More accurately, this should be called "Notes On the Beck System of Épée" — as developed by the founding coach of Tauberbishofscheim, Emil Beck. Because of the influence Maitré Beck had on fencing in his country, often American coaches call this the "German System" and leave it at that. However, this is not the only method of teaching épée used in Germany, and, in fact, is unique to Tauber and Tauber trained coaches.

Who is Emil Beck? What is the Beck System of épée How does it differ from other systems? What are it's strengths and weaknesses?

There seems to be no evidence that Emil Beck was trained as a fencing coach, though he did take fencing lessons for some time. As is often the case with innovators, his lack of training as a coach may have been one of Emil Beck's strengths. Rather than be indoctrinated into one school of thought or system, Emil Beck looked at épée to see what fencers were really doing on the strip, as opposed to what a specific fencing school said they should be doing. From these observations of actual competitions he put forth a system of training that was somewhat unorthodox and certainly not rooted in any of the traditional fencing "schools". At the same time that he was formulating this system, he founded a fencing club, and began training fencers. His first club was small, but Beck pushed his pupils to win. In addition to training fencers, Beck became a strong lobbyist for fencing, convincing major corporations—such as Adidas and Mercedes—to sponsor his club and his fencers. By the 1976 Olympic Games, Beck's fencers were winning medals, including a sweep of the Women's Foil event. Coaches from all over the world came to Tauber to study the "German system". Maitré Beck became a world authority on fencing, and training fencers.

In the late 1990's the luster of Beck dimmed. There were accusations that Beck had mis-managed funds from the German government, including a habit of making payments to his relatives. Many fencers have stepped forward to denounce Beck's system of coaching. Some fencers claimed that Beck himself was not responsible for the results of Tauber, but took credit for the work of other coaches at the club. At the time of Maitré Beck's death in 2007, he was no longer professional associated with Tauber. Training, however, continues at the sports complex in Tauberbishofscheim.

What is the "Beck System"? Emil Beck observed what happened in a fencing bout, and realized quickly the individual skills of a fencer are very few. Most fencers have only three or four signature moves. It is often the way the fencers put those moves together that makes them so deadly. Early in his teaching career, Emil Beck understood that there were three components to a bout: blade skills, footwork skills, and tactical skills. Beck identified the skills in each group, and then made up a modular system to give a fencer those skills as quickly as possible. His system does this by giving students small pieces of actions. The student learns fencing in small sets of skills, putting these sets together gradually to make an integrated fencing scheme. The fencing student spends very little time learning skills that won't be used in a bout. This makes things good for the student and for the coach. The student is gradually introduced to those elements most likely to insure that they win. The coach is given a road map of easy skills to teach, with no distractions or extraneous actions. These fencing skills are complete, without being exhaustive. The system is internally consistent: the Beck system links the solutions to fencing problems to simple concepts that repeat themselves. These concepts repeated themselves in every lesson. Because the student learns very few actions, the student does many fundamental blade actions under different conditions and in different situations. This helps the fencer with the most difficult part of learning to fence: integrating all of his or her skills into one unit. This integration become a by-product of the lesson, rather than something the coach has to address uniquely.

Lessons in the Beck system are a very limited series of blade actions coupled with specific footwork patterns that the coach and the student can easily memorize. The coach does not have to invent lessons and knows what actions will be performed in any particular lesson and at any point in the student's progression. This allows the coach to concentrate on giving the lesson at the top of his or her ability. The coach is not distracted by having to give the lesson while thinking ahead or wondering what to do next with the student. Creating a lesson from scratch every time takes an enormous amount of energy for the coach. The coach is apt to forget things, or skip over actions. In truth, most coaches don't have lesson plans or a lesson progression at all. They make up their lessons during the walk from the parking lot into the club, or they simply teach the same lesson over and over again with no variation.

The Beck system also benefits the coach in its modular approach to fencing. It is very easy to select those actions that play to a student's strengths (useful in warm up before a competition) or to pick those specific actions the student needs improvement in (useful in correcting mistakes after a competition). The beginning coach does not need to do a great deal of analysis to improve their students in lesson. The coach simply selects those parts of the lesson plan that the student does not do very well. It is not the best approach, but for the beginning coach, it is better than ignoring the weaknesses of the student entirely.

"Few fencers do the enormous number of repetitions necessary to make their technical skills polished and automatic."

The student's advantage in lessons in the Beck system is in the small number of technical skills needed to perform the lessons and the large number of repetitions done of these skills in the lessons. Few fencers do the enormous number of repetitions necessary to make their technical skills polished and automatic. Coaches teach a move over several lessons and then move on, worried that the student will get bored. Worse, perhaps the coach gets bored with teaching the action and abandons it before the student knows it. As a result, the student, who often can execute an action in lesson never does the action in a bout. The student has learned the action, but does not "know" the action. Because the Beck system engages in a large number of repetitions of the same actions, in a variety of situations, the student is more apt to be able to execute a specific action under pressure, in a bout, when it really counts.

In the Beck system the student is not required to innovate or create on the strip (this is, in fact, one of the biggest criticisms of the system). The student has few actions to do, and simply "matches" the problem they have in front of them to a particular lesson segment. If the student has been presented a problem that they haven't seen previously in a lesson (unlikely once the student has moved to the higher level of lessons) the student is trained to ignore the situation and to wait for a more familiar action. Often, this is the safest course of action for a beginning student, rather than attempting to "make something up" in an attempt to score, and risking a hit.

The Beck system makes the student execute many of the same actions with different footwork, done in a set pattern. In addition, unlike other methods of training fencing, it is the job of the coach to set and keep distance in the lesson. As the student moves in a footwork pattern, the right distance is kept by the coach. This combination of coach-controlled distance and set footwork patterns assists the student with one of the most difficult tasks he or she faces: integrating their blade skills with footwork skills. Many épée fencers can score to the thigh with a lunge. How many can score to the thigh after making a retreat? or while making a fleche? The number of fencers who can do that are far fewer. For many fencers, these actions don't occur to them, and, even if these actions did occur to them, the student has never been given a distance or foot work context in which to make these actions.

The combination of set footwork actions, married to blade actions, and with the coach setting the proper space for each hit gives a student preprogrammed "attack patterns". This will make the student much more comfortable when actually bouting, and expand their modest blade techniques to cover more situations. Being comfortable early in their bouting career, the student is not focused on simply surviving in their first competitions. He or she has a chance to observe and learn more while competing, even if they are losing many of their first bouts (which they will). This means that lessons learned in combat, lessons which are always the most effective, are learned sooner, and learned in a context that is effective.

The last advantage of the Beck system for both the coach and the student is that the lesson patterns have a built in tactical progression. The Beck system has three tactics: "attack", "attack and remise" (or "preparation-attack"), and "counter-time". Unlike the more classical schools of épée, there is no "counter-attack" tactic in the lessons. In the Beck system, the emphasis is on controlling the opponent's blade at all times, so that the opponent is not "allowed" to make an attack that the fencer has not provoked. This is an unusual idea compared to other schools of épée, but is consistent with the goals and approach of the Beck system.

The student's attack is always proceeded by an action on the blade: either a beat or a press. This initial attack is always to the forward target (the hand or thigh). Attacks against deeper targets are done with more foil like actions, and are to be used against weaker opponents. The Beck system teaches the fencer to attack close targets (hand, foot, thigh) first for two reasons. For the experienced student, attacks to the forward targets have value: the better fencer has the skill to score with these attacks without taking much risk. For the less skilled student, the attack to the closest target is the start of a preparation that will lead to more successful scoring actions. The less experienced student will break up deeper attacks over multiple tempos by "breaking up" the long attacks into multiple one-tempo attacks. Too often beginning fencers ignore the forward targets and attack deeper targets— such as the chest or upper arm—with little or no preparation. Attacking over a long tempo insures that the student will be parried or counter-attacked, even if the opponent is not significantly more skilled than the student.

The "attack-remise" is another tactic that has advantages for the beginner fencer and skilled fencer alike. Often the beginner will get fixed on attacking the hand. They will miss on an initial action to the hand and then attempt to continue to "poke" at the opponent's hand to score, even if that is no longer an appropriate target. In the Beck lesson plan, there is an initial target, and then a remise. The remise is done to a number of different targets, and is a natural follow-through action growing from the first attack. The Beck system assumes that the first attack (especially if it is to the hand) will fail to score, either because the opponent is skilled enough to escape the attack or because the student does not have the skill to reliably hit the opponent's forward target. Once a forward target is attacked, the lesson moves on to the next target. The chances are good that the forward target is either too close, or has been removed by the opponent, and the student should transfer their focus to another area. Because the Beck system insists on hitting multiple targets in a phrase, the beginning student is encouraged to leave a target after it has been "addressed". This prevents the beginning épée student from being "hand happy" and gives the student an introduction to the "flow" of an épée bout. The experienced student makes an attack and remise as a matter of course, and the Beck system gives the student a variety of targets to attack, and rehearses natural patterns of attack and re-attack. The lesson pattern insures that natural remise patterns (hand to leg, hand to body, etc) are regularly practiced.

"Épée is a weapon of counter-time" a coach once told me. In the Beck system, counter-time is taught in a simple way. Every new action starts by sweeping for the opponents blade in a particular line. This sweep forces the opponent into a line of the attackers choosing. The sweep is always done in such a way that if the opponent chooses to attack on the student's sweep, the student can make a defensive action. If the opponent does not attack, but simply protects the blade by avoiding the sweep, the sweep has done its job and the student can now beat or press in the pre-programmed line.

Finally the Beck System introduces the idea of a "safety". This is an action done at the end of all other actions. It assumes that the attack and remise have both failed. The opponent is now very close and is about to score. The student must be composed, find and control the opponents blade, and score to a deep (usually torso) target. The safety action drills the beginning student into keeping calm (at a time when being calm is very valuable), to anticipate the opponent's line of attack, and control the opponent's blade for a one-light hit. For the advanced student, the safety uses their ability to continue to make effective actions, even at close distance.

At each point in the tactical progression, the student is asked to recognize a situation, and act on it automatically, without thinking and without a lot of decision time. Many people have criticized the Beck system as teaching fencing "machines", and removing the fencer from the equation of the bout. I am not sure that this is such a bad thing. For the most part, beginning fencers enter a bout with too MUCH information. The heads of beginning students are so full of advice from coaches and team mates about solving fencing problems that the vast majority of students get hit planning what action to do next. Making the initial stages of competition automatic for a beginning fencer is a step in the right direction: allowing beginning fencers some success while learning how a bout actually works.

Still, there is some truth that the training in the Beck system does not give the coach much credit, or even much to do! Yet, this system understands that fencing is not about showing off the skills of the coach, but rather, to make the fencer as successful as possible. Gary Copeland, one of the most successful coaches in the United States, writes this about the Beck System:

"In the end, the coach's goal is to have a large number of highly competitive students. The easiest way to do that is to develop a lesson system that is not dependent upon an excellently skilled coach but rather a system of instruction that anyone can teach and which focuses on individual techniques rather than abstract concepts" 1

With all the strengths that the Beck system seems to have, why isn't it done by more American coaches? Probably the biggest weakness of the Beck system is the number of repetitions it asks for in lessons. Because the system builds skills in such small pieces, the Beck system works best for a student taking a lesson every day, or better yet, multiple, short lessons in a day. Teaching mostly for recreation, the average American coach is lucky to see his or her students two or three times a week. Because of this, progress with the Beck method in a recreational environment is very slow, since the student is not in a position to take advantage of the system's major strength of constant repetition.

Market forces also play a role in a club or coach adopting the Beck system. The Beck system is not about taking good lessons, but about having successful bouts. Most clubs in the United States are a mix of recreational and competitive fencers, with the recreational fencers making up the bulk of the membership. Recreational fencers see the ability to take complicated lesson as part of their success as fencers. Boring lessons from a coach will drive a recreational fencer away. Since the coach's income depends on retaining students, this is not advantageous to the coach, or to the club. The average club will find little utility in the Beck system because of this. There are coaches, however, such as Paul Soter of the Golden Gate Fencing Center, who have had good results using the Beck approach.

In addition to this, there is a certain feeling of "not invented here" with the Beck system. Other systems of fencing, such as the French school, are more embedded in American coaching culture, and more familiar to American coaches. The simplicity of the Beck system seems suspicious to some coaches, who are accustomed to the complexities of other schools. When talking to another épée coach about the Beck system, he told me that the Beck system was too "mechanical" and "artificial" to be useful to him. He found the lessons boring, and so did his students. A student who finds a lesson boring is not likely to apply him or herself, and the coach is correct to find a different approach.

Finally, one of the biggest weaknesses of the Beck system is that has been left behind by the progress of modern épée. In the Beck system, the coach will find no solutions for such things as opponents fencing with a strong absence of blade, which require controlling the opponent with combinations of invitations and distance. The Beck system is very strongly based on clearing out a path to the opponent when the opponent's blade is in the way. When the opponent's blade is more present by its absence than by its engagement, the student trained in a pure Beck system may be at a loss.

For the average coach who wants competitive results, the Beck system has some appeal. Even if the lesson plans are not followed slavishly, Emil Beck has a very structured approach to giving an épée lesson that removes a great deal of guess work and thinking. The lesson plans ensure that significant actions are not skipped in teaching the student. If there are actions in the lesson that the coach would like to add, I have found that the Beck system allows easy on the spot modifications. I feel that the beginning to intermediate épée coach could do much worse than exploring the Beck system.

The Lessons...

The Beck system is organized around a series of levels. There are four levels in all. In the first and second levels (the first level is presented here) the basic technical actions of fencing are shown. In subsequant levels, there are additions of preparatory coupé-like actions and flicks. There is basic footwork of advance, retreat, lunge and fleche in the first level. Subsequent levels add an additional advance or retreat (always moving in one direction—there are no changes of direction in the Beck system).

What follows in the lesson outline below is NOT a word for word representation of the First Level of the Beck system, as my notes (from two different seminars and three different articles) contradict in naming and describing the patterns and segments of the Beck system. So the labeling and description of the patterns may be inaccurate or incomplete if compared to the original German (which I have seen as of the time of this revision—2014— but do not have a translation).

The beginning student with no training must be able to go on guard, extend, and do simple footwork to start these lessons. I also find that spening a little bit of time focusing on simple takes and oppositions with the student can help increase the learning curve for someone who is new to épée.

From these simple actions, the rest of the lesson is built. The blade techniques of beat, thrust, and parry flow from the structure of the lesson. In some respects, the lesson action places the student into a position in which the student has no choice but to execute the next action in the lesson pattern. All actions in the following are assumed to take place between a right-handed coach and right-handed student.

The beginning lesson is organized around the following footwork pattern:

  • Standing
  • Advance
  • Lunge
  • Advance (and) lunge
  • Jump (and) Lunge
  • Retreat
  • Fleche

And here is the first blade pattern of the lesson:

  1. Initial target: top of hand.
  2. Safety: opposition in 8 to thigh or flank.
  3. There is no remise in this initial, first lesson.

Let us look at the first lesson in detail, along with some of the footwork. The footwork for the example is advance. You should begin with the student in a high line, without engagement. The student is at extend and advance distance to your  hand. You drop the point of your blade as if to threaten the student's thigh, and this signals the student to make a search with a slow counter of 8 for your blade. You avoid the sweep, and replace your blade in the low line, slightly extending as if to make (or finish) an attack. The student then makes a quick, sharp beat in 8 and an immediate extension and advance to the top of your hand. The student scores to your hand. Just as, or immediately after the student's hit, you make a late parry of 6 to defend the hand. At the same time that you are making this parry, the student has relaxed his or her arm back to an on guard position, with the point of the weapon slightly high. This is an invitation for you to immediately extend again, to attack the exposed underside of the student's hand with an extension and advance.  The student holds their ground, makes a parry of 8 to stop your attack, and makes an opposition riposte to your thigh or flank. Both both you and the student return to on guard and do the action again, or do the action again with the next footwork pattern.

This is far different from other schools of épée, which would suggest that after the first attack to the hand, the student's point should be left on your target to make a remise either off the parry, or into your attempt to hit the student's low line target. The Beck argument is that the student has missed the initial (hand) target because of your defense, either through distance, with the blade. or a combination of both. Keeping the blade on target only allows the coach/opponent to gain control of the student's blade and insure a scoring action. After the initial attempt to hit, it is better to allow the opponent/coach to make an attack into a line the student controls, so that the student can gain the advantage over the answering attack and finish with a final scoring action that controls the opponent/coach's blade.

Consider the same lesson done with a different piece of footwork. In this segment, the footwork is advance (and) lunge. The lesson begins with you and student at lunge distance. The lesson's blade work begins the same, with the sweep by the student and your avoidance of the sweep. However, before the student begins his or her beat against your blade—during the sweep—you should begin to retreat, opening the distance between you and the student. The student should recognize that the distance is opening very early (on the performance of their sweep) and change the beat of 8 into an engagement of 8. Once engaged, the student "carries" your blade through their own advance, holding the engagement while they come forward. At the end of the advance the student releases your blade and thrusts to the top of your wrist with a lunge in order to score. The student should accelerate their footwork slightly to catch you in your retreat.

At the end of the student's lunge you engage in a defensive action as before (a late parry) while the student recovers the arm (but does not recover from the lunge). This action also contradicts some schools of épée in which the arm is never withdrawn before the recovery. In the Beck system, this withdrawal of the student's arm is an invitation to the opponent. There is a logical choice to attack under the student's hand or to the thigh and you, as the coach, do so. The student remains in the lunge to score with opposition to your low line, hits, and then recovers after hitting you. Their withdrawal of the arm is a trap to encourage the opponent/coach to offer the blade so that it can be controlled for the final hit.

"You should not wait until the technical execution ... is perfect before putting the blade work in the context of footwork."

If the student is starting an action they have never performed before, the "standing" footwork is used to introduce the new action, but then the lesson moves on. Subsequent lessons will have many repetitions of the new action. You should not wait until the technical execution of the blade work is perfect before putting the blade work in the context of footwork. By doing these repetitions in a more tactical (footwork and distance based) context, the new action will be practiced and integrated with general fencing knowledge at the same time. If the student is really having difficulties, the lesson can be focused on the action the student is having difficulty with in a blocked manner. Always finish by returning to the entire pattern, including footwork.

Once the student has mastered the beginning lesson, it is time to move on the second pattern. This pattern is:

2nd Pattern:

  1. Initial target: top of hand.
  2. Remise to: bottom of hand.
  3. Safety: bind of 6 to 7 to top of thigh.

We see that this pattern does have a remise, unlike Pattern 1. To perform the remise, the student simply stands in place after the first hit. For instance, in the standing footwork, you keep your hand low for the first hit, make a late parry as the student hits, and the student "rolls off" or avoids the parry and makes the hit on the under side of your hand. The student then relaxes his or her arm, you re-attack as in previous actions, and the student does a defensive bind from 6 to 7.

Once the first four patterns are mastered, the remaining patterns should be done with more advanced footwork. This footwork is:

  • Standing
  • Advance, advance
  • Lunge
  • Advance (and) lunge (The student carries the coach's blade through the advance)
  • Jump (and) lunge (The student carries the coach's blade through the advance)
  • Retreat, retreat
  • Fleche
  • Advance, fleche

Here the remise (if the pattern calls for one) is made on the second footwork. For instance, in Pattern 2, using the advance, advance footwork, the student will sweep, beat and score with an advance. As you step back, the student makes the second advance to score under your hand. Then the student stands still and makes the safety upon your subsequent attack.

With all of this said, here are the lessons for the First Level2, below. The list can also be printed out here:

1st Pattern:

  1. Initial target: top of hand.
  2. Safety: opposition in 8 to thigh or flank.
  3. There is no remise in this initial, first lesson.

2nd Pattern:

  1. Initial target: top of hand.
  2. Remise to: bottom of hand.
  3. Safety: bind of 6 to 7 to top of thigh.

3rd Pattern:

  1. Initial target: top of hand.
  2. Remise to: top of thigh.
  3. Safety: 6 transport to 1 to score on flank.

4th Pattern:

  1. Initial target: top of hand.
  2. Remise to: foot.
  3. Safety: 6 opposition to chest.

5th Pattern:

  1. Initial target: top of hand.
  2. Remise to: bottom of hand.
  3. Safety: bind in 6 to foot.

6th Pattern:

  1. Initial target: top of hand.
  2. Remise to: thigh.
  3. Safety: parry 6, hit flank (coach must close distance).

7th Pattern:

  1. Initial target: top of hand.
  2. Remise to: foot.
  3. Safety: 4 cross to 7.

8th Pattern:

  1. Initial target: top of hand.
  2. Remise to: bottom of hand.
  3. Safety: opposition 6 to chest

9th Pattern:

  1. Initial target: bottom of hand.
  2. Remise to: thigh.
  3. Safety: parry 4, disengage riposte to chest or flank.

10th Pattern:

  1. Initial target: bottom of hand.
  2. Remise to: toe.
  3. Safety: opposition 4 to chest.

Finally the student can be given actions that are very foil like. These actions are used to remind the student that most of the touches in épée occur to the body. The actions to the body should also be taught using the footwork pattern above. Done like foil, these actions also add a little variety to the lesson, and reinforce that the student should always look to finish strong when going to deep targets. They can be done in place of one of the patterns (using the same footwork as the pattern) or incorporated as a safety or finishing action instead of the prescribed safety for any particular pattern. Be careful to ensure that you are not asking the student to attack from too far away. The attacks should be at realistic distances, and done with good explosive power from the student.

These deep actions are:

  • The student makes an opposition to your chest in 6 or 4, or opposition to flank in 8 or 7. These can be done offensively (on the student's attack) or defensively (against an attack by you).

  • The student makes a beat in any line, and makes a simple attack direct to your chest.

  • The student makes a grazing beat with a coupe to your chest in 4 or 6.

  • The student makes a beat and disengage attack in 4, 6, or 8. This requires you to model an opponent who answers every hard beat with a reciprocal beat of his or her own.

  • The student makes a beat in 7, and then makes a feint to 6 with a circular disengage around your counter-6 parry to score to your flank.

  • The student makes a beat and feint to 6 or 7, and disengages to hit your chest.

  • The student beats 4, feints 4, and hits your chest with a 1-2.

Notes For the Coach...

1. The student should take lessons in full uniform. You may occasionally "punish" the student by scoring against them when the student has made a particularly egregious fault.

2. Unlike other system, you control the space before and after the cue to hit. This demands your attention to make sure that if the footwork pattern is "lunge" that the student is making a lunge that makes sense in the context of the bout. Do not ask the student to make footwork actions that are unrealistic (e.g. lunges that are very long, or fleches that are far out of distance).

3. Do not focus on the student hitting the target on every try&#mdash;especially when that target is the hand. Remember that the secret of the Beck system is that if a target is missed, another hit is on its way. By insisting that the student score against the hand, the student will "fumble" or jab to make the more difficult hits to the hand and foot. This may cause the student to be late for the next action: the remise or the safety, depending on the drill.

4. If the student misses, act as though they had hit and give the next cue. Do insist that in the safety that the student takes the time to properly take and control your blade.

5. Encourage the student to relax his or her arm before the safety. The student will attempt to keep their blade far out in front of them, especially if they have learned épée in another system. The goal of withdrawing the arm is to encourage the opponent to attack so that there is an additional chance to control the opponent's blade. If the student leaves their arm extended, the opponent is unlikely to attack.

6. In the fleche, the student should hit on the first action. There is no "safety" in the fleche. The student should be encouraged to make a fast remise, or multiple remises, while passing you after the fleche. These remises will be very strong, done at full speed, and injury may result. Make sure that you have adequate safety protection, including protection for the back arm, groin, and chest.

7. Do not try to give these lessons fast at first. You cannot move to the next action in the series until you have been hit (or almost hit if the student is not accurate). Move at a pace comfortable for both you and the student.

8. Encourage the student to hit firmly. Hits to the body, especially, should be solid, without jarring you. Hits to the hand and arm may not always be solid (as noted above).

1Level 2 Épée Manuel, Gary Copeland, United States Fencing Coaches College, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

2As of this edit (August 2014) I have the orginal German text written by Beck. I hope to have the complete list of Levels for the Beck system on this website in the near future.

Edit: February 2009, minor revisions, additional observations.
Edit: August 2011 for reformatting and style.
Edit: April 2013 for spelling and several confusing sentence structures.
Edit: August 2014 for some additional observations and notes.

Copyright © 2014 by Allen L Evans. This article may be reproduced freely, as long as it remains unmodified and his copyright notice is included.

Emil Beck of Germany, despite not having been formally trained as a fencing coach, developed a method of instruction in foil and épée that lead his club at Tabuberbishophstein to international prominence. How did this system work?