To a laymen, I think that fencing can seem really daunting. If you look up glossaries of terms, such as the one on wikipedia you’ll find a list of dozens of terms in French, Italian and English pertaining to various ways fencers can move, or their equipment or the rules of the sport etc. Fencer’s tend to really like cryptic terminology and technical definitions – I think it makes us feel smart! But really, it’s not all that complicated.
Hopefully while reading this, you already understand the basics of how the score box works in foil. Basically each foil has a button on the end, and when you depress that button on the other fencers silver vest, you get a coloured light.
Also, there are rules of priority / right of way in foil which determine who gets the point if both fencers touch at the same time. I have written a post directed towards people with some fencing experience here, but I intend to write a laymen’s introduction at some point too.
Here’s a short list that covers most things that can happen in a foil bout.
The simplest thing that can happen. One fencer decides that they want to try to poke the other fencer in the chest. That fencer has to cover the distance between them so that they can reach their opponent, so the most common way is to lunge.
The fencer on the right lunges and touches the fencer on the left for a point. She’s very excited about it.
Maybe this is a little bit to simple to work. So perhaps the attacking fencer wants to knock the defenders blade a little bit before attacking. This can add some confusion, or disrupt the defender enough to get that attack through. Hitting the blade is called a beat. Hitting the blade and attacking is called a beat attack.
Here both fencers beat each other’s blades a couple times, until finally the fencer on the right beats the blade and lunges for a point
So we need a way to defend against the attack. Probably, the most obvious way is to deflect the blade out of the way. If you deflect the blade up, you’ll probably deflect it into your head, and if you deflect it down, you’ll probably deflect it into your legs (or worse). So really, we’re probably going to deflect it either to the right or to the left.
If we’re right handed, and we’re holding our sword on the right hand side of our body – then probably the attack will come towards our body, and the simplest thing to do with be to knock the blade across our body and out of the way.
This is called parry 4 (or the fourth parry, or quarte in french). The reason it’s not number 1 is due to historical reasons that aren’t super important.
The fencer on the left attacks, and the fencer on the right defends with a parry 4 that deflects the blade to her left, and then pokes back. Her parry is quite big and ends up pushing the blade down a little, but the main deflection is to the left.
If you attack your opponent immediately after parrying, it’s called a riposte.
The fencer on the left is attacked and she makes a very small parry 4 and hits back with a riposte
But you could also deflect the blade to the outside of your body (the right side if you’re right handed). The problem is that you have to get your blade on the the other side of the attack so you can push it to the outside.
The simplest way to do that is to move your blade underneath your opponents attack, and then deflect their blade to the outside – effectively making a circular movement. This is known as a counter 6 or a circle 6 (or indeed a counter sixte in french).
The fencer on the right is attacked and defends with a counter 6 and makes riposte for a point
Of course, you can parry the riposte as well. This is known as a counter parry, and a counter riposte.
The word “counter” is used all over the place in fencer to mean different things. It’s a little unfortunate and get be a little confusing.
The fencer on the left attacks, but is parried! The fencer on the right tries to hit back with a riposte, but that gets parried too! The fencer on the left then hits back with a counter riposte and gets the point.
Probably the attacking fencer doesn’t want to be parried. Of course they might be able to just go fast enough to touch before the defender can parry, but that’s quite difficult, especially if they aren’t close enough.
Another thing they can do is drop their tip and circle under to avoid the parry completely. This way their attack lands.
The fencer on the left steps forward and attacks. The fencer on the right tries to defend with a parry 4. The fencer on the left dips her tip underneath the blade and goes around the parry so that the blades never touch – and touches with her attack. The fencer on the right touches even though she didn’t successfully parry, but because she failed to parry, the point goes to the fencer on the left
Counter Attacks and Dodging
Another way to avoid being hit, is to simply dodge the attack. Most high-level fencers have very good point control, but it’s still possible to dodge their point.
If the other fencer attacks you, and instead of parrying, you choose to hit them back, then you’ve made a counter attack. If they touch you, they will get the point – even though you both touched – so it makes sense to try to dodge their attack, while you counter attack.
The fencer on the left attacks, while the fencer on the right counter attacks. But The fencer on the right dodges the attack from the fencer on the left so she’s the only one to touch – giving her the point.
There are few other ways to parry and a few other ways to touch and dodge, but most bouts are composed of both fencers trying to accomplish one or more of the things listed above. When both fencers are trying to do these things at the same time, it can get messy and hard to untangle, but if you have an idea of the basics, it might help to follow the intentions of both fencers.