Week 14: Low

Hang around fencing for long enough and you will witness fencers employing a curious tactic: dropping their swords to below their waists, in “low-line” before launching their attack.

They do this so that they can hit to the underside of their opponents’ bodies, shanking from below like the homicidal hoons from A Clockwork Orange. But if you ask your coach why those fencers do this, and whether you should do the same, you’ll most likely witness an equally curious response; a psychic grimace, as the coach wrestles against their overwhelming urge to impugn the move as being unsightly, nontraditional, and stupid — yet unable to deny its effectiveness.

Because even if you choose not to use low-line positions, you are certain to encounter an opponent who does. Even the pros do it, though more sparingly than those in the middle tiers of the sport who spam low-line attacks in all their bouts. The Paladin told me that he thought the middling fencers did this because their counterparts were bad at parrying attacks from below. He didn’t like low-line either, but conceded that they worked, occasionally even on him.

I learned to attack from low-line as a schoolboy foilist. Back then, foil was a priority weapon with a cutoff time of 400ms; easily long enough for a person to get hit, feel it, and hit back in time to have it register on the scorebox. The most popular tactic at the time was to win priority out of the box, then charge at your opponent, head-first, blade down, and wait for them to either run off the end of the piste or counterattack you — to which you would respond by shanking them in the gut.

It is harder to do this in sabre, where the cutoff time is shorter (180ms) and counterattacks are easier, due to the larger target area and ease of making cuts rather than thrusts. But the tactic is used here too. Gu Bon-gil, pioneer of so many unorthodox tactics, scandalised the circuit with these in the late 2010s, bounding up and down while thrusting his hips forward to goad opponents into counterattacking into his trap.

Not that this necessarily means that you have to go into a low-line position to hit to your opponent’s underside, or even that low-line positions are the best positions from which to launch such attacks. It is easy enough to hit underside targets, like belly and underarm, from high-line positions such as 3 via indirect attacks. Gu does this too; turtling his arms in while waggling his sabre above his head before disengaging around his opponent’s counterattack to hit from underneath with disconcerting speed. Having your sabre in high-line — if not exactly the way Gu does it, but along similar principles — is, if anything, a better starting position from which to hit your opponent’s underside than to do so from low-line, from which your hit arc is obvious to your opponent and thus straightforward for them to parry.

Why would fencers hit from low-line then? For some of them it is simply a matter of confidence in their bladework: it is easier to hit direct to low targets from low-line than it is to hit indirectly from high-line. The fencers who do so wager that the greater strength and accuracy that they can bring to bear with such hits more than outweighs the relative ease with which their opponent can parry 2 or counterattack in time.

I suspect that this is why coaches, for the most part, don’t like to teach their students to hit from low-line — better that the student improve their bladework than rely on such crutches. But even pragmatic coaches have reasons to avoid teaching low-line attacks. Not only do they expose a fencer’s entire body to their opponent, but low-line attacks are slowed by gravity during their ascent, unlike attacks from the high-line — even those to the underside — which use gravity as a boost. And if the fencer’s attention wanders while in low-line, they could creep their sabre forwards unawares into their opponent’s beat range; or worse, ram it into the piste.

Traditionalists, of course, dismiss the move simply because it is not practical in a sword fight. No one in their right mind would expose their face to their opponent’s hit then try to respond with a stomach stab.

If you do choose to attack from low-line, the best place to hit is the opponent’s cheek or the side of their neck. This makes it an indirect attack. Your starting low-line position, if you are lucky, will trick your opponent into parrying downwards to the wrong position.

Even if you do choose to hit to your opponent’s underside from low-line, try to hit indirectly: put your sword across your knee on one side, and hit to the other side; or put it under your sword arm like a Western gunslinger about to draw, and hit to the opposite flank. These positions roughly correspond to positions 7 and 8 in fencing treatises, only closer to your body. It won’t deceive your opponent much, and a good parry 2 will block underside hits from both, but any deception is better than none.

***

I’ve been writing about low-line in the context of hitting so far, because that’s how most fencers use the position. But where it really shines is not as a starting position for hits, but for parries.

In theory, you can go from any starting position to any other position to guard parry. But your specific starting position determines how long that takes and which areas on your body your blade sweeps clear from attack along the way. The direction you sweep also determines whether or not you risk dragging the attack across your body, or force it away from you, or deflect it at a glancing angle that might cause it to remise elsewhere. In practice, you want to start your parry directly opposite where you think you might get hit; if you think your opponent will hit you from above, then your blade must start parrying from below, from low-line.

Such considerations are important yet optional for guard parries, so long as you get into position before your opponent hits. But they are mandatory for punch parries, which rely on you delivering the correct movement at the correct time from the correct starting position along the correct vector.

Low-line positions let you execute punch parries that aren’t possible from high-line. Specifically, these are the linear parries for positions 1 (against diagonal cuts to your chest), 5 (against overhead strikes to your head), and 3 (versus hits to your sword arm and flank). You can also start from the “gunslinger” low line position to parry high 4 against a diagonal chest cut instead of 1, though there are few reasons for why you would want to make this substitution — the most common being that you were preparing to attack but forced to parry against an unexpected chest cut.

All of these parries sweep upwards against gravity. They therefore take longer, require more effort, and are at a mechanical disadvantage compared to their high line counterparts that either sweep across or down. But you may not have a choice. There are no good high-line substitutes for punch parry 1, 3 and 5 from the low line.

So when you use these parries you must take care to do so at the correct moment, and not to compensate for gravity’s pull by parrying earlier, thus warning your opponent to attack elsewhere. Experienced opponents know this, so if they see you drop into low-line, they will get ready to either parry your weak attack or chase you down if you parry early.

You can use this to your advantage. Go into low-line and goad your opponent to chase. When they do, attack-in-preparation instead. It works in the box, and it works on defence too. Instead of an attack-in-preparation, use a counterattack instead; either an ‘attack-on-preparation’ that throws you forwards or a ‘stop-cut’ in which you hit and ghost away.

The poster boy for this is Gu’s erstwhile protege K-pop. He used it against the world number 1 at his debut world cup competition and it has remained a part of his repertoire ever since. He makes it work even though his opponents know he will probably use it; the image he presents them, complete with smirk, continues to incite them into getting too close and swinging too wide. It is so obviously impractical. This time he must have actually messed up. And so they keep falling for it, over and over again, even when they know in the back of their minds that it is a trap.


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