Of all the weapons, saber has changed the most in the last twenty years. The advent of the electrical scoring of touches (only introduced in the 1980's) along with the recent timing changes have brought a different look and feel to saber and to the saber lesson. After teaching a student the simple cuts, parries, and footwork, coaches often wonder where to take their lessons next.

The lessons in this document are not meant to be a through tutorial on saber past a beginning level, but should serve to give a coach some ideas of the possible actions an intermediate saber fencer should be versed in. Before these lessons, the beginning saber fencer should have a good grasp of the basics of saber: a good, balanced on guard, the ability to make a proper cut, capable of executing parries in all four lines (4th, 3rd, 5th and 2and), and—finally—able to execute footwork in a technically correct manner, and with some smoothness in making transitions from one direction to another.

Making a Cut

Making a proper cut begins with having the proper grip on the saber. The student should hold his or her saber lightly in the fingers, and not grip the weapon in the palm like a hammer. The saber is controlled by the thumb, index and middle fingers, coupled with flexing the wrist when necessary. The saber cut is started by moving the hand forward, towards the target. The extension of the arm may be completed immediately (in the case when the cut is at close distance) or the extension may be carried out over a longer (lunge or advance-lunge) distance). The coach must emphasize that the cut is a separate movement from the extension.

The operative word in executing a cut in saber is to think of "touching" the opponent and not "cutting" the opponent. Modern saber needs little more than a graze of the lame or mask to score. The lighter the cut, the faster the cut, and the less inertia the fencer has to overcome if the cut misses or is parried. The student must understand that they are cutting to a specific place and time, and letting their saber drop or fall after a cut is made is incorrect. Cuts may be delivered in the traditional manner, from the high line, but many saber fencers also execute cuts from the low line, directed to their opponent's flank and the underneath of the arm and the hand. The coach must chose situations in which the student is attacking and being attacked with cuts in the low line.

Saber is subject to many more constraints than the other two weapons in the making a properly executed attack. The attacker's arm cannot be strongly bent (the student should not "cock" the arm to make a cut) and the timing of the extension of the arm in the cut with the footwork to deliver the attack is very critical. The arrival of the cut to the target must occur before the front foot touches the ground: the cut and lunge (or advance) are coordinated.

The Parries

Because of the sensitivity of the scoring apparatus and the timing of the "lock out" on the scoring machine, a saber parry must prevent a cut from arriving. While mere contact of the blades may satisfy the requirement of a parry by definitions of priority, a whip over cut or continuation of the opponent's attack—even if out of time—can still score because of the lock out timing on the scoring apparatus can allow a remise to "lock out" the riposte..

A saber parry is done with a relaxed grip and soft shoulder, with the proper parry position being critical to absorb any force in the opponent's cut. The parry must be taken with the edge of the blade, not the flat, in order to provide the maximum amount of resistance to the opponent's cut. The position of the head parry—as well as the path the student's blade takes to form it—is especially critical. Every coach seems to have a slightly different position for the end of the head parry, but most coaches agree that the parry is no longer formed by dropping the saber tip and then raising the hand. Rather, the tip should lead the transition to the parry position without dipping.

By definition, a parry in saber is made with the bottom third of the fencer's blade. The fencer should be trained to respond with an immediate riposte when a cut is made low on their blade.


Saber blade work is surprisingly simple, and without the complicated takes, presses, binds, and transports of foil and épée. The complications of saber more often occur in the footwork, where blade actions take a back seat to the control of distance. It is in the execution of footwork, and footwork's role in controlling distance and tempo that the saber fencer must put a great deal of effort. The fencer must be able to make changes of direction and tempo while keeping his or her body relaxed and ready to respond to the actions of the opponent. Russian fencing masters have a saying: "Paws feed the wolf". In saber, attacks and defense are made by the manipulation of the distance, and that manipulation is through the application of excellent and varied footwork.

The beginning saber fencer moving to intermediate lessons must be able to execute varied footwork and multiple changes of direction in one phrase while remaining balanced and in control. New saber fencers often attempt to emulate the speed of more advanced fencers without understanding that they must first have proper footwork execution and control over their momentum. Inertia is the curse of the saber fencer.

Footwork must be executed with soft ankles and knees. The fencer must be able to move smoothly and change direction easily, without the upper body leaning forward or backward to assist in the transition. A valuable resource for the coach to encourage his or her fencers in this footwork is the video and writings of Dave Littell (US Olympic Team, Foil 1988). His website can be found by clicking this link.

Saber Philosophy

Modern saber fencing is built on attacking actions. The attack is so valuable that the student should be taught that once the initiative is gained it should not be given up easily. At the same time, the student should not simply rush forward on every action, but carefully control how the distance with the opponent opens and closes, depending on the tactical goals of the of the phrase.

The Lessons and the Cues

The saber lesson must mimic the bout. The coach—as well as he or she is able—should be extending, attacking, parrying, and moving just like a real opponent would. Blade presentations during cues by the coach should be natural and within the "box" of the top of the head, width of the shoulders, and down to the midsection. As the coach moves forward in lesson, he or she should present the appearance of a "ready" opponent: his or her guard open, with a low hand position, and the coach's weight forward (without leaning).

If the coach is able, the lesson should be given with fencing footwork. As this may not always be possible, the coach may "walk" the lesson out. When walking out a lesson, the steps should be small, and the coach should be able to attack the student while walking and leading with either foot (right or left). It will be important when attacking the student that the coach's footwork accelerate at the finish of the attack, just as a real opponent's footwork would.

The coach's hand should stay low and relaxed when making cues, without extraneous blade or body motions. For less experienced students, cuts by the coach can be slightly exaggerated, but large amplitude cuts by the coach should be avoided. When finishing a cut the coach should cut just above the guard and slide down to the bell. This mimics the feel of a real attack, and encourages the student to make solid parries.

Lessons should begin with the student and coach close (just out of advance lunge distance or even closer, depending on the exercise). As the student increases in skill, the distance between the coach and student can grow, until the starting distance is equivalent to the on guard lines of the bout. The coach should always work the student in long lines moving in one direction: the student should be moving forward on the attack, or when making counter-time actions; and moving backwards on the defense, or counter-attack. The coach may prompt distance changes by either making his or her attack short, or causing the student to fall short. Saber is not foil or épée: there must be a legitimate reason for every direction change.

Actions requested by the coach from the student should follow in logical order, and grow from the previous action. A simple progression might be: simple direct cut followed by a simple indirect cut (perhaps after multiple steps) to a compound attack. An example of a bad progression would be starting with a compound attack against the coach, followed by a counter-attack followed by a second intention parry and riposte. These actions do not progress in a logical order, do not flow well mechanically, and make little sense as a tactical progression. At all times, the coach should avoid simply throwing together a group of unrelated actions and "building" a lesson on them. Progression in the lesson should always be from near to far, slow to fast, simple to more complicated.

When finishing an attack against the coach, the student should always be encourage to "take" the touch from the coach by taking the tempo of the action and finishing strong where required. It is important to insure that touches are not "given" to the student. Every lesson phrase should end with the coach being hit. If the student makes an error in the lesson, then the  the student should be hit. Lesson phrases should come to a logical conclusion before the phrase is halted.

Warm up

Every lesson should start with a brief warm up. The warm-up should reflect some of the material to be presented in the lesson. For instance, if the coach is going to be working a defensive lesson with the student, a warm-up with parry and riposte would be appropriate. For example: at close distance, the coach can ask the student to cut to the head from a standing position. On occasion, the coach should parry the head cut, and cut to another line. The student should parry and riposte to the head. After several cuts, the coach can add movement: pushing the student backwards, and making cuts against the student, who parries and ripostes. The coach should start with a cut on every step and then slowly pace the tempo of the cuts out, making cuts on random steps and then with random steps after changing tempo on the footwork (the final cut should always be done with acceleration). The coach should move continuously, with no pauses or stops.

If the coach is going to be teaching a number of attacking actions, cuts to different targets, and multiple cuts would be a good choice to warm up the student

Preparation—The First Lesson

The first action in all of these lesson sequences on this page is an advance by the student. This advance is the student's reconnaissance, a chance for the student to see the intentions of the coach/opponent and act accordingly. This initial step will be part of all the exercises in this document. The starting distance between the coach and the student for these exercises should be out of advance lunge distance for the student, but less than 4 meters (the on guard lines in a bout).

Exercise 1:

Student:upon a cue from the coach, makes an advance (a more advanced fencer can make the advance at their own time, without a cue from the coach to start).
Coach:cuts to any line at the end of the student's advance.
Student:makes a parry and riposte.
Coach:(optional): begins cut to any line but does not finish the cut.
Student:covers line but does not riposte.

In Exercise 1 the coach must time his or her cut so that the student has enough time to see the cut start, but should already be in the middle of their advance. If the coach cuts too late the student will hesitate: should he or she parry the on-coming cut by the coach, or finish the action they have started? The student must feel secure in their decision to parry the attack. The student ideally takes the parry as their back foot lands in the preparatory advance. One way to time this action correctly is for the coach to watch the front foot of the student, and begin the cut when the student's front foot touches the ground.

The optional action in Exercise 1 is a check to see if the student is reflexively making a riposte without first finding the attacker's blade. If the student makes a parry motion, and ripostes without finding the attacking blade, the opponent will simply finish the cut, scoring against the student. When the coach stops the cut prematurely, the student should "cover" the threatened line with a half or full parry but not "reach" to find the coach's blade. After the student has covered the line, the coach may finish the cut onto the student's guard. At this point, the student is free to riposte.

Another possible error in this exercise that will also be revealed by not finishing the cut is the student "reaching out" in a beat to find the blade of the coach. If the coach sees the student reaching out to find the blade, his or her next attack should disengage the reaching parry and show that the student—by reaching for the blade—puts them self badly out of position and vulnerable to a feint.

The Attack

The lesson now turns this preparatory advance by the student into the start of an attack by the student. In saber, the "unit" of the attack is compound footwork: an advance lunge, a jump lunge, or a similar piece of footwork. The compound footwork is always accelerated on the attack, and the lunge is short, and controlled. Even if the student is capable of making long lunges, the student should be encouraged to make an advance and a shorter lunge in the same distance as a very long lunge. (Note: an exception to this rule is in the case of a fast retreating opponent who is very much off balance. In this case, the student should be advised to make a long lunge to score. However, this is out of the norm, and is not covered in these exercises).

Exercise 2:

Coach:cues the student to advance.
Student:makes an advance, while the…
Coach:retreats slightly late, behind the student.
Student: accelerates to make an advance lunge and cut.
Coach:begins a counter-attack (in any open line) on the student's second step to drive the student to finish their attack.

In Exercise 2 the student has stepped forward in preparation. Unlike in Exercise 1, the coach shows his or her intention to relinquish priority to the student by leaving the space, rather than cutting into the student's preparatory advance. The student makes a second advance to pursue the coach, closing the distance. The coach then begins a counter-attack, and the student finishes with a lunge.

The coach may make his or her first retreat in a timely manner, but it is important to make sure that the second retreat is late when compared to the student's advance. The student must immediately see that distance is in their favor and finish their attack.

The counter-attack into the student's attack by the coach must encourage the student to "break through" the last distance to the coach to finish the attack with a lunge. In a sense, the start of the counter-attack drives the cues the student to finish the lunge and score. The coach must make the student feel confident in finishing in the face of this action by timing the counter-attack very carefully. If the coach makes the counter-attack too early—before the start of the advance lunge—the student will hesitate or attempt to parry the counter-attack. If the coach counters too late, the student will not understand why he or she has been hit after making a successful attack. Ideally, the coach's counter-attack should hit at the same time as the student's cut hits. The coach can then point out to the student that the priority was won by the student's taking of the space, and the touch belongs to the student.

A note about counter-attacks: the coach should be careful cut so hard in the counter-attack that the student is jarred. This can cause a student to flinch at critical moments. Some coaches prefer not to make contact with a new student at all at first, and only add contact in the counter-attack as the student grows more accustomed to finishing their attack in the face the cut.

By expanding the space, the coach can turn the previous lesson into one in which the attack is carried over multiple steps. The student pushes the coach down the strip and finally finishes the attack with an advance or jump-lunge. The coach retreats, the student pushes, and the coach stops or slows, and the end of the simple lesson above is repeated: the student breaks through the space and finishes with a direct attack, while the coach makes a late counter-attack. The goal for the student is to make these longer attacks, while staying just out of lunge distance in order to keep pressure on an opponent. One of the mechanisms to do this is by breaking up long attacks into small groups, or "stages" (this term was used originally by Ivan Lee in a seminar in at the Cherry Blossom Open in 2008). Small groups of steps allows the fencer to change tempo and rhythm without rushing forward.

When first introduced to long attacks, the student will attempt to "chase" the coach down, getting too close in the process. If the student rushes the coach, closing the distance without finishing an attack, the coach should correct the student with a sharp attack in preparation.

The coach "cues" the student to finish his or her attack by slowing down, and not stopping. The student—recognizing that distance is collapsing—can then accelerate with a direct attack with an advance lunge. In the beginning, the coach may actually have the student stop at the advance lunge distance to get their balance, and then the student may push through the space. This, however, is not a method that should be used for any length of time. The student should be encouraged to move forward without hesitation.

When the start of the lesson is moved out to a very long distance (greater than advance lunge), the coach has more options in the lesson. They can step forward to force a simultaneous action on the first repetition of the action. Subsequent repetitions may see the coach attempt to parry the target the student cut on the last action, forcing the student to finish indirectly. The coach can vary the tempo of their retreat, slowing down and attempting to make the student short on the attack. The student must make their first step, and subsequent steps, with an eye towards closing space at their initiative, and taking advantage of any tempo mistakes by the coach. Lessons at the 4 meter distance simulate the situation at the initial command of "Fence!" by the referee, and deserve sperate treatment. Ideas for these actions can be found here: Some Thoughts On Saber. The coach is encourage to model his or her lessons after common situations in the bout, through experience in their own competitive career, and observations of actual bouts.

The Compound Attack

When the student has been successful in attacking the target directly and indirectly, a potential opponent is likely to attempt to open the space to defeat the student's simple attacks. The coach now simulates an opponent who opens the space to execute a parry and riposte. The student must make a compound attack to score (a feint-cut). In a lesson progression, the coach should demand one or more simple attacks before asking the student for a compound attack. The student should not be in the habit of making feints against an opponent until the opponent has been shown the simple attack.

Exercise 3:

Coach:cues the student to advance.
Student:makes an advance, while the…
Coach:retreats slightly late, behind the student, but then accelerates the retreat to pull the student after him/her.
Student:follows, but does not chase, the coach
Coach:makes final break of space and opens a line for the student to feint.
Student:makes feint to open line, and cuts opening line while…
Coach:makes a parry, allowing the student to cut the opening line.

In this exercise, the roles of the student and coach are reversed. In Exercise 1, the coach attempted to "punch through" the student's distance to encourage the student to finish a simple attack. In Exercise 3, the student must stay close, but not "punch through" the coach's space until the coach has stopped and shown the student an opening line for the feint.

By its very nature, a feint/cut needs room to be executed. Some students will rush the coach, attempting to "chase" the coach down, in the fear that they will not be close enough to execute a proper feint. However, crushing the space will increase the risk that the opponent/coach will be close enough to parry the feint before the student has a chance to react. Close distance will also force the student to make an abbreviated feint, which is unlikely to fool the opponent. The coach may punish the student for rushing or chasing after the coach by an attack in preparation against the student (with or without taking the student's blade first). The coach must show the student that the feint is performed just as the distance to finish becomes optimal. The feint is done while entering the distance to make a simple attack, not after the simple attack distance has been achieved. The feint is a dynamic action, and can only be done as part of closing the space to the opponent, to give the opponent the impression that the fencer is about to finish a simple attack from too great a distance.

The coach must remind the student of this critical distance constantly. If the student has closed to lunge distance, they should not stop to make a feint, but finish the attack. If the student begins the feint as they enter advance-lunge distance, the coach should be able to make an early parry, and then parry the student's disengage and riposte.

Upon opening the line for the student's feint the coach should stop in place and attempt to parry the student. The coach should not "fade back" from the student's feint after the feint starts. The student must be able to approach the coach with confidence and the coach must show the student his or her intention to stop retreating and defend against the student's attack.

As the student begins to make the feint, the motion of the student's blade must be very small, and the feint must be delivered with an acceleration on the advance before the lunge to deliver the cut. Making a feint with a large amplitude blade motion (for instance, feinting to the flank by placing the saber parallel to the floor) slows down the finish of the final cut, and exposes the student's arm to a counter-attack by the coach/opponent. A student who regularly makes this error when making a feint should be counter-attacked by the coach, or the coach should be able to parry the final attack and counter-riposte.

Control of the space by the coach in this exercise is critical to its success. If the coach breaks the space too much, and then attempts to show an "open" line while far away from the student, the student will become hesitant and indecisive. The student will rightly suspect a trap. If the coach does not open enough space before showing an open line, the student should finish the attack directly or indirectly. When this happens, the coach should not correct the student, but open more space before giving the cue (the coach may occasionally check the student's attention by this very method. The coach begins to open a line while the student is close, and student should finish indirectly, rather than with feint). The key for the coach in cuing this action is open the space early in the phrase, on the student's first or second advance. By being careful not to open the space too much (leaving just as the student makes either one of the two advances) the student will follow after the coach but not have an opportunity to make a simple attack. At this point, the coach now instructs the student to follow without chasing, keeping the distance constant or slowing to let the student catch up, and then pulling the space again. Finally the coach opens the space to advance lunge distance and stops retreating while opening the line for the student's feint.

The student must feint into the open line, and cut the opening line. The coach should show the open line slightly early and slowly, and then try to quickly close it, forcing the student to cut the line now opening. The tempo of the coach opening and closing the line should be: s-l-o-w…fast. Encourage the student to finish the final action of the attack in different lines.

Against all attacks, simple and compound, the coach should occasionally parry (or simulate a parry) and riposte. If the student makes an a substantial error in the attack, the coach should be able to easily parry the student and make a riposte. If the student does not make many technical errors or if the student is significantly faster than the coach, the coach should allow the student to score and then—without making a parry—make a cut to simulate an opponent's riposte. The riposte should make logical sense, based on where the student finished his or her cut. Done correctly, the student will not have enough time to recover from the lunge, but will have enough time to see the riposte and make a parry and counter-riposte. This may require the coach to start his "riposte" just as the student delivers the cut, or with a slight pause. At the start, the coach may  ask the student to "hold" the lunge position for a moment after the student delivers a cut, in order for the coach to simulate a riposte. The coach should move away from this practice as soon as they are able, however.

Second Intention Actions on the Attack

Among the opponents the coach must simulate for the student are those that may open the space too quickly, or have footwork skills that allow them to avoid the student's initial attack, leaving the student facing an opponent who has had time to prepare a defense. In this situation, it is smart for the student to decide when and where their attack will end. If the fencer aborts an attack, and finishes early, and in the right distance, they may gain an advantage against an opponent who rushes the attempt to take over the attack, or makes a technical error while doing so. In addition ending an attack prematurely allows the fencer some control of the start timing of the opponent's answering action. This allows the fencer to  meet the opponent's attack with a pre-planned reaction, based on observation or control of the distance. This is the nature of a second intention action.

The exercise below starts a series of second intention actions, based on the student falling short on their attack. In this first case, the student observes an opponent who quickly escapes their initial attack, but does so by losing their balance in the process.

Exercise 4:

Coach:cues the student to advance.
Student:makes an advance, while the…
Coach:retreats slightly late, behind the student, but then quickly breaks the space, forcing the…
Student:to make an advance lunge attack that falls short of the coach, keeping the blade in a high line position.
Coach:simulating an out of balance opponent, the coach continues to let momentum lean him/her backwards, encouraging the student to…
Studentmake a beat and cut to opening target with a redouble of the lunge.

In Exercise 4 the coach simulates an opponent who has retreated so quickly they have lost control of their backward momentum and will be unable to recover to make an offensive action. The coach must imitate an unbalanced opponent. At the end of the student's advance-lunge, the coach should be standing up and slightly leaning backwards—indicating to the student that it is safe for the student to take the coach's blade with a beat and come forward. The coach's blade should be in high line, vertical, and not extending or moving.

In the next exercise, the coach must do the opposite: simulate an opponent who has retreated under control and is ready to come forward to make an attack after the student has fallen short.

Exercise 5:

Coach:cues the student to advance.
Student:makes an advance, while the…
Coach:retreats slightly late, behind the student, and then quickly breaks the space, allowing the…
Student:to make an advance lunge attack that falls short of the coach, The student's blade should relax slightly under the bell of the coach's blade, and  just to the outside of the cuff of the coach's glove . The tip of the student's weapon should be at  the coach's bell.
Coach:stops his or her retreat in good position, and—advancing the weapon—begins an attack to the student's head.
Student:makes a back beat cut against the outside of the coach's blade and a cut over to score against the coach's head while the student recovers to on guard.

In Exercise 5 the coach must give the appearance of an opponent who has escaped an attack and is very prepared to initiate a "take over attack" of their own. The coach will be slightly out of distance, in balance, and leaning slightly forward. The coach should start his or her blade to the student before they step. At the start, the coach may want to assist the student by dropping the tip of his or her saber slightly and "pushing" the blade forward in the cut. This may allow the student an easier parry while recovering.

This same idea of a second intention action is in the next exercise:

Exercise 6:

Coach:cues the student to advance.
Student:makes an advance, while the…
Coach:retreats slightly late, behind the student, but and then quickly breaks the space, allowing the…
Student:to make an advance lunge attack that falls short of the coach, The student's blade should relax slightly under the bell of the coach, and 4-6 inches in front of the coach's bell.
Coach:stops his or her retreat in good position, and tips the weapon back slight while moving the arm forward to make a head or flank cut.
Student:makes a counter-attack to the coach's cuff, recovers and makes a parry and riposte.

In Exercise 6 the coach must ensure that there is no hesitation on their cut. The cue in this situation is critical. The coach should not give the student the counter-attack, but simply show the student that a chance for one exists by performing a cut poorly. The key to this cue is to start the hand forward, while tipping the saber back slightly, rolling it on the thumb. Beginning saber coaches often give this cue by moving the elbow forward and the weapon hand back, "offering" the target. This is an incorrect cue. The proper cue is very small and subtle. If the student sees the counter-attack opportunity on the first execution of the exercise, but does not take advantage of it, the coach should repeat the exercise at the same speed and distance to allow the student the chance to make the counter-attack.

The student must understand that because their saber tip is considerably in front of the bell of the coach's weapon, they have time to execute the counter-attack. If the student ends the false attack too deep, the student will have to make a parry and riposte. Again, control of the distance at the finish of the student's attack is critical. The coach should always remind the student that the penetration on the attack is up to the student.

If the student focuses too hard on the counter-attack to the coach's cuff, they will not make the parry riposte in time and the student will be scored against. The coach should emphasize to the student  making a successful parry over the landing the counter-attack.

In Exercises 5 and Exercise 6 the coach must pull the distance with the appearance of ready opponent who is prepared to move forward. The coach's weight should be slightly forward, and his or her posture aggressive. The coach may hold the blade slightly back to reduce any temptation for the student to try to find the blade, as in Exercise 4. The coach should come forward with acceleration, as a real opponent would.

The student should finish all of their false attacks with the blade held lightly, and with a relaxed shoulder, no matter what the ending position of the weapon (up or down). The student must finish the lunge in balance in order to be ready and "waiting" for the coach to comes forward.

Defensive Actions

Having been successful in making simple, compound, and second intention attacks, the exercises now turn to defensive actions by the student. The coach should ensure that the student has a good grasp of the parry system. Any technical issues, especially in the amplitude of the parry motion, or any stiffness or tightness in the hand on the riposte, should be resolved. The student should be prepared to riposte both simply and compound.

We begin with a small change in the coach's reaction when the student makes their first step in preparation. Again, the starting distance is at the student's advance lunge distance, or slightly beyond.

Exercise 7:

Coach:cues student to advance.
Student:begins an advance.
Coach:freezes the student in place, making a half advance towards the student, and an aggressive, blocking motion of the blade (a hand signal may also be used in conjunction with this).
Student:stops, and begins to open the space.
Coach:cuts to a line with acceleration, either immediately, or after one or more advances.
Student:controls distance to the coach while retreating (if necessary) and makes a parry on his or her front foot. The riposte may be direct or indirect.

The coach is able to freeze the student on the advance by aggressively stepping into the space early in the student's forward motion. The coach must freeze the student even as the student completes their first preparation step. At the same time, the coach blocks any available line for the student to finish an attack—or at least, finish an attack easily.

As the coach advances to make an attack, the student must control the distance while retreating. At first the coach can simply ask for a certain number of steps, or tell the student to expect an attack of a specific length. Later, the coach and student should be more "alive", with the coach pushing the student backwards and the student changing the size and the speed of the backward steps to match any changes in the coach's tempo. Again, this is a good opportunity to give the student some simple footwork patterns to execute to keep the coach out of distance. The most advanced students should add hesitations and check steps to "encourage" the coach to attack while still out of the proper distance.

The coach may attack either directly or compound. The coach should cue various ripostes from the student, starting with a simple riposte and working up to a compound riposte with compound footwork (for instance, making the riposte with an advance-lunge). The coach can elicit these actions from the student by cutting short and retreating before the student has started a riposte. By controlling how soon and how far he or she leaves the space, the coach can cue any number of ripostes from the student, with a variety of footwork.

This lesson can also be modified with the student escaping the final action of the coach and making a "take-over" attack, either direct, indirect, or compound.

Defensive Second Intention

While control of the distance is one of the keys to a successful defense, it is also helpful if the student can control the line in which a potential opponent will attack. To this end, Exercise 7 can become a second intention, defensive action by the student. The student shows the coach/opponent a false parry to invite an attack and then making a real parry against the finish of the attack. For example:

Exercise 8:

Coach:cues the student to advance.
Student:begins an advance.
Coach:freezes the student in place, making a half advance towards the student, and an aggressive, blocking motion of the blade (a hand signal may also be used in conjunction with this).
Student:retreats in the face of the forward motion of the coach. Once distance is appropriate, the student opens, slowly, a pre-determined line.
Coach:cuts to opening line with acceleration.
Student:closes line at the last minute to make parry and riposte.

This is a "false parry, real parry" exercise. The student controls the coach by the choice of the  initial opening line. With any given open line, the coach has some variation in where they can cut, but the coach's options are limited. The chart below shows the preferred combinations of openings, attacks and parries:

Student makes false parry in:

Coach cuts:

Student makes:

Student ripostes to:



Parry 3




Parry 3




Parry 2

Any target


Feint 3, cuts 4

Parry 4, then a counter of 4

Cheek or Head

When is the distance "appropriate" for the student to show the false parry? The distance must be close enough for the coach/opponent to feel that there is a real chance to make a valid attack, but not so close that the attack may land. Keeping in mind that the coach will attempt to "push through" the distance to the student in the same way that the student has been taught, the line should be opened just as the coach gets to the distance from which a simple indirect attack may have a chance of succeeding. The student must expand that space with a larger or faster (or both) retreat as the coach makes his or her attack. At the start, this exercise is best introduced to the student with a set footwork piece ("On your second retreat, make a false 5 parry"). This lets the student concentrate on opening the line at the correct time, ensures that the coach is not surprised by the opening, and helps the coach finish the attack at the appropriate time and distance.

Rather than giving complete initiative to the attacker, the defender may end or interrupt an attack by engaging or beating  the attacker's  blade  before the final motion of the attack. In saber, if the opponent's blade can be found early, and at a long distance, the defender can turn the tables on the attacker and take over priority. Because of this, the attacker may react prematurely to any attempt by the defender to search for their blade. The next exercise uses this idea, coupled with the idea of a false parry/real parry from the previous exercise:

Exercise 9:

Coach:cues the student to advance.
Student:begins an advance.
Coach:freezes the student in place, making a half advance towards the student, and an aggressive, blocking motion of the blade (a hand signal may also be used in conjunction with this).
Student:retreats in the face of the forward motion of the coach.
Coach:pushes the student backward with footwork. The coach may hide their blade from the student by carrying it back or  in the low line while the coach is out of distance. As the coach continues his or her approach and gains a critical distance, the coach presents the blade to the student in a pre-determined line.
Student:reaches out to "sweep" for coach's blade while retreating.
Coach:deceives the sweep and attacks an opposite line.
Student:makes a parry and riposte to score.

The coach can control the timing of the student's sweep by holding their blade back or down ("hiding" the blade) to keep the student from finding the coach's blade too early. This also mirrors the tactic a potential opponent will use in a bout. Hiding the blade also allows the coach to make the cue for the sweep by the student much clearer. This will encourage the student to focus on achieving a good defensive distance with footwork, rather than letting distance collapse while the student "fishes" for the coach's blade.

Again, the student attempts to mislead the coach/opponent to finish in a line the student controls. The coach can encourage the student to make an initial sweep out of distance—while retreating—before the coach presents their blade. By doing so, the student is "rehearsing" the false opening for the coach/opponent to see, and showing a false intention. The coach is then "ready" for a subsequent second sweep in the same line by the student and can accelerate into the trap that much faster.

Counter-Offensive Actions

In the realm of false actions (false parry, false sweep) is the false counter-attack. The false counter-attack is employed exactly like the other false actions: the student is attempting to drive the coach/opponent to finish a threatened attack in a line the student controls. The next exercise uses the false counter-attack exactly like a "false parry/real parry":

Exercise 10:

Coach:cues the student to advance.
Student:begins an advance.
Coach:freezes the student in place with a half advance into the closing space, and pushes the student backward with footwork, and aggressive motions of the blade (a hand signal may also be used).
Student: retreats in the face of the forward motion of the coach. On his/her own, or after a certain number of retreats, the student makes a false counter against the advancing coach.
Coach:finishes the attack to any open line.
Student:makes a parry and riposte to score.

The other two exercises using the false counter-attack are similar:

Exercise 11:

Coach:cues the student to advance
Student:begins an advance.
Coach:freezes the student in place with a half advance into the closing space, and pushes the student backward with footwork, and aggressive motions of the blade (a hand signal may also be used).
Student:retreats in the face of the forward motion of the coach. On his/her own, or after a certain number of retreats, the student makes a false counter to the head against the advancing coach.
Coach:finishes the attack to head (blade is in high line).
Student:makes a back beat against the blade of the coach and cuts cheek or head.

Exercise 12:

Coach:cues the student to advance, blade is in high line.
Student:begins an advance.
Coach:freezes the student in place with a half advance into the closing space, and pushes the student backwards with footwork, and aggressive motions of the blade (a hand signal may also be used).
Student:retreats in the face of the forward motion of the coach. On his/her own, or after a certain number of retreats, the student makes a false counter to the cuff against the advancing coach.
Coach:finishes the attack to the open line.
Student:finishes the counter-attack and closes out the finishing line of the coach.

In all of the actions using a false counter-attack, the student must draw a fine line between over committing on the false counter-attack and showing too little of the false counter-attack to the opponent. The false counter will not be believable if the student simply "punches" the arm out while retreating out of distance or simply waves the blade at the opponent. A deliberate start to a cut must be made, and the student has to carefully pause or use a check step to let distance collapse and give the coach/opponent time to consider finishing his or her attack. The student may also hesitate in his or her retreat by leaving the weight on the front foot in order to give the illusion of stopping or slowing.

Needless to say, because of these requirements, a false counter-attack takes a good starting distance, good control of the distance while retreating, and a smooth extension that does not lock the elbow to insure that the student is not caught by the opponent. The extension in the false counter must be deliberate and smooth.

In Exercise 12 the false counter puts the point of the student's weapon close to the cuff of the coach's weapon arm, allowing the student the necessary time to make a real counter-attack in the same line and then catch the weapon of the coach in a parry. In choosing a line for the false counter-attack, the student must be aware that this will open a corresponding line for the coach (assuming both coach and student are of the same handed-ness). The student must be prepared to close that line after making the real counter-attack.

The coach must point out to the student that not all of the actions in this section will work in every situation. Because of blade position and distance, one of these three exercises may be a better choice than the other two. The coach must keep this in mind when responding to the student's false counter-attack. It is best to practice these exercises in order, and under the control of the coach, before letting the student work them randomly. The blade position of the coach—high or low—will also have a bearing on the action by the student. The coach should change blade positions to give him or herself a "different look and feel" for the student.

Attacks On the Opponent's Preparation

Attacks in preparation rely on careful timing by the student and an error by the opponent. In addition, the an attack in preparation requires the student to be in balance and in good position against an opponent who is attempting to rush or crowd them. This demands good technical footwork skills, a smooth and quick extension, and some practice by the student.

In this exercise, the coach must show the student an attack that can be interrupted, "freezing" the coach by the speed and appropriateness of the student's attack in preparation.

Exercise 13:

Coach:cues the student to advance.
Student:begins an advance.
Coach:freezes the student in place with a half advance into the closing space, and pushes the student backwards with footwork and aggressive motions of the blade (a hand signal may also be used).
Student:retreats in the face of the forward motion of the coach, opening the space (or the coach allows the space to open).
Coach:attempts to "catch" the student by accelerating his/her footwork, pulling the tip of the saber back and away from the student.
Student:reaches with a long extension to cut the coach in the head, recovers balance with a small lunge.

It is important that the coach deliver the cue for the attack in preparation  to the student in a non-ambiguous way. The best starting position for the coach's weapon is in the high, outside line. The coach makes the cue for the student to attack in preparation by pulling back the tip of their weapon towards their shoulder while standing up slightly as the coach continues to come forward. The coach can enhance the cue by accelerating their own forward motion as they cue with the blade. By doing so, the coach is simulating an opponent who is literally "outrunning" his or her own hand, and gotten too close to the student without finishing the attack. The student must be able to hit the coach in one motion by reaching out over their feet to cut the coach quickly and decisively in time.

The coach should finish their own cut after the student has hit them, just as an opponent would. The difference in timing of the two cuts (the student must hit first) will reinforce the need for the student to make a quick, long extension of the hand, followed by the recovery forward.

Many students will try to lunge and then deliver the cut for the attack in preparation. This is incorrect. The lunge is after the cut has been delivered and not before or during. The student must stretch from the back hip to make the cut, reaching long with their arm, out over their front leg, and losing their balance in the process. Making the lunge at the end of the cut—after it has hit—recovers the balance of the student.

The coach can teach this exercise in a reverse role, with the student drawing the attack in preparation from the coach and defeating it, as in this exercise:

Exercise 14:

Coach: cues the student to advance.
Student:begins an advance.
Coach:retreats late in the face of the student's advance, allowing the…
Student:to continue forward, blade held in the outside high line. Outside of the coach's lunge distance, the student should stand up slightly and make a slight pause.
Coach:begins an attack with a lunge.
Student:accelerates through to score against the coach with a lunge.

In Exercise 13 the student scores with an attack in preparation. In Exercise 14 the student scores by making the same "mistake" the coach does in Exercise 13. How does this happen? The key is the distance at which the student "cues" the coach to make an attack. Notice that the coach has to make this attack with a lunge, indicating that there is still considerable distance between the coach and the student. With current conventions of saber fencing, this distance is interpreted as the coach's counter-attack into the finish of the student's attack, unlike the situation in Exercise 13, in which the coach is caught in preparation. The student must show the false hesitation very quickly, and immediately make their own attack. Pausing too long will give the attack to the coach. In this exercise, the coach and student should score at the same time, emphasizing the difference in the timing between Exercise 14 and Exercise 13.

Exercise 14 depends on perfect execution by the student and relies on the interpretation of priority by a good referee. This can be problematic when the student has an untrained referee or a referee that does not agree with the student's execution of the action. If this is the case, Exercise 15 is the solution for the student's inability to gain the priority in the referee's decision.

Exercise 15:

Coach:cues the student to advance.
Student:begins an advance.
Coach: retreats late in the face of the student's advance, allowing the…
Student:to continue forward, blade held in the outside high line. At the students decision, or after a certain number of steps, the student should stand up slightly and "cue" the coach to make an attack in preparation.
Coach:attacks in preparation with a lunge.
Student:makes a parry and riposte to score.

In this exercise, the student, not confident of the referee, decides that it is safer to take a parry riposte in the same situation as Exercise 14, rather than rely on the referee to call the time.

Finally, the exercise below simulates an opponent who has to defeat the students attack in preparation with a parry, using classic counter-time:

Exercise 16:

Coach: cues student to advance.
Student:begins an advance.
Coach:freezes the student in place with a half advance into the closing space, and pushes the Student backwards with footwork, and aggressive motions of the blade (a hand signal may also be used).
Student:retreats in the face of the forward motion of the coach, opening the space (or the coach allows the space to open).
Coach:attempts to "catch" the student by accelerating his/her footwork, pulling the tip of the saber back and away from the student.
Student:makes a feint into the coach's open line, and deceives the coach's parry to score with compound counter-attack (feint in tempo against counter-time by coach).

In Exercise 16 the coach must start accelerating to the student slightly out of advance lunge distance, in order to give the student the time and room to execute the action. This is exactly what an opponent would do if their intention was to draw out the student's cut and parry it. If the coach attempts to cue this action closer than advance lunge distance, the student should be able to score with a simple attack in preparation. The alert student will also understand that this early acceleration by the coach occurs outside of a one-tempo distance, and the student should be prepared to change lines.

This last exercise completes the tactical wheel by the student executing a compound counter-attack, or feint-in-tempo against the coach's use of counter-time.

Conclusions and Observations

All of these exercises in this article can be condensed into three simple rules for the student:

  1. Make the opponent finish too early
  2. Make the opponent finish too late
  3. Make the opponent finish in a line the student controls

The exercises in this manual are tactical exercises. Because each exercise assumes a certain grasp of technique, the coach should ensure that the student has a good grasp of the technical skills needed for each exercise before teaching them at a realistic distance. The progression of the coach should always be to start at a close distance, emphasizing the technical skills used in the exercise and the proper coordination of hand and foot actions. As distance opens, the technical skill is  moved into a tactical context. The extra distance allows more options and variation for the student and the coach, but the fundamental idea of the exercise should not be changed. If the student has problems with the exercise at longer distance, the coach should collapse the space, and build up the skills necessary to work in a tactical framework.

The student should demonstrate success at one distance before the coach moves to a larger distance. Likewise, the coach should always teach first intention actions before second intention actions. The progression is always from simple actions to complex actions, close distance to far distance.

With new actions, the coach may keep complete control over the student ("On your third retreat, slowly close the high line…") as the student improves, the coach can relax control over part or all of the lesson. The coach must understand that as the student gains more freedom in the lesson, it becomes more "bout-like". At the same time, the work that the coach has to do increases.

These exercises can be made challenging for very good students, with the addition of a few elements. The coach can:

  • Include surprise parries by the coach against the student's attacks.
  • Include surprise attacks on the student's preparation.
  • Force the student to choose between two or more options.
  • Attack the student in different lines, or with feints.
  • Demand that the student finish to different lines.
  • Make unexpected blade actions when defending or attacking the student.
  • Change tempo on the preparation of the attack or while in defense (from fast to slow and fast again).
  • Punish student errors by scoring against the student (such as an attack in preparation when the student is too close).

There will be a temptation to mix many of these exercises into one lesson: to have three, four, or even more tasks for the student to accomplish. Rather than add complexity, it is better to add realistic movement and tempos to one or two actions to make a complete lesson. Modern saber is not characterized by complex blade actions, but by complex tempos in the preparation and the attack. Footwork, distance, and timing are the keys to having successful saber students.

Written August, 2007. Much of his material was originally covered in the USFA's Level 3 Coaches College program. The author would like to thank the enormous work of Coach Kelly Williams, the 2007 Saber 3 Class, and the assistance of Coach Jill Feldman in writing this article.