Week 8: Preparatory Beat Attack

Dear Instructor:

Welcome to Week 8. We’re almost at the end of Level 1 and your students now have a complete, if basic, set of moves effective in each phase of the bout from 4m to Attack to Defence.

The next three sessions focus on consolidation and filling a few knowledge gaps that could trip them up when they fence against more physically capable or those who know a few more rule subtleties.

This session we start with preparatory beats: a finicky nuance of the priority rules and an important part of the attack repertoire for Attackers at a range or acceleration disadvantage.

Preparatory beats clear the area in front of the Attacker

In theory, a good Attacker should always be able to see through the Defender’s tricks and finish their attack in-time, at-range, and on-target. This forms the foundation of many traditional attack drills that we use, especially for children: e.g. Vilmos Szabo’s “Rumanian Drill” and countless variations of Nazlymov’s drill as recounted in the Coaches Compendium:

This drill then turned into a choice drill for the students. Maitré Nazlymov would lead the line of fencers in slow advances. When Maitré Nazlymov changed direction and “attacked”, the line of fencers escaped his “attack” with several quick retreats. The students would then, at his signal, “take over the attack”. Maitré Nazlymov would retreat several steps in the face of the student’s advances and then finish with one of two actions: he might make a counterattack into the student’s “attack” (forcing the students to finish with a lunge) or he would make a random parry, and the line of students would cut to Maitré Nazlymov’s opening line. This was all done without weapons by either side.

Copyright © 2005 by Allen Evans.

The problem in practice is that the Defender is rarely so kind as to be obvious about their intentions. A Defender, especially in the adult circuit, may also be of far superior physicality and thus be able to succeed with their counterattack or parry despite being obvious. These work in concert: the more physical advantage, the less deception required.

Excellent Defenders, of course, are both devious and athletic.

For children with growth potential we typically follow the traditional approach until it becomes clear that they are unlikely to increase their athleticism significantly over their training cohort. This differs for each child and cohort, but is typically around age 15 for boys and 13 for girls; the latter because girls tend to mature earlier and be at a physical disadvantage in a mixed-gender cohort at around that age.

This is, of course, not the case with adults. A cohort of adults will display a wide distribution of physical ability and limited scope for further development in the main applicable attribute: acceleration.

The solution for adult Attackers is to mitigate against the Defender’s advantages: their ability to deceive, and their athleticism. There are many solutions; this session covers the most basic: preparatory beats.

Preparatory beats are an Attacker’s blade actions which clear the area in front of them. These are done during the preparation phase of the March, i.e. before the Attacker launches their attack, and they are a beat because they beat the Defender’s blade away from the area between the Attacker and the Defender, clearing this area for the Attacker to advance into range to launch their attack.

Note that it is not strictly necessary to actually beat the Defender’s blade away. It is sufficient to make the preparatory beat and have the Defender withdraw their blade away from the area between the Attacker and Defender. The goal is to clear the area; whether this is because the Defender’s blade is forced away or otherwise induced away is irrelevant.

If the Attacker’s beat does make blade contact, this must occur on the distal two-thirds of the Defender’s blade to retain priority. In practical terms, it must also do so with force; a weak beat can often be interpreted by the referee as the Defender’s parry.


Attacks by beats on the blade:

1 In an attack by beating on the blade, the attack is correctly carried out and retains its priority when the beat is made on the foible of the opponent’s blade i.e. the two-thirds of the blade furthest from the guard.

2 In an attack by beating on the blade, when the beat is made on the forte of the opponent’s blade i.e. the one-third of the blade nearest the guard, the attack is badly executed and the beat gives the opponent the right to an immediate riposte.

FIE Technical Rules November 2022, t. 85

Blade contact is not mandatory; appearing to beat rather than attack, is

The problem is that an Attacker’s beat can look very similar to an Attacker’s attack, especially in the absence of blade contact.

This is risky because the referee (remember them?) could interpret a beat as an attack, observe that this attack missed because it didn’t hit the Defender, and judge that priority now passes from the Attacker to the Defender.

So the beat action must not only be a beat but also look like a beat, especially from the referee’s perspective. The core of doing so lies in making sure that each part of the beat can be distinguished from each part of an attack:

  • Attacks are made with a fully-extended arm; Beats never fully-extend and are made with a bent arm.
  • Attacks launch with power and range; Beats occur with a smooth short step.
  • Attacks are sudden; Beats are rhythmic.

I teach students to beat with an infinity symbol (∞). This is a smooth curving action, in two parts, which can be executed with either an advance – the first part on the step, the second part to finish with the advance – or with two consecutive steps. Other good choices are ovals (what I sometimes call “ice cream scoops”) and flicks with the back edge of the sabre. Make sure the Attacker’s arm is bent throughout the beat action.

The important thing is that the beat doesn’t follow a path similar to one used to attack, i.e. don’t use clean arcs, don’t fully extend the arm during the beat.

Use the blade as a probe at the same moment as the step

Remember that the goal of the beat is to clear the area in front of the Attacker and also be distinctively different from the attack.

A good way to ensure this is to make the preparatory beat as the Attacker steps with their front foot forward before the advance. This keeps the main part of the Attacker’s body in place, out of the Defender’s range, while safely probing the intervening area with just the front foot and blade – which cannot be counterattacked by the Defender to score.

A simple drill:

  • Attacker advances just outside the Defender’s range.
  • Attacker probes the intervening area with the preparatory beat and front step.
  • If the Defender:
    • Counterattacks or stays still: Attacker launches a short attack to score.
    • Retreats or parry: Attacker finishes advance and moves forwards.

Repeat until the Attacker feels they are close enough and ready to launch their attack.

Finish fast – preparatory beats are disruptive not protective

Once the intervening area is clear, an Attacker should finish their attack soon and fast. Preparatory beats disrupt a Defender’s ability to make effective tricks, e.g. fishing. Preparatory beats occur too early and are too weak to actually protect an Attacker during the attack itself – a Defender can still successfully counterattack with opposition.

Guide your students through this part with patience: they should make their preparatory beats and prepare themselves to launch at a moment when they feel comfortable, not necessarily at the first opportunity for them to finish their attack. There’s a balance here: they shouldn’t rush to launch but neither should they stay in preparation forever.

Remind them of the components for a good attack and layer preparatory beats on top of this foundation.

Putting it together

We’re getting very close to bout-like scenarios by this stage of Level 1.

I suggest you start with group footwork drills as per the Nazlymov example earlier in this article, layering the preparatory beats during their March and giving them the option to either:

  • Finish against the counterattack; or,
  • Finish when they feel comfortable, e.g during a time when you the Instructor are pretending to parry or staying still.

If you retreat, they should continue their March with preparatory beats.

Then quickly move into more realistic scenarios. For large and/or less capable cohorts, I run simplified versions of the Wall and March drills at this stage. Smaller and more capable cohorts can move immediately to the 4m attack vs. fall-short scenario; you may even find time to run full 5-pt bouts at the end of the session.

This concludes all of the conventional moves that we cover in Level 1. Next week, we introduce an unconventional counter to the preparatory beat: point-in-line. We do this far earlier than in most syllabi, albeit at a very shallow level; the main reason is to equip the students sufficiently to deal with other novice opponents who use point-in-line as a cheap crutch for defence, and introduce one of the stranger rules in sabre should they encounter it at other clubs.

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