A common complaint about tournament fighting is the lack of defensive actions and fencers protecting themselves, and focusing on attacking instead. At this article we will look at ways of increasing your chance of success in some defensive actions. But before doing this, one thing needs to be said:
Offense is a statistically better strategy
I’m sorry to say it, but it is true. If you look at HEMA competitions or Olympic fencing, over half of scoring actions are offensive actions (attacks as opposed to parry ripostes or counterattacks). The reason is simple, and understanding it is the key to making your defensive actions better: the one who initiates the fencing phrase always has the advantage. His opponent has to react to his action, and this takes time. It’s like running a hundred meter race race but the one initiating the action starts at the thirty meter line.
This means that if the relative skill level, speed and strength are the same between the fencers, the fencer who is reacting will always lose unless the other one makes a mistake. Early Kunst des Fechtens treatises keep telling us to take the Vor, and there is a reason for it. Even in defensive actions, you want to be the one starting at the thirty meter line. All defensive actions should start from your initiative. A great fencer decides not only how his opponent will attack, but also when. Preparatory actions play a huge role on this. If you don’t get to set the terms or the measure is not correct, backing up and retreating is a better option than trying a parry riposte. Let’s quickly categorize some fencing actions to better understand this topic:
Actions designed to hit or ward from a hit.
All of the other fencing actions not designed to hit your opponent but which are done to, for example: “Gather information from your opponent, maneuvering, directing you opponent to do what you want them to, disguising you own intentions etc etc”.
Defensive actions by category
Defensive actions include parry ripostes, counterattacks and evasions. In my opinion parry riposte is an action that works best in a relatively close measure, while counterattacks and evasions favour a longer distance. Therefore what we want to do is, by preparatory actions, to guide our opponent to strike where, when and how we want them to.
As an example: my opponent stands in Vom Tag, and I’m in left Pflug. I step into distance, and while doing so change slowly to left Ochs. If my opponent retreats, I simply repeat the same procedure. By doing this, I’m slowly teaching him that I will transition from Pflug to Ochs, and eventually he will try to attack as I do this. Since this is exactly what I want, it is much easier to me to parry and riposte after my invitation. Also I have drastically limited his possible choices of attack, since there are only so many ways one can attack from Vom Tag against Ochs (Krumphau being the canonical way, while many people prefer an unterhau). If he does not attack against my preparation, then I will simply attack him myself when I want to, giving me the initiative. Thus my opponent is forced to play the game the way I want it played. His choices are limited to either attacking the way I want him to, letting me attack how I want to, or retreating until he hits the wall/the edge of the arena/cliff.
Your opponent should feel like whatever choice he makes, he’s gonna get hit. This way he will lose confidence in his own attacks, and starts making foolish decisions, so picking him apart will be very easy. From a competitive point of view you now get to decide what are the skills that will decide the outcome of the match. Obviously, you should steer the bout into your strong areas with your preparatory actions.
An important part of preparing your actions is to do them slowly If I transition from Ochs to Pflug as fast as I can, this does not provide my opponent a tempo to attack. Think about it: if your Krumphau reaches its target in 0.4 seconds, and it takes 0.2 seconds for you to recognize the stimulus, the guard change has to last longer than 0.6s to be a viable tempo to attack. In reality it should actually be even longer, as you want your opponent to attack to the opening that you provide. Another advantage this gives is an automatic change of rhythm in your fencing (obviously both the parry riposte and the attack should be done quickly). This means that your parry / attack will actually seem much faster than it is, which is much more important than the actual speed of action.
To make your preparatory action even more effective, you should be able to perform several ultimate actions while the preparatory action looks the same. For example in this case I could attack with a direct thrust, a feinted thrust and a durchwechsel to the other line, or a 2nd intention auswinden. This is much harder than it sounds like. You want your opponent to keep guessing which attack you will do, and that makes your success much more likely in all of them.
Returning to defensive fencing, note that while preparing your action you don’t necessarily know that your opponent will act in first intention only. He might also feint his attack to your preparation and cut around. To be able to control this (in a way), notice the distance of your Plfug-to-Ochs preparation. The closer to you opponent you are, the more likely he is to attack with a direct attack, while from a wider measure a 2nd intention attack is more likely. As I explained earlier, intention and measure are related.
Now we have covered one type of preparatory action in some depth.For those who are familiar with Manciolino’s five tempos to strike, I think that you can use most of them as an invitation/preparatory action (especially with a sidesword) for the same purpose as the action described previously. For example: from a guard with the point in line, lift your sword for a cut to create a tempo for the opponent to attack the hand. If he does, parry and riposte; if not you get to attack. For those who are no familiar with Manciolino: read it 😉
To sum up the main points of this post
- all defensive actions should start out of your own initiative
- if they don’t and measure allows, retreating is better than being forced to take a reactive parry
- you should prepare slowly, attack and parry fast for a rhythm change
- you should be able to perform multiple actions from the same preparation
Here’s a quick video of me and Eliisa Keskinen practicing the preparation from Plfug to Ochs. Of the defensive actions this post has only covered the parry riposte so far. I will write about setting up counterattacks and evasions later. Stay tuned for that!
 Zbigniew Czajkowski, Understanding Fencing (2005)