Foryears fencing masters have admonished their students to put their "the hand before the foot", but this practice is no longer in fashion. Why?

We can trace a long line for the idea of "arm before foot" back to the origins of foil as a training weapon for the small sword. The foil was "...precise, formal and elegant". The pedagogy of early extension of the arm was primarily a holdover from a far older tradition that held that extending the arm was necessary to establish a threat against the defender. Historically, it was suicide to lunge into an extended arm (in past times this was often called ...the attack of two widows... the suicidal nature of ignoring an extended arm). Defenders, likewise, were urged to parry as late as possible, or risk being caught in the attacker's derobement/trompement of the parry.

Along with the insistence of the arm before the foot, parries were chosen with care, and were to be as late as possible. A late parry meant that the defender might have to parry once or twice (at most) before the attacker's blade was found or the defender was scored against. This meant that the attacker had a limited number of parries to avoid, and those parries could—to some extent—be predicted or imposed on the defender by the attacker's choice of lines. If the attacker was parried, the attack would be stopped at nearly the full extension of the fencer, and this distance would allow a skillful fencer to parry the riposte and and make a counter-riposte in return.

The concept of foil —well into the middle of the 20th Century— was that a fencer's skill was measured in their ability to thread their way skillfully through the defender's blade play. There was an emphasis on the "conversation of the blade". Especially in the United States, the prevalence of the French school of fencing emphasized this skillful inter-play of thrust, parry, riposte, and counter-riposte.

Modern foil is quite different. The attacker that extends early in the attack will be stopped with early, searching parries that cover multiple lines and are all but impossible to avoid. As a result, the attacker now puts the blade in play as late as possible, balancing holding back on the attack (and possibly making multiple changes of line) with the risk of the defender's attack in preparation or counter-attack.

Without going into a lot of detail about how foil fencing went from "there" to "here", suffice it to say that at the start of the modern era of foil (from the 1960's forward) fencers were bringing stronger physical skills to the strip. Under the influence of modern coaches (such as Emil Beck) foil was taken from a game of blade action to one of control of distance, time, and space.

The attacking foil fencer as to consider two pertinent rules when attacking. Rules t.7 and t.56 discuss the simple (direct or indirect) and compound attack. The first rule is:

t.7 The attack is the initial offensive action made by extending the arm and continuously threatening the opponent's target, preceding the launching of the lunge or fleche.

This seems intuitive in the case of a direct or indirect attack. The rule does not say how much the arm has to extend, just that some extension has to occur before the start of the lunge. Because of the ability of most trained foilists to hit from any number of angles, including the use of "thrown" or "flick" attacks, the attacking fencer is almost always going to be threatening the opponent's target, even if we narrow the idea of "threat" to mean: "The ability to hit the target with one motion".

In the case of a compound attack, things become more interesting, and the complaints from more traditional fencers increase. We can start by looking at the appropriate rule, in this case t.56:

t.56 The compound attack (cf. t.8) is correctly executed when the arm is extending in the presentation of the first feint, with the point threatening the valid target, and the arm is not bent between the successive actions of the attack and the initiation of the lunge or the fl├Ęche.

In the compound attack, an initial threatening action must be made on the first feint. From that point on, there is little or no requirement—by the rules—that demands much more than that the attacker's blade continue to threaten the target until the last action, in which the arm cannot be bent or pulled back when making the final action. As pointed out previously, the ability of foil fencers to hit from a variety of angles and with thrown of "flick" attacks means that this requirement is easily met.

Once an attack has started, the attacker is free to prosecute the attack moving forward while making threatening actions with the foil, but not committing to finishing the attack until the distance has closed. Unless the attacker is perceived by the referee to stop their attack (or finish their attack prematurely) the attacker is free to move forward for any number of steps before committing to a final thrust. Of course, this is balanced against the risk that the attacker might be hit with a counter-attack or timed out with an attack in preparation under the lock out time of the modern scoring box. An attacker holding their arm back severely runs the risk of not being able to finish their attack in a timely manner, either for the objective time of the scoring box, or the subjective time of the referee. This is made much harder by the understanding that while the defender has the right to stop on many of these actions, the full text of the rule is:

t.59 (d) When compound attacks are made, the opponent has the right to stop hit; but to be valid, the stop hit must precede the conclusion of the attack by an interval of fencing time; that is to say that the stop hit must arrive before the attacker has begun the final movement of the attack.

Note the language in t.59(d): the hit has to arrive—not start—before the final motion of the attack.

Is "arm before foot" no longer a pedagological concept, then? I think it's possible to conclude that as a firm maxim, the answer is "yes". It is now more accurate to say: "arm coordinated with foot", since there are times when it is best for the arm to come out first. In other situations, the arm should come out with the feet, later then the feet, or even last.

The Arm Coordinated with the Foot

With the complexity of the movements I have added, I should mention in more detail the possibilities of the arm and foot coordinated in attacks. During the preparation and maneuvering parts of a bout, the arm is generally held back in order to protect it from defensive/counter-offensive actions from the opponent.  

We can recognize three broad times to coordinate the arm with the foot when attacking:

  1. Arm extends first, and then the foot follows. This is the classical approach to making an attack.
  2. Arm and foot start together, the arm not completely extended, with the arm accelerating to reach full extension just before, or just as the foot hits.
  3. Arm held back, and extended only after the leading foot hits touches the fencing surface. This is the classic broken or lost time attack.

The arm extends strongly before the foot... is mostly applicable to attacks against the opponent's preparation. If the opponent gives a window of time by preparing incorrectly—either with large amplitude blade actions or footwork that is too large or too fast—the defender's fully extended arm and lunge can interrupt the opponent, or win the time objectively on the box by "locking out" the opponent's ability to turn on a light. Extending early and fast gives a visual representation to the referee that the fencer has properly taken the initiative against the attacker's preparation.

In some cases, the coordination with the hand and foot is not in moving forwards, but backwards. Extending the arm completely just before starting a retreat allows the defender to make a classic stop, or "arrest" into a poorly preparing attacker who is poorly coordinating the finish of their own attack2. In this case, the stop may not have priority, but if properly coordinated, can allow the fencer to score and then safely escape the finish of the attack.

The arm and foot start together, with the arm accelerating... to score. The attacker makes a small initial extension or takes the opponent's blade to communicate to the referee the start of the attack. The fencer then starts their offensive footwork (a lunge) with the arm held slightly back in anticipation of avoiding one or more parries. The attacker's arm is still able to threaten the opponent's target by extending rapidly at any time during the lunge. Keeping the arm soft and slightly retracted means that a disengage can be done with less effort (in some cases, the opponent's parry may sweep in front of the attacker's point, clearing the line without a need for a disengage). At some point, the defender must chose a line to close, and at this point, the attacker can make a disengage to score and finish accelerating the arm. This action is predicated on the attacker being able to move their hands and feet at different speeds, since the attacking point must start slightly "behind" the foot and then catch up and accelerate ahead of the foot to the target.

The attacking fencing must always be ready to finish their extension if the opponent should attempt to counter or attack into an initial preparation.

The hand is kept well back and extended after the foot score considerably late in the action. This is the classic "lost time" attack. Rapid, quick, and random parries that move through multiple lines are difficult to avoid. At the same time, the defender who chooses this defense has a lot of inertia in their blade work, and are unlikely to make a sudden stop into an attack against them. The attacker is safe to wait as long as necessary (and to get as close as possible) before making a final thrust into an opening line. As a result, the attacker may often start an extension to provoke a strong reaction from the defender, and then withdraw the attacking arm by bending the elbow. This may seem to put the attacker at tremendous risk (and at the higher levels of fencing, it does make the attacker vulnerable to a well-timed stop hit) but it also removes the attacker's blade from the threat of disruptive parries clogging the path he or she hopes to take to the target. At some point, the defender over commits to a final parry and "fixes" the weapon in one place. When this happens the attacker (who may have landed in the lunge already) accelerates their arm and scores into the final, opening line.

This would seem to violate Rule t.56 above, but as one referee of my aqauintence is so found of saying: "If you're parrying, I must be attacking".

More and more I see this sort of attack as part of continuation of actions, looking for an immediate remise or replacement, or as an attempt to block out the opponent's attack in preparation and make an angulated or opposition thrust

Timing of the Hand and the Foot in the Lesson

In lesson, you should teach all three timings for extending the arm. An easy way to start this is to warm up with the following exercise:

  1. Student extends and advances to hit.
  2. Student starts an advance with a small forward motion of the tip but does not fully extend. In the middle of the step, the student accelerates the arm to hit as the front foot lands.
  3. Student keeps their arm back through the entire step, and then extends on the landing of the back foot to hit.

From the using an advance as the attacking footwork to hit, you can move to using a lunge instead. Once the exercise is being done with a lunge, it is appropriate to add more tactical elements. The student should make an arm first lunge if you are starting out of distance, and step into distance while searching for the blade. If you are starting out of distance and advance on the student without starting an attack, the student can make a bent arm feint into your advance3, derobe your attempt to parry, and score with an accelerating lunge. Finally the student can "take over" the attack by beating your blade to elicit multiple parries from you in response. The student should hide the blade, close the distance, lunge without extending, and then disengage your final parry to score with a rapidly accelerating arm..

In every case, the student must accelerate the arm to score. The final motion of the weapon should be quick and directly to the target.

Video Examples

There is a great deal of high level foil on the web these days. Below are some excellent bouts on You Tube that show the sort of foil actions this article discusses. Keep in mind that videos come and go with some frequency on You Tube, so I cannot vouch for how stable these links will be. However, a little bit of research will show more than just a few examples of all three of these actions in modern foil. Play close attention to bouts done before verses after the change in the box timings in 2005.

Abouelkassem vs Lei, Gold Medal bout, 2012 Olympics, You Tube

Men's Team foil event 2008 World Championships, You Tube

2012 Gold Medal Team Match 2012 London Men's

Finally, here is an excellant example of the arm being put into play as late as possible with American coach Buckie Leach, and Olympian Iris Zimmerman. This lesson dates from the 1990's but very much illustrates much of what is talked about in this article:

1Although this does not rule out the use of a bent arm attack in épée under the right circumstances (e.g., the opponent is always looking for the blade, and is more likely to make a second parry than a counter attack). The need to often engage the near target is another reason why "arm first" is more often the rule in épée than the exception.

2I often call this "outrunning the hand on the attack" when discussing it with my students.

3This works especially well if the feint is done with a change of line (from high to low or vica versa). The sudden closing of the distance and quick change in blade aspect almost always draws a parry. If it draws a counter-attack, so much the better. Your student can simply finish the attack they have started.

Last edit: Sept 2017 to add additional YouTube links. Copyright © 2015 by Allen Evans. This article may be reproduced freely, as long as it remains unmodified and his copyright notice is included.