Excerpt from Make the Cut: Sabre Fencing for Adults, pre-print July 2021.
Won Wooyoung didn’t move the way coaches taught people to move, or in any way fencing manuals described. For one thing, he didn’t put his limbs in the geometrical forms that make for good book images, the ones with circles and lines and segments superimposed on a human body in blatant homage to Da Vinci diagrams. He just moved the way he wanted to. Or, more accurately, the way he needed to so that he could keep up with his taller opponents.
Part of the reason was almost certainly because he was a terrible student of fencing. He never paid any attention to his first coach, in foil, and so was subsequently exiled to sabre along with his rich-kid buddy Kim Jeonghwan. In sabre, neither of them paid any attention to their next coach, an ex-foilist. Instead, they learned how to fence sabre by fencing, inventing new tricks to beat up the opposition and get one up on each other in an arms race of moves and counter-moves.
The result was that Won moved in ways that broke all the rules for how you were supposed to move. And yet it all just worked. Dogma says you should keep your feet flat and stable on the ground; Won seemed to spend all his time on the balls of his feet, with his weight precariously forwards as if he was about to sprint. Dogma says fencers should keep their torso upright at all times; Won never did. Dogma says that lunges should be short and advances small with the feet kept waist-width apart. Won did none of these things, yet won anyway.
For me, that exposed the fundamental rules for footwork in fencing: anything goes, as long as you respect the structure of your body and move in a way that lets you do what you need to do in a sabre bout. Traditional footwork worked despite being biomechanically inefficient because it was designed so that you can bring your blade to bear at the moment and distance of your choosing. Won’s footwork worked because it was biomechanically efficient, so he could move faster at the cost of control.
He had to do this because he was at a physical disadvantage against the hulking giants who began dominating the sabre circuit from the early 2000’s. Traditional footwork was fine in a fight between two fencers of the old school who tended to think of themselves less as athletes than as martial aesthetes. Traditional footwork was fine in the more athletic modern game, if you were a superman. But it wasn’t fine for a normal human fighting in the heavyweight A-grade against opponents twice their size. At least not if they wanted to win.
In theory, you could use the sabre to even the odds: your opponents might be taller and stronger and faster, but you could always win with superior bladework. In practice, the taller, stronger, and faster fencer always had the option to attack first — and thus they would usually win, because sabres are much more effective for attacking than defending.
This turned the game into a literal race. Faster fencers get to attack first. The best way to defend against attacks is to move fast, by making the attack miss, or by hitting the opponent with a counter-attack before the attack starts, rather than to try and block the attack with a parry. This in turn forces fencers to move even faster when they attack.
Mobility is the defining feature of sabre fencing, which it shares with all other forms of sidearm combat — look at how the rapid door-kicking manoeuvres of tactical pistol competitions compare to the mostly stationary poses of rifle contests. Footwork in sabre is more important than bladework. As the Russian proverb goes: “the wolf is kept fed by its feet.”
To move fast is as much about the structure of your body as it is about the strength of your muscles. Obviously, it helps to be strong and light and tall. But it helps more to understand how a fencer needs to move, how they don’t need to move, and how the structure of the human body can naturally move. This is important if you want to fence sabre but you’re not superhuman, and especially so if you started fencing as an adult with little chance of becoming superhuman, as I did.
First you need to understand how you need to move in a sabre bout and how you don’t. Then you can optimise your body structure accordingly. You need to be able to move forwards and backwards more than you need to be able to move up or down or to the sides. Bouts occur on long and narrow pistes that place your lone opponent in front of you, not anywhere else. You must be able to accelerate forwards and backwards quickly, and change directions rapidly with little delay. You do not need to be able to move from side to side, or up and down, even though your opponent can thrust and slash from any angle — you can almost always evade better by moving back than by twisting and rolling to the sides, or by displacing your body into the air or onto the ground. And once you have defeated your opponent’s attack, you need to move forwards to hit back with your riposte.
These requirements define the way you should stand in a bout: your stance. The basic stance is called “on-guard” or engarde. It is used when fencers first stand at their start lines at the beginning of each exchange.
To go into on-guard stance, stand front-on to face your opponent, chest to chest, shoulders squared — like a hero, or the better class of villain. Put your best foot forward: this is now your front foot. Put the other one behind: this is now your back foot.
Keep your sabre and your sword arm in front of you. Having these behind you so you can make big swings with your sabre only works in movies. If you hold your sword behind you in a real fight, your opponent will cut you first. Don’t turn to one side in an attempt to present a smaller target against thrusts. Your opponent won’t thrust, and even if they do, turning won’t help you. Standing side-on just reduces your mobility and makes you look like a coward. This matters, because referees decide bouts, and they don’t typically favour cowards.
The traditional approach is for your weight to be evenly balanced between your front foot and back foot with your torso upright so you can move forwards and backwards equally well. I don’t recommend this — you don’t need to move forwards and backwards equally well at the start of a sabre exchange.
You do need to move forwards. That first movement is more of a sprint or a charge than a delicate dance for position. Lean forwards. Put your weight on your front foot more than your back foot. Be like a fighter jet: inherently unstable in flight, kept in the air only through the skill of the pilot and the hundreds of balancing adjustments the computerised avionics make every second. Unstable, yes, but also agile as a result.
This is your stance. It is unique to you. Its exact structure depends on your physical attributes: how long your legs are; the natural angle of your joints; your personal propensity to attack or defend. This is why you shouldn’t try to copy another fencer’s stance exactly, or align yourself to some diagram, or have your coach put you in particular angles or positions. Even if I were standing next to you, I couldn’t tell you or show you or move you into a perfect stance for you, because I can’t feel what you feel. Only you can find your stance. What I can do is to guide you through some exercises that will help you, the way I do for my students in person.
Start by walking forwards and backwards along the piste. Then jog forwards and backwards. Then jog in place. Note how your ankles flex and extend with each jog, your weight bouncing from one foot to the other. Your heels will lift first and land last; your toes, or more accurately the balls of your feet, will lift last and land first. Some people never touch their heels to the ground.
Now turn your sword arm side to your front. For most people this will be their right side. Point your front knee forwards; don’t let it turn to the side. Put your back leg behind your front leg so your ankles are in a straight line from front to back along the piste. Your back knee will point diagonally forwards and to the side away from you, at around 11 o’clock by clock bearing, for a right-hander. The exact angle depends on your physique: people with narrow hips have their back knee rotated around 30 degrees from the front; people who are more flexible or have wider hips have their back knee rotated out by more.
From this position, you should feel like you can sprint forwards easily and leap back as well. It shouldn’t feel as easy to jump to the sides, or up or down. Your sword arm should always be in front of you, your torso facing forwards.
This is your stance. It won’t be exactly like any other person’s stance. But you will almost certainly find other, excellent, fencers who have similar stances to you. This should give you comfort that you are on the right track.
You will find many different template stances to compare yours to, and many examples of fencers for each. Some stances are more balanced and stable, like that of Veniamin “Venya” Reshetnikov, the crushing Siberian tank who defied first his upbringing in the remote scientific enclave of Novosibirsk to make the Russian team, then the machinations of his own team to become world champion. Venya used a wide, balanced, mostly upright stance that allowed his tall pale form to glide weightlessly over the piste at the start, before catapulting him into a massive trample for the kill.
Or perhaps your stance will be more like that of Daryl Homer, an explosive muscle-bound porpoise of a New Yorker who had the second biggest-thighs on the circuit. He made up for not being the tallest fencer by being the most agile. His stance was so wide that his back foot pointed backwards.
Won Wooyoung’s, by contrast, was so narrow that he looked like he was preparing to sprint past his opponent, off the piste, and out the hall. His feral greyhound of a teammate, Kim Jeonghwan, used a similarly narrow stance. All of these stances worked for the fencers who used them; find the one that works for you.
But whatever you do, don’t force yourself into a stance because you think it will look good on you. Most of all, don’t force your back knee sidewards at exactly right angles to your front knee, the way some books depict the stance. This puts your back kneecap in exactly the wrong position to deal with the forces imposed by the rest of your body moving rapidly forwards and backwards. Frances did this once, after a coach at another club convinced her to fix her stance in this position before she jumped backwards. When she landed, the impact of her back foot on the ground forced her kneecap to move laterally — and literally — out of joint.
It wasn’t entirely the coach’s fault. This stance was part of the standard syllabus at the time. One of my students found the exact same stance in a fencing book by a famous modern master that I kept in the club lending library. She insisted on adopting it in the group footwork class, despite — or perhaps because — of the jeers from her peers.
“Meh,” I thought. “What’s the worst that could happen?” I gave the group their first warmup: advance-step forwards, then a jump back.
My student adopted the stance, made the advance-step, then jumped back. She landed on her back leg, her back foot pointed at a perfect right-angle to her direction, and promptly dislocated her back knee.
It was her first day at the club.
This was the only time in the nine years that we had been open to date that we had to call an ambulance. When Frances had dislocated her knee, she had managed to straighten her leg immediately afterwards so that her kneecap popped back into joint by itself.
My student couldn’t do this, perhaps from the pain, or the fear of the pain. It took 45 minutes for the paramedics to arrive and administer the little green whistle of happiness. Then another half hour before they gave up trying to convince my student to straighten her leg herself, before stretchering her down the back stairs to the ambulance.
So don’t put your back knee at exactly right angles to your front knee. Other than that, put your feet where you like. Move however you need to.
It is true that there are plenty of other movements in sabre — many of them also prescribed in books — that can also potentially hurt you, albeit in ways less sudden and dramatic than a knee dislocation. Don’t worry; these are far outnumbered by ways in which you can move well. When in doubt, move the way that feels natural to you. If it hurts, stop. If it feels awkward, adjust. Any time you suspect you shouldn’t move in a particular way, listen to your body. Move in a way that’s comfortable.
This principle extends to any specific question you have about how you should move. How far should you bend your knees? As far as you feel comfortable. How far apart should your feet be? However far they are when you move and aren’t thinking about it. How much should you turn your body or your head or your hips to get into stance? As far as you need to so you’re facing your opponent, while still letting your body position itself the way it wants.
Once you’re in stance, you can move. The basic principle here is the same as it was for finding your stance: first, define your intent, then let your body figure out the details.
When you are in on-guard stance, your body structure is more like that of a quadruped such as a wolf than a biped like a human. You have a front foot and a back foot, the same way a wolf has front feet and back feet. Your front foot moves differently from your back foot, and neither foot moves quite the same way while fencing as when you are walking around like a normal biped.
Watch how a wolf pads forwards along the ground. Its front feet paw the ground gently with each step to pull its body along. Its back feet, heels raised high, push against the ground to drive it forwards. At low speeds, its feet patter gently up and down, their tracks tightly spaced. As the wolf speeds up, its feet move in a canter, then in skips, then in gallops, just before the wolf pounces on its prey.
This is how you should move when you are fencing.
Start in stance. Jog in place. Lift your feet off the ground each time. Then jog forwards, maintaining your stance. At low speeds, your feet will pad along the ground. Speed up. Note how your feet move with ever greater amplitude and frequency as your speed increases, transitioning from pads to skips to gallops.
In fencing, a movement of your front foot forwards is called a “step”. A step will leave you in a wider stance than the one you started in, even if only fractionally. If you move your front foot forwards, then your back foot, it is called an “advance.” An advance returns you to your on-guard stance.
When you step, your front foot lifts heel-first, then moves forwards, then lands heel-first to pull you forwards along the ground. To go from a step to finishing an advance, your back foot also lifts, heel-first, while pushing you forwards at the same time. Then it lands ball-first, heels-last, to complete the advance with you in on-guard stance. Your feet thus move differently, lifting and landing and flexing in different ways.
In the wolf’s case, they are even shaped differently. Its front feet are flattened against the ground, from toe to ankle, to assist with pulling it forwards. Its back feet are permanently extended, with only the distal end in contact with the ground, heels drawn up to give it a longer lever to assist with pushing it forwards.
You aren’t a wolf, so your front foot and back foot are shaped identically, only with mirror symmetry. But human feet are flexible enough that you can and should adapt them, similarly to how the wolf has adapted theirs, to help you move well while in stance. Keep your front foot soft, to let it pull you along the ground. Let your back heel lift, and tense your calf muscles to help you push forwards.
Moving backwards lacks such an elegant model: it isn’t something wolves, or really many animals, are optimised for. Try jogging backwards while in stance. You’ll find that it doesn’t work in a neat reverse of the way you made advances: your feet just don’t work that way.
When going backwards at low speeds, your back foot moves backwards to touch the ground first with the ball of your foot rather than the heel, as opposed to your front foot landing heel-first when you advance. Once your back foot lands, you roll back off the heel of your front foot, then move it backwards. In fencing, each time your back foot moves back is called a “backstep”. Each time your back foot moves backwards, followed by your front foot, is called a “retreat”.
At higher speeds, retreats don’t transition well into other movements, the way that advances transition into skips or gallops. To move backwards quickly, fencers have a few choices: they can jump backwards; or make a kind of clipped skip backwards; or cross their feet to walk and run.
Each of these has its own pros and cons. Jumps accelerate quickly but take a lot of effort and don’t move you a great distance. Skips move your body back further but don’t have much acceleration. Crossing your feet backwards — which we call a “crossover retreat” — is the fastest way of pulling you away from an opponent’s attack, at the cost of leaving you off balance. In the worst-case scenario, a large and poorly controlled crossover-retreat can end up with you accidentally running off the back of the piste.
In foil and épée, fencers can also cross their feet forwards to walk and run, which we call a “crossover advance”. This is the fastest way you can move forwards. An attack with this move is called a flèche, and it is a common technique used to hit an opponent quickly at medium range, by surprise, before the opponent can counter-attack.
But this move, and crossing feet forwards in general, has been banned in sabre by the FIE since 1988. Rumour has it that the German men’s sabre team was responsible for this: they apparently developed an unorthodox stance with their back foot in front of their front foot. From here they would launch a trample-charge into — or over — their opponents, smashing into them or smashing them off the piste entirely, counter-attacks be damned. Whatever the reason, sabre fencers now flèche without crossing their feet forwards, in an awkward jump-pounce called a “flunge”.
While it is faster to move forwards and backwards by crossing your feet than by advancing and retreating, doing so comes at the cost of being able to accelerate or change direction suddenly. It doesn’t matter how fast you can move if you can’t launch forwards to hit your opponent when they present you with an opening, or if you can’t change direction after you miss, or if you overshoot into your opponent’s counter-attack when you attack. This is why fencers use advances and retreats for the vast majority of their movements.
Once you can advance and retreat, the next most important thing to learn is how to attack. The main aim in sabre is to hit your opponent. But your opponent is unlikely to stay still, or even stay in range, so that you can just reach out and hit them. You will need to move into range and catch them before they can get away. The simplest way to do this is to advance towards them until you are just outside of the distance they can reach with their sabre, then launch yourself at them with a big step. Hit your opponent just as your step lands.
This is essentially the same motion as the classic movement in fencing called the “lunge”, so this is the term I use for the finishing movement for the attack in the rest of this book. By tradition, fencers are taught to hold their pose at the end of their lunge — this end pose is what you’ll see illustrated in most fencing books.
But that finishing pose is not the important part of the lunge. The important part is the movement beforehand to reach your opponent. The pose itself is ancillary, a nice aesthetic flaunt for the referee and spectators, assuming you can even do it: landing a lunge and sticking it in a pose is physically difficult and ultimately damaging for your joints. The associated mechanics are explained later in this book, but the upshot is that there are few good reasons to pose at the end of your lunge. Of these, none apply when you start fencing. Lunge to hit your opponent, land however you must, and let your body move afterwards however it wants to.
When you lunge, you should do so as fast and as far you need to. In practice, this is usually as fast and as far as you physically can, to make sure your opponent can’t pull away. To avoid being counter-attacked successfully, launch your lunge from outside the distance where your opponent can reach you. The lunge itself should be fast enough to prevent them from hitting you single-light.
From a stationary stance, most people can lunge to hit an opponent from more than two metres away. You should hit your opponent with the distal part of your blade, 5-10 centimetres from the tip, with your sword arm fully extended. Aim to go through your opponent — this gives you a margin of error in case they move back.
It is important to understand that the distance you can lunge depends on where your back foot is when you launch, not where your front foot is. The wider your stance, the shorter your lunge distance as measured from the starting position of your body. For this reason, many fencers bring their back foot forwards to immediately behind their front foot in the moment just before they lunge, regardless of whether they usually adopt a wide or narrow stance while advancing.
Some fencing traditions don’t let their fencers bring their feet together when they move, even in the advance just before a lunge. Instead, these fencers make short fast lunges to catch their opponents before the latter can pull away. This approach makes it difficult for such fencers to reach significantly taller or faster opponents. To compensate, they often advance until they are well within their opponent’s range before they lunge, which puts them at risk of being counter-attacked on the way.
Another way is to use a preliminary advance to give additional speed and range to the lunge, which allows a fencer to lunge at their opponent from further away. This is called an “advance-lunge”, and it can be applied regardless of whether or not you bring your feet together just before you lunge. Most fencers can hit an opponent 4 metres away this way, of which 3.5 metres is the lunge itself. Advance-lunge is the most common attack move in sabre fencing.
If you need even more range, you can add more advances. It is, however, important to distinguish between advances that primarily bring you closer to your opponent and advances that mainly contribute momentum to your lunge. An advance-lunge with a pause in the middle contributes little in the way of range to the lunge itself. An advance-lunge or double-advance-lunge where there is no pause between movements, only a continuous acceleration, contributes a huge amount of momentum and range.
Most people cannot use more than two advances to add any more momentum to their lunge, because that’s when they reach their top speed. It’s rarely necessary to do so anyway: a double-advance-lunge typically enables a fencer to hit an opponent from over 5 metres away in under two seconds.
This defines how far you need to be able to pull away to make a typical sabre attack fall short. The taller and faster your opponent, the further and faster you need to be able to pull away. If you have the misfortune to draw an opponent like Max Hartung — captain of the German men’s sabre team and a typical representative of the growth-enhancing effects of the Bayer chemicals pumped into the waters around Dormagen — you will need move far and fast indeed.
“This time I’ve got him,” said Max to Frances, during the 2016 Padova World Cup. “I have a plan.” Max was referring to his next opponent, Kim Jeonghwan, for whom Frances was a fan-girl. Max went off to prepare for his bout.
Half an hour later, we found Max slumped and defeated in the stands. His coach Vilmos “Vili” Szabo was sitting next to him, Vili’s arm over Max’s shoulder, and Vili’s glare keeping everyone else at bay. When we met Vili’s gaze, he fixed us with a cold stare, then rolled his eyes up to the heavens.
“I just couldn’t hit the little bastard,” Max said later, once he had recovered enough emotional equilibrium to speak. “He just moves too fast.”
Which wasn’t exactly true. We later found Jeonghwan sitting elsewhere in the stands. He had his shirt off. The man had the physique of a greyhound, or possibly a whippet. He’d moved like one too. His ribs protruded from his lean frame, every one of his vertebrae visible. As were some mementos from his bout with Max: his back looked like it had been flogged by a cat o’ nine tails.
So Max did hit him after all. But not enough times, or in time enough, to win.