10 (not-so) Simple Tips for Fencing

While going over some old notes and half-finished articles, I came across a little gem titled 10 Simple Tips for Fencing. I’m fairly certain that when I originally wrote this note, I was speaking mostly to myself, trying to convince myself to observe the few practical guidelines I’d begun to sort out. Some were a little too basic, such as “bend your knees,” others just needed a bit of fleshing out.

Years later, I’m delighted to discover that many of my assumptions weren’t that far off. I refuse to republish the original note as is (frankly, it’s a little embarrassing), but it’s an excellent jumping off point for a slightly more developed piece, which I’ve titled 10 (not-so) Simple Tips for Fencing. I can only hope this won’t be quite as cringeworthy when I look back on it some years in the future.

1. Relax

For many martial artists, learning to relax while engaged in combative activity is a lifetime struggle. It’s tempting to try to reduce what relaxation is to a set of easily observable behaviors—deep breaths, bent knees, tension-free shoulders, etc—but it’s a lot more than that. Relaxation is a state of mind that frees you from the background noise of distracting thoughts. What’s more, relaxing your muscles means freeing your body from antagonistic muscle tension, allowing you to act smoothly and react quickly.

10Rules - RelaxThere are many ways you can train yourself to relax in combat (or simulated combat), and many books have been written on the subject. One thing Western Martial Arts could stand to borrow from Oriental Martial Arts is meditation. Now, I’m not suggesting that we all start each training session in the lotus position going through some sore of guided meditation, but actively taking a minute or two to clear your mind before you start training can help you associate a sense of calm with your combative state of mind.

2. Train Slow to Move Fast

Want to be faster? Train slower. There are a dozen or so obnoxious platitudes that accompany this, like “show is smooth; smooth is fast,” and “precision beats strength, and timing beats speed,” etc. Being overused doesn’t make these statements any less true, but they hardly qualify as advice. Now, I’m fairly passionate about this subject, and I intend to write several articles about slow training in the future, so I’ll keep this section short.

10Rules - SlowWhen you and your training partner agree to practice slow play, you enter into a sort of contract in which you both willingly remove the attribute of speed from the victory conditions of your sparring. Not only does this allow you to work through the mechanics of complex techniques, it provides you with an environment in which you can focus on practicing precise actions, without the frenetic flailing that happens when you attempt to perform actions faster than you can control them. One caveat to slow play, however, is that if you want to make it work, you’re going to have to put in the time and make it part of your regular training.

3. Attack from Safety

Let’s move onto the fight itself. One of the biggest martial faux pas I see regularly is what I like to call “functional insanity.” Often an artifact of sportive fencing, the miss-prioritization of striking the opponent over not being struck is endemic to the SCA, HEMA, and even many WMA groups. The simple fact is that there’s no safe way to recreate the mortal terror that accompanies real sword combat, and fencers all too often fail to train in such a way as to necessitate prudence that in any way emulates fear for one’s life.

10Rules - DefendBut attacking from safety is important for more than merely representing the arts we study in a remotely realistic manner, it’s also good fencing. There are a few simple steps you can take to ensure that you’re attacking from a position of safety. First, you’ll need to identify where the greatest threat lies. This is usually the line occupied by your opponent’s weapon. Next, you need to develop a sense of when your opponent can’t harm you without circumventing your defense.

Finally, practice the techniques people used when fencing was a matter of life and death and stick to the techniques they prescribed. These are almost all based on closing the most vulnerable line when striking. Don’t go off book, don’t lash out at an open target without also taking into account your opponent’s weapon. If you want to really develop this skill, practice with the after-blow, where a struck opponent may take a full tempo after being struck to retaliate. Even if you don’t use it in competition. This will be incredibly revealing.

4. Always Be Threatening

This is part of a vastly bigger topic on the three modes of defense (obstruction, evasion, and domination), and it’s one I see newer fencers struggle with constantly. When I teach the Italian concepts of measure, tempo, and line, I’m adamant that the three don’t really exist without each other. To force your opponent to negotiate all three, you must provide them with a sufficient threat, so that they can’t simply move in and strike at will.

10Rules - ThreatenAn overly simple yet generally sufficient method of explaining how you can achieve this form of control over the fight is to either point your sword at your opponent or to prepare a cut that can be executed in a single quick tempo. When you combine this with maintaining a strong defense by assuming a counter guard (covering the most vulnerable line), you both protect yourself from unsophisticated attacks and inform your opponent that any overtly bullish approach will be met with a swift consequence. As a result, being both overtly defensive and poised for offense allows you to deal with a reckless offense easily and, by extension, encourages your opponent to provide you with ample time to formulate a more proactive fencing strategy.

5. Focus on Your Target (Not the Hand)

A quintessential rookie mistake of inexperienced (and many experienced) fencers is to focus their attention on their opponent’s sword hand. This is a fatal mistake for two simple reasons. First, the sword hand is the easiest tool to lie with and the fastest tool to move. Feints are essentially lies made in time of the hand, which distract from decisions made in time of the body and foot. If you’re following the motions of the hand, then you’re probably neglecting the motions of more telling parts of the body (e.g., the shoulders, hips, and feet), because you focus is reactive.

10Rules - TargetThis reactive focus is the second issue with looking at the hand. In German terms, you’re putting your mind perpetually in the nach (after), allowing your opponent to take the vor (initiative), which makes it much easier to put you in obedience (reacting instead of acting). A simple rule of fencing is that you can’t out-survive your opponent, but if you’re only thinking defensively, you can’t threaten your adversary or place him into obedience.

Instead of focusing on the hand or even the sword shoulder as many modern martial theorists say to do, focus on the target you want to strike. Naturally you’ll want to leave yourself free to agilely switch targets, but this allows you to keep your goal in mind and to work toward it. The benefit to this is that you end up using the part of your mind best for honing in on detail and active analysis for targeting, leaving your defense to your peripheral vision and reflexive “muscle memory,” which is far faster, if slightly less precise. This method of focus takes practice, and you may notice a dip in your performance for the first few weeks after you start using it, but the longterm payoff is golden.

6. Trim Your Decision Tree

First up, what the heck is a decision tree? Simply put, it’s a flow chart that leads you from one tactical decision to another to achieve a number of ideal end goals. Everyone has one, even if they don’t know it. Most good fencers have relatively simple decision trees, whereas untrained fencers have vast mangroves of undefined decisions they can become mired in. The key to efficient fencing is to trim down the decisions you make like a bonsai tree, leaving only a sparse but well-defined path to reach your goals.

10Rules - TrimSimplicity is key, and that starts from the roots up. You’ll want to build (or define, if you’re following an un-codified period manual) your core tactics on techniques formed from extremely simple motions. If a technique requires more than three elements (e.g., 1. step, 2. transfer control to your buckler, 3. cut) then it’s bound to fail.

Also, don’t overbuild your decision tree. Three nodes of complexity are more than enough. If you hit the end of your three go-to techniques (plus “hit the guy”), then there’s no sense in trying to plan for every contingency. Your logic tree doesn’t need to cover everything, only the results you want to get, and your tactical goals should be possible to achieve from a vast number of starting points. More on this entire subjects to come.

7. Never Fight Fair

A perfectly fair fight is one in which both fencers end up skewered. That should never be an acceptable outcome, which means the only smart fight is an unfair fight. Since cheating the rules isn’t an option (don’t even think about it), that means you’re going to have to come up with a way to tip the odds in your favor.

10Rules - CheatStep one is: eschew the straight fight. If you think of your area of effectiveness as an ellipse, with the narrow end pointing at your opponent, then you can tip the odds in your favor by going off line and angling in at your opponent. Heck, the entire Spanish La Verdadera Destreza is based on this principle.

Another method of “cheating” is to limit your opponent’s available weapons. This is particularly effective if you have something in your off hand, but you can accomplish the same thing in styles that don’t focus on offhand tools via blade grasping and grappling.

When I teach the basics of I.33, I explain that pinning with your buckler lets you cheat by tying up both your opponent’s blade and buckler so you can freely move your sword. Combining this with an offline step is amazingly effective. Whatever you method of reducing your opponent’s option without limiting yours is, don’t neglect this vital aspect of effective fencing.

8. Commit

Much in the same way that you can’t out survive your opponent, failing to commit to your attacks is a devastating mistake new fencers make. Actually, you can sort new fencers into those who overcommit and those who don’t commit (with the rare rockstar who gets it right from day one). The ones who overcommit often turn into the other type soon after affirming (and reaffirming, and reaffirming) that overcommitment will get you hit… a lot.

10Rules - CommitInherently, failing to commit stems from two things. First, there’s the fear of making a mistake and getting hit. This is preposterous, as “making mistakes and getting hit” is a pretty good way to describe the organic learning process that’s vital to fluid fencing. The other is fear of jacking your training partner (and running out of training partners who will train with you).

This latter issue can often be corrected by learning how to correlate the placement of the sword foot with the commitment of the strike, allowing you to cut off the strike when your foot lands. Also, not relying on the very extent of your measure for control (in Italian parlance, using misura perfeta instead of misura larga) so that you actually develop control is a real bonus.

The bottom line is that even if you don’t play with positive pressure thrusts or discard tip cuts, it’s a good idea to assume the mentality of one who does. Don’t thug your opponents, but always try to give yourself the option of hitting harder than you chose to. The more the level of commitment you use is a choice, the more likely you are to have that little extra to give so you don’t come up short when you attack.

9. Move Your Feet

An analogy I like to use with younger fencers (okay, pretty much anyone these days) is that fencing is like a first-person shooter. Never go into a situation with only one way out, and don’t stop moving or you’ll die. But that’s a bit of an oversimplification of a deeper issue, which can better be stated as “you can’t fix a foot problem with a hand solution.”

10Rules - MoveHere’s an observation I’ve made over countless hours of fencing in various idioms: there’s an extreme tendency for fencers to get into close distance (misura streta or thereabouts, for you Italians) and stop moving. This inevitably leads to the stronger fencer putting the weaker fencer into obedience. At that point, the right move would be to use footwork and defensive blade work to beat a retreat, only, since the weaker fencer has stopped moving, he or she is now stuck in blade work mode and unable to engage footwork fast enough to be effective. Had this fencer never neglected his or her footwork, this wouldn’t be an issue.

Another manifestation of this problem is with fencers who don’t maintain a proper distance for engagement. Someone’s going to manage your measure, and if it’s not you, then it will be your opponent. One of the simplest (and most neglected drills) for working this concept is the one where your and your partner stand at engagement distance, each with the end of a single piece of rope in your sword hand, rather than a sword. One takes the lead, the other follows. When the rope goes taught, you move forward, when the rope slackens, you move back. This teaches you to literally feel changes in relative measure.

10. Cover Your Escape

“Sword Tag” is a derisive term applied by WMA fencers to those who take a purely sportive (i.e., non-historical) approach to historical fencing, in which all that matters is who struck whom first by a small degree of time. I get that some “historical” fencing groups are just fine with this, but real martial artists shouldn’t be, as this mentality is about as far from the historical mindset as it gets. Also, this leads to painfully sloppy fencing and train-wreck double hits that ruin people’s days.

10Rules - EscapeRather than the modern blow-timing convention popularize by classical epee fencing, I advocate a period-correct approach to period fencing called the after-blow. The after-blow is a return strike a struck fencer is allowed in the tempo following the blow they received. In other words, if I strike you, then you may strike back in the following tempo. If you land your after-blow, then we count the exchange as a double (or of lesser value in competition play). This convention not only encourages but demands defensive play, including covering yourself as you disengage with your struck opponent.

11. Lie

10Rules - LieSee what I did there? But seriously, deception is an essential part of fencing, and it’s a skill that requires as much attention and development as any other. If you’re going up against an opponent who knows the same techniques that you do (or their equivalents), is armed as you are, and has similar attributes (i.e., height, speed, agility, etc.) then you need to be deceptive in order to win. Practice false invitations, feints, and misdirections until their as fluid as your footwork, parries, and point control. Without deception, you simply leave too much to chance, and there’s no sense in that.

Written by Phil Selman

Known as Warder Philipp Reimer von Wolfenbüttel in the Society for Creative Anachronism, Phil is a lifelong historical fencer and martial arts instructor. He specializes in I.33 sword and buckler and avidly enjoys late-period Italian rapier (primarily Giganti).