"If you can hit with a straight attack, who cares about the parry? If you can't hit with a straight attack, why should the opponent parry...or care?"

Why Do We Feint?

In a bout, the fencer, through observation, preparation, and (occasionally) trial and error, uncovers the intentions and behavior of the opponent. At the same time, the fencer disguises their own intentions, lays false perceptions, and suggests misleading courses of actions to the opponent. Using all of this information, and attempting to mask his or her true goals, the fencer works to cause specific reactions on the part of the opponent, while misleading them at the same time.1 Essentially, the role of the fencer is to lie to the opponent, while discovering what lies the opponent is telling in turn. The feint is the lie that the attacker tells the defender and gives the opponent misinformation about the attacker's timing, target placement, intention, or all three.

Ideally, the fencer maneuvers into a distance close enough to score with a simple attack. This rarely happens as consistently as the attacker might wish. The defender works very hard to deny the attacker the distance necessary to score with a simple attack, while also throwing up disruptive blade actions in the form of false parries, false counter-attacks, and so forth. The defender hopes to stall the attack, or force the attacker to be vulnerable to attacks on the preparation or counter-attacks as the attacker both tries to close the distance and avoid the disruptive actions of the defender's blade.

While denying the attacker this space, the defender attempts to stay close enough to score with simple attacks of their own. This confluence of intentions results in both fencers working just outside the distance needed for a direct attack. Both fencers maneuver, hoping for an error or a lapse of attention that will give them just enough time to make this attack.

To score, the attacker must find a way to "steal" time/distance and out-maneuver the defender's attempts to disrupt and/or find the attacker's blade. The attacker must convince the defender to move the blade into a predictable position (or in a predictable way) so that the attacker can close the distance without fear of interruption. The attacker can simply wait passively for the defender to both close the space and make a mistake, but this is not likely to happen without provocation. The responsibility is on the attacker to force a mistake, to surprise, re-direct, or hide their action in such a way that the defender can not respond to the finish of the action in time.

The feint redirects the defenders attention (causing them to stop or pause in their attempt to control space) and causes the defender to move their blade in a motion that is both too large and predictable. The attacker's feint may also force the defender to make a mistake in timing: causing an action that is too early (a parry, for example) or one that is too late (a counter-attack).

Previously, feints were solely a function of the blade. The attacker showed a willingness to start an attack and then maneuvered his or her blade through the defense in a sort of "thread-the-needle" approach: the extended blade went around and past one or more parries to score. Defenders supported this approach by the attackers in parrying as late as possible. The reasons for this unspoken agreement between attacker and defender are complex, but I suspect were an outgrowth of the belief in "artful" blade phrases in pre-20th Century fencing, though there well could be other factors. In 'Threading the needle" it was in the attacker's best interest to start slow to give him or her time to maneuver through the defenders' complex defense.

For the most part, those days are behind us. The model in defense is now to parry early, to disrupt, interrupt, and clog the path the attacker's blade can take to the target. One might say that current defense in all weapons is more "in depth" than in the past, especially in the weapons with priority, when finding the blade allows the defender to take over the initiative. In saber, the electrification of the blade has made it easy to make scoring actions to the near target of the hand and arm, forcing the attacker to hold the blade back much as foilists due, for fear of exposing themselves to a counter-attack to their proffered near target. At the same time, the saber fencer must balance "hiding" the blade against the box timing that makes an attack into the feint (preparation) a viable option for the defender.

With all of these changes, the concept of a "feint" is still a valuable one, even if a "feint" is not the blade action that a coach from the 1950's (or even the 1970's) would recognize now. Any current discussion of feints must balance the contradictions of the modern game, in which the defender must be threatened, even as the attacker is more vulnerable than ever before.

Old versus New Fencing

The old advice concerning feints of "starting slow and finish fast" does not adjust for the current use preemptive parries designed to shut down an attack at the very start by "jamming" the space between the two fencers. In addition to the use of early reaching and searching parries, modern foil defense uses the sudden collapses of the space between the fencers and close-out counter-attacks, or attacks in preparation. Using a slower start to a lunge to deliver the feint can aid in giving the attacker time to place the point on those defenders that collapse the space, or counter-attack. But giving the blade too early during this lunge can result in the attacker's blade being found (parried) by the defender while the feint is still developing. The attacker has the simultaneous and difficult task of threatening the defender with the finish of an impending attack, while keeping the blade out of the reach of the opponent's defense.

The current interpretations of priority assist the attacker, but the attacker still has to balance a number of difficult tasks. The attacker must put the hand into play at the last moment in the attack. The distance that fencers fence at, coupled with speed of the finish on the attack in modern fencing makes this an advantage to the attacker with the physical skills to take advantage of a strong finish. The use of flicking actions in foil and the difficulty of defending in saber allows the attacker to feint simply by threatening zones of the target, rather than making direct indications of where the feint is threatening. The early and disruptive parries by the defender are larger and more dynamic than in the past. These parries also have their own momentum once they are made, making it more difficult for the defender to change his or her defense in response to a change by the attacker. These parries often cause the defender to over commit, making it easier for the attacker to finish with a simple or indirect attack.

In saber, the ease of scoring to the forward target has made the feint-cut almost obsolete: what most saber fencers now call a "feint" is a suggestive blade motion with a change of speed or rhythm of footwork, forcing an early parry and resulting in the attacker scoring with an indirect cut, rather than a deep feint/cut as many fencers were taught years ago. The fully electrified saber blade makes it easy for the attacker to hit something on the way to the target. This makes the defender's job in making a parry much harder, and has lead saberists into making pre-emptive sweeps and more aggressive (earlier) parries, much like their foil counter-parts.

Feints are often done with bent arms and changes of speed and rhythm in the footwork, rather than a full extension. More and more, the arm does not follow a pre-scribed timing with the foot, but is coordinated with the tactical situation. The arm may still extend before the foot, but may also extend with the start of the foot, and (more and more) start after the movement of the foot.

What does this mean for "hand before foot" in the attack? Extending the blade early in saber and foil gives the opponent too many options, including a false parry/real parry, close out counter-attack, or an early reaching parry. The slow feint is still useful against defenders who hold their ground and delay their parry, but these fencers are fewer and fewer. Now the feint must be more dynamic, with the understanding that the defender is not going to cooperate in the timing and the placement of their parry.

There are times when a fully extended feint in foil is useful. Michael Marx, many time Olympic Team member and National Foil Coach feels feels that a fully extended arm on the feint should be done with a full speed lunge, with the commitment of the arm. The disengage is done with a quick movement of the fingers near the end of the lunge. This approach has a certain amount of logic to it, as the competitive fencer accelerates the feint as fast as possible, the defender is less likely to make a "planned" parry and is more likely to make an "instinctive" or "panic" parry, which is always going to be truthful.

When is as Important as How

Critical in making a feint-disengage is the when of the action. The "when" of the feint can be summed up in the word "surprise". Creating surprise is worth a long discussion on its own, but I will make a few remarks here. Surprise occurs when the opponent's expectations (his or her ability to predict an opponent's next action) are confounded or changed. There is a relationship between the uniqueness (or magnitude of change) presented to the opponent, and his or her ability to cope. In essence, surprises are the end result of predictions that fail.

Feints can be of two types: an attack that the opponent expects to defeat, and but is out maneuvered (more rare, these days). This is often seen in feint-in-tempo actions, and with ripostes done in one or more feints to defeat the opponent's attempt to find the blade and counter-riposte. Making these feints relies on:

  • Technical skill
  • Anticipation of events (predictable tactical environment)
  • The belief that the opponent will make the "right" prediction and act promptly on it

The second type of feint breaks the relationship between expectation and decisions making. It is unexpected and triggers a "startle response" that either freezes the opponent, or causes them to over react. With this is mind, surprise is created by:

  • Unanticipated changes of direction
  • Changes of speed
  • Sudden and dramatic changes in blade position

Reconnaissance during the bout can help the student predict the opponent's reaction in a given situation. Each of the weapons instills in the participants unique responses depending on the amount of training the athlete has had in the weapon. For unskilled fencers, the startle response in all the weapons may be to make a thrust (or cut, in the case of saber) when surprised with a strong feint. In foil and saber, skilled fencers tend to "train out" these reactions as not useful. In épée, however, counter-attacking when surprised is still a useful response to being startled. The possible responses to a strong feint at the level of the fencer's peers should be known and taught by you.

Surprise is more complete when when the opponent's attention is someplace other than an impending threat, such as when the opponent is preparing their own attack, recovering from an attack that has just failed, or simply doing their initial reconnaissance of the fencer. This is the time when the student should concentrate on achieving the proper distance to score. At times, this will be the one-tempo distance, and the student is free to make a simple attack. More often, the student will not gain the complete advantage necessary for a simple attack, and will have to make a feint, or a series of feints, to score.

Along with the distance preparation, the student can prepare on the blade before making a feint. Strong beats, sudden takes of the blade or changes of engagement, all can help "sell the feint": i.e., provoke a strong startle response. Dave Littell, in his Lessons with Victor, gives several good examples of blade preparations that can help increase the surprise of a feint.

The "How" of a Feint

Coaches often teach the feint and disengage by telling their students to start an attack, to "see" the parry coming, and avoid the parry. This advice was offered in conjunction with "floating" or "waiting" lunge. Two things preempt this advice from being useful today in foil and saber: the speed of the reaction of modern fencing, and the use of preemptive, disruptive parries to break up the attack. Modern épée also suffers from some of these afflictions, as more and more blade actions are designed to be disruptive and hamper the opponent from making an unobstructed approach to the opponent.

The modern fencer now attempts to put the blade in play as late as possible, as constrained by both the opponent's reactions, and the rules of priority (in the case of foil and saber) or to preempt an effective counter-attack or attack in preparation (in the case of both foil, saber, and épée). The goal in all three weapons now is not to passively draw the parry, but to actively force the parry on the opponent by blade position, speed, and timing of the action(s). With the information the fencer gains early in the bout in his or her reconnaissance, there will be some idea of the opponent's timing and choice of parries. By these clues, and making a good initial action, the fencer understands when the opponent feels that they must parry. Knowing the timing of the opponent's parry allows the fencer to plan their disengage.

The analogy to this timing is a batter hitting a pitch in baseball. Tests have shown that a batter makes a decision about whether to swing within the first few meters that the ball travels after leaving the pitcher's hand. The batter, knowing something about the pitcher, and seeing the release of the ball and seeing the first few meters of the ball's flight, makes a decision to swing, and the timing and the placement of that swing. A traveling baseball, like a fencing action, happens far too quickly for a player to watch the terminal phase of the action (this is a slight over-simplification, as the actual dynamics of thrown balls and eye tracking are much more complex). The role of the pitcher is to know the timing of the batter, and to give the batter incorrect information about the pitch, forcing the batter to misjudge when and where to swing. As fencers fence at closer and closer distances, with more speed, the time to react to a feint decreases. This decreases the time the opponent has to judge the feint, and means that feints can be less precise. This is somewhat offset by the defender's willingness to parry earlier, which gives them more time to make multiple parries. However, the increased speed of the parries (and the area that they have to cover to obstruct the attacker) means that there is an increase in momentum in the parries, which reduces the number that can be done in a given amount of time and increases the chance that the defender will not be able to overcome his or her momentum if they should over commit to an early parry. Feints are made with powerful changes in energy in the advance/blade presentation, which the opponent must respond to, or risk a simple finish by the attacker.

When should a fencer feint? If the fencer is close enough and fast enough to hit with a simple attack, there is no reason to feint. The problem is a simple one: the fencer's tip is at Point B. The opponent's target is X far away. The opponent's blade is at Point A and can move from Point A to X in time t. If the fencer is capable of moving the tip from Point B to cover the distance to X in less than t then the fencer should make a straight attack. If the fencer cannot make the attack in less than t they must make a feint to attempt to reduce the size of X, to increase t, or both. A feint actually impacts both these constraints by moving the fencer's point closer to the target and increasing the time it takes for the opponent to find the attacker's blade. Simple in practice. Much harder to do in the reality of a bout.

The Three Rules of a Lie: Teaching the Feint

The feint being a lie, we can use some ancient wisdom in guiding the telling of lies2:

  • First Rule for Lies: The truth always works better than a lie.
  • Second Rule for Lies: When a lie must be told, it should be as much like the truth as possible.
  • Third Rule for Lies: The best lies are simplest ones.

In fencing, the execution of a simple attack fulfills the First Rule. A direct attack against a defender is devastating when it scores. If the defender becomes convinced they can be hit with a simple attack, it puts them under great psychological pressure to parry subsequent attacks. As a result, the defender is much more likely to parry earlier, and on less provocation; the defender cannot take the chance that anything that looks like the start of an attack is not ultimately capable of scoring on them. The success of previous attacks reinforces this belief. Even if the simple attack by the fencer against the opponent is parried (and it often will unless done with some skill) it should be done with enough skill to persuade the opponent that any similar attack will arrive unless it, too, is parried. If the student cannot execute a convincing simple attack, feints by the student will be ignored by the opponent. The student may not necessary be able to score with a simple attack every time. But the student must have a good grasp of mechanics and control of distance to make the simple attack believable to the opponent. Only by making the direct attack a possibility is surprise against the opponent possible.

Once the "truth" has been told with a simple attack, the "lie" to the opponent becomes easier. Feints succeed by embracing a contradiction: the student convinces the opponent that a simple attack is about to land when it might be from too far away to succeed. Here, the Second Rule comes into play. The student's feint must appear to the opponent like a simple attack to convince the opponent that they must parry that particular action.

The key to the Second Rule is to embrace the idea that a feint is simply an attack that lands somewhere other than the initial zone that the attack threatens, or by a path that is not direct. incidentally, I hate the word "feint", since it implies a different action making an "attack". Many fencers will make committed direct attacks, and then radically change how they start a feint by making stiff, arrested movements when making their feints3. These sorts of motions are rarely successful except against unskilled fencers. The feint is too stiff to be a real attack, the fencer's arm finishes extending too soon, and the point of the fencer's  weapon stops moving too soon. The opponent is unlikely to react to such a feint. If the opponent does react, the attacker's tensing of big muscles to convince the opponent that they should be afraid is likely to result in a disengage that is too slow, too big, and easily parried. The best way to perform a feint is to perform an attack. By making a believable attack, the opponent is more likely to react than respond (instinct versus choice). The defender stops moving and answers the question posed by the feint with a blade reaction (an parry in foil and saber, or a counter-attack in épée).

The Mechanics of the Feint

(Note that this section primarily discusses feints in foil. There are additional notes on saber and épée below)

When ever I work on a student's feint, I always begin by making the student execute simple, straight, accelerating attacks. If the fencer hopes to hide the feint well, they must be able to score with an attack. The mechanics of the simple attack should be practiced. The lunge must accelerate though the attack, and there must be good coordination between the hand and the foot.

The student should be able to vary the timing and the accelerating of their hand in the simple attack. This assists in making the feint adaptable to a variety of situations. Being able to change the relationship of the acceleration of the hand with the fencer's foot gives the fencer a great deal of flexibility. Acceleration in this case is in the lunge (It may be as fast as needful). In the straight attack, the arm then accelerates soon after or with the start of the footwork. If the distance is close, the opponent will be hit before they can react and form a parry. The opponent may be so surprised that they react with an instinctive move: extending into a counter-attack.

A feint must have some penetration of the distance to the opponent or coach. The skill is to understand the opponent's sense of time to know when they will parry, based on the penetration of the  point to the target. In each case, the relationship of the penetration to the target with the opponent's parrying of the feint is key. If the student has not penetrated very deeply, and the opponent makes their parry early, the student may have additional disengages to make. However—as always—opponents are different. Some opponents parry very early and some parry very late. To some extent, this can be simulated by you in the timing of your parries, but the student will ultimately learn to feint by fencing a variety of fencers with different timing, either in practice or in competition.

With the student making a number of simple attacks at close distance, I then move to a slightly longer distance, in which the student can still reach me with a lunge, but can no longer score against me with a simple attack (most fencers can lunge further than they can score with a simple attack). The student continues to make simple attacks, but now they are parried. I keep the timing of the parry the same.

Now that the student has learned the rhythm of my parry, it becomes an easy matter to simply anticipate the disengage, and make it in the right time. The student simply has to make sure that their blade is not where it will be when it has been parried on the previous trials.

The mechanical action of the disengage around a lateral parry should not be a circle, as is often shown in fencing books, but a drop and lift of the point under the (lateral) parry. The motion is like a "V" rather than a "U". I would avoid any reference to making circular motions, and show the dropping and lifting of the point with the fingers instead. This will help insure a small disengage, and ensure that most of the work done in avoiding your blade is done by your parry passing over or past the student's blade. This allows the student to make a very direct approach to the target, with the point of their weapon moving forward much of the time.

I look for a very soft arm on the disengage. Beginning and intermediate fencers carry too much tension in the arm when they make a feint (as if it will make the feint more effective). A soft grip and elbow allows maximum mobility in avoiding the opponent's blade. Tensing a muscle makes it very slow, and if the student has to make open eyes compound attacks against an opponent, they will be unable to change the direction or finish of the disengage. A tense muscle usually means that the student is "motor-set"4 to make pre-planned disengage. With advanced students, I also try to give them more surprise actions to cope with during a lesson, such as stepping in and collapsing the distance when I make my parry. A soft wrist and elbow is important in making the adaptations necessary to score in such situations.

Once the point has cleared your bell after your parry, the student can accelerate the attacking footwork (usually a lunge), while accelerating the arm ahead of the feet. This difficult coordination of hand and foot is critical to success. Coaches often talk of "independent hand and foot" but it is more accurate to say that the hand and the foot should be coordinated depending on the timing of the opponent's defense, the distance the feint must cover, and all those other factors that enter into a successful attack. The student should at the very least be able to coordinate feint-attacks with:

  • The hand starting first, and finishing first (ahead of the feet). This is often the most useful in attacks in preparation and feint-in-tempo actions.
  • The hand starting slightly behind, but finishing ahead of the feet after one or more disengages. Useful against the fencer that makes a very late, simple parry.
  • The hand starting first, retracting, making the necessary number of disengages, and finishing last: with or slightly after the landing of the front foot. This is useful against an opponent that makes many early parries, or may attempt late, close-out counter-attacks that will need to be avoided at the last minute.

From this foundation, I work on expanding the idea of the feint. Different distances, different times, different situations, and different footwork. The student also varies, from the classical definition of arm leading the foot to make a feint-in-tempo disengage to lost and broken time attacks against a varied of defending timings.

In starting the feint, the initial thrust can be slightly wide of your blade. By doing this, the student will encourage the opponent to make simple, lateral parries. If the student wishes a circular parry from you, the thrust should be directed right over the bell. In forming a defense, the your weapon should always move to the student's blade. You should show the student that if the "wrong" parry is taken when the student makes a feint, you have a much longer path to make in forming the parry. This really does allow the student to "see" the parry, and gives them time to make the appropriate counter-disengage to defeat you. By careful point placement, and knowing something of the opponent's tendencies (if they have a favorite parry in certain situations, if they are easily threatened in one line over another, and so forth) the student can easily predict the parry the opponent will do.

Many classical schools advocate the idea that little parries on the part of the coach will equal little disengages on the part of the student. I do not make little parries when first teaching the feint and disengage, for two reasons. First, a small, perfect parry is not what the beginning student sees when they are fencing their peers. Second, when a student is shown a small parry, I must then hold the line 'open" for the student to have time to finish the disengage and the hit. Later, this student will be vulnerable to a false parry/real parry by the opponent. A small parry held open should be a sign to the student that another disengage is called for (which is exactly how I cue a second disengage). Your students must feel that they have time to finish the disengage and accelerate to the target to score. Small parries give them a false sense of confidence, and is not what they are going to see/feel on the strip.

As the student grows in skill, the parries can come earlier, and be more disruptive. Now the student is moving forward to attack while holding the blade well back, "hiding" the blade from your defense. The student is not really "attacking" at this point, but you are defending (by wide, early parries), so priority will be interpreted in the student's favor. However, the actual physics of time and movement can play the student false, if they are unable to coordinate their extension to defeat your concealed counter-attack/attack into preparation.

In the lesson, these variations should be explored to help develop the student's sense of timing, as well as the tactical reasons for each one. They should be done slowly at first so that the student gets a feel for the time.

Feints in the Lesson

The article Cues in Tempo, introduces a simple lesson to show the idea of the relationship of time/distance to the direct attack: the student takes a position just outside the distance needed to make a simple attack against you. The student advances in preparation, and you make the choice to stand still (and receive a direct, simple attack) or retreat at the same time as the student (leaving the distance unchanged). It is easy to adapt this lesson to include the option for a feint and disengage by the student.

The key modifier is the timing of your retreat from the student's preparatory advance. If you have not moved by the time the student's front foot has landed (with the back foot immediately following, of course), then the student should be able to finish with a simple attack and score against you. If you have started to move at the same time as the student's front foot starts (or even before), the student will not reach you in time (at least with one step), and must not attack. If you choose to delay your retreat slightly#&151;in the middle of these two extremes—the student should feel that they can reach you with the length of their lunge, just not with a simple attack. This is opportunity for a feint and disengage: when the student can reach you with a lunge, but not hit you with a simple attack.

As simple as this sounds, there are many difficult skills in play. The student must be able to see the small change in distance/timing of your "slightly late" retreat. If the student can see the difference between you not leaving the space during the advance, you leaving the space late or you leaving the space early (in relationship to the student's advance), the decision to feint comes early and easily. Then the mechanical actions, and the feeling for the disengage, must be perfected. The student must be able to make a reasonable-sized disengage in the middle of the lunge (this is one of the few fencing actions that actually works better the further away the student is).

Other aspects of the lesson can simulate surprise. For example, in a student initiated lesson, the student can make a sudden change of direction against you as a preparation for their feint. This should elicit a predictable startle response from you that the student can avoid, and score with a disengage. Here, the change of direction by the student becomes the feint.

A final caveat: Feints can be done to excess. Some fencers fall in love with feints and spend a great deal of their time moving their blades in elaborate patterns to provoke a response from their opponent's. The student often loses track of the fact that they may have already achieved that critical distance needed for a direct attack and be hit in preparation by an alert opponent. If the student makes a feint when they should be finishing the attack, the student is essentially trying to fit two actions into a space that requires only one. You should test the student often by letting them capture the correct space for a simple attack. The student should finish with a direct attack without hesitation. It is just as incorrect to make a compound attack from too close as it is to make a simple attack from too far away

Other Aspects of Feints

Many fencers protect some areas of their target better than others. The fencer that has a strong high inside parry may have an inadequate low line parry. A feint and disengage that starts in the high line and finishes in the opposite high line may take great skill to execute successfully. The same high line feint that finishes to the low outside line, however, might be successful even when executed with lesser skill. In the same way, this opponent may be easily convinced to make an early parry with a low outside feint, while parrying much later for an attack in the high inside line. These differences must be understood by the student, and exploited. You should teach your students to feint in all possible lines, to look for differences in the timing of the parries in each line, and how the timing of the parries effects the feint and the timing of the student's disengage and finish.

The Timing of Multiple Feints

The purpose of a feint is to freeze or out maneuver the opponent, to allow the fencer to bring their point (or edge) close enough to the target before the final motion of the attacking footwork. This penetration may occur through a combination of arm extension and foot action. Sometimes, however, one feint is not enough. The nervous, twitchy fencer will parry any blade extension and will often over-react to a sudden change of rhythm by the student without any blade extension at all. To score against this fencer, the student may not need to feint at all, but simply fence close to the opponent and make a sudden change in rhythm. This will usually prompt a nervous opponent to sweep for the student's blade, and the student can score with an indirect attack. If this opponent combines the habit of an early parry with an attempt to expand the distance, the student may need to make multiple blade actions.

With a calm opponent the student will have to be prepared to avoid early blade actions from the opponent. The first feint occurs only after hiding or protecting the blade against these early disruptions. Rather then multiple feints it might be more accurate to call the action a deception of an attempt to find the blade, a feint, and then a disengage, while carefully controlling the distance.

Once the student has the basics of executing the attack with feint, it is important that you show variations in the rhythm of the initial parry between two extremes of opponents. You should also show the student how to make the necessary reconnaissance to determine which type of fencer he or she is dealing with. You must role play through these situations, reacting artificially early or late to the student's preparation. The reactive fencer, as we have seen above, will parry very quickly, and with little provocation. Sometimes this early parry will also be coupled with an expansion of the distance. If the coach/opponent is far enough away to demand more than one feint, this early parry will result in very little penetration on the feint to the target. After rounding this first parry, the student will have to extend more on the second feint, perhaps with additional footwork. This should be possible since the nervous fencer (or the simulating coach) will often make the first parry too big, and must overcome the momentum of the parry and "recover" their blade. This will extend the time that the student has to penetrate in the second feint, and this feint may have to be held longer in a given line to "show" the opponent/coach that the threat is continuing. Your second parry will likely also be fast, so the fencer will have to make a quick disengage to finish the attack and score. The rhythm of blade actions is "fast - s l o w - fast".

The calm opponent, on the other hand, may try to parry as late as possible, while using many false parries to "herd" the student's blade into a line that the opponent can control. This opponent will not react to quick or jerky motions of the blade. The student will have to combine a real threat with a change of speed to convince the opponent that they are finishing an attack, all the while anticipating the opponent making false parries or false counter-attacks. When the student has gained a distance advantage, the opponent may still have time to make two fast parries to try to find the blade. These parries will either be lateral or circular, and the student will have to understand the opponent's inclinations in this regard.

The student must be cautions with those opponents that use large and early sweeps for the student's blade. The student should not confuse avoiding these sweeps as the signal to start an attack (or to finish one). The distance will be too far, and extending the arm too early will simply give the opponent a better opportunity to find the blade. For the opponent who reaches out to find the student's blade early, it is advisable that the student keep the arm back and use changes of tempo to approach the opponent (while at the same time being wary of the opponent's inevitable attempt to attack on the student's preparation). The student may make wide, threatening actions with the blade while still considerably out of distance, concealing the avenue of attack. Once the distance has started to collapse—either because the student has gained the distance, or the opponent is slowing down in an earnest attempt to find the student's blade—the blade actions must be tighter, and centered on the opponent's target.

It must be remembered that the purpose of the feint is to achieve a situation in which the student can finish with a simple attack. If the student makes a feint, and the opponent parries, but pulls so much distance that the student still is considerably "behind" the opponent in distance and time, the student must close the space while making additional blade preparations. An awareness of the time/space between the student's point and the target is essential to scoring after the feint.

Feints in Épée and Saber

The other two weapons bring their unique characteristics into play when making feints. In both épée and saber, the forward target makes a counter-attack an ever present danger. In saber, the counter-attack has made the days of extending the arm completely while threatening a target with the edge a thing of the past. In fact, it could easily be argued that there is no blade "feint" in saber any longer: just occurrences in which the defender—feeling the closing of tempo from an advancing opponent—parries too early and is hit with an indirect attack, as opposed to a feint and disengage. Sudden changes in footwork rhythm (or size of steps) and a small indication of the blade (moving it no more than six to eight inches in one direction or the other) to suggest to the defender which line needs to be protected is the prevailing method of feinting in saber. Classical arm extending feints are still done in saber with the point, but these have a great deal of risk associated with them, as they give the opponent an early opportunity to find the blade.

Just as in foil, it is critical in saber that the hand be coordinated with the footwork on the attack. Preparations in saber are often carried out over more than one advance in the face of a defender making disruptive blade actions on defense. The student must understand that carrying the blade far back entails a strong risk of an attack in preparation against them if the yare too conservative. During the preparation, the student must balance the coordination of their hand and their approaching footwork very carefully. The student must also be able to change the line of the cut while still in the lunge. Cutting a different line after the front foot lands runs the risk of being called as a remise.

Feints in épée have some of the same dangers as those with saber, though the épée fencer has the protection of the bell, and the physics of hitting a smaller target like the hand/arm with a point weapon in their favor. For the most part, however, the feint in épée has many of the characteristics of the feint in foil: it must follow the three rules for "telling a lie". The feint must be done close to a real target, and in a realistic distance. The lack of priority in épée means that the attacker must take more risk when making a feint. Very often, the feint in épée is, in fact, a real attack to the forward target that has a chance (if small) of scoring. It may only turn into a feint after the fact, when the defender has attempted to parry the attack and exposed themselves to a second, deeper attack. Has the fencer then made a feint and disengage, or an attack and remise? This is important from a conceptual view (and at the higher levels of épée, should be nuanced to the student) but at the beginning and intermediate level, these distinctions may not be very important. The preparation/feint does what is required: freezing the opponent or moving them out of position while placing the point of the épée within easy striking distance of another target.

Because of the nature of this attack/preparation duality, the épée student rarely makes lost time attacks except in very unusual opponent's, or in order to draw a counter-time reaction from the opponent. For the most part, you may teach hand first or hand with the foot on the feint in épée.

The danger of feints in épée is that they can draw a mix of reactions, since the épée fencer is not bound by convention to parry the feint, but may respond with an attempt to stop, or an attack of their own. The attacking fencer must read his or her opponent very carefully to make an action with a known end. Feints in épée are much more "open eyes" actions than in foil.

In both saber and épée, the forward target of the opponent is always a viable place for a touch. In some cases, the purpose of the feint will not be to draw a parry with the hope of finishing to a deeper target, but to draw a counter-attack for a counter-time action to the forward target, or a taking of the blade. Using a remise off of a parry—in both weapons—adds yet another dimension, though here we start to step into true second-intention actions rather than feints. These sorts of actions give feints much more versatility in saber and épée than in foil.

Unexplored Territory

This is a very simple look at feints. There are many aspects of feints we have not touched on, including feints as a preparation, changes of decision when making feints, feints in the riposte...there is a long list of topics! For you as a the coach, the most important ideas are:

  • Feints have a unique tempo of their own, the student should understand that at long distance/times, they should anticipate making a feint.
  • At reduced distances, the coach should insist that the student finish the attack.
  • The student does not "look" for the parry by the opponent, but uses the penetration of the feint to force the opponent to parry at a particular time of the student's choosing.
  • The feint should be smooth, continuously moving forward, and threaten the opponent—the feint as a "motion" should be corrected by you.
  • The opponent should never get more of a feint than they need, and proper preparation in distance, and optional actions on the blade will help "sell" the feint.

With these principals in mind, the coach can assist their students in understanding multi-tempo actions on the attack.

1Ideally, the fencer is also opportunistic, in order to take advantage of the opponent's mistakes, but ideally, the fencer hopes to encourage the opponent to make mistakes that the fencer can act on.

2These rules are adapted from a series of seminars by Maitre Ed Richards, with appreciation.

3A few years ago, a young fencer told me that no one ever fell for his feint and disengage, and wanted my help. I put him on guard, told him to move a bit, and then, when he was ready, to make an attack with a feint and disengage. After a few confident steps, the student made blazingly fast (but short) feint at the end of an advance, made an immediate disengage, and ended with a lunge. The initial action took place so quickly, and from so far away, it was over before I could think to form a parry. By then the fencer had already disengaged to my closed line, and ran right into my guard. "This is what always happens", he said, sadly. "I'm just not fast enough to make a feint, disengage." I avoided laughing, and worked on showing him a better way to approach feints.

4After the famous martial artist, Bruce Lee.

© by Allen Evans. This document may be reproduced, provided all credit is giving and this notice included

Created on October, 2006. A major re-writing of this article occurred in 2012 for completely new content, based on the observation of hours of video at the World Cup and Olympic Level. I am indebted to Michael Marx, National Training Director of US Fencing, for his insights. However, all interpretation and conclusions from his comments are entirely my own. The original for this article may be found here.