring a hit (catching the opponent bysurprise, catching the opponet unawares). This might be called"positive time" or "positive surprise".

Neither positive nor negative time occurs separatley. In a fight theyoccur as two aspects of the same situation, comprising both externaland psychological factors. What is "positive" for one fencer is"negative" for his opponent and vice versa.

The full an successful taking advantage of right timing - "positivesurprise" - i.e. scoring a hit, may happen only with the occurence ofadequate complex of various factors such as distance, speed, movments,attention etc.

The feeling for "fencing surprise" is inborn but, under the influenceof training, it improves in that: a) the ability to recognise and takeadvantage of appropriate situationsincreases with practice andexperience b) the resistamce to opponenent's surprise action is alsoincreased.

"Negative surprise" often leads to temporary escape of technique, bothin standard of execution and repertoire of strokes. A high degree offencer's skill, good automatisation and variety of motor habitpatterns and ease of application of technique are fundamental factorsin increasing the fencer's psychological and technical resistance to"negative surprise". By developing in the course of training tecnicalprowess, general fitness, accuracy of perception, speed of reactionand movments one and at the same time shapes "sense of fencingsurprise", choice of time.

In an attempt to penetrate more deeply into the phenomen of "timing"let us try to classify it.

Thus a competition who "pics up" the initiative and begins a movmentmay crate a situation in which he falls into "negative time" andreceives a hit or, to the contrary, a fencer who initates thedevelopment of a certan tectical situation creates for himself theadvantage of "positive time" and so scores a hit.

Among the manifestations of "fencing surprise" are situations which: a)a competitor, usually when defending himself, takes advantage of thesituation which has arisen mostly on the opponent's initative; b) thesituation given rise to the "fencing surprise" is created by thefencer, mostly attacker, who imposes his movments and initiative.

We could further differentiate the ways in which a competitor percivesand assesses the tactical situation (only after the assessment of agiven situatuion its motor complemet in the form of a fencing actionmay follow) as: a) visual, b) tactile, c) kinesthetic or d) auditory.In assessing a situation not only one receptor is involved butseveral, to varying degrees, e.g. not only touch but touch and sigthand motor-muscular sense; not only sight but sight and hearing. Forexample, in the execution of parry-riposte a very important role isplayed by tactile sensation but under the control of sight;in timing the beginning of attack to the movement of the opponent'sfeet not only sightbut hearing the rhythm of steps plays a large part.Usually, howerver, one sense a role in the perception of a particular situation.

To give detalied examples of various manifestations of "fencingsurprise" would be space consuming and not entirely necessary as anyfencer will do this for himself, calling on the reservesof his richexperience. The most important factors concerning "fencing surprise"can be summarised in the following concise points:


  1. In our discussion on "fencing surprise" instead of time andMoment we have stressed the importance of a complex tacticalsituation comprising many various factors (which, like all materialphenomena, takes place in time.

  2. "Fencing surprise" is an integral part of any bout and anessential factor in the result of the bout.

  3. "Feeling for timing" is inborn but should be cultivated infencers by perfecting technique, reaction and tactics together.

  4. The concious strengthening of a fencer's resistance to unexpectedsituations requirea a very high automotisation of movment - a veryhigh degree of acqusition of motor habit patterns. This facilitates theswitch of attention from the execution of movments towards: choice oftime, tactical situation and variety of action.

  5. The constant tempo and character of movements (rythm, direction,amplitude and speed) makes the correct assessments of situation andchoice of counter-action comparatively easy. Every change in rythm,speed, strenght and amplitude of movments interferes with the correctassessment of the tactical situation. This caused the decisision to beeither delayed or incorrect.

  6. The above is propably connected with various processes ofinhibition and excitation in the brain cortex and requires further anddetalied study by physiologists and psychologist.


Foil Fencing: Concepts and Terms

by David Glasser


Lines -- according to the French system of fencing, space above your bellguard is high line; space below is low line. For right-handers, the spaceto the right of their bell guard is outside line; space to the left of theguard is inside line. Thus we have four quadrants known as lines:high-outside, high-inside, low-outside, and low-inside. As the fencer'sbell guard moves around, his target surfaces they may be found in differentlines. For example, an octave invito with the bell guard next to the frontthigh would leave the flank in that fencer's high-inside line. Should thatfencer assume a lifted septime parry his flank would be in his low outsideline.


closed distance -- The opposing fencer is so close that you must withdraw your weapon arm to bring the point of your foil to target surface.

short distance -- You can reach your opponent's target surface by simply extending your arm.

middle distance -- You can reach your opponent's target surface by lunging.

long distance -- You can reach your opponent's target surface by advance-lunging, jump-lunging, or fleching.

out-of-distance -- You are beyond long distance.

Critical distance -- you are so close to your opponent that you can hit him with an attack before he can physically respond.

Analysis: (the referee's account the of various fencing actions leading up toa hit in combat):

"In line" or "point-in-line" -- The weapon arm and weapon are extended andheld pointing straight at the opponent's target surface. Such a passivethreat must not be lept upon by that opponent. This passive threat must havebeen clearly established before any offensive action begun by the opponent ifit is to be recognized as a "point-in-line."

The attack -- the initial offensive action, wherin the attacker actively andprogressively threatens his opponent with being hit; usually begun byextending the arm and penetrating across the fencing distance through the useof footwork. Attacks may be simple (executed in one period of fencing time),composed (including one or more feints), prepared (as preceded by a beat,a change of engagement, a pris de fer preparation, etc.), direct (into thesame line as the engagement), or indirect (into a different line from that ofthe engagement).

The riposte -- thrust you make immediately after parrying an opponent'sattack.

A delayed riposte -- when a riposte is not made immediately after the parryand the opponent begins a remise first, the remise of the attack will havepriority of action.

The counter-riposte -- the thrust made immediately after parrying youropponent's riposte.

The second counter-riposte -- the thrust made immediately after parrying youropponent's counter-riposte, etc.

The remise -- a second thrust you make right after your first thrust intothat line fails to hit. Such an action should be analysed as a remise ofthe attack, a remise of the riposte, etc. It is possible to make a remiseof any type of thrust. Remises are commonly used against opponents that donot riposte after parrying. The remiser does not appreciably withdraw hisweapon arm in making his remise.

The counter-attack -- thrusting against an attack instead of parrying it.

The derobement -- avoiding your opponent's attempt to strike or take yourblade (usually during his preparation to attack).

The trompement -- made at the end of a feint, deceiving your opponent's parryand hitting him. Note that deceiving your opponent's parry involvescompletely avoiding it. No grazing contact may occur, else the feint isconsidered to have been parried.

A period of fencing time -- the time it takes to execute a single fencingaction (such as a parry, a remise, a thrust, etc.). This is relative time,not absolute time.

Cadence -- the rhythm and sequence of a series of consecutive periods offencing time. A skilled fencer will use changes in cadence to cause theopponent to mistime his defence. Cadence is also sometimes called "tempo."

In-fighting -- fencing at closed distance.

Transitions (movements between parry positions):

Lateral (quarte to sixte, septime to octave, and vice-versa).

Vertical (octave to lifted sixte, octave to lifted septime and vice-versa)

Circular (the counter parries: contre de sixte, contre d'octave, etc.)

Semi-circular (sixte to septime, octave to quarte, and vice-versa)

Transfers -- moving the opponent's blade around with your bell guard andforte.

Prises de fer (either as a preparation or as a thrust) -- taking theopponent's blade:

Opposition -- deflecting the opponent's blade with your bell guard while thrusting at him.

Envelopment -- transferring the opponent's blade around in circular fashion to the same position the envelopment began from.

Bind -- transferring the opponent's blade around in semi-circular fashion to the diagonally opposite position. For example, the sixth bind thrust would begin with opposition septime and finish in opposition sixte. The fourth bind would begin in octave and finish in quarte.

Croise -- normally made as a riposte which transfers the opponent's blade up or down to the vertically opposite position. Unlike binds, croises are numbered from their starting positions. Also called glide thrusts.

Engagement -- Fencing with the blades crossed in a contact state. Fencingwithout engagements is fencing with "absence of blade."

Disengagement -- changing lines by going around the opponent's bell guard.

Counter-disengagement -- avoiding an opponent's change of engagement. Alsodeceiving an opponent's counter-parry.

Invito -- inviting an attack by taking up an en garde in an exaggerated parryposition.

Press -- forcefully opening a closed engagement. Also invites a disengage.

Interception thrust -- a strong thrust which interposes the bell guard orforte athwart the path of an opponent's disengagement. This action isusually made as a type of counter-offensive action. Also known as"temps d'interception."

Arret a bon temps -- a counter-offensive action which hits the opponentbefore he initiates his final action. Thus it is a period of fencing timeahead and gains priority of action. Also known as a "stop-hit" or"coup d'arret."

Coup de temps -- a counter-offensive thrust made with opposition whichdeflects an opponent's thrust. Also known confusingly as a "time-hit."

Attacking in second intention -- attacking without the intention to hitimmediately, but rather anticipating the opponent's riposte and setting upa dynamic counter-riposte action to deal with it.

Tension parry -- resisting the pressure of an opponent's opposition thrustby forcing blade and arm into a strong opposition parry which through bruteforce closes the threatened line. Tension parries are vulnerable to timelydisengagements and may also result in pulling a muscle in the fore-arm.

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