The popular joke among épée fencers is that épée has right of way, but it's determined by the opponent!" A short discussion of how épée hits happen.

Critical Tempos

In classical Italian fencing, tempo was defined by Blade movements. A parry and a separate riposte were two tempos—dui tempo—one action, then another. If the fencer made a counter-attack with opposition (in which the parry and the riposte happen together) it was termed a stesso tempo, or single tempo. It is fitting that these definitions of tempo were blade-centric, considering that footwork in the classical school was limited because of terrain and by tradition. In modern fencing, however, the definition of tempo has changed to include many other factors besides blade actions. Fencing has evolved, and the definition of tempo has evolved with it.

"Tempo" is a very confusing word, and it is used in many different ways in fencing. When I discuss "tempo" I am attempting to describe a relationship between distance, speed, and technique.1 This definition of "tempo" differs from some texts, which define "tempo" by the speed of execution of an action or by the rhythm of an action in relationship with other actions. The use of "tempo" in this document is more far-reaching. When we discuss only the speed of an action, that speed must be in context. A fast execution of a fencing action over a long distance to a target may take more objective time than a slower execution of the same action done at a closer distance. Good technical skills mean more efficient paths to the target (with the blade and the feet) which means the start of an action is perceived to late by he opponent, and is more difficult to escape. Smooth footwork and smooth blade work mean that the fencer is able to steal more distance/time on the opponent by disguising the start of actions. All of this results in better fencers executing actions in a shorter time then a poorer fencer, even if distances from their points to the respective targets are comparable.

The goal of the fencer is to place him or herself in a position of a Time/Distance = Tempo advantage over the opponent, recognize the advantage has occurred (or is about to), and use the advantage in their favor. Ideally, the fencer is in position to score with the simplest action possible that will score without the opponent being able to act. We define this as a "one-tempo situation".

Why discuss the concept of tempo at all? In all weapons, scoring actions occur on changes in distance and specific moments in time, when one fencer gains an advantage over the other fencer in the relationship between distance and time.2 Épée is no longer a game of blade skills, it is now a contest of competing tempo. Understanding tempo is crucial to understanding épée.

One last factor in making a one-tempo situation is surprise. The simplest definition of having surprise is to "do the unexpected", or "confound expectations". A defending fencer may have superior speed and technical ability, but if caught by surprise by an attacking action the defender may struggle to interpret the attacker's action and delay in picking the appropriate response. This delay gives an offensive action longer to score. The opponent is literally be hit while still thinking.

If distance, speed, technique, and surprise are used in defining tempo on the part of the attacker, these factors also define the tempo of the defender. Defending blade actions, speed, and changes of distance—coupled with the defender's technical abilities and awareness of the tactical situation—all factor into whether the defender can deny the proper tempo to the attacker and prevent being scored against.

In the conventional weapons priority gives one fencer—the attacker—the advantage in searching for the correct moment to finish an attack. The defender is limited in their choices of actions and is (to some extent) more predictable in their responses. In the weapons with priority the role of attacker and defender persists until someone is hit, or until the roles are reversed when the defender "takes" the priority from the attacker (which may be done in a variety of ways, not important here).

In épée, the roles of "attacker" and "defender" are poorly delineated. The lack of priority in épée means that both fencers are free to seek an appropriate moment to score without consideration of who is "attacking" or "defending". Moving first gives initiative, but does not "protect" the attacker or restrict the defender in their choices of actions. Because of this, offensive actions entail a larger risk to épée fencer. Historically, épée was a cautious weapon, fenced with the arm extended, point threatening and forestalling the attacker. Fencers relied on good blade work to slip around the opponent's bell or control the opponent's blade. Hits to the forward target were emphasized.

Modern fencers ignore many of these classic strategies. Their blades are carried well back while on guard, and attacks are made to both shallow and deep targets. Emil Beck—the late coach of Tauberbishofscheim—estimated that fully 80% of all épée touches occur to the body. Modern épée is characterized by two fencers maneuvering while attempting to lure their opponents into an error of tempo. Often these are single-light touches, in which one of the fencers "steals" so much of the tempo that the opponent is unable to make a counter-attack in time to put two lights on the scoring machine.

In the Eighties, Johan Haremburg showed that épée could be fenced much closer, and much faster, with the attacker "stealing" time away from the defender though aggressive footwork and strong takes on the blade. While many fencers have followed the lead of Epee 2.0 most of what is being written about épée do not touch on the implications of this new "paradyne".3

By defining "tempo" as the relationship between a fencer's rate of movement, the distance to the opponent's target, technique, and surprise, it may be asking one word to do too much. Hopefully the following examples will make my usage of the "tempo" clearer:

  • A fencer is a long lunge distance to an opponent, who is on guard in the high line. The fencer lunges, and the opponent parries the attack and scores with a riposte. A lunge is often defined as a "one-tempo" footwork action, but because of the distance, the actual tempo was too long for the fencer to hit directly. The attacker had a much longer tempo (distance/rate/technique) to cover than the defender, and the attack was stopped.
  • Consider the same situation with the opponent's blade held in a low line on guard. The fencer now lunges and scores before the opponent can parry. The attacking fencer has not gotten faster or closer, but the tempo situation has changed in the attacker's favor because of change in the position of the opponent's blade. The increased time needed to make the parry from the opponent's absence of blade allowed the attack to score.
  • The fencer is some distance away from the opponent, but still within his or her ability to reach with a lunge—though not close enough to beat the opponent's parry. The fencer begins a lunge. The opponent—seeing the attack start—begins a parry. The fencer deceives the parry and scores. In this example, the fencer understands that a one-tempo situation did not exist, and the fencer anticipated the opponent's parry. The fencer makes a two-tempo attack (feint and disengage) while covering the distance needed to score.
  • The opponent attacks the fencer, who parries. As the fencer parries, the opponent starts to recover. The fencer realizes that the opponent's expansion of the distance will not allow a simple, direct riposte. Instead of making a direct riposte, he binds the opponent's blade and makes a lunge, "carrying" the opponent's blade through more than one tempo to score. Controlling the blade over the longer tempo denied the opponent a remise, parry, or counter-attack.
  • One final example: A fencer is moving very close to an opponent. The opponent makes a false step forward, and the fencer lunges to make a direct attack. The opponent, however, is already stepping back. What should have been a short attack becomes a much longer one as the fencer attempts to reach the target. Before that happens, however, the opponent—because the space is opening rather than closing—has time to make a counter-attack into the attack.

These are simple examples, but they should illustrate the concept. Tempo is not a set distance or speed but a more complicated relationship. For every fencer, the goal is to be able to make a hit with the simplest action possible, done at the correct time, and at the correct distance. This implies that single tempo actions are always preferable to multi-tempo actions, and that attacks should not be stretched out over multiple tempos unless the fencer is controlling the opponent's blade actively or passively.

If both fencers have roughly the same level of technical skill and physical speed, scoring touches comes down to a game of distance manipulation and surprise on the part of both fencers. Who is successful at capturing the distance first, recognizing that they have done so, and executing in a timely manner.

Épée Tempo and Distance

Épée's strong characteristic is the existence of at least two distinct distances, as determined by the target upon which the fencer is attempting to score. There are the forward targets of the hand and the foot: both are close (relatively) to the fencer, but both are small, easy to defend, and move quickly. The body is easier to hit but is much further away than the hand or the foot. Achieving a one-tempo situation to the opponent's hand or foot may be easy, but this attack will often fail. The attack to the body is sure hit, but scoring against a deep target means penetrating a greater distance/time, which exposes the attacker to a counter-attack or parry riposte by the opponent.

So, along with the choosing the right distance, the fencer must also choose the right target for that distance. Because of multiple targets, épée is unique in that a fencer may both be too close and too far at the same time, either because of their own miscalculation, or an unexpected change in distance by the opponent. The fencer may find himself or herself in a "dead zone" when the distance to the near target (the hand or foot) is over penetrated, but the fencer remains too far away from a deeper target to score easily. In this case, the fencer will be very vulnerable to the opponent.4 The elbow or thigh are natural targets at this point but are either hard to hit, or require the attacker to open up their upper lines for an easy counter-attack.

Épée Footwork

Épée is characterized by controlled, quick bouncing. This footwork allows the épée fencer to maneuver in a very loose and hard-to-predict fashion, making very quick changes of direction and speed.5 Since the judging of the scoring tempo in épée is absolute (the box determines if the fencer has "won the tempo" or not) quick changes of direction are necessary to exploit openings by the opponent, or escape attempts by the opponent to score.

Footwork can be broken down into three separate types, depending on the role of the footwork:

  1. Maneuvering footwork
  2. Preparatory footwork
  3. Attacking footwork

Maneuvering footwork is "place-holding" footwork for an épée fencer. At a beginning/intermediate level this footwork keeps the fencer at a safe distance, and little else. Beginning fencers attack out of maneuvering footwork preceded by a blade preparation. A blade preparation is often sufficient against the beginners peers, but not against better trained fencers. Because of the lack of preparation footwork many of these attacks fail, and the beginning to intermediate fencer often resort to scoring with sudden remises or through unplanned in-fighting or additional blade work.

More sophisticated fencers use maneuvering footwork to explore the opponent's reactions and responses (at which time, it starts to become more like preparatory footwork). This exploration is not part of preparing for an attack, but a way to keep mobile while a plan is developed.

Preparatory footwork actively seeks to exploit tempo. The better the fencer, the less time spent in maneuvering and the more time spent in preparation. The differences between these two types of footwork blur, and then disappear. At the advanced level, the fencer's footwork is primarily preparation unless the fencer is actively attacking. Through the use of fluid and balanced footwork the advanced épée fencer achieves one-tempo situations with their footwork, and denies the opponent the same. The accomplished fencer arrives at any point during their preparing with the potential to make an attack or execute a defense.

Attacking footwork is just what it sounds like: the footwork that covers the remaining distance to the opponent to score. Attacking footwork is often short, explosive, and covers the remaining distance to the target. To be effective, attacking footwork is often faster than the other two types of footwork6. The fencer—by maneuvering or preparing at a slower speed than they attack—ensures that attacking footwork will have maximum acceleration in the eyes of the opponent. Attacking footwork ends with the fencer in balance and ready to resume an attack or escape an opponent's attack (this condition is not necessary in the fleche, as this footwork carries the fencer past the opponent).

Tempo on the Attack

Preparatory footwork must help create a one-tempo situation for the student, and then attacking footwork exploits that situation in the actual attack. Blade actions may be used to assist in creating tempo, such as making a beat to open a target, for example. Controlling the opponent's blade also can "protect" the fencer as they close distances of more than one tempo. In all cases, the goal is to deny the defender any favorable time/distance combination—a tempo—to make a defensive blade action or open the distance to allow for a defensive or counter-offensive blade action.

The fencer can create a one-tempo situation actively or passively. to create the tempo actively, the fencer makes a piece (or pieces) of footwork to close the distance with associated blade actions as might be necessary. The simplest example is making an advance (the preparation) towards an opponent who does not react. The advance puts the fencer close enough to make a direct lunge (the attacking footwork) to the target of the fencer's choice. To create a one-tempo situation passively, the fencer allows the opponent close the space. For example: the fencer is being pushed backwards by the opponent. On one of the opponent's advances, the fencer fails to retreat and the opponent's momentum carries them close enough for the fencer to score with a direct lunge.

Of course, stealing tempo from the opponent is rarely this easy. The fencer may have to do more work than simply making (or failing to make) a step in order to achieve a scoring situation. The fencer has a number of options to capture tempo:

  1. Establishing a pattern and breaking it. One of the easiest ways to capture tempo actively is to establish a pattern of regular pauses and steps, such as advance, (pause), retreat and then break that pattern: advance, advance, for example. Pauses can be part of the pattern, or a way to disrupt the pattern in the eyes of the opponent.
  2. Breaking the opponent's pattern. Conversely, the opponent's pattern of footwork can be taken advantage in the same way. The opponent is making the following pattern: retreat, advance, (pause). The fencer advances on the opponent's retreat, but then makes an advance on the opponent's advance, closing the space quickly and creating surprise. Attacking footwork by the fencer (another advance or a lunge) will score.
  3. Changing the speed or size of the footwork, or both. The fencer is advancing at a slow, steady pace. The opponent is keeping the distance. Suddenly, the fencer accelerates his or her advance to close the space. Alternately, the fencer can be making advances of one size, while the opponent keeps a comfortable space. Without the opponent noticing, the fencer brings the back foot up closer to the heel of the front foot while advancing, and is able to lunge from this position to score.
  4. Using deceptive footwork. There are several types of footwork that have their own built-in tempo stealing abilities, such as a half-steps, jumps, and slides. These steps, in place of an advance or retreat, can help the fencer hide changes in distance. They can also change the rhythm of steps or patterns. For instance a half retreat may often fool the opponent into finishing a full step that brings them into a one-tempo situation, and allows the fencer to score.

In the first two cases, the opponent is "motor-set" to continue a pattern or action. The fencer uses the opponent's momentum against them. In the third and fourth case, the fencer catches the opponent by surprise, either freezing them with a sudden unexpected situation or hiding a change in distance. In all cases, the tempo stealing footwork must satisfy these conditions:

  1. The start of the footwork must be hidden from the opponent.
  2. The footwork must ensure that the fencer arrives at the right distance to the opponent—it must steal time/distance.
  3. The fencer must end the preparatory footwork on balance and ready to execute a second preparation (if necessary), escape (if the action was designed to elicit an attack), or execute the fencer's own attack.
  4. The footwork must be capable of responding to a change of decision during the preparation by reversing direction (either forwards or backwards) and ending with the fencer in balance.

Modern épée fencers generally fence just outside of the one-tempo distance to the opponent's forward targets. Preparatory footwork is confined to quick jumps or advances with attacks to the wrist, hand, or foot. Attacks to the opponent's forward target may themselves be preparations. These attacks to the forward targets may be used to open up lines of attack to deeper targets, to find a weakness in the opponent's defense, or to encourage the opponent to make a mistake with blade work or distance that the fencer can exploit. Follow through actions may go to the forward target or continue to the deep target of the body/thigh.

Attacking the opponent's body directly requires that there must be a significant collapse of the distance in the initial preparation, or that the fencer use a tactic or technique that forestalls the opponent's counter-attack or defensive action. Actions to the opponent's deep target are predicated on:

  1. The initial preparation has resulted in a one-tempo situation to the opponent's deep target, or restricts the opponent's actions to make such a tempo more likely (in the case of second-intention actions).
  2. A good choice of time to go: distance has collapsed or is about to collapse, or can be made to collapse, and/or the defender's blade is out of position or may be captured and controlled.
  3. The fencer initiates the attack with the point leading to the target.

If the attacker does not conceal his or her intentions sufficiently the defending fencer may be able to retreat enough to keep their point between them and the attacker, "resetting" the attacker at the forward target. If the attacker goes to the opponent's body regardless, the risk in a double hit or single hit against the attacker rises. If the fencer is able to make a preparation that results in a one-tempo situation to the opponent's body and hesitates, the opponent may be successful in hitting the fencer with their own one-tempo action or escaping the attack. It is a common error for a beginning fencer to be in position to score to the torso, and then take the time to make an additional preparation (such as a feint), when the fencer should be finishing the attack. It is just as incorrect to make a two-tempo attack in a one-tempo situation as it is to make a one-tempo attack in a two-tempo situation.

The fencer may attempt to control the defender's blade on the preparation and/or attack. This control can be very active (by the use of beats, presses, oppositions, or binds) or more passive (such as a feint that draws a parry). Any of these means allows the attacker to extend the tempo over which they can attack safely. Even so, the attacker must go through the final space to the target quickly, or the defender will be able to take advantage of the slowness of the fencer in completing the attack to mount a defense or counter-offense.

In all cases, the attacker must end the attacking action either scoring or in balance. If the attack does not succeed, the attacker must be ready to respond to a subsequent action by the opponent and make a defense, or to continue their attack.

Timing of the Attack—Teaching the Student When to Attack Deep Targets

When teaching an épée student to attack, you must emphasize two things: target selection and tempo (time/distance) to that target. As noted before, the leading targets of the hand and foot are closest to the student, but are difficult to hit. The student should find making the proper tempo to attack the forward targets relatively easy by using the methods discussed above. A harder problem for the student is attacking the deeper targets of the opponent's torso/thigh. The body is an easier target (and perhaps the preferred one) but in the regular course of play, the body is more than one tempo away. The solution to this has always been to attack a forward target, and then remise or re-attack to the deeper target:

Student:makes an attack to your hand with an advance.
Coach:makes a largish parry of counter-6 while standing still.
Student:disengages or rolls off the parry and fleches to your shoulder.

Here the combination of you making a large parry and failing to retreat allows the student the time to go to your deep target after their initial attack to your forward target. If you had retreated and made a smaller parry, the situation changes:

Student:makes an attack to your hand with advance (or lunge).
Coach:makes a small parry of counter-6 while retreating.
Student:disengages or rolls off the parry and redoubles to your hand or foot.

In the lesson above, the student has not captured the tempo necessary to attack your deep target. Your parry is small and the retreat puts your body more than one tempo away. The student decides to re-attack your hand, or changes the target to the foot. If the student had attempted to continue to the your body with an additional simple attack, it would have been appropriate for you to parry the attack and score against the student.

If the student cannot capture the time necessary to attack a deep target in one action, they can work their way to the target in pieces. The student makes an action, you responds while the student "waits", and then the student takes the response to your action and scores to the deeper target. This is classic second intention, and this is a simple lesson illustrating it:

Student:makes short attack to your forearm/hand with advance.
Coach:retreats with a small parry and makes a ripostes o the student's high line.
Student:counter-ripostes with opposition to your upper arm or shoulder with a lunge or fleche. The riposte may be with or without opposition.

Your retreat should be small, enough to have time to make the parry, but not so large as to force the student to "reset" to your hand (a large retreat would not be inappropriate, but is a more advanced lesson). The student covers the distance to your deeper target in small, one-tempo segments that do not build up inertia. The student's final action should be done with acceleration and power. The student gets the added advantage of controlling your blade through the last action, decreasing the chance that you can counter-attack. By initiating the action the student is "ahead" in execution, in exchange for the risk that an opponent may surprise the student by riposting to an unexpected target the student is not prepared to defend.

Direct attacks to the deep target occur if the opponent fails to see a collapse in the distance, or is "stuck" and cannot retreat quickly enough to escape an attack. A good example:

Coach:makes a failed attack to the student's foot. You are stretched out in a lunge, with the blade down.
Student:as you finish the attack, the student fleches to your shoulder before you can recover.

Because you have both closed the space and are fixed in place with your blade far out of position, the student is able to go directly to your deep target.

For a more advanced lesson you can make a shallower, false attack to the student's foot. The student has an advantage with you unable to recover quickly from the attack, but the distance to you is much longer than in the lesson above, too long for a simple attack by the student. The student must make a feint and disengage attack to score, or see if you attempt a remise that will enable the student to take control of your blade. Again, it is the distance and respective blade positions of you and the student that determines a one-tempo or multi-tempo action by the student on the attack.

Another example of a direct attack to the deep target:

Coach:simulates an opponent maneuvering forward and attempting to pick up the student's blade with a "largish" counter-6.
avoids your attempts to find blade, giving ground each time. On one of the your forward steps the student, instead of retreating, deceives your search in six and scores with a fleche or a lunge to your chest, thigh, or foot7.

In the lesson above, the student could have easily timed your advance and sweep to score with a counter-attack to the forward target and then retreated, resetting back to your forward target. However, the student uses the combination of your forward step and their own passive taking of distance (by not retreating) to collapse the distance for a direct, deep attack to an easy to hit target.

Actions on the opponent's blade can help the student move through more than one tempo to score to a deep target. Often a strong action will provoke a blade response from the opponent, rather than a distance response, allowing the student to "freeze" the opponent and score:

Coach:is maneuvering/preparing slightly out of distance from the student.
Student:makes a slide advance and engages your blade strongly in the inside high line (quarte).
Coach:attempts to retreat (late) while pressing back against the student's blade as a reaction.
Student:disengages from your press back and fleches to score to your chest or shoulder.

At all times, the student is attempting to create surprise in the opponent. The student can do this with footwork techniques, or with a combination of footwork and blade work, as briefly outlined in the example above. Surprise can also occur if the student can misdirect the opponent's attention. By making an unexpected attack (such as going to the foot after making many attacks to the hand) or by showing the opponent one preparation and making the attack with another (showing the opponent several false attacks preceded by beats, and then attacking without a beat, for example) the student can "train" the opponent and then confound their expectations when making the real attack. The opponent may hesitate while choosing their response, giving the student time to score. The opponent is hit while still trying to decide on the optimal action.

Épée Tempo and the Defense

With the role of tempo on the attack outlined, the role of tempo on the defense becomes clear: the student must deny tempo opportunities to the attacker, or "allow" them to occur when the student is prepared to channel the attacker into a line or distance the defender is ready to control. This is the concept behind the defining move of épée, the arrêt to the opponent's forearm against their attack to the student's foot. In the arrêt, the defender's foot is pulled back while the defender extends out to touch the opponent in the shoulder or arm. Removing the foot backwards increases the time/distance to the opponent's preferred target, and the opponent's near target is even closer than before the attack, allowing an easy counter-attack.

In a more complicated fashion, the student can combine denying the opponent the proper distance with the control of the opponent's blade. This leads to another common épée tactic: the invitation and parry-riposte. As below:

Student:makes deep approach in stepping forward, dropping the tip of his or her blade in invitation.
Coach:makes an attack to the student's forearm or chest.
Student:steps back and makes a parry of counter-six and ripostes with opposition to your arm or body.

The student's step forward entices an opponent to make a direct attack to the body, while dropping the blade slightly to give the illusion to the opponent that there is more time there than actually exists. Stepping back, the student puts the opponent at a tempo disadvantage: the body is now too far away for a one-tempo action. The student is able to parry the opponent's attack and controls the opponent's blade with a riposte in opposition. The opposition hinders any remise or defensive action by the opponent. As on the attack, control of timing and distance on the defence is essential.

Also in defense, you can show the student that if the opponent is over-eager and acts too soon, or makes a correct preparation but hesitates, the student can escape and turn the tables on the opponent, as below:

Coach:makes quick—but shallow—advance and captures student's blade in the inside high line (carte).
Student:jumps back, and rolls off your capture to make a counter-attack in the opposite line as you attempt to finish your attack.

An opponent will often be eager to take the student's blade, so eager that they will often attempt to take too early and fail to gain a good "grab" on the blade. A less than skilled opponent will often attempt to finish the attack without control of the blade, hoping that initiative and daring will carry through. The alert student can defeat this attacks with little risk by opening the distance. While this example seems to allow the opponent a great deal of initiative, the student can often give the opponent a blade "cue" in the anticipation that the opponent will act; not recognizing that the student has baited a trap while simultaneously denying the opponent the distance/time to score. In this lesson the student "pulls" the opponent out to get hit, "cuing" the opponent to make the attack in the wrong time:

Student:strong advance towards you, followed by an immediate retreat to let off the pressure.
Coach:advances to fill the distance.
Student:makes a counter-6 sweep at the end of the your advance.
Coach:disengages the student's sweep and lunges.
Student:with an additional retreat, makes a counter-attack in the middle of your disengage to score.

The initial strong step is to put pressure on an opponent. The immediate retreat signals to the opponent that the student either lacks confidence in creating an advantage against the opponent, and it is now the opponent's "turn" to seize the initiative, reinforced by the student making an early defensive action with the blade. The student should end the action with the hand perhaps slightly high and back to encourage an opponent to take a risk in attacking the deep target. A slightly high point allows the student a number of options on the counter-attack, including a flick to the top of the arm/hand.

In defense and attack the student faces choices in targets. When defending, opening the space to make actions to the opponent's hand insures that the student is (mostly) safe, but the hand is very difficult to hit. Allowing the distance to collapse to score against the opponent's torso ensures a higher likelihood of hitting the target, but is dangerous without controlling the opponent's blade.

Student:Slightly out of distance, makes a half advance with a sweep through the inside high line (carte) for your blade.
Coach:Avoids the sweep and attacks with a lunge.
Student:Makes a parry of six and scores with opposition or with croise.

This is a classic counter-time action by the student. The student gives the illusion of closing the distance (with the half step) while searching for the opponent's blade. The unaware opponent doesn't realize that the distance is not optimal for an attack to the student's body: the blade invitation helps sell the opening. The opponent tries to cover the distance with a slightly longer than one-tempo lunge. The student has lured the opponent into a classic mistake: the opponent believes that because they can reach the student with a lunge, they can score with that lunge. The student, however, has time to make a parry and riposte against the opponent.

With a few exceptions (such as the lesson above), the student is being taught to open the space to score against the opponent when defending. In some cases, the student may want to collapse the space to score. By collapsing the space suddenly the student may catch the opponent still preparing and unready to attack. Timed correctly, the student can catch the opponent with his or her blade in a such position that the opponent cannot easily score. The student may also collapse the space and control the opponent's blade at the same time as the distance is changed, as in the case when taking a strong parry while moving forward. Collapsing the space should not be over used by a student in a bout, or by you in the lesson. It works because it is unexpected, and the student is able to take advantage of an opponent who is not ready to score, but closing the space anyway.

Épée Tempo and the Lesson

In the lesson you should give the student actions that reflect realistic distances. At the start, you can determine the tempo in a lesson very roughly, until coaching experience (and trial and error by your student's success and failure on the strip) acclimate you. A simple rule can also help: the student should attack the target closest to their point, before proceeding to a deeper target. For instance:

Coach:sweeps for the student's blade while retreating.
Student:avoids the sweep, and seeing that their point is in front of your hand, makes a small lunge to your close target.
Coach:makes a counter 6 parry while stepping forward.
Student:the student's point rolls off your parry of 6 and is now past your hand and close to your chest. The student remises to your chest.

This is a slightly artificial example, yet it is a common series of hits in beginning and intermediate épée. At each step, the student does not extend their attack out too far. When the distance collapses, the student would have been pressed to retreat enough to put the point back in front of your hand, so a remise to the body made more sense in terms of the time available.

However, sometimes this rule requires that the student move backward to attack the closest target. In this next example, the student's initial attack to a near target fails. Rather than trying to cover a big distance to your body, the student makes a backwards recovery to put the point back in front of your hand to score:

Student:attacks your hand with a small lunge, landing just in front the bell of your weapon.
Coach:makes a blade parry of 4, while advancing.
Student:recovers from the lunge, "rolling off" your parry to replace the point and score on your hand in the opposite line.

In this lesson, there might be the temptation to teach the student to make a strong remise to the body or thigh. The shallow penetration of the initial attack, however, would not give the student enough time to make the remise and avoid your counter-attack (since you only have to snap the point down to score against the student). Opening the space on the recovery puts your near target in front of the student's point, giving the student a better chance of a one-light touch.

It is difficult for you to cover every possible time/distance situation with your student. Even so, if the student is given the correct tempo in the lesson, it will assist their "feel" of tempo in a bout, even in situations not covered in their training. Your examples of appropriate tempos to score serve as templates of common situations, to which the student adds bouting experience. The student given a feel for tempo in training will make fewer mistakes and learn from bouting much faster than a student not exposed to good examples of tempo in training.8

Keep in mind there is a danger in following this rough guide too slavishly. In simple situations, this rule has validity. Under this guide, the new fencer will become accustomed to attacking the hand or the foot as a preparation, and continuing to the body when you create the proper tempo. Rarely do real opponents always cooperate with an ideal lesson situation, however. For instance, the opponent fencing with a strong absence of blade may keep his or her hand well out of normal fencing position. Against this opponent, the rule breaks down and an inexperienced student may make the mistake of "chasing the hand", or attacking the opponent's body from too far way.9 You will have to work in lesson to resolve strategies with the student. As with fencing itself, the you will learn from mistakes mistakes, or the mistakes of the students you teach.


A modern épée fencer is constantly moving and attempting to create tempo or exploit the opponent's mistakes in tempo, while staying in balance, prepared to execute an attack or a defense at any time. Unlike the classic épée of 50 years ago, the modern épée fencer uses many more tools to develop attacks. The hand and the foot remain targets of opportunity, but when given the tempo, an épée fencer's preference is to score to the deeper targets of the torso and thigh. Exploiting these targets, however, takes practice, skill, power, and surprise, along with a keen feel for the right distance and time to go. All these ideas must be explored in lesson in order to teach the student to score decisive hits in a bout.

It is your job not just to teach actions, but to teach the appropriate tempos with these actions. It is imperative that you reinforce good choices of tempos and targets to the student. Lessons that feature long, deep attacks are very impressive to an audience, but condition the student to make attacks in inappropriate tempos. Reinforcement of good tempo and good target choices in the lesson is the best way to educate the student in when and where to attack.

1Much of the next three paragraphs on tempo comes from Cues in Tempo and The Importance of Preparation on this web site. Please see these web pages for a more discussion of tempo.

2My thanks to Neal Durando for this excellent observation during an email exchange in the winter of 2007.

3This has been partially rectified with the publishing of Épée 2.0 by Johan Harmenberg, the World and Olympic champion from Sweden. this book, however deals with the transition from the "old" game of épée to the "new" game of épée and does not give many insights on the evolution of the weapon since that time (the 1970's).

4The classical solution is to teach the beginning épée fencer to remise to the elbow in this situation. However, this action takes a surprising amount of point control. Most beginning épée fencers simply remise to the body in this situation, and hope for the best.

5It is this bouncing/hopping footwork that leads to the distinctive, half-lunge on guard of many épée fencers. The lower on guard loads the powerful quadriceps muscles for quick movement, and the lower center of gravity assures that the fencer will not move out of balance.

6Remember, however, thanks to the contrary nature of épée that a retreat can also be considered "attaching" footwork, and does not have to be faster than the preparatory footwork preceding it.

7The student should be comfortable hitting a variety of targets with the same blade work and footwork. This adds versatility without adding complexity.

8See also, on this web site:Four Situations for the Épée Fencer .

9Opponents who fence with an absence of blade, especially those that combine this with gripping a French handle by the pommel, bedevil many beginning épée fencers. I have had some success in building drills and lessons with the student imagining where the opponent's hand would be if they were fencing a conventional on guard.

I would like to thank Coach Gary Copeland and Coach Jim Denton for their long discussions on this subject, which have helped immensely, and Neal Durando for his assistance.

Written November 2007, last edit, October 2016 for format and minor spelling and usage.

Copyright © 2008 by Allen L Evans. This article may be reproduced freely, as long as it remains unmodified and his copyright notice is included.