When to counterattack?

By Kristian Ruokonen

Counterattacks are a major part of Kunst des Fechtens, and one could even argue that they form the core of it.  However, we do not often see people execute them when fencing. I believe that this is because people don’t understand how they work and in which situations, and how one should set up one’s actions.

Counterattacks can be divided into two categories: counterattacks with opposition (schielhau, zwechhau, absetzen) and counterattacks without opposition (krumphau to the hands against an oberhau). This post will focus on counterattacks with opposition.

A common problematic situation is when someone strikes an oberhau, and you try to counterattack with a zwerchhau. Most people fail at this, and the problem is in the setup. Assuming that you can counterattack with your zwerch by simply reaction to the opponents oberhau is a fantasy. You will run out of time against the simple attack: you first have to perceive the stimulus, differentiate it from the different stimuli, and then perform a more complex action of your own. Of course it also needs to be faster than the initial attack to actually be in time to counter the oberhau.

Before we go on to how to set up your chosen counterattack with opposition we should discuss the different stages of an attack. You can divide them  as follows: Preparatory, beginning, middle, end. Your counterattack with opposition has to land either in the beginning stage, or latest in middle stage. If your opponents attack reaches the end phase, he will have hit you, or will be close enough to hit you for the counterattack to fail.

So for a counterattack with opposition to successfully work, you need to somehow steal enough time for it. There a few ways to do it. One is exploiting your opponents mechanical execution and another is to counterattack against your opponents advance-attack sequence.kuva

As a general rule, if your opponent starts your action with his hands, and then the body follows, it is better to perform a parry-riposte than a counterattack. Against most people who have penetrated to a close enough measure to execute their vorschlag, doing the parry is difficult enough. Dreaming of doing a counterattack against this kind of action will be just that, a dream. If the time is right for him, then it is wrong for you. If however your opponent begins his action with the body first, and hands second, there is a tempo to make a successful counterattack.

You can drill it like so: The coach alternates between a fast oberhau, and a body first oberhau. You parry and riposte against the fast oberhau and counterattack against the body first oberhau (zornhau, zwerchhau, schielhau, you can pick the counterattack you like).

This begs the question that if your opponent does not give you the tempo where he leads with the body, how can you counterattack against it? The answer is you have to actively create a situation where you can counterattack. Good footwork is essential to this.

What you want to do is create a situation where the opponent will advance a step and immediately strike in one motion. When you have created this situation you can counterattack the moment your opponent completes his advance, and thus your counterattack will be in time, as it begins at the same time as your opponents actual attack. An important thing to mention is that this kind of counterattack can usually be done successfully either from standing still or forward motion, but it will not work when moving backwards.

You can practice it thus: the one performing the counterattack leads with footwork, and his partner must maintain distance. The one practicing counterattacks will push forward, forcing the opponent to go backwards. At some point he will allow the distance to expand by either taking a step back, or by suddenly halting his advance. In this tempo, his partner has to attack with an advance and an immediate oberhau, against which the chosen counterattack is performed. This might feel a bit artificial to begin with, but it is a great way to start learning to recognize good tempi to counterattack.

Another way to do this is to let your opponent believe that your intention is to defend with distance and parry. While fencing, when your opponent moves forward to attack you, expand the distance and show him a parry. Do it once or twice. The opponent will feel like he has to chase you to get his attack in, and when chasing, people are much more likely to commit into a bad attack made out of frustration.

It must be said that if you know already how and when  your opponent will attack, you don’t need to maneuver to gain the advance-oberhau tempo. If you know that when you reach measure he will strike, then you can preplan the action and just start it the moment you enter measure, thus launching the counterattack when he launches his attack.

As a coach, you can combine all these drills into one where you simply present opportunities for counterattacks or parry-ripostes, and the student has to recognize these and perform the correct action.

Photo by Timo Toropainen



  1. Meyer answers this by having you slash upwards, from right Wechsel, towards the face as your opponent raises his arms in preparation for the blow. As the oberhau comes in, you just carry the momentum of the slash around for the zwerch.

    This does several things. Since the sword is moving, the zwerch is faster than if you had begun from Tag or Zornhut. If the opponent tries to leap straight forward he’ll jump onto your point. If he hesitates, you can immediately thrust.

      1. Nope. If you jump the gun and try to use this zwerch before the oberhau begins then the technique falls apart. (Spent an entire class working just playing with the timing of this one.)

        You can use a Kniecheihauw (Wrist Cut) on prep. Essentially it is a zwerch as well, but the target and distance are different.

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