Beats, Parries, and Actions on the Blade.
Actions on the blade when defensive are considered parries, and when offensive are considered beats or engagements. For the purposes of this post we’ll just consider how the blade contact is made and not make a strong distinction between parry, beat and other engagements.
There are plenty of descriptions of fencing parries / actions on the blade online. In short the parries are classified by:
- Whether your blade is pointed up, or pointed down (High line vs Low Line)
- Whether you deflect across your body to your unarmed side, or to the outside on your sword arm side (inside vs outside line)
- Whether your hand is supinated or pronated
This has been written on pretty much everywhere, so here’s a link to wikipedia, and a fairly comprehensive diagram.
Circle / “counter” engagements
“Counter” is one of the most overloaded words in fencing. You can make a counter attack, a counter sixte, and a counter time parry all meaning different things (hell, your strategy might counter your opponents strategy so that the score counter has to up the counter on the box so that people at the armoury counter can see the score of your fencing encounter).
It’s a terrible word.
In the sense of blade engagements, it generally means that in order to make the engagement, you have to make a circular motion to get your opponents blade to the right relative side. For this, I think the other common term “Circle” is probably a clearer word.
From a regular en guard in sixte – it’s not possible to make a plain sixte parry, you must circle the blade below your opponents in order to push your opponents blade to your sword arm side – this is a circle-sixte (or a counter-sixte) engagement.
Prime / First / Parry 1
The fencer on the right scopes up his opponents blade with his hand high and point down. His hand is pronated (you can tell by the direction of the bend of his blade – curving with his point towards his opponent). This is what a prime (rhymes with steam) parry generally looks like – though it’s possible to make the parry less vertical and for it to still be prime. Anything that has the point below the guard, the hand pronated, and pushes the blade inwards to the unarmed side (across the body), is prime.
Seconde / Second / Parry 2
The fencer on the left beats the blade in seconde and then scores. His tip is below the guard when he makes blade contact, his hand is pronated, and he pushes towards the sword arm side.
Tierce / Third / Parry 3
The fencer on the left beats the blade with his tip up, his hand pronated, and towards his sword arm side – in tierce – before he touches his opponent.
Quarte / Fourth / Parry 4 and Quinte / Fifth / Parry 5
In modern fencing, there isn’t a strong distinction between quinte and quarte in foil. In sabre, these terms are used for very different parries, with quarte deflecting the blade to the unarmed side with the point up and the hand supinated, while quinte blocks a vertical cut towards the head, with the blade pointed to the unarmed side and parry actually pushing upwards.
In foil (and epee), cuts are not valid, so a quinte parry defending a vertical cut isn’t really sensible, so the term is used to mean something different.
Following the logic of naming of the other parries, quinte should be pronated and quarte should be supinated. It’s agreed they both cover the high inside line – tip up deflecting across the body to the unarmed side.
However many foil coaches teach “quarte” as a slightly pronated action. Some suggest quinte is more pronated, but that opens a whole can of worms around the other actions and whether other parries could have “slightly pronated” versions that warrant their own unique name.
Pragmatically though, for most intents and purposes, in foil, anything pronated or supinated in which the tip is up and deflects across the body can be carelessly lumped into “Quarte” and people will understand you. And by extension, if you just pretend “quinte” doesn’t exist, that will be fine too (though some people will have their own slightly different personal distinctions).
The fencer on the right defends with a big parry quarte, with her tip up and pushing her opponents blade to her unarmed side, and ripostes with a disengagement around the left fencer’s own quarte to score.
Sixte / Sixth / Parry 6
The fencer on the right circles her blade underneath her opponents so that she can deflect the attack outwards to her sword arm side with her blade upwards and her hand supinated – a circle-sixte parry. She immediately ripostes directly for a point.
Septime / Seventh / Parry 7
The fencer on the right drops her tip to that her blade is pointed down, and moves her blade across her body with her hand supinated to beat her opponents blade in septime, followed by a direct attack which scores.
Octave / Eigth / Parry 8
The fencer on the left defends the attack by sweeping his blade with the point down and his hand supinated, pushing the attack away to his sword arm side for a parry octave. He makes an immediate riposte which scores
Neuvieme / Ninth / Parry 9 – Other movements
As shown in the diagram above, Neuvieme hypothetically pushes the engaged blade upwards.
This is not a traditional parry, however sometimes gets tacked on the end to the traditional 8 parries, since in modern fencing it’s not uncommon for someone to push the blade upwards in something that is not-quite-a-sixte due to the blade being moved upwards, not outwards.
However, if you have a modicum of creativity, you could probably think of many other ways to make blade contacts that don’t fall into the above categories. Pushing the blade up or down with pronation/supination and the tip inwards or outwards immediately gives 8 more positions that are not mentioned above.
Additionally things like this:
“High Octave” From Alfred Hutton
Are technically possible in foil, and aren’t strictly the same as a regular octave. There are plenty of unusual ways to make blade contact while moving your body in strange ways. These are not generally categorised.
Prescriptive vs Descriptive
An important semi-philosophical note about parry classification conventions:
These do not prescribe the “Correct” way that parries and engagements “should” be done. These describe common movements in fencing.
I’ve heard many times (generally from beginners) people asking what the correct way to do a prime parry is. I’ve heard some say the hand must be higher than the head with the tip down. But it doesn’t really matter.
Anything with the tip down, the engagement moving across the body, and the hand pronated can be considered type of Prime action. Whether the blade be extremely vertical, or whether the engagement is very shallow. Whether it’s done close to the body or further away from the body.
Whether it works as a parry or not.
Knowing how the parries are classified does not tell you whether they are useful, how to do them in a way that helps you win bouts, or whether you should even do them at all.
A fencer might easily be very capable without ever performing octave for example – and indeed they might not even know the naming convention (or might have their own words for it).
These names are just the most common terms for communicating these movements in words. They derive from a french system of classifying these movements (hence the french names).
The Italians in the early 20th century used a completely different system that didn’t make a strong distinction between pronated and supinated positions (modern Italian fencers do not continue to use this however and will use the french system even if speaking with Italian numbers).
The above is just the common conventions that allows people to discuss fencing movements – not a system of ideal fencing movements. It’s up to fencers and coaches to decide how they think best to perform these actions – even if the movements they come up with do not easily fall into the normal classifications.