It was a debacle.
If anything, the Paladin was even more embarrassed than I was. “I don’t get it,” he said. “You’re not a bad fencer. Even your kids could do this drill.” He was referring to my tall, fast, precociously-talented apprentices, not my four and six-year olds. But I got his point.
The Paladin was showing me what the Maestro called the “Rumanian drill”. The climax of this drill was for the student to finish their attack. I was the student. The coach — the Paladin — would either counterattack or attempt to parry. Neither should be successful; the student had plenty of time to finish with the counterattack and to disengage around the parry.
I gave up after an hour. I beckoned the Paladin over and told him to stick out his arm. It was at least a hand’s length longer than mine. I don’t think I can get close enough, I said.
The Paladin looked disappointed. Then he got over it, and taught me how he learned to clear what he called the “critical distance” during the finish. My notes from the time reads: “[This] is INCREDIBLY USEFUL. It is THE EASIEST WAY to learn how to finish.”
But what I remember from the time was his disappointment. Needing to clear the path during the attack before the finish was shameful, the mark of an inferior fencer, and risky — one exposed themselves to the defender’s beat. A good fencer was always ready to finish with the counterattack. A good fencer didn’t need to beat, unless the defender’s blade was already in the way.
I guess I wasn’t a good fencer then, or now. I still rely on beats.
My grandcoach taught me that being on the attack down the piste was like laying siege to a castle. The attacker had to break down the defences first, while watching out for traps and counterattacks, until they breached the defences enough to charge through. They might have to do this several times in a single exchange, if the defender retreated in the face of each charge. But the defender couldn’t retreat forever; sooner or later, they must choose to make their stand, or be pinned to their back line.
The most dangerous phase for the attacker is during the charge through the defender’s danger zone. The attacker is safe while they are outside the zone, because the defender can’t reach them, and they are safe once they are in flight during the final strike, provided they hit in time with any counterattacks. But unless the attacker can vault through the danger zone in a single bound, they must enter the danger zone before they launch their final attack. And at that moment, the attacker is vulnerable.
This is where beats come in. An attacker can use them to clear the danger zone before they enter. At its simplest, a beat attack is just knocking the defender’s blade out of the way as the attacker closes for the hit. The attacker can knock the defender’s blade away as many times as they like, retaining priority each time. They just have to be careful not to get their own blade beaten while doing so.
I classify the beats you do while on the attack into two types: preparatory beats and beat attacks.
Preparatory beats are the beats you do while you are still outside the danger zone. You’re not actually intending to finish yet, you’re just deeply offended by someone sticking their blade in your face. Just keep knocking the opponent’s blade with your own. Cuts made forwards work well. Caresses with the flat of the blade towards you work less well. Remember your aim is to clear the zone; there is no shame in disarming the defender with a beat.
For those who are concerned that the referee may penalise these actions as missed attacks, make sure you hit the opponent’s blade in their foible, and keep your arm mostly bent while making the beats. That way they won’t look like attacks. Ultimately, though, it comes down to how forgiving your referee is; be more exuberant with your beats if they allow it, and rein it in if they don’t.
The problem is that preparatory beats clear the danger zone before you’ve actually entered it. A fast defender has enough time to bring their blade back into position after the beat to hit you during your entry into the zone.
I usually demonstrate this to my students by having them make a preparatory beat as they step into the zone with their front foot, then note that I can hit them with the counterattack when they bring up their back foot to complete their advance in the zone before they lunge.
My grandcoach used to say that your front foot was like a minesweeper’s probe, but your back foot was where your body really was. You can clear as much as you want while you’re still probing, but if you don’t clear where and your back foot goes, kaboom.
You could get avoid this problem by launching immediately after the preparatory beat. A lunge probably won’t reach, but a flunge might. This is a common workaround for fast cadets who have far more faith in their speed and agility than their bladework skills. But even flunges don’t always reach, and they are themselves vulnerable to other defences like parries, assuming you are even strong enough to launch the flunge. Those of a more mature disposition need to use another approach, which is to clear the zone again as they enter it.
These types of beats are what I consider true beat attacks. You knock the defender’s sword away as you bring your back foot up to complete the advance into the danger zone. More accurately, you sweep the space clear regardless of whether the defender’s blade is there or not. If they stick their blade in the way, your beat knocks it away. If they don’t, or disengage around your beat, then by definition their blade is out of the way anyway. Either way, you path is clear for the attack.
Wouldn’t the referee penalise a missed beat? Every time I get this question I see my grandcoach shrug in my memory. If you catch blade, is beat. If you don’t catch blade, is feint. Then you make touch. What is difference?
Strictly speaking, you can do these beats with the lunge or the flunge during the finish as well. I vaguely remember a coach — Italian or Hungarian, I don’t remember which — teaching me this move from the orthodox syllabus. I can see why you might do so if you are making a gigantic lunge to finish, gliding majestically over the danger zone. I wouldn’t, and can’t, so I don’t beat during the lunge. But it might work for you if you do.
The next question, of course, is where should you hit after a beat? The orthodox view is to beat in one direction and hit in the other. So a beat towards the defender’s flank is followed by a hit to their chest. A beat downwards leads to a backhand across the defender’s face. A beat upwards to bash the defender’s blade above their head is followed by an uppercut through their crotch (the Paladin claims to have invented this move as a junior, which seems uncharacteristically cruel of him — though he was magnanimous when I did it back to him).
Hitting in the same line as your beat is fine too. One particularly vicious version starts with the beat downwards in 2 then sweeps the both blades around the side before shanking the defender in the gut. Other versions take the beat then backhand or sideswipe the defender in the face along their blade. They are all valid ways to hit, provided you don’t accidentally slam into the defender’s sabre guard along the way.
Are there any disadvantages to using the beat attack? Yes. Not only can the defender hit your blade as well and take priority while you beat, you also give away when you will attack. There are an entire class of defensive actions that set traps off the attacker’s beat. So follow the Paladin’s advice: if you can avoid using the beat, do so.
Some years after the debacle with the Paladin, I recounted my tale of woe to the Batman on a windswept Seoul alleyway at 3am during a smoko run.
He sympathised. After noting that his arms were just as long as the Paladin’s — quite a feat, considering he was a head shorter — the Batman told me to go for the defender’s elbow during attacks. That stings, he explained, so next time they will probably pull their arm back to give you a clear run to hit their body.
But, he shrugged, maybe they won’t. He swept his ridiculously long arm downwards to clear away an imaginary blade. He liked to use beats too.