Most sabre exchanges play out like an Akira Kurosawa samurai duel. Two fighters face off in silence. Then suddenly, they sprint! Blades flash. Dramatic pause. One falls, one stays standing. Or doesn’t, because they’re down too. Sadness.
But not all exchanges end this fast, this soon. Sometimes one fencer attacks and their opponent makes them miss, but from too far away for the opponent to riposte immediately. Or they both clash together, trading volleys of cuts and parries, yet somehow neither manages to score a hit. Then there are those limping late rounds in competitions where both fencers are physically and psychologically broken. They stumble forwards from their lines, do a little jostle at a distance, then eye each other off, each daring the other fencer to make the first move.
No matter how it came about, if neither fencer lands a hit with their opening moves, the exchange moves into a second distinct phase. The fencer who last made their opponent’s attack fail gains priority and becomes the “attacker”. Their opponent becomes the “defender”. (Technically, the referee ultimately decides which fencer has priority but in practice it is usually self-evident to everyone present.)
To maintain priority, the attacker has to move forwards towards the defender and attempt to hit. Short of being suicidal, the defender retreats. The resulting process of the attacker closing distance on the defender down the piste is called the “march”.
Once upon a time, the march was simple. The attacker would charge forwards to hit the defender. Anything more complicated was superfluous. Those were the days when hits were determined by hand judges who stood on the side of the piste and raised little flags or just their hands when they saw their designated fencer hit. There was no electronic scoring back then, in the long-ago era of the 1980’s. A similar system persists today in kiddie competitions and kendo.
Having hand judges meant that the effective lock-out time was on the order of about half a second, give or take another half second — assuming you even hit hard enough for the judges to notice it in the first place. Half a second sounds like a short time, but it is more than long enough for an attacker to charge forwards, get impaled, and still hit in time to score.
Not that attackers could do anything much more complicated even if they wanted to. Refereeing convention at the time was to transfer priority to the defender the moment an attacker slowed or stopped, so most attackers never did either.
Against this, defenders had few good responses. Most of their options — parries, beats and counter-attacks — only worked when they were far superior physically or technically than the attacker. So most of the time, the attacker would just charge and the defender would just lose. Over the years, fencers became less willing to defend, and more willing to kamikaze charge each other, off the line, over and over again, hoping to attack just a fraction of a second before their opponent so the referee would give them the point. This was not a fun game, nor did it resemble any kind of sword fight.
The referees tried to fix the problem by changing their conventions for handling priority to prevent kamikaze charges. They decided that when the attacker took too many advances before they launched — exactly how many was subjective — the defender could score with a counter-attack. They issued rules-of-thumb such as the attacker’s hand always needing to move forwards to be judged an attack, so attackers couldn’t charge while holding their blade close to their body to avoid beats and parries. This was the context for otherwise inexplicable rules such as the ban on crossing feet forwards.
But these rules and conventions did not work as intended. Fencers and coaches invented techniques such as skip advances to attack from long range. They contrived movements such as extending their arm at a glacial pace to establish priority and maintain priority for long periods while they marched. And they flunged.
The FIE finally introduced electronic scoring for sabre at the end of the 1980’s with an initial lock-out time of 350 ms. This was a shorter and more consistent lock-out time than used by hand judges. Initially, the equipment also included impact sensors in the sabres so that only cuts that hit with sufficient impact would register on the scoreboard. But the sensors also prevented fencers from registering hits with previously valid techniques such as thrusts, and allowed fencers to hit with unintended techniques such as slaps with the blade flat. The sensors also frequently failed to register hits, kept breaking during bouts, and were prone to being tampered with.
After spending a few years trying to come up with ways to fix the sensors, or to adjust the conventions to accommodate them, the FIE ultimately gave up and banned the sensors.
This left a situation where hits were detected by simple electrical contact. Hits could now be made with light, crisp cuts, which fencers didn’t often employ. Hits would now also register even when fencers merely grazed their opponents with any part of their sabre. Or when they managed to touch their opponents by bending their blades over their opponents’ parries with a “whipover”, or around the parry with an angulated remise. Registering a hit was now much easier.
The lock-out time, now consistent and concise at 350 ms, prevented attackers from charging as often or for as long as they could before. But these two factors in large part cancelled each other out; electronic scoring did not initially make much difference to how sabre was fenced.
Then the FIE reduced the lock-out time to 125 ms. This completely changed the game.
Now attackers could no longer “finish with the counterattack”, but had to anticipate and clear counter-attacks away as they attacked. Within a couple of years, all the conventions that had governed refereeing in the 1980’s and 1990’s to stop attackers charging were removed, rendered obsolete by the lock-out time.
It was during this period that I started fencing sabre. By then, I had already fenced foil for the better part of a decade. Foil shared priority and many of the same rules and moves as sabre, but was slower because hits in foil were limited to thrusts to the opponent’s torso. Sabre at the time was seen as the least of the three fencing disciplines: the least sophisticated, requiring the least skill, and the least interesting — grunting thugs crashing into each other.
Aldo Nadi — an Italian fencer from the early 20th century whose skill with the sword was overmatched only by his skill at self-promotion — wrote in the 1940’s that a good foilist was better at sabre than a good sabreur. (He also wrote proudly in his own book on how to learn fencing that he had never read a fencing book in his life.) My foil coach Vivienne Watts expressed much the same sentiment about sabre, half a century later. The evidence back then backed their assessments: foil and épée fencers used to win sabre competitions frequently, whereas sabre fencers would almost never achieve the reverse.
But after the lock-out time changed to 125 ms, sabre finally came into its own. By the time I write this, in 2020, it is the fastest growing, most glamorous, and probably most popular form of fencing. Most of this was because the lock-out time fixed the march.
The average human reaction time for vision is 250 ms, slightly less for hearing and less again for skin contact. At 125 ms, a person can barely register being hit by a counter-attack and blink, let alone finish their own attack in time.
But they’ll still try.
This forms the basis for a host of defensive tactics in sabre. First score a counter-attack. Then, in subsequent exchanges, fake the counter-attack, only a little earlier and from a little further away than before. This tricks the attacker into finishing their attack short, which allows you to parry it or make it miss.
Once you can make this trick work, you can use it to set up other tricks. You can fake a counter-attack, to trick the attacker into moving their blade forward in preparation to lance through you — you’ve made them miss once, so they won’t finish short again — then beat their blade when it comes into range. You can fake the beat, to trick the attacker into delaying their hit, then counter-attack them. You can even fake a parry, watch the attacker hesitate, then fake a counter-attack to trick them into attacking short, then make them miss. The possibilities are plentiful.
In response, the attacker has to trick the defender too.
This was how I first learned to march in sabre from Tony Watts — no relation to Vivienne. Tony was a garrulous G-man who would often talk about his adventures in various jungle conflicts — urban or otherwise — and occasionally wander off for another one. He had learned to fence in Poland during the 1990’s and his style reflected that: small footwork, big bladework, lots of grunting.
Tony marched by trampling the defender almost underfoot, catching them before they could counter-attack, and before they could think too deeply about how they might trick him. If the defender somehow managed to parry Tony’s attack, the next time he marched, he would make several exaggerated feint cuts along the way. This was meant to trick the defender into making an early parry to protect the wrong target.
When they did, Tony would finish his attack into another, open target. He would watch while he marched, so that if the defender counter-attacked he could still finish his attack within the lock-out time. This worked better in the hand judge and 350 ms days, than at 125 ms, but habits die hard.
Tony coached me for a few months. Then he disappeared. That in itself was not unusual — he would frequently disappear for a few days or weeks at a time. But this time he didn’t come back. I learned later that he’d either exiled himself or been exiled to the remote tropical outpost of Darwin. The next time I saw him was almost a decade later, by which point he’d scored himself a missus and three kids.
In the meantime, I had to find a new coach. That was how I met Jason Held. I was volunteering as a referee at a schoolboy foil competition held in one of the fancier private schools, a favour to a friend in the state fencing association. Jason was coaching foil. Most of his job had less to do with coaching than herding his gaggle of sulky teenagers from piste to piste. I gave one of his boys a talking to, for some infraction I no longer recall, then Jason and I got to talking.
Jason used to be a soldier. Then he caught the space bug, moved to the far side of the world, and did an aerospace PhD two blocks down from where I did mine in biophysics. Along the way, he married a local girl and founded a satellite start up. More importantly, at least for my purposes, he wasn’t really a foil coach but a former sabre fencer. Not a very good one, by his own admission, but more of one than most fencers or coaches in Sydney back then.
Jason taught me another method to march. The march I’d learned from Tony worked on novices, but it didn’t work against fencers who were much more mobile than I was, or who could counter-attack from further away than I could lunge. Jason’s march bypassed both of those situations. He used what he called “noise” to trick the defender — after they had established their defences — into running away. The idea was to trick them into going off their back line. Or, more often, to trick them into going back a few times, until they realised you weren’t actually going to finish your attack. Then they would stop running away, thus staying still long enough for you to hit them. Or perhaps they would try to counterattack you, from out of range, to much the same effect.
Jason told me to only finish the attack when the defender was stationary, rather than trying to run them down as they fled. The way you tricked them into doing this was to make fake attacks while you marched. Each time you did, the defender should run away. Then you could keep marching, close distance on them, and fake another attack. If they ran again, you could repeat the process, until they reached their back line or refused to respond further to your fake attacks. Then you could convert your fake attack into a real attack, and hit them before they realised their mistake.
Jason taught me to fake by shaking my sabre in a flurry of feints, much as Tony did, only more hyperactive. Jason would hold his arm close to his body and use his fingers to move his blade when he did this, so that the referee wouldn’t penalise him for having missed his attack. He called the technique “vibration” and said he had learned it from his own coach, a former Soviet sabre champion he had met in the mountains of Colorado: Nikolay Logatchov.
To make a convincing fake attack, you had to fake with your feet as well as with your blade. This is the preparatory or “prep” step. It is meant to look like you’re about to attack without actually attacking. Jason’s prep step was actually an advance-step: a rapid short advance followed by a slower bigger step that — if you were under mental pressure in a bout — resembled a lunge.
The specific technique you used for the trick didn’t matter. What mattered was that you attempted to trick in the first place, and to do so convincingly enough for your opponent to believe it. Aldo Montano used to fake his attacks with little kicks as he hopped on his back foot down the piste. Oh Eunseok would make advances during his march then suddenly crouch, loading up his legs with tension like a tiger pre-pounce. This had the side benefit of actually giving him more power to launch a real attack, if he so chose. Fencers from earlier eras, or those who had learned from books, also used ballestras: a half-jump half-hop foot slap that is now rare because no one now believes it to be a prelude to a real attack.
The prep step was not only about faking the attack. It was also supposed to give you time to see whether the defender would run. If they did, you aborted your attack and continued your march. If they didn’t, you could finish your attack. If the defender attempted to counter-attack or beat your blade, you could skitter backwards from the prep-step, out of their range, then move forwards immediately to retake priority.
Once you can prep step to fake your attacks and watch, you can use what Jason called the “accordion”. It works like this. When you fake an attack, the defender runs away. When you see the defender run, you slow down to continue your march. When the defender sees you slow down, they stop running and slow down too. When you see them slow down, you fake an attack. Then they run. And so forth.
This dynamic makes the distance between you and the defender expand and compress like the sides of an accordion, never moving quite in sync, all the way down the piste. This is because when you fake, it takes time for the defender to react, so they start running a few moments after your fake. When they run, the same applies to you, so you start slowing down a few moments late too.
With each cycle of running and slowing down, the synchronisation gap between you and the defender grows. Eventually you will be perfectly out of sync, you slowing down just as the defender runs away, the defender slowing down just as you speed up. The distance between you will expand to its maximum and compress to its minimum afterwards — squish. This is the ideal time to finish your attack.
That was the basic accordion, built from responses. A better accordion was to anticipate when and how the defender would retreat. That way you could make the accordion collapse faster than it would otherwise, and thus give you an
opportunity to hit sooner.
The way this worked was to recognise that most defenders retreat in a characteristic way. For example, each time you prep step, the defender might make two rapid retreats, then slow down with two more. If you notice this pattern earlier in the bout or during your march, the next time you can prep step, wait for them to make their first retreat, start your next prep step just as they finish their second retreat, speed up just as they slow down, and catch them before they can pull away.
Vibration and the accordion sufficed against most defenders in Australia, but not against the better ones who had been trained overseas. These defenders would not only fail to fall for my fakes, but would turn the accordion back on me. The taller they were, the easier it was for them to do so. By then, I had realised that I was one of the shortest fencers on the circuit. Most of the techniques that worked for taller attackers wouldn’t work for me.
The biggest problem had to do with what I, a child of the 1980’s, called the “danger zone”: the area in front of the defender where they can reach you with their blade. When you march, you have to stay out of the defender’s danger zone. When you finish your attack, you have to launch through the danger zone. Whether your attack succeeds or not depends on whether you can hit your opponent before they can pull away or beat your blade or counter-attack you successfully, as you launch yourself through the danger zone.
This is difficult when the defender is significantly taller than you, as they were for me. Tall defenders have long danger zones that I couldn’t traverse through with a lunge, however fast, before they could pull away. Even if I could reach them, tall defenders could keep me in their danger zone long enough to beat my blade or parry my attack, by moving backwards while I was mid-flight. Or, if I entered their danger zone before I lunged, counter-attack me single-light.
In theory, I could use fake attacks with the accordion to confuse defenders long enough for me to enter their danger zone before they noticed, and to trick them into staying still for long enough that I could hit them, even if I had to go through or around their attempts to beat or parry. But in practice, most defenders that tall wouldn’t fall for the fake attacks and the accordion until I had already entered their danger zone, and was thus vulnerable to their moves.
Compounding the problem was that it isn’t always obvious to the attacker how far the defender’s danger zone extends. The defender knows, and good defenders pretend that it is shorter or longer than it actually is to set traps. Some defenders are so tall with such long danger zones that they can stay stationary and the attacker still can’t hit them from outside the zone. This happened to me a lot. I wasn’t that short, at 5′ 7″, and sabre fencers in the 2010’s weren’t quite basketballer-size, but it wasn’t uncommon to see folks six and a half feet tall.
In the mid-2000’s, the Koreans — led by Oh Eunseok — developed a solution to this problem: the “skip”. Instead of advancing, they would skip down the piste, never crossing their feet, a two-legged variant of a horse’s gallop. At low speeds, they would keep their feet apart while skipping, using their calf muscles to make little bounds that were barely discernible from traditional fencing advances. At high speeds, the amplitude of each skip would send them hurtling towards their opponents several metres at a time.
All that momentum could be used for big finishing lunges. But skipping had other advantages too. Skips act as a power reserve, allowing a fencer to shunt the momentum of their skip from moving forwards into moving up into the air. Then, as gravity brings them back to earth, they can convert their now-downwards momentum back into forwards momentum to power their next move. A fencer could recycle energy more efficiently from one skip to the next skip, similar to how kangaroos hop, than they could from one advance to the next advance.
Little skips also mostly worked the fencer’s calf muscles rather than their quadriceps, allowing the fencer to save those latter, bigger, muscles for finishing moves rather than depleting them during their march. This not only made skips more efficient than advances, but also allowed fencers to skip for several cycles to build up significant amounts of kinetic energy. They could then shunt this energy around: to power their march; slow down without suddenly stopping; or to explosively launch into a lunge, powered by their fresh quadriceps.
Skips also enabled another innovation: the attack stance. Instead of being relatively balanced as in the on-guard stance, the attack stance brings the attacker’s feet close together, leans their torso back, and puts their sabre right up against their body, hand on hip. This puts the attacker in a position that makes it more difficult for the defender to catch the attacker’s blade, and gives the attacker more range for their attacks — recall that the closer a fencer’s feet are together just before they launch their lunge, the more power and more range that lunge will have.
This was an innovation by Gu Bongil, a notorious one-time world #1 who served for years as the poster child for this move. He would lean back with his hips thrust forwards, sword on hip, skipping his way with his feet far apart until he felt close enough to finish. Then he’d suddenly accelerate to finish his attack with a final advance, bring his feet together, and lunge impossibly far.
In the early days of Gu’s ascendancy, many fencers and coaches were appalled by the skip, even in Gu’s home clubs in Korea. “This is not fencing,” sniffed one coach at an A-grade while watching another Korean bound up and down after his opponent, Gu-style. “They are just prancing. Like animals.”
But it worked. And professionals, being pragmatic, adopted it. The first to do so were cadets and juniors in Asia who copied their Korean heroes. These fencers were followed by their counterparts in Europe. Then the fencers in the senior leagues began to copy the moves, or simply kept them as they graduated from lower tiers. Either way, by around 2012 skips had become part of the standard repertoire on the circuit.
As with all moves, many variants of the skip evolved from Gu’s original. Daryl Homer was perhaps the most graceful adopter of the original skips, though he denied using them when I asked him about it, contrary to video evidence. Aldo Montano used a version that Won Wooyoung had popularised a few years earlier, the “hop”, which looked like a fake lunge and helped the attacker slow down from their skips. Whether he cribbed it or invented it independently is known only to him, but it fit well with his style: he would use it to trick the defender into counter-attacking too early and from too far away. In this way, it performed the same function as Gu’s hipthrusts. But while Montano would often parry the incoming counter-attack, as was good practice, Gu was lazy, so he would just disengage underneath.
This was how I marched six months after Jason started coaching me. My first chance to deploy the skip in anger was at the national championships. In one of the late direct elimination rounds, I drew a member of the national team. He seemed calm, at the outset. He was a champion. I was a newbie, by comparison. He acted like he was already thinking about his next opponent. This pissed me off a bit.
We traded points over the course of the first half, working through the standard patterns: short attack, fall-short, short attack, chase. Each time I took priority, I marched him down the piste, using skips to set up the accordion before I finished my attack. Sometimes I would finish against his counterattack, or take him by surprise when he stopped, but mostly I would march him to his back line and hit him with a long range lunge. He didn’t succeed on defence once.
That shook him. He screamed and snorted for points. At the halfway break, he skulked on his end of the piste with the national coach. I could almost read their minds: no more defending. Only attack.
It was an accurate read. In the second half, he refused to defend off the start line at all, or even make short attacks that risked missing and thus force him onto defence. He just charged over and over again. The national coach, by this stage, had sidled up to the referee for a quiet word. Everything in the middle with two-lights became simultaneous actions. Exchange after exchange ending in a draw. My opponent planned to grind me down. Then he would run me down.
This was long before I knew how to elegantly deal with the grind. So, in the absence of any better ideas, I just charged back. Slam, bam, yell, smash. Lots of guard clashes. Numerous pleas to the referee: please please please, sir; I moved my foot a fraction of a second earlier, or my blade a moment sooner, or I have my name stencilled on my back and my country logo on my thigh — give me the point. The bout became a brawl. People came around to watch. Foil and épée coaches shook their heads: see kids, this is why sabre sucks.
Just like the good old days.
This is an extract from “Make The Cut: Sabre Fencing For Adults”, which will be arriving in store in July.
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