An épée student begins their fencing instruction by making basic blade actions and footwork together in simple technical blocks ("...a thrust and a lunge..."). The student progresses in learning individual technical skills, but will often struggle to integrate these skills into the demands of a bout. Logically, the next step in learning is to integrate the fencer's new technical skills into simple fencing phrases in order to understand how a fencing phrase "works". By incorporating—even in a simple way—all of the elements that make up scoring a hit the student has a context for both current and future technical skills.
Improving a student's technical skills is an on-going process, but to succeed on the strip, the student must understand the relationship between a fencing "thing" and how that fencing "thing" is used. Part of what facilitates this leap of understanding in your students is placing technical actions into a "framework" that outlines—perhaps roughly at first, but then, with increasing sophistication—how a fencing phrase works. Using a framework to put technical actions together can accelerate learning by your students by showing how technical actions relate to each other, and how they can be used to facilitate scoring actions.
Not a few coaches have told me that the idea of a "framework" in épée is an illusion: only through trial and error in practice bouting and competition can a fencer come to understand how an épée bout "works". While many approaches to training fencers can all be successful, I feel that a "trial and error" approach is more rooted in dogma than in any theory of real learning, and that it is possible to build a structure to accelerate a fencer's progress in making bouting actions.
There is one existing tactical framework many coaches use by default: the tactical wheel. Unfortunately, the tactical wheel has several faults when used in épée. These are:
- The tactical wheel lacks any discussion of distance or timing. A novice fencer might assume that all of the actions are done at the same distance, or that distance is not important in the use of fencing.
- The tactical wheel is based on a hierarchy of priority from the conventional weapons. This is problematic when applied to épée.
- The tactical wheel does not accurately simulate the choices available to the épée fencer in a real bout situation, including the choice of targets at varying distances.
Any framework for an épée fencer should reflect more than a rote response of one technical action versus another (for instance, making a parry to counter an attack). To be successful, the framework should address questions of timing and distance, including how variations in the distance drive a fencing phrase once the phrase begins. The framework should allow the student to exercise creativity within their level of technical skill in exploring common bout situations. A good framework links "like" fencing concepts together to give the fencer flexibility in their responses and a chance to exhibit creativity and initiative.
Many years ago, Maître Gary Copeland outlined a very simple set of exercises that I feel fulfills the requirements for an épée framework. The original outline from Maître Copeland was very brief (only a half a page or so). I have taken the liberty to expand on that outline here after experimenting with his framework for a number of years. Any errors in interpretation of Maître Copeland's work are entirely my own.
In fencing épée, four elements come together to support a hit against the opponent. These elements are, in no order of importance:
- The distance between the two fencers and how (and when) it closes.
- The choice by a fencer of the time to act, or the moment to act, often defined as tempo (though that definition is somewhat vague).
- Breaking the opponent's expectations (surprise).
- The choice of action by the fencer, and skill in execution of that action (technique).
Each of these elements are—to a greater or lesser extent—inter-dependant on the others in the list. An analogy of the relationship between these elements is to think them as tumblers in a lock. If the tumblers in a lock are not aligned properly, the lock will not open. At any given moment during a bout, if the fencer has not synchronized these four elements, the "lock" is shut, and the fencer cannot score. Through the use of distance and choice of blade actions, the fencer attempts to line up all the necessary elements and score.
Maître Copeland understood that an épée fencing is primarily distance driven, coupled with a limited number of core blade actions. He felt that if the fencer knows the distance, and understands what action is appropriate for that distance, the fencer is likely to score. Teaching the fencer to understand the distance and to know what blade action goes with what distance should be the basis of any framework. This teaching is explored in the Emil Beck method of épée instruction, but the framework used in Beck's system is restricted primarily to teaching the technical integration of blade work and footwork.
Scoring a hit in fencing requires the fencer to solve two problems: a distance problem and a blade problem. A any given distance (even at infighting distance) the fencer's point is here. The opponent's target is there—inches or feet away from the fencer's point. The fencer can move the point to the opponent's target in a certain amount of time (the further the target or longer the path to the target, the more time it takes for the point to reach it). Some of the things the fencer does will allow more time in making this action (such as achieving surprise over the opponent, choosing and using good technique, etc) or allow less time in reaching the target (using the wrong technique, choosing to attack when the opponent is retreating away, etc). If the total time to reach the opponent with the tip of the fencer's weapon is less than the time it takes the opponent to defend or counter-attack, the fencer will score. If the time to reach the opponent is greater than the time it takes the opponent to see and react, then there is a chance the fencer will be scored against.
Of course, the opponent's abilities, judgment, and perception in countering the fencer are great part of this equation and will vary from opponent to opponent, giving the fencer more or less time to score in any given situation.
The four templates in this article are distance driven, so it is worth discussing distance as a lead in to the four templates. The first question to consider in épée distance is "which épée distance"? With the entire body target, some targets (like the hand) are much closer than others (such as the back foot). For simplicity, I consider épée to have two only distances: the distance to the "forward" target of the opponent's hand and forearm, and distance to the opponent's "deep" target of torso, thigh, flank, and front foot. 1
The opponent's forward target of the hand and forearm is within range of simple footwork, such as an advance or short lunge2. However, the hand is highly maneuverable and protected by the bell of the weapon, so attacks to the opponent's hand fail more often than not. The deep targets of the torso, thigh, and flank are easier to hit, but require that the fencer get close to the opponent, or that the attack be made over more than one tempo. Either option increases the exposure of the fencer to possible counter actions by the opponent. While defensive and counter-offensive actions by the opponent can be anticipated (or provoked) as part of a scoring strategy, attacking the far target involves more risk than attacking the opponent's near target.
At the start of a fencing phrase, let's assume that both the fencer and the opponent are just outside of the distance to each other's near target. A scoring situation will not occur until the distance closes to one of the two target distances. The fencer that causes the distance to close—or who acts first on an inadvertent closing of the distance by the other fencer—will be more likely to score a hit.
A fencer can close the distance to the opponent by actively taking the distance in moving forward, or passively allowing the distance to collapse by not retreating if the opponent moves forward.
If the fencer makes a single step to attempt close the distance against an opponent, the opponent can respond in three ways:
- The opponent may stand still on the fencer's advance, and the distance closes to the forward target (hand/arm).
- The opponent may move forward on the fencer's advance, and the distance closes to the deep target (torso/body).
- The the opponent may move backward on the fencer's advance, and the distance does not close.
Combining both fencer's options of moving forward, backward, or standing still gives nine possible combinations of movement between the two fencers. We can ignore those situations in which no advantageous distance change takes place (both fencers stand still, for example). Because we want our fencer's to be pro-active in controlling distance, we can also eliminate those situations in which our fencer stands still and the opponent moves first.
This leaves four possible combinations of footwork for our fencer and the opponent:
- The fencer moves forward, and the opponent stands still.
- The fencer moves forward, and the opponent moves backward.
- The fencer moves forward, and the opponent also moves forward.
- The fencer moves backward, and the opponent moves forward.
These four possible combinations form the start of our épée framework. To this framework, we can add blade actions.
The framework has two opportunities for the fencer to score: on their initial choice of footwork, and on the opponent's choice of reaction to the fencer's attempt to either close, or open the distance between them. These two scoring opportunities are different only in the target the fencer hopes to score against. For attacks to the forward target of the opponent's hand and forearm the best actions are:
- Simple, direct attack
- Simple, indirect attack
- Beat attack (both simple and indirect)
- Press attack (both simple and indirect)
These blade actions can be made in different lines, depending on the relationship of the two fencer's blades and the relevant tactical movement of the weapons.
To the deep target of the opponent's body, the fencer may use any of the actions to the near target, and in addition, may also use:
- Parry and riposte
- Simple opposition attacks
- Blade transports ending in simple opposition (bind, cróse, etc.)
Again, these actions can be done in any of the lines, depending on the situation.
The compound attack has not be explicitly mentioned in this list. For simplification, consider a compound attack as two simple attacks joined with a disengage: the fencer attacks the near target, the opponent parries, and the fencer renews the attack to another target, for example.
In looking at the relationship of distance to actions and the tactics of fencers, fencers make three fundamental mistakes in distance that prevents the fencer from scoring. These mistakes are:
- Fencers attack targets that are too far away (the fencer cannot reach the target before the opponent reacts against them).
- The fencer is "behind" in recognizing the opponent's reaction after the fencer's initial change of distance (forward or backward).
- The fencer does not make the appropriate blade action to the appropriate target, in the right distance.
Past the first year or so of training, most fencers chooses the right blade action when fencing a bout with a peer of similar ability. This leaves the most common error for new fencers one of making errors in initially judging, or adjusting to, the distance. Using a framework based on distance will assist the student in assessing and judging distances in a bout. In having a structure that goes beyond "I didn't parry and got hit" or "I was too far away and I missed" the fencer has a context to learn distance in a bout in a controlled and reproducible way.
Advanced fencers often seem to be very fast, and have an uncanny ability to be at the right place to make a hit. This comes from experience in anticipating bouting situations, reading clues in how the distance will change, and having the skills to execute actions that interrupt their opponents. The skilled fencer is ahead in the "decision loop" 4 compared to their opponent. Each of these four distance situations has a unique "moment to go" that the fencer learns to recognize, to anticipate, and thus to be ahead of the opponent in making decisions.
Here are the four situations. When these were originally presented to me, they were not numbered by Maître Copeland, and I have taken the liberty to do so for clarity.
Each template is in the form of a lesson between a coach (you) and a fencer of the same hand.
Situation One: The student closes the distance and attacks your near target. You react to the attack with your blade, do not retreat, and the student closes the distance to your deep target with a second attack.
There are two ways to think of this action tactically. The first idea is one of "attack/attack". Alternatively, you could think of this as "preparation/attack", where "preparation" is the initial attack. This duel nature of actions is common in épée, in which the first action to the near target serves multiple purposes. It is excellent if your student has the skills to score to the hand or wrist on the first action (making this an "attack/attack"). But if they do not have those skills, attacking the near target with conviction should force the opponent to react (making this a "preparation/attack"). The initial attack to the near target is not a "throw away" action even if it does not score in every instance.
Have the student chose a blade action to the near target from the above list. Your answer to the first attack should be a blade action, but no footwork by you. This allows your student to make a second action to your deep target using additional footwork and the blade work appropriate to your response to their initial attack. Some possibilities:
- The student makes an attack to your hand, which you parry. The student deceives the parry or "rolls off" your bell, and scores to your deep target with a lunge or fleche.
- The student makes an action to your near target and your response is to extend into the student's attack. The student will have to choose between simple opposition thrusts, a transport followed by an opposition thrust or an attack (beat or press) on your blade before going to your deep target. You must give this reaction with a strong sense of immediacy: you should be extending even as the student's initial attack finishes. This puts your weapon in the way quickly, and the student must clear your blade before attacking again.
- You react to the attack to your hand/arm by pulling your hand back to "protect" it. Pulling your point back from the student means he or she is free to continue to the deep target with a simple attack. When using this action, remove the blade an appropriate amount for the skill level of your student. Beginners will need to feel safe, and the blade should be well removed. Skilled students should need much less.
- The student my close to the first distance while making an invitation for you to make a counter-attack. When you extend into the student's invitation, the student then takes control of your blade for an attack to your deep target. In this case, the near target has not been attacked, rather the student has goaded you into offering your blade for them to control on the way to hitting your deep target.
You may find that inexperienced fencers, having missed the initial attack to your forward target, will attempt to re-acquire your hand with a remise, making additional thrusts. This strategy ignores the reality that your deep target is now both vulnerable (if you have done your job correctly) and easier to hit. Encourage the student to make a smooth continuation after their initial attack to your deep target.
The student should be taught that the upper torso is not the only deep target. The thigh and flank are also valid in many situations, and you should make the student score to them as well. For the left handed student, actions to your flank can be valuable. Many épée coaches ignore this target, but at the intermediate level, many touches are scored there.
A final note about Situation One: ask the student to vary the footwork in the attacks. By changing the footwork from the ordinary advance and lunge to other combinations, the student will have a different "look and feel" to the opponent. Other combinations might be:
- Jump and lunge
- Slide step and lunge
- Advance and fleche
- Jump and fleche
- Half-lunge and lunge...
A (difficult) variation of this lesson is giving it with an absence of blade. The student must act as before, and makes his or her initial preparation to where your hand would be if you were in a "normal" on guard. The timing of the second hit will be much different, depending on your reaction to the student's first action, which by definition is now a preparation, since there is no target to attack. Think your options through carefully before using this lesson.
As a final note: while the trigger for the student's second attack is your failure to step back, it is fine to move back slightly during the more explosive footwork actions to accustom the student to hit a moving target and to replicate what a real opponent will be doing on the strip. Simply make sure that your step back does not occur at a time that influences the timing of the student's final action.
Situation Two: The student closes the distance to attack your forward target. You retreat to open the distance, and the student re-attacks your forward target.
The key in teaching Situation Two is the timing of your retreat. In Situation Two, you must begin your retreat just as the student's first attack to your hand/arm lands. The student must see that you are opening up the space as they finish their first action, and that they are now "behind" the start of your retreat. Your deep target has become too far away to attack with ease, but the near target is still within easy range.
If you make a mistake and retreat very late—significantly after your student has finished their first piece of footwork to the your near target—the student should be able to continue on to attack your deep target. This is your error, and your student should capitalize on it.
Just as in Situation One, you can make a number of offensive/defensive responses to the student's first attack as you pull the space. However, the student must now be focusing on scoring to the near target, rather than trying to drive deeper. The exception might be if—in retreating—you simulate a significant loss of balance by leaning backwards, while moving your weapon away from the student. In this case, the student should take the risk of attacking over a longer distance against an opponent who cannot mount a defense or counter-offense. In all likelihood, however, such a significant loss of balance by an opponent would also be found in their making an ill-timed or short retreat, putting the student into the distance to attack the body directly as in Situation One.
If your response in Situation Two is a counter-offensive blade action, your student should re-attack your blade before attacking your near target. Depending on relationship of your blades, however, a strong flick from the off angle to your hand or arm might also be appropriate, and done without dealing with your blade first.
The student's second attack to your near target can take on a number of forms.
- The student may start with a simple attack on the first attempt, and make a beat attack on the second attempt.
- If you extend while making your retreat, your student can answer with a beat attack or press attack to the near target.
- If you make a parry while retreating, the student can "roll" off the parry much like in Situation One with the disengage thrust going to your hand or arm.
- If you extend on the retreat, a skilled student might be able to take your blade in opposition and score to your arm, but this is a low percentage action, and requires a great deal of skill.
You could test your student's powers of observation in Situation Two by making a defensive blade action (a parry) while stepping back. An inattentive student will deceive the parry and attempt to lunge to your torso or leg, allowing you to either counter-attack or make a second parry. If you step back and make a parry, your student should remise or roll off the parry as in Situation One and re-attack your forward target.
Finally, if you open the distance and remove the near target (by pulling the hand back or dropping it out of play) the student should break off the attack. A very experienced student could restart the attack by moving smoothly forward to make a preparation to your forward target again, restarting the sequence (and this is something that you should plan on adding later), but a less experienced student should simply break off the attack. Knowing when to break off the pursuit of the opponent is a valuable skill, especially when the opportunity to score is above the student's skill level.
Situation Three: your student attacks your forward target while making a retreat, and then retreats again to open the distance. You attempt to close the distance again, and the student attacks your near target again.
The feeling in this scenario should be one of the student "pulling" you rather than one of you "pushing" the student. The student should not be waiting for you to close the space after making their first attack, since this loss of initiative will result in the student being too close to re-engage your forward target. In military parlance, the student is using a succession of counter-attacks to the arm as a "stand off" weapon against you. If you are allowed to close the space, this "stand-off" weapon will be less effective.
Situation Three is a lesson in controlling the distance while going backwards. By initiating the opening of the space the student will be able to keep their point between the two of you, constantly threatening your forward target in relative safety. Pulling you—rather than being pushed backwards by you—is critical for Situation Three to be successful.
The student should vary the actions to your near target in Situation Three. The student's first attack might be a beat attack to your hand, a retreat, and then a simple thrust (direct or indirect) as a remise as you attempt to close the space. Alternately, your student could initiate the action with an invitation (such as a sweep in 6)and then a retreat and a counter-attack on your attack into their search. Attacks against the blade, with angled or indirect remises, or remises with passive close outs are all possible here.
Your own actions on the initial attack have to respect the fact that the student is already leaving the distance. You could:
- Parry the student's initial attack to your forward target and attempt to make a riposte from out of distance, drawing a remise or a counter-riposte.
- Start a compound attack (or riposte) drawing a remise.
- Attempt to make a counter-time action against the retreating student, drawing a compound counter-attack (feint-in-tempo).
- Attempt to hit their foot as they retreat, drawing a remise to your upper body or arm.
- Attempt to find and control the student's blade with an engagement, provoking a roll-off remise or parry and riposte.
Your choices of responses will drive the type and nature of your student's second action, of course.
Situation Four: The student closes the distance to your near target and attacks. You close the distance on your answering response and your student scores against your deep target.
What does this situation look like in a bout? An example is one in which the fencer makes a strong pick to the opponent's hand, who responds with an attack to the fencer's deep target with a fleche. The fencer parries the fleche and ripostes to the opponent's torso. It might also be a situation in which the fencer makes a strong attack to the opponent's forward target, and the opponent attempts to find the fencer's blade while stepping forward in an attempt to trap the fencer's blade. The fencer derobes the attempt by the opponent to find the blade and remises to the opponent's chest, thigh, or flank.
In Situation Four, your goal in the lesson is to close the space quickly after the student has made their first attack. The idea here could be one of:
- A strong parry and riposte against the student.
- An attempt to find and control the student's blade while collapsing the distance.
- A direct, answering attack against an attack by the student who has failed to score against you, or come up short on the attack.
Situation Four rewards the student that arrives at the end of their first attack in balance and "ahead" of the opponent. Because he or she is in balance, and has no momentum forward, the student is able to react to a sudden change in the space between them. After the initial attack to your forward target, the student should be literally "still" for a split second before they deal with your response to the first attack.
Situation Four forces the student to keep their initial attack reasonable and over a small distance/tempo. Less skilled fencers are punished in a bout by attacking over too large of a time/distance. When the fencer reaches too far, their attack is over while they are still moving up their back foot, recovering their balance, and so forth. When the opponent closes, the less skilled fencer is still in motion and unable to defend themselves in the time that they have.
Situation Four can take many forms of blade work.
- The fencer makes a simple attack to your near target, and your response is an immediate attack that the student must parry riposte to your chest, flank, or thigh. This riposte could be done in opposition or with a cróse (the fastest transport).
- The student makes a quick attack to your near target and you attempt to find the blade moving forward. The student derobes your search and remises to your chest.
- You parry the students initial attack, and then attempt to make a compound riposte immediately, leaving the student's blade. They remise to your shoulder.
- You parry the student's attack and riposte. The student counter-ripostes (simple direct, indirect, or compound) to score
In all of these situations, ask the student to vary blade work and the footwork. Within the confines of each template, the student should also vary the target: for instance, hitting the top, bottom, and sides of the hand when attacking the near target, and the chest, flank, and thigh when scoring against the deep target. The student can show some creativity in the lesson by making the first hit a very "vanilla" attack to your hand, and then make a number of variations on the second hit by using:
- Simple opposition
- Strong beat parry and riposte
- Body evasion
- Remise on your attempt to take the blade
...there are a long list of possible actions.
Advanced Work: Combining Situations
Before outlining some of the ways to add additional layers to these templates, let me say that many coaches increase the difficulty of lessons too early, and for no reason. I would not add complexity to these templates (which are the source of a number of good lessons just as they are) unless you have exhausted the many (many) possibilities in the single templates above. Can your student do Situation One with a lunge to the thigh? With opposition to the flank? Can your student do Situation Three with a jump back and a flick? Perform Situation Four by starting their action with a slide? If they cannot do the single situations with a high degree of complexity and creativity, adding combinations of situations will make the lesson more "interesting" , but might very well result in the student actually learning less. Be judicious in combining the situations.
With all that said, I have found it occasionally useful to combine situations that have a natural linkage to illustrate a particular point, such as the student's control in opening the distance or allowing it to collapse.
When combining situations, you must make your movements in the lesson clear and distinct by moving late or moving early, as appropriate for each situation. The student must be able to clearly differentiate the input they are getting on the distance. If the student makes an action you don't expect, you must ask yourself first if you moved at the right time for the situation you were trying to teach.
There are natural pairings in the four situations. I see the logical combinations as:
Situations One and Two...
The student makes an attack to the near target. If you stand still while making a defensive or counter-offensive blade action, the student closes the second distance to the your deep target (Situation One). Alternately, you can retreat to open the space and the student makes their second attack to the near target again (Situation Two). If you retreat late from the first attack, the student should be able to finish to a deeper target. If you leave early (just as the student makes their first hit) the student should abandon a deeper attack, but should be able to reacquire your forward target.
In each of the combinations, the student must come to the first distance poised and ready to finish to the appropriate target. They then must look to your reaction to their first attack.
Situations Three and Four...
The student makes the initial attack to your near target, immediately attempting to escape after the attack. If the student successfully escapes, they should re-attack your near target (Situation Three). If you "step on" the student's retreat—closing the space faster than the student is leaving—the student is in Situation Four and must score against your deep target, preferably with an action on the blade.
Again, the student discriminates between the two situations by the timeliness of your closing the space after the initial attack. Simulating an aggressive or cautious opponent changes the options that the student has. Alternately, by giving the student control in the timing of their space, very alert and mobile student may pull distance early (and forcing you to follow) or not pulling enough distance and allowing the space to collapse, and ready to follow through on the distance that they have created. This would be the mark of a very sophisticated student.
These templates represent four common distance situations in épée. Since the student has many options to chose from among both footwork and blade work in each of the templates, there is the possibility of many lessons being built around these ideas. Changing the footwork in a given situation gives the student more flexibility and more variety in their attacking patterns, as well as playing to the student's particular footwork strengths, or for you to exercise the student's weaker footwork actions in the lesson. The same is true of the blade work you chose to use in each situation. This can be demanded by you, or control can be given to the student to allow them to experiment.
Your own actions should also vary. What makes sense? What do real opponents do?
As described in these four situations, the movement patterns by you and the student are very clear cut. Real fencing is not like this. Motion on the strip is continuous and independent, and fencers do not "take turns" in moving. Understand that the goal in introducing these actions is to give the student some common ground to understand how distance can change, and what choices they can make to be effective when that happens. For additional realism, these "set piece" patterns can be embedded in a larger lesson scheme, with maneuvering footwork as a part of the lesson.
Using these four situations has been very valuable for me. The four situations reinforce good balance and footwork skills. They are structured enough to allow me to teach fencers at a high level (while still being able to say "ahead" of the fencer) and flexible enough to allow a lot of creativity by the student. Finally, they show the student the necessity of never extending an initial attack or preparation-as-an-attack out too far against an alert and wary opponent.
These templates (and their combinations) are a valuable base to build beginning to intermediate level épée lessons. Adding preparations to the "front" of the lesson and additional actions to the "back" of these four templates can expand them even further, into very complex lessons suitable for advanced competitive students.
I am indebted to Maître Gary Copeland for his initial thoughts on this subject that lead to this manuscript.
1 I consider the opponent's foot a "far" target. The foot is often physically close, but the path the attacker's point must travel to reach the foot (as well as the amount of exposure that often is required to score against it) gives it many of the characteristics of a "deep target".
2The fencer who fences with a strong absence of blade has effectively taken away the near target. When training students to fence against this style, I ask the student to attack/prepare to the space where the opponent's hand would be in a more traditional on guard in order to draw a reaction that can then be built on.
3In modern épée, the invitation is not the passive taking of a particular guard or invito of classical épée, but more active preparation that encourages the opponent to attack a line they think is vulnerable, or even chases the opponent's blade into a position that makes it vulnerable to an attack by the student.
4OODA was developed out of air combat and stands for: "Observe, Orient, Decide, Act" or OODA.
Written September 2013.
Copyright by Allen L. Evans. This article may be reproduced freely, as long as it remains unmodified and his copyright notice is included.