Fast, small, defensive: effective start tactics in sabre

Sabre fencing was once the weakest discipline of the three Olympic fencing events. It had a reputation for being a loud and boring sport where every point consisted of two guys charging at each other, then screaming at the referee to award them the point.

Two top-grade sabreurs appealing for the point. This used to happen all the time, but is becoming rarer as the sport matures. (July 15, 2011 – Source: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images Europe)

Since the 2008 Olympics, such simultaneous actions in sabre have become less common. There are a few reasons. Referees have become much more consistent in awarding the attack to the first person who commits to a lunge, rather than the person who runs in the quickest (or yells the loudest). Sabreurs have also become better at hitting on their opponent’s preparation. They’ve also become a lot more mobile than say 10 or 20 years ago. This all makes for some interesting exchanges at the start of the bout – people can’t just run into the middle expecting to get the attack or the simultaneous. Case in point: the men’s sabre team final at the London 2012 Olympics between South Korea and Romania. (edit: Apparently the IOC doesn’t let third part sites link to Olympics videos, even if they are on Youtube. Have some sweet World Championships action instead.)

But wait: there were still a large number of simultaneous actions at the start. Conventional theory says that the best basic tactic in sabre is still to use the simultaneous, especially at the start and end of the bout, to set up other actions. These actions should be set up with a slow preparation step (very common at the 2008 Olympics), and almost never with fast footwork in the middle (due to the risk of the opponent attacking on preparation).

So the questions on my mind are:

  1. Is the simultaneous a ‘safe’ way to set up the opponent the next action? i.e. does it have better-than-even chances of winning or drawing against a non-simultaneous action from the opponent?
  2. Are slow preparations more likely to lead to a successful action than fast or medium tempo preparations?
  3. Given (1) and (2), what are the most effective combinations of preparation and action in the 4m centre zone?

For the purposes of this exercise, I defined ‘success’ as either winning the point immediately in the 4m centre zone, or the winning the priority outside of the 4m centre zone immediately after the initial exchange of actions.


I got the data by enlisting folks from the Sydney Sabre Centre to watch Youtube videos of World Cup bouts and other high-level competitions. Each point in these bouts was classified in terms of:

  • Winning preparation: the preparation (slow/medium/fast) used by the sabreur who had success in the 4m centre zone for that point.
  • Losing preparation: the corresponding preparation for the other sabreur.
  • Distance: the distance between the sabreurs when one or the other initiated their action. Distance was roughly classified as ‘deep’ = within lunge distance, or ‘short’ = advance lunge distance or greater.
  • Winning action: the action performed by the winning sabreur.
  • Losing action: the corresponding action by the losing sabreur.


I did some quick and dirty frequency counts in Excel of the preliminary data (from two team bouts and six individual bouts, 244 data points). Here is the summary table for the analysis as of October 2013:


Is the simultaneous a ‘safe’ way to set up the opponent the next action?

Generally not.

Simultaneous attacks initiated by one party (denoted as “AiT”) succeeded only 39% of the time, despite comprising around 49% of all attempted actions.



Simultaneous works okay against advance fall short (i.e. a sloppy retreat without using a check) and counter-attacks, but rarely works against opponents who use a check fall short (denoted as AoP fall short), attacks on preparation (denoted AoP), and even the risky parry riposte forward.

Are slow preparations more likely to lead to a successful action than fast or medium tempo preparations?

Slow preparations are okay – but its more important to either go slow or fast than to be somewhere in the middle.


Slow preparations were attempted less often (97 counts) than fast (173) or medium preparations (220). They were successful about half the time, whereas fast preparations were successful slightly more often (57%) and medium preparations slightly less (47%).

I’m not sure exactly why this is, but it’s interesting.

Given (1) and (2), what are the most effective combinations of preparation and action in the 4m centre zone?



No easy answer here, but the most successful combos appear to be:

  • Fast prep – AoP fall short
  • Fast prep – AoP
  • Fast prep – Draw cut
  • Slow prep – AoP fall short (but surprisingly, not AoP)
  • Slow prep – Draw cut
  • Slow prep – Simultaneous: interestingly, simultaneous actions worked 50% of the time when used with slow prep, which didn’t happen with either fast or medium preps.

An important caveat is that the distance between the sabreurs is critical – some actions have very different odds of success when the distances are small (i.e. ‘deep’ distance):



  • Fast preparation – AoP works great, though AoP fall short is less effective and draw cuts are not recommended at all.
  • Slow preparation – AoP fall short and draw cuts work, most other actions don’t.
  • Simultaneous is surprisingly effective in deep distance.

Compare situations where the distance is large (i.e. ‘short’):



  • Going for the simultaneous when the opponent is far away is dangerous, regardless of whether you do a fast or slow preparation.
  • AoP is risky, given the large distances involved, but AoP fall short has good chances of success.
  • Things that feint the simultaneous, such as advance fall short and draw cuts, are also effective.

So how should I be starting?

  1. Always watch for the distance of the opponent to decide which set of actions to choose between. In practice, this probably means some degree of educated guesswork as to their closing speed and habits during the first step from the start.
  2. It’s generally safer to be far away from your opponent in the 4m than attempt to close distance = small, composed footwork.
  3. Start the bout with slow preparations, looking for either the simultaneous if the opponent is close and composed, or the draw cut/advance fall short if they are distant but closing fast. (If they stop attacking, chill out and march them down as in Sabre 101).
  4. Once you’ve settled in to the opponent’s timing, start pressuring your opponent with fast preparations. You should be pretty good at predicting their distance at this point: go for the attack-on-preparation if they get close, feint the AoP then make them fall short if they are distant, and throw in the occasional draw cut or stop hit if you can’t decide.
  5. If they start getting frantic, go back to slow preparations and grind them down.

On reflection, the above isn’t too different from what most of my coaches have been telling me for the past couple of years. One of the more intriguing anomalies is the draw cut, which was a significant part of the game played by guys like Lopez from a few years ago, but has become a little rarer in recent years. It appears to be a bit more effective than I would have expected. By contrast, advance parry riposte is making a comeback (see Chicago 2013 team finals) but doesn’t appear to have great odds for success.

Next steps are to get a few thousand more data points and test out the above in training to see if it all works – and why.

3 thoughts on “Fast, small, defensive: effective start tactics in sabre

  1. Great article John, really interesting 🙂

    The low success of slow start, AiP isn’t perhaps that surprising given the shift in refereeing towards rewarding someone attacking strong “with the feet”, versus someone who goes slow then attacks into it with a very fast hand.

    If you used data from around Beijing 2008, you’d probably find greater success of the slow start AiP, just down to refereeing convention.

    1. Agreed. Beijing was pretty weird – I get the impression that the referees were very “hand focused” in that competition. Similar deal with the 2005 World Championships. With the current convention of giving the attack to the person who first commits with the feet, and only using the hand as a tiebreaker, my suspicion is that the current trend of starting fast is going to persist for a while. I’m avoiding the use of any Beijing and 2009 bouts for the analysis for this reason. Something seems to have changed in 2010, and its persisted until now (though who knows what they’re refereeing like in this season – I’m waiting for the videos from the recent Madrid WC to get uploaded).

      Funny thing though: the Koreans are pretty adamant about starting slow and going for the attack. If you’ve seen any of their recent bouts, you may agree with me that ‘slow’ is not the first word that comes to mind about their footwork. One of the instructors at SSC (formerly on the Korean junior team) was telling me that some of the stuff we’re classifying as fast prep is actually their slow prep. If that’s the case, some of the data points that we normal people are calling a fast prep attack with AoP are actually their slow prep AoP – which is just nuts.

      1. Also in response to your Facebook comment, the bouts used for this analysis were:
        – Asian Championships 2010 Men’s Sabre Team, Gold medal match, Korea v.s. China
        – Warsaw Grand Prix 2011 Men’s Sabre Individual, Gold medal match, Won Woo Young v.s. Alexey Yakimenko
        – Chicago World Cup 2013, Men’s Sabre Individual, Gold medal match, Szabo v.s. Szilagyi
        – London Olympics 2012, Men’s Sabre Team, Gold medal match, Romania v.s. Korea
        – Chicago World Cup 2013, Men’s Sabre Team, Gold Medal match, Russia v.s. Italy

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