One of the first things I was taught in fencing and promptly forgot was the how to defend. I remember being told, long ago, that I had to set up my defensive actions. Open a target for the opponent to hit, then parry. Pretend to counter-attack, or “check”, then make their subsequent attack fall-short. Move towards the opponent, then away, confusing their sense of distance so that I could clip their sabre with a beat.
I remember being told all these things. Then I forgot them all, wiped away by hours upon hours one-on-one lessons with a coach, where I would dutifully respond to their cues: see attack, parry riposte; see windup, counterattack; see blade, beat; get parried, counter-parry riposte.
Years later, I would give the order at Sydney Sabre that sparked countless arguments with other coaches and even some of my own apprentices: no more reactive lessons.
Not like the ones I had anyway. You want to learn sabre? Learn in a class with your peers. Forge your skills in the rough with others of your ability. Afterwards, we can hone through lessons. But in these the coach serves as a simulator, conjuring scenarios for their charges to work through, giving guidance on how to execute actions, and hints on which actions work best. Not instructions on what to do in response to this, nor drills for that, or elaborate choreography one step removed from dance.
Words are as important as actions. I saw one of the best coaches in the world spend the bulk of his time constructing drills for his charges, supervising from the sidelines, hurling comments constantly like a coach from any other sport. He was too old now and his students too strong for him to play the role of simulator, but that didn’t matter. They could hone each other. And then, at other times, coach and charge would have their lesson. It was a conversation, words and blades, a ritual shared since the charge’s childhood, for connection and confidence.
My grandcoach installed a giant kitchen counter at the front of his club, the tangible manifestation of his belief that talking about sabre was as important as doing it. He had little regard for reactive lessons or mechanical drills; he used to scoff that mass footwork drills were the recourse of coaches who were either too lazy or too incompetent to think up anything better. (The only thing footwork drills teach, he said, was discipline for unruly children).
That’s not to say I agreed with him, or that he didn’t have drills of his own. He just preferred scenario drills. He taught me one, the “Wall Drill”, to learn how to defend in sabre. The defender stood at their warning line, their partner the attacker on the closest start line 3 metres away. The defender would commence the drill with an advance-lunge, then it was on: the attacker could do anything they wanted to land their attack; the defender fighting back.
The drill ended when someone hit, or when the defender managed to stop the attack. The defender didn’t have space to run away; they had to fight for every inch they had, one foot over the back line if necessary.
My grandcoach wanted the defender to imagine themselves manning the walls of a besieged castle, the attacker’s army below. If the attacker was stupid, they would smash themselves against the walls. If they were smart, they would be more cautious: ram the gate, trebuchet the walls, ladder over the ramparts, sneak a crack squad underground. The defender had to remain vigilant against all these assaults, and lay down fire of their own. Spears, arrows, rocks, tar, boiling oil, dead sheep — everything they got. It didn’t matter whether it worked or not. Maybe something would stick.
It was all a trick anyway. The defender’s real aim was to sucker the attacker into a preset trap. Pretend to run, then sally forth with an unexpected counterattack. Form up, raise shields, and when they charge raise up the spears. Hold that wall. Then drop it on them.
Once your opponent gains priority, they — the attacker — have all the advantages. They can slowly drive the defender down the length of the piste, bat away attempts to retake priority or counterattack, and hit once they come within range. The defender can delay the inevitable by retreating, but there is only so far they can go back. Once on the back line, the defender has to to hold position. And then the attacker finishes.
So long as the defender tries to react to the attacker, the defender will probably lose. The attacker has priority; they just have to get their light on and they win. The attacker has the initiative; they decide when and where they will launch their final assault. Unless the defender is far superior to the attacker — in which case they can do whatever they want and still win — their odds of succeeding on the defence by reacting are small.
A perfect attacker doesn’t just win most of the time against a perfect defender. A perfect attacker wins every time. The only way for the defender to win is to make the attacker imperfect. The attacker has to make a mistake.
Fortunately for the defender, there are many mistakes the attacker can make. The attacker could attack at too short a range to overcome the defender’s fall-short, or along a path that the defender is prepared to parry. They could get too close or choose to make a long attack when the defender is ready to counterattack. Or they could leave their blade forwards, unaware that it is within the range of the defender’s beat until it is too late.
Such unforced errors are common amongst novices but become increasingly rare as one ascends the ranks. Good attackers don’t make mistakes without prompting. So a defender has to give them a prompt, a feint of the action the attacker wants to see, sometimes called a “check”.
The simplest check is for the defender to look like they are too close and stuck in position. Then when the attack comes, make it fall short.
The next simplest check is to look like the defender is counterattacking. My coach taught me to stab my sabre at the attacker’s face; years later, Master Shifu asked me rhetorically why I only stabbed once. The hindbrain lacks faith in fencing masks. Stick the tip enough times at a person’s eyeballs and they feel an overwhelming urge to hit you.
If the attacker hits further than the defender can pull away, the defender has to parry. The setup is much the same as for the fall-short, only the defender has to open up a target for the attack to go to. Don’t be subtle; open the target right up. A well-trained attacker can be lulled, lesson-style, into hitting wherever the defender wants. An ill-trained attacker only has a couple of places they always hit to. Open up where the attacker can or wants to go, then parry when it comes.
Once the attacker has failed to hit a couple of times, they will start to ignore the fake-counterattack check. Then the defender can pretend to fall-short, and hit the attacker with a real counterattack.
I have defended over the course of entire competitions with just those two combos. But every so often a defender will meet a “lancer”; an attacker, usually one already infuriated by counterattacks and fall-shorts, who decides that the best way to deal with both is to charge with their sabre lowered like a lance. Feint the counterattack and take priority with the beat.
There are as many possible feints as there are actions in sabre. A defender has to keep trying feints and remember which ones worked and the attacker’s response.
They don’t always relate as expected. I once fenced an opponent who liked to bind the (fake) counterattack rather than finish with a short attack. My fall-short didn’t work. There was nothing wrong with my set up; they just didn’t want to finish. So I kept the setup, disengaged their bind, and counterattacked (for real) instead.
The more time the defender has on the defence, the more likely that they can work out which feints and actions to use. It also tires out the attacker and makes them more likely to make a mistake. Given enough time, the defender can also “train” the attacker into doing what they want: make them miss the first time, then hit them with the counterattack, then beat to gain priority, then make them miss again, and so forth.
My grandcoach’s Wall Drill had a bigger sibling, the “March Drill”. The positions of the fencers were reversed; the attacker started on the warning line, and the defender on the closest start line. The defender once again commenced the drill with an advance-lunge. Then the chase was on: the attacker had to close distance and hit. The defender just needed to stop them. My grandcoach wanted the defender to set up and abandon positions all the way down the piste — just like the castle in the Wall Drill, only this time with a bigger castle ringed by layers of concentric walls.
The aim of the defender was to trick the attacker into a preset trap. But now, with more space, the defender could err on the side of discretion. Start with less risky traps, like those for fall-short and stop cut and beats; these actions carried the defender backwards so they could keep fighting if the attacker wasn’t tricked. Save the risky ones like parries and counterattacks by attack-on-preparation to the back line. The operative word in “heroic last stand” is last.
But the defender who does find themselves on the back line should be a hero. This is the time for the best moves: the jump parries and duck counterattacks and forward guards. Tricks here work as well, if not better, than at any preceding moment in the defence — the attacker is tired, at the end of their march, and thinks that the most difficult part is behind them.
The one thing the defender should not do is stand. Wall Drill was as much about distance as about deception. The area around the back line is more spacious for defensive manoeuvres than it might seem. An agile defender who can drop in to splits can wring enough distance out of the back line to stop even the strongest attacks.
But learn how to drop into splits first, or you won’t be getting back up again afterwards. I once saw a kid from Hong Kong drop straight into splits on his back line to parry a massive overhead cut. He got the parry. Pity he never got splits before.