Epee - Introduction

& Strategy Basics.  




by Michael McDarby,

Swords and Strategy Fencing Club  and

Fulton-Montgomery Community College Fencing Club (Upstate NY)

Fixing Epees





  You can think of epee as dueling to first blood, the dueling style that stepped in when authorities decided that they didn’t want duelists killing each other.  You would step out into a field or square in the morning light with your rapier and, under the watchful eye of the seconds and a “referee,” you would attempt to be the first to hit, with the point and with enough force to make them bleed.  Obviously, you didn’t want to get hit;  really obviously, you didn’t want to get killed (and it would be naive not to think that, much of the time, a duelist legally "limited" to first blood would step out intending to do much worse to his opponent).  









So the rules of epee are, on the surface, much simpler than the priority rules of foil and sabre.  I like to say that epee is the only fencing weapon with true right-of-way, which is enforced by the other fencer - do it wrong and they hit you!  If you wonder why foil and sabre “attacks” are defined as they are in the rules, watch some epee --- moving forward without extending, starting too far out of distance,  bent-arm attacks all will tend to get you hit.  In epee, a good attack should be delivered with a care to protecting your own target, more so than in foil or sabre, but with a technique that can be easily translated.  One of the earliest things you should be doing in a bout is watching for how your opponent delivers their attack - do they lift their hand, bend their wrist or elbow, and bring exposed target forward into your reach?  Often a good counterattack consists of placing your point in the way of a sloppy attack (it’s also a good move psychologically - the feeling of “hitting the other fencer’s point" with your hand/ wrist/ forearm is demoralizing, and even if they just feel the contact, but no hit, early in an attack will often cause a very aggressive fencer to get more cautious).







This also means that you want to protect yourself when not attacking, as well.  A good epee on-guard should use the bell guard to protect at least the forearm.  You can try to get your entire arm behind it, but that involves straightening your arm to an extent that gives important leverage advantages to your opponent (their attacks intending to move your blade will be more effective) and also may cause them to stand too far out of your own reach (however, it also can “back off” a fencer who is having too easy a time reaching you!).   You should be relaxed (avoid the “death grip” on your weapon), with your knees bent but your foot not too far out, front foot pointed forward, and with your weight balanced, ready to move forward or backward.  Your back foot should be under you - one of the most common problems of fencers at many levels is that as they move forward, they "drag" their back foot, and it winds up too far behind them, severely limiting their lunging distance. 

Some fencers protect themselves by keeping their arms back well away from their opponent's reach;  this approach is workable but will take considerably more practice to perfect.  Often, the basic strategy with this stance is to wait for, or to provoke, an attack, parry strongly with blade control during a close of distance, and deliver a riposte with no or minimal release of the blade.  Attacks must be quick, still with extension as the first step ("lead with the point!"), with good supporting footwork and very good point control.  Look for this style - incomplete training will leave more openings for you than most other approaches:  parries may be predictable and avoidable, or released much too early and vulnerable to a quick counterattack;  the on-guard arm may be closer than the fencer realizes, and can possibly be reached with a quick attack;  the point control may be lacking, and a deep counterattack into the body will work because the fencer consistently misses their first shot.  A well-trained fencer with this defensive style, on the other hand, will entice you in to attack what appear to be obvious openings and then, with your arm and feet now fully committed, take control of your blade and hit you at will.  Attack these fencers shallowly, to the arm and front edge of the shoulder, possibly the thigh.  

Body position is important - many fencers “square off,” with the back shoulder swung somewhat in.  They may be comfortable this way, but there are a few things that you must consider.  First, the “classical” position of having the back shoulder way back was developed by people who were worried about loss of life - it wasn’t invented on a whim.  Having your shoulder around presents more target to a deep attack - a lesser problem if you can train yourself to pivot away from such an attack.  But there is a much more important consideration.  Try this - take up a “squared” position, and extend fully to touch a wall.  Now swing your shoulder into classic position and extend, and you'll see that you actually have to back up to fit a full extension between you and the wall - there is a decided reach advantage from the classical position!  Of course, many fencers with "bad body position" swing their shoulders around  to deliver an attack, but many don’t, unaware of the distance they are giving up.  There are also balance advantages getting into and out of lunges from the classic position as well, if the back arm is used properly, but we won’t go into those here.

Consider blade position as well - if you opponent attacks by first going after your blade, a lifted point makes it easier for them.  Best position against blade attackers is with your point aimed right at, or just alongside, their bell guard.

What do you look at while you're fencing?  That varies - some fencers watch their opponents’ eyes, some pick a potential target and focus on it, some focus on the “back-up” target that they will switch to if an initial stroke misses, some don’t feel like they focus on anything in particular at all.  What best sustains concentration and produces the best results is apparently different even among the best fencers.  Remember, though, that if your approach is to lock your eyes on what you want to hit, some of your opponents are watching your eyes and may be forewarned.









Epee competitive strategy is mostly a blend of three actions - attacks, defense with ripostes, and counterattacks.  A truly good strategy should be a blend of all three, but most fencers will settle into an approach that uses one action more than the others.  The most important, and often the hardest, aspect of any strategy is the concentration and focus you need to find, follow, and hit target when target is available.  You need to be able to process information - at first, simple things picked up in training, then competition-based follow-up information (you probably need a trained observer to tell you what you’ve done wrong and how to correct it), then competition-day advice from a coach before or during a bout (you’ll find, early on, that such advice is more confusing than useful - that’s pretty normal).  If you have the type of coach who can sit with you alongside the strip and analyze the fencers in your pool, take advantage of it - at first, you’ll find that it doesn’t seem to help much, but eventually it will, and much later it will make it possible for you to do it yourself.  Next, you’ll be able to step on to the strip with some sort of plan specific to certain opponents - sometimes it will work, sometimes not, and you’ll have to decide if the failure is due to a strategic problem or to an execution problem.  There will be a frustrating period during which you’ll get flashes of insight just after a bout (oh, I should have done this!!!!), but that stage for most people leads to the ability to think, strategize and adjust during the actual bout.  So, for many experienced people, “bad days” will be lapses in focus rather than failures in techniques.










A fencer whose main strategy is to attack must continually look for openings.  First, analyze the basic on-guard position of your opponent - what hand and arm target seems to be open?  Remember, you’re not going to hit them with your eyes - the openings have to be in respect to your blade and point.  With some point control, attacks that can be delivered directly are easiest (aim early for best results, especially if you're just learning): extend, aim, and use footwork to move the point to target.

Some targets are reachable with some
angulation - “coming around the corner” of the bell guard - and some may be reachable with a “flick” that bends the blade in around that same “corner.”  The best angulation is delivered with a normal thrust and a movement outward with the hand during the attack - if you bend your wrist to angulate at the beginning, it provides immediate target to a counterattack and too much warning of your intent.  Flicks are difficult to do without opening your own hand and wrist target to a counterattack.  Also, flicks are best perfected in practice on either a dummy or a well-padded partner - badly-done flicks are brutal, and I would not recommend numbing your opponent’s arm as a sporting strategy (be aware that some fencers do use it as just that, however).  Both of these types of attacks can usually be defended with a slight adjustment of the bell guard position, rather than a blade-on-blade parry.  Move your hand slightly toward the direction that the attacks are coming past your guard.

The other parts of opponents' on-guard for you to analyze is the position of the front foot - is it close enough for you to hit?  Careful - your reach starts at your shoulder, so low target is often farther away than it feels.  Remember, however, that attacks to the leg or foot open your own arm to counterattacks, and so are of limited use against someone who usually counterattacks.  A high feint with a drop to low target is more likely to work against fencers who are trying to defend, or who back away but are slow removing that front foot.  Look, too, for your opponent’s balance point - if their weight is primarily on one foot or the other, this will affect how well they move - if on their front foot, they will retreat faster than they advance, and vice versa for the rear foot.  And if their rear foot is not underneath them (once moving, many fencers "drag" that foot), their lunging distance will be compromised.  Also, if they are constantly moving, is there a pattern or rhythm to the movement that you can take advantage of?

Analyze, too, the initial reaction of your opponent to your attacks.  If they parry, is it always the same way?  You may be able to take advantage of this.  Remember, however, that in many cases you may want them to actually parry - the contact will often cause a break in their rhythm, and of course for that split second you will know exactly where their blade is.  But when they push on you, don't push back;  you rarely will have the leverage to push through a parry.  From the contact, a quick redouble - move the point quickly to open target somewhere else - will beat many ripostes.  A foil-like feint and disengage that evades the parry completely will often cause them to keep trying to parry, and that may block your disengage, especially if the opponent has earlier foil training.  Another reason that you may want to provoke a parry is that foil-trained fencers will sometimes parry, release your blade (in foil, they have right-of-way at this point and don't have to worry about what you'll do then), and riposte, leaving you an opportunity for a quick remise into the now-opened target.  Look at the section on defense for a discussion of ripostes.

If your opponent counterattacks, is it coming from a predictable angle?  You may be able to adjust your hand position so that their counterattack is diverted from your target, or just to cover the target that you’re opening during your attacks.  Think of attacking through their counterattack.  Use your opponent's scored points to tell you what you are showing to them - if they keep hitting a particular area of your target, you must be leaving it open.  Many counterattackers have good focus and point control;  one of the common mistakes made against counterattackers is attempting an attack to a target that is much too deep (far away)- you’re trying to reach the body and getting hit on the arm as you try it.  Against many counterattackers, you may need to attack the blade as a first step, disturbing their focus and forcing them to take time to regain their point control.  Sometimes a simple beat will do this, especially if executed (as they are supposed to be) as an early-to-middle part of your extension, so that your rebound from the beat puts your point very close to their target while they are recovering from the beat.  Beats in epee are less effective at actually opening target than in foil, usually, and can be tricky to deliver against a blade that’s almost parallel to yours - you may need to angulate the blade slightly to make good contact.  Beats can be from the inside out (attacks up the arm are good from this), from the outside in (easier against an opposite-handed fencer), up from underneath (can be quite disorienting to an opponent, but also harder for the attacker to recover from), or down from above (better on a grounded strip, because the point may be driven into the floor).  Attacks on the blade may also provide you with enough time to allow you to attack to your opponent’s body, or may offset a reach disadvantage.  It’s important to remember, when you are first starting, that it’s target, not the other blade, that is your first consideration - swinging at the other weapon just "because it's there" won’t score many points and can be a disadvantage in several ways.

An important aspect to attacks (or counterattacks) is the angle of delivery.  You are much better off moving your point forward in a direction where, if it misses your intended target, it continues into other target.  For instance, an attack to the arm that, if it misses, tracks off into the air is not as good as one that continues up the arm and may hit the shoulder, armpit, or mask.  Often a small shift of hand position will provide a much better angle.

Attacks may consistently fail against a good defender or counterattacker - if you don’t feel comfortable moving to another strategy, try changing your rhythm, or try countertime:  feinting an attack (or delivering a very shallow attack), dealing with their response, and then hitting them. 

Fleche attacks can be effective if unexpected, but usually need to hit immediately - a fleche attack carried to a second or third step requires fast handwork from a fairly awkward position to keep you from being hit.  Fleching itself is difficult to do until you have good control of your foot-body interaction - you need to be able to step over without swinging your torso around.  Make sure that your back foot's push is preparatory, just shifting your weight, and the primary push comes off your front foot, or the move is just a big step.  You also will need to practice how to deal with the results of an unsuccessful fleche attack - for most people new to them, running past is the best follow-up;  later, a halt at infighting range may be better.  Also consider the side you fleche to - a move to the opponent's chest side provides more follow-up opportunities for you but responses from them more likely to hit you;  a move behind them can limit both, but you can practice continued attack options, while your opponents may not have practiced their response options.

Footwork is critical to any epee strategy.  For attackers, forward controlled speed is very important.  You want to land in a position to deal with the consequences if your attack is unsuccessful.  Don’t overlunge, leaving yourself off balance on one foot and often your hand low.  Be balanced enough that, if your point is near target and you are not in immediate danger of being hit yourself, you can continue to move in (or at the very least, keep your point in the way of their forward movement).  Don't automatically move back out - how often do you get that close to open target?  But be ready to get out as well, or continue in if that is advantageous.  For defenders, a judicious retreat that still leaves them close enough to land a riposte is very important.  For counterattackers, an immediate retreat that stays just close enough to deliver the counter is most important.  Often a good counterattack involves moving back just a bit more slowly than the attacker is moving forward.

For most epee grips, point control comes from the first two fingers and the thumb - holding or squeezing with the back fingers makes point movement slow and large, and may dip the point (if your point consistently dips at the end of your attacks, you're squeezing - relax your grip).  It is easier to aim early in an attack and deliver the point with your footwork;  a loose grip makes the fine-tuning of this approach possible.  Aiming done in the middle of an attack is possible but harder to do consistently.  If your blade is bent, you may need to turn your hand so that the point hits target flatly and will push in.  It is also a good idea to aim slightly “through” target - if you’ve miscalculated the distance, or the opponent moves back, or their jacket is a bit loose, you may need the extra distance.  Try not to run them through, however - beside being rather unsportsmanlike, it tends to bring you habitually in closer than is wise.









A strategy based on defense means that you need the other person to make the first move.  However, you don’t want to give them too much time to think about how to attack you.  A defender can only afford to be totally passive against a fencer who wants to attack quickly.  How do you do this without actually initiating your own attack?  Keep moving, both forward and backward, and try to force them to adjust while trying not to get too close.  Take shots at your opponent’s hand and short lunge attacks to the arm, which will keep them from settling too much into a comfort zone but will put you at minimal risk.  Small beats on your opponent's blade will also be effective at driving them to your tune. Use the fencing strip intelligently - don’t back up too early, or too far, if you can help it.  Being up against the end line is distracting (sometimes more so to the other fencer, but that’s rare and hard to take advantage of).   Moving them back can compel them to attack.

As much as possible, use your bell guard and the inner part of your blade to parry by moving your hand laterally, which allows you to cover without taking your point too far out.  The farther out your point goes on a parry, the more it has to travel to come back into target.  Hand-out / point-in parries work well, especially if you extend through the contact, almost a time-hit, a parry-riposte simultaneous combination.  If you take a large, point-out  parry, like foil fencers do, you cannot afford to release the blade on your riposte, because their point will be closer to you than yours is to them.  If you can, try to control their blade through most of your riposte, “riding” down it to target.  An alternative, especially against attacks that come in as deep as your body, is to parry, control their blade, step in past their point (your bent arm will be positioned to better place the point between the two of you, while they will have to bend or lift their arm to accomplish this), and then release.  In this instance, it’s often advantageous to release their blade so that it is pressing against you - you’ll be able to track what they do by feel after you release them.  Of course, whatever you do can’t be so repetitive that it becomes predictable, or a good, experienced opponent will take advantage of it.

Beat parries have limited effectiveness in epee, but binding (wrap-around) parries can work well - remember, you have to clear the incoming blade before it reaches any target (people often get hit in the thigh or head trying these), and  your last move will usually be to “push” the attacking blade out with your hand while using your fingers (you have to keep a relaxed grip, which is tough while doing this) to bring the point into target.

Another consideration on defense is your opponent’s effective height - how far up are their attacks coming from?  Fencers often deal better with low attacks than very high attacks - tall fencers are often successful less due to reach and more due to their opponents not adjusting to the different angle of the incoming attacks.  If you want to experiment as an attacker, vary your hand height, but don’t forget the arm openings it presents to your opponent.

Opposite-handed fencers will be coming in from a different angle, so parries have to cover those angles.

COUNTERATTACKS.  Epee is a race - first one to target wins.  With a machine to determine timing, it often makes sense to attack into an incoming attack, hitting them before they reach you.

Hand position can be critical to counterattacks - if your hand is too low, or too far back, your counters can be slow enough to produce double hits or be too late completely.  Also, as is true for attacks, you want your arm as protected as possible by your bell guard as you extend, and your shoulder far enough around to give you maximum reach.   Don't swing your arm up, exposing it to the incoming point;  lift up and punch out.  When possible, extend into and through the attack.

Speaking of reach, most counterattackers are best served by trying to limit all hits in a bout to the arms, unless they have  a considerable reach advantage.  A good counterattacker should have good point control, and so should be able to hit an opponent’s arm more than the opponent can hit their arm.  To do this, the counterattacker must use footwork to limit their opponent’s reach - don’t let them reach your body.  If they can hit your arm more than you can hit theirs, it probably is time for more training and/or a change in strategy!  If you have the reach advantage, adjust the distance so that your opponent cannot reach your body but you can reach theirs.  If your opponent can do this, you may need to interrupt their initial counters to give yourself time to reach them - see the section above on attacks against counterattackers.

Good counterattackers possess or develop a good “feel” for the other point - since any defensive moves you make are very subtle, you need a good concept of the position and direction of the threat.  Eventually, evasion can become a major part of your strategy - actively moving your arm (which sacrifices distance and opens target, but if they are aimed elsewhere and closing, that shouldn’t matter) or your body out of the way as you counterattack.  It can also be useful for defensive strategies, especially time-hit approaches.

There is a concept that applies to the other strategies but it most pertinent here:  the point in the pipe.”  Imagine your opponent’s arm is in a pipe just a bit bigger than the arm (and that their body is in a similar box with a vertical center line).  Your job is to keep your own point in the pipe, especially when you are not really focused on a particular target.  When your blade gets diverted, get your point back into the pipe (or if your opponent is close enough, onto that center line of the box).  This will produce “accidental” hits, as well as keep your opponent under constant threat.  It makes counterattacks quicker and easier as well, even against blade contact.  The pressure that sets off the epee is often supplied by the attacker - you just intercept their forward progress, whether your point is purposely there or not.  Also, keeping you point aimed just next to the opponent's hand makes it more difficult for them to make effective moves on your blade.

When your opponent contacts your blade, they will almost always have a leverage advantage over you.  It is almost always a mistake to push back, to wrestle with your opponent - in most contact situations that persist (presses, binds, several types of parries), the first blade to release and move elsewhere usually produces the first hit.









There are a startling number of epee grips available.  Each general type tends to have advantages or disadvantages.

French Grips are sort of straight, with enough curve to comfortably fit the hand.  They require good finger control, and as a practice weapon they can help you develop improved point control.  Many fencers find the weapon's balance point, which is almost in the hand, to be much more comfortable.  French grips can be shifted forward and backward to provide additional reach - shifting back beyond a certain point affects finger control (attacks tend to become more limited) and ability to defend, and requires a very strong yet controlled hand.  The hand and forearm are a bit more protected than with most pistol grips, as long as it is not held too far back.  Attacks on the blade tend to be harder to recover from with a French grip - held properly and extended, leverage is a trifle worse than with other grips.  It's better for pure attacking and counterattack strategies, poor for anything requiring blade-to-blade power.  The pommel may get in the way when infighting.  Since a rules change, it was becoming common for a while to see French grips strapped to the wrist.  This negates many of the French’s advantages, and in many major ways makes it a de facto Italian grip.   In general, a tall fencer with long reach, good point control and quick footwork is best suited to a French grip.

Pistol Grips.  It is not really fair to lump all pistol-type grips under one heading, but I’ll try to keep this general enough to justify it.  Pistol grips, which come in a dizzying variety of styles and sizes, generally provide set grip points for the back fingers.  This can strengthen most aspects of epee fencing requiring power, especially defense, but the use of the back fingers at the wrong times can interfere with precise point placement.  Since point control is so critical to epee, this tends to be “unlearned” quicker than in foil, where even experienced fencers deliver full-grip slashes with the wrist and forearm.  Still, point control may be slower to come with a pistol grip.  Some grips put the edge of the last finger actually below the edge of bell guard and therefore vulnerable, and the hand and forearm are slightly more open, although they don’t necessarily appear to be to an opponent.  It generally isn’t possible to shift your hand position much and increase reach.  The balance of the weapon is out the blade a bit, which makes the weapon seem heavier (especially when you're first getting used to it) and may dip the point, although fencers generally adjust.  The shorter grips make the arm/wrist positions of infighting easier.  What sometimes happens in clubs is that each member settles on a grip that they feel comfortable with, which is good, but when weapons fail and fencers borrow, it can be a disadvantage, even though the differences are often more psychological than actual.  If you are using a pistol grip properly, it shouldn't be too difficult to shift from one type to another.

Italian Grips.  These are uncommon enough that they are difficult to discuss, and when you do see fencers with them, many are not really wielding them in the classic Italian manner, which historically included binding them to the hand and wrist.    There are very few people who can properly teach the technique required for this weapon, which I only know in broad terms. Point control is maintained more with the entire lower arm, as are many actions.  An incredible amount of power is available but limited flexibility, especially in close.  An Italian weapon wielded subtly can be an excellent arm-to-arm weapon but less effective against quick attacks deep to the body.  Good footwork and distance is essential to properly use this grip.









This is an approach that actual duelists would probably disparage, but generally you won’t get killed doing it with an epee (that's a joke).  The first requirement, of course, is to get close enough that you can in-fight without getting hit on your way in - a good counterattacker will rarely find themselves having to in-fight.  Some parrying styles, with a control and step in, almost inevitably lead to it.

The first thing to remember is that it’s hard to in-fight if you can’t get your point between you and your opponent.  Usually some attack that clears out and controls the other blade is best, although a deep attack - that misses - and a counterattack - that misses - often leads to unintended close quarters.  It’s best if you can get the point between your bodies;  trying to hit with an outside angulation is very hard unless there’s a huge height difference.  If you are closer than an epee length, and the point’s between you, your hand can’t be between you - proper in-fighting involves moving the hand out and placing the point in.  It may involve raising the hand above the head, dropping it low, or pulling the elbow out or back past the ribs;  while you’re doing it, though, your hand grip is important.  A relaxed grip will allow you to “snap” the point to available target, but a tight grip makes a jab necessary, which is slower, harder to land properly, and sometimes brutal.









Training and technique are essential to good fencing, in any weapon.  In epee, there are many choices, many approaches and combinations of approaches, and one that suits the abilities and temperament of the fencer can be put together.  A fencer should not settle on a single strategy to the exclusions of the others, but a preferred approach is useful.  A good fencer will also, over time, develop and practice a deep “bag of tricks” that will allow them to adjust to the strategies and techniques they face in competition. 






Using the Strip and Distance.  






Inexperienced fencers can often be recognized by their lack of awareness of where they are on the strip: they may back up until it’s obvious that they will back right over the rear line, or  they may refuse to back up when they have lots of room, or they may retreat diagonally over the sideline.  Those errors most fencers will correct, but many of them never learn to use the strip to help them strategically.









First, a review of the rules that relate. 

The Back Lines:
if you pass beyond these lines with both feet, your opponent gets a touch.  Although not clearly written into the rules, for most referees all that has to happen is for your front foot to pass the plane of the line - your foot does not have to touch the ground for you to be called. 

The Side Lines: The rules on this have changed more than once of late.   If you step off the side of the strip with a single foot (and it has to touch clearly beyond the sideline), a halt is called and you get backed a meter from where you started the action, and any actions begun after the halt (theoretically-but-not-applied, any action started after your foot touches out-of-bounds) on your part don't count.  If you use offensive actions that carry you past your opponent, you need to pass them before stepping off to not be penalized the meter.  Also, if you step off in the middle of a fencing action, once your foot hits the ground off the strip, a “halt” should be called and you can no longer hit your opponent (you can hit them with the action that carried you off, however, subject to the referee’s interpretation), but they have a beat of fencing time to hit you.  If a halt is called because a fencer has stepped off the side, the meter loss should be applied when the two are reset - it is important to know why the halt was called in such circumstances.  Under some circumstances, when a fencer near the end line steps off the strip, this meter penalty may back them off the strip and give the other fencer a touch.  Another rule, rarely applied, provides a yellow card for the fencer that jumps off the strip to avoid being hit.









The Back Lines
can be your friends or your enemies.  The most important consideration for a fencer is: what happens when you or your opponent backs past the warning lines?  If you get distracted thinking about your strip position, and most fencers do, your opponent has an advantage.  If they get distracted, wondering if you know, what you might do and what they should do, you may have a focus advantage.  What is most important is: how does their behavior change?  Do they refuse to back up?  Do they switch suddenly to the offensive?  If their reaction is predictable, you can take advantage of it - the trick is having some idea of what to expect.   

Strategies: Using the Back Line.  If your opponent is using your back line against you by backing you up, there are a couple of adjustments you can make.  First, step in to meet them (carefully) when fencing starts, don’t wait for them to come to you - this will give you a bit of extra room.  Second, try to stop their advance with short attacks that will probably not work but will probably not get you hit, either - it is difficult to continually advance into such attacks.  You can use your opponent’s back line in several ways.  First, with some fencers you can actually back them over it - I don’t personally like to get a touch that way, but it’s a valid strategy.  Second, you can use the closeness of the back lines for its distraction, but be aware that there are some opponents you do not want to do this with: some fencers become wildly unpredictable when cornered, and may do things that you are not prepared to deal with.  So who do you want to back up?  Fencers who “fade” away from your attacks while counterattacking, especially if they have more reach than you do, are one type of opponent you want backed up - they need room to “fade” through, and being too far back takes that away.  Another, less obvious opponent is the thinker, whose attacks are well-planned and who takes their time preparing them - this type of fencer is much more likely to rush when feeling cornered.  And how do you back an opponent up?  Sometimes it’s a simple matter of continually advancing, and sometimes you need to attack in a way that keeps you protected but makes them retreat.

Strategies: Using the Side Lines.  If you have no reason to do otherwise, stay in the middle of the strip - on some strips in crowded venues, that will keep you from hitting off-strip objects, including referees.  It will make you less likely to step off as well.  On grounded strips, fencing near the edge increases the chances of an off-strip floor hit that may be counted against you (yes, they may be counted for you, but you don’t want that, do you?), and stepping partly off a raised strip can turn your ankle.  However, many opponents will mount fleche attacks that carry past you, and most of them will have a preferred side to fleche to.  Because of the sideline rules, you want these fencers off the strip as soon as possible during these actions, so decide which side they’re going to and move to that side.  Referees may be slow to call halts when a fencer closes and fences alongside their opponent, but they have little choice if one fencer is off the strip.  It may be a good idea to request clarification of calls from the referee to remind them of what they should be watching for under these circumstances - a simple question of, “Were they off the strip?”  when a touch is scored may get the refs keeping their eyes out for just that.  Keep in mind that, under crowded conditions, fencing the sideline may also force the opponent to fleche at an angle that they are not used to, to avoid off-strip objects like the scoring table - this can work for or against you, depending upon how well you can adapt if they have to crowd you while passing.  If fleching is one of your primary moves, you may want to try to move laterally (if your opponent will move over with you) to give yourself more room to do it. 

If your opponent habitually moves to the sideline while fencing, try to figure out why.  Opposite-handed fencers may move to their outsides to consciously close off some angles, but often it’s a subconscious reaction to the change in hand positions.  If a fencer moves to the side and you don’t want them to, you may want to fence them diagonally on the strip (if you can do this and not step off) - often they’ll move back in rather than fence in that unfamiliar configuration.  You may, however, have to move over to not give up an angle you are not used to fencing at.






Strategies: Distance.



As in all fencing weapons, the distance between opponents is critical.  Epee fencers tend to be farther separated than sabre fencers but less so than foil fencers.  How far apart?  That varies, based upon a lot of factors.  First, you want to stay out of your opponent’s easy reach, which depends upon your opponent’s height, arm length, quickness, and depth of extension and footwork.  Now you know why experienced fencers, when first on-strip with someone they don’t know, keep quite a distance from each other for a while.  Second, you want to be in a position from which you can score, if possible, with the simplest and quickest footwork.  So there are two critical distances in a bout:  theirs and yours.  You shouldn't just settle into theirs without expecting to get hit.  If you move into your opponent's distance, either attack or get out - unless you are purposely trying to provoke an attack from them.

How is distance determined?  Ideally, it should be based on how far the other fencer is from your target, but judging that is difficult for beginners and problematical for even many experienced fencers.  Many of your opponents will rely on the position of the two blades to determine distance, a fact that you can use strategically - such opponents can be drawn in by pulling your blade in, or held more at bay by extending.

Long Distance.  If your opponent is staying well away from you, using reach to counterattack, you may need to back them up and use the rear line to prevent further withdrawal.  You can use the staying away strategy also - advance to meet your opponent to give you maximum withdrawal room.  A good counterattack under these circumstances is usually delivered early (before you have moved out of reach, obviously) in such a way that if you miss, you don’t get hit by the attack.  A good extension, body position, and focus of the point are all critical.  Against an opponent using this tactic, it is possible to fence in what is called counter-time - you start your initial attack, divert and/or control the counterattack while still moving forward, then hit with a riposte.  That sounds a lot easier than it is.  Footwork can be continuous advances, advance(s) leading into a lunge, or jumps, or possibly a fleche.  The fleche can be used to cross the greater distance with an initial attack (this has to be quick, deep, and focused), or as part of counter-time (slower, more controlled, with a need for quick changes).

Close Distance.  Many actions will bring fencers in close to one another, and the amount of fencing allowed at close quarters varies hugely among referees.  At any rate, you’ll need to be able to deal with it.  When in close, the most critical ability will be moving your hand into position to get the point on target.  Many fencers move their hands up and strike down at target - there is a certain logic to this because there should be a lot of target to pass by on the way down.  However, drawing the hand out to the side or back along your flank will also position the point in a way that can be manipulated by more normal finger control.  Try to imagine moving the point into the space between you - often your hand will have to move to allow this.  You may find your opponent making body contact - in epee, often the contact has to be very obvious for a halt to be called, and a fencer pretty much has to clearly move their opponent with the contact for a yellow card to be imposed (this rule, based partly upon bad interpretation of the original French, allows a wide range of application).  Close-contact fencing should be practiced, like any other aspect of fencing, during practice bouts.  Being able to hit an opponent who steps in, or who purposely fleches by at close distance will discourage the move.  You can practice the move by advancing in as you attack, by fleching, or by holding your ground against a very aggressive opponent.  It can be drilled, but simulation of actual bout conditions may be better.  







Using the Rhythm and Pacing.  






This can often depend upon the background of the fencer: sabre fencers tend to use a quick rhythm with little patience; foil fencers may wait to attack, but their rhythms within actions tend to be quite fast and may be improperly controlled; epee fencers should be able to fence at any of these rhythms, but any individual will have a preferred rhythm.  It is not unusual for epee fencers to start a bout in a slow, deliberate rhythm that speeds gradually up as the fencers get used to each other.

USING RHYTHM AS A STRATEGY.  You can sometimes use an opponent’s rhythms against them: if you know that your opponent is primarily a sabre fencer (especially if they are fencing both weapons in the same event), you may want to speed up your own rhythm - this will only work if you can keep your technique and, more importantly, point control at the faster rhythm.  Making a sabre fencer fence at a sabre speed often interferes with their epee technique - their hands will tend to cut rather than thrust.  Foil fencers can be fenced with broken rhythm - fence into their “parry-riposte” pattern and then remise, or attack with a break in the middle - they will riposte or attack when they should be retreating or defending.

It may greatly benefit you to slow an opponent down - a speedy foe may overwhelm you and break your focus.  This is not easy - the best way, if you can do it, is to establish your point in the way of their forward movements.  This can be dangerous - holding your weapon in their way leaves you vulnerable to controlling actions on the blade (but not every opponent will do these, or they may do them so badly that the actions are easily avoided), and quick counterattacks into attacks may not be easy to control - look for repeating patterns and ways to “intercept” their incoming target with your point.  If a fast-moving fencer continually gets hit or almost hit repeatedly, they will tend to go slower.  Be careful that you don’t slow down too much - it’s one thing to be cautious, another to be asleep.

Just in general, one should practice at varied rhythms so you get used to them - an advanced fencer can force you into particular rhythms, but you can minimize the advantage it gives them if you've practiced at different paces.  Also, practice changing rhythms - fast-slow, or regular-irregular.  Such change-ups are common strategic approaches in a wide variety of sports, and they work here too.  Be careful of training while listening to music, since it can subconsciously lock you into particular rhythms.

A common rhythm change that you have to be ready for is an immediate attack at the "fence" command from someone who has been fencing slowly.  This kind of surprise attack can be very effective if used judiciously.  If you do it regularly, it's not much of a surprise.







Attributes of Fencers.  



Here’s a list of attributes that are useful to competitive fencers, followed by a ranking list for each weapon...

ANALYSIS - IN-PROGRESS.  Perhaps the most difficult of the analytical skills for a fencer is to be able to figure out what is going on while it is going on.  Why did that attack fail?  Why did you just get hit?  Are there patterns being shown by your opponent?  How is your opponent's strategy changing as the score changes?  Have you tried the same basic move too many times?  Have you given up on something too easily?  Have you stuck with something much too long?  This is a skill that is built up over time, first by relying on a coach's eyes to see what you and other fencers are doing right or wrong, then to planning your response before a bout, then to understanding just after a bout, then to gradually being able to do it "on the fly."  You occasionally need to be able to analyze the tendencies of a referee this way as well - what actions are they seeing or not seeing?  That is much more critical in foil and sabre.

ANALYSIS - OBSERVATIONYou are going to face opponents with whom you are unfamiliar.  You should be able to watch them in other bouts and see tendencies and techniques that you can use to plan your approach to them.  Look for repetitive hand patterns, preferred parries or counters, "tells" before attacks, whether they engage or withdraw, etc.  Of course, they may fence you differently than the others, but that too is something you have to consider.  Do they fence badly at first and then improve?  Is their opponent just too different from you for their responses to be predictive?  Are they so good that they can to do just enough to win against lesser opponents without revealing very much (that paranoia alone may be useful to notice)?  You will probably do better if each time you step on the strip you have some idea of what sort of fencing you'll be facing.  And you might want to take notes, or have someone do it for you - build yourself an opponents' database.  If you're planning on competing for a while, such a written record of opponents, along with notes on your own bouts, can be very useful.  Observing referee tendencies with other fencers can be very useful, more so for foil and sabre.

ANALYSIS - SELFPerhaps one of the most important attributes a fencer can have, since very few get truly intensive analytical coaching.  Develop the ability to decide what you are doing well and what needs improvement, what strategies are your best alternatives and what are the best back-ups if your primary approach isn't working (and you'll need to decide if something isn't working because of something your opponent is doing or because of some failing on your part).  Being able to focus on specific moves during practice sessions is tough if you don't know what moves need to be worked on.  For some, those skills will need to be drilled in, over and over;  for some, they need to be part of sparring, worked in in the context of actual fencing time;  many will need a combination.

COACHABILITY.  Perhaps the biggest reason that fencers drop out of the sport after some competition experience involves the phrase, "But it works!"  Almost everyone that starts does some things "wrong," but there's something odd about many "wrong" things:  such a style may produce a lot of success, especially against other inexperienced opponents but even against experienced fencers who don't expect "wrong" actions and haven't been taught how to take advantage of them.  A beginner may have success on the local level, even the regional level, but there will be some opponents they just will not be able to beat and a plateau of ability that they will have problems moving beyond.  Being coached from a "wrong" style to a "right" style almost always involves a frustrating interim where nothing seems to work and success seems impossible, and it is during this interim that many fencers give up and find something else to do.  Frustration may also come from fellow club members adjusting to the wrong actions - the main reason they are wrong is because they can easily be countered.  Just keep in mind that usually having success with a faulty approach implies physical gifts that will eventually make proper technique very successful.

COORDINATION.  This is partly overall coordination and largely coordination of specific fencing-type techniques.  The ability to control what your feet are doing independent of what your hand is doing is huge (there’s a reason why fencing improves your tennis game and vice-versa). Drills can build coordination.  My personal recommendation is drills that duplicate actual fencing as closely as possible - for instance, doing footwork drills with a weapon in hand, or handwork drills with variations that require some choice in response, such as practicing two parry-riposte combinations and allowing your partner to choose which of two (or some other limited number) attacks to launch.

EXPLOSIVENESS.   This is the ability to quickly reach target when some indication of availability is recognized.  It is a combination of recognizing when a moment has arrived and reacting with proper, controlled footwork to make a quick touch - see it, reach it, hit it. Lunges and fleches are the main way of delivering that explosion.

FOCUS.   This is a broad area.  It can mean staying “in the moment,” not allowing yourself to be distracted by unimportant details.  It can also be related to control, and ability to actually hit target when target is available.  Are you actually aiming at something?  Specific aim is more critical than in the other two weapons.  Are you ready to react when opportunity presents itself?  Can you immediately put off the last bad action / good action / odd referee call out of your mind?

POWER.  Useful but not absolutely necessary, the ability to deliver power through your weapon can greatly determine which strategies will work and which techniques to apply.  Power can be overused and can result in brutality, so caution is advised.  As a beginner, developing an effective power game will be more difficult than other strategic foundations (power can make it hard to develop the finesse needed for good point control), but if you stay at it you will become very difficult to deal with.  Power often comes from the technique involved in proper leverage.

REFLEXES.  Like any sport, you train your reactions in fencing, and your raw ability to recognize an action and react to it has a basic foundation that can be heightened, but this always has limitations in the individual.  Slow reflexes can be compensated for by early recognition, planning, and manipulation of distance.  Also, technique training can help - moves done correctly, under control, are usually smaller and therefore quicker - you can react late but get to the parry-riposte stage faster with a small, controlled parry. 

RELAXATION.  A highly critical skill.  The resistance of tension, really.  You don’t have to be calm, but you need to be able to keep your muscles, especially in your hand, from tightening up to the point that actions become large and uncontrolled. A slight squeeze of your grip during your attack will move your point quite a way from where you were aimed (if the point drops at the end of an extension, or rebounds sharply, you're squeezing, probably with the back fingers).  If your hand is cramping, or you feel the need to shake it between points, you're holding on too hard - and if you're holding on too hard, point control is limited.






 Totally Subjective Ranking of Attribute Importance by Weapon
 (On a 1 - 10 scale)
















































In-Progress Analysis -  Ability to analyze and adapt to what the opponent and / or the referee is doing as a bout progresses.

Observation Analysis -
  Ability to watch bouts and analyze what an opponent's strengths and weaknesses are, and to "feel out" the leanings of a referee - how do they see the actions?

Self-Analysis -
 Ability to recognize what you are doing right and wrong on a competition day and make proper adjustments.

Coachability - 
Ability to understand and integrate instruction.

Coordination - 
Overall ability to do controlled complex motions, both repeatedly and with necessary variations.

Explosiveness - 
Ability to initiate a movement from an on-guard position and get it to target in the quickest possible time.

Focus - 
Ability to recognize, follow, and hit target while on the move.

Power -
  Ability to exert raw strength on opponent.

Reflexes -
  Ability to react to and continue to adjust to sudden and complex attacks and exchanges.

Relaxation - 
Ability to avoid tension while waiting for something to happen.









Analysis - While Fencing.  

Analysis  -  Observing Opponents.  

Analysis - Self.

Angle of Delivery.



Attributes of Fencers.

Back Lines (Rules).

Back Lines (Using).

Beat (attacks).  

Boundaries - Rules.

Boundaries - Using.

Body position.  

Close Distance.







Fleche Attacks.



Foot Attacks.


French Grips.




Italian Grips.  

Long Distance.



Parries (Opponent's).

Pistol Grips.

Point Control.

“Point in the Pipe.”   







Side Lines (Rules).

Side Lines (Using).


Strip (Using).















Copyright 2002 - 2016, Michael McDarby, Swords and Strategy Fencing Club.

Reproduction and/or dissemination without permission is prohibited.

Last update January 2016.

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