Week 2: The March

Dear Instructor:

This is the third session in the Course, after Intro and the 4m zone / Box of Death. This and the next session, Defence, covers the basics of what your students should do on the March with priority and on Defence without priority, outside of the 4m zone.

I suggest start by revising the basic movements from the last two sessions to re-familiarise your students with the components and actions they have been taught so far.

  1. Moving into Stance: stepping forwards and backwards over the line, then settling into their unique on-guard stances.
  2. Moving from Stance:
    1. Step-hit
    2. Step crossover retreat
    3. Step, back-step (feet together) hit
  3. Moving for Rock-Paper-Scissors:
    1. Advance-lunge
    2. Advance step (show target) cross-over retreat
    3. Advance step (feint stab to eye), advance-lunge.

For a large class, I would just put all the students behind a line (staggered along pistes, if necessary) and run these as footwork exercises. For a small class you can be more creative by pairing them up so they can mirror each other. I typically get them to do 10 reps of each; revision requires around 20 mins. Then break.

During the break, recap the main points from the previous two classes on how sabre works:

  1. There are Three Rules in Sabre:
    1. Hit and don’t get hit.
    2. Run them off the end of the piste.
    3. If you have to hit at the same time, be the attacker with priority.
  2. Every point starts in the 4m zone. This phase is the most important.
  3. A good way to play the 4m zone is to play it like Rock-Paper-Scissors.

Most of the time, the point is resolved in the 4m zone.

Some of the time, both sabreurs come out of the 4m zone without scoring a point. One will have priority and the other not. The sabreur with priority we call the “attacker” on the “March”. The sabreur without priority we call the “defender” on “Defence”.

Why do we call it the March? Because the attacker has to keep moving forwards, even if slowly, to maintain priority.

(Also because your great-grandcoach Nikolay liked this analogy: it is like marching your army towards a fleeing enemy. You want to move at your pace into range, launch your attack, and hit them – even if they hit back. Or run them off a cliff.)

This the fundamental goal of the attacker. You move forwards and hit the defender at least at the same time, or run them off the end of the piste. Rule 2 and Rule 3.

There’s a lot of complexity here but it come down to essentially three things:

  1. Get into Range.
  2. Launch your attack.
  3. Hit the defender at least at the same time as they hit you.

We’ll take them each in turn.

Get into range

What does “within range” mean? It just means close enough that you can launch forwards to hit the defender. Note I didn’t mention lunge or flunge or any particular technique. This principle is independent of technique.

Most of the time, “within range” means within range to take a big step forwards to hit the defender, i.e. lunge. This is typically 2-3 metres away.

Note that range is measured from your launching foot. For a step or lunge, this is your back foot. An easy way to effectively increase your range – or get within range stealthily – is to bring your back foot forwards to your front foot just before launching. This way you’re launching from almost where your front foot is that from half a metre back.

In the simplest scenario, the defender doesn’t move. I suggest letting your students do this to you: give them priority from the 4m zone, move back a few metres, then stand still. Have them practice launching from different distances to hit you. This will be fun for them.

Launch your attack

But defenders don’t always stay still. They can move as the attacker launches or even mid-launch.

Two things here:

  1. Launch trajectories
  2. Kill zone

Launch trajectories: Like throwing a spear or firing artillery: the closer to 45 degrees up from the horizontal you launch, the further your attack will go.

If you need to launch – e.g. lunge – at a short range, launch along a flat (0 degree) trajectory. If you need to launch for long range, aim higher: maximum 45 degrees.

You can adjust your launch trajectory right up to the last moment before launch.

Kill zone: Just like artillery, this is the area of effect around where you initially aimed to hit.

In sabre this is defined mainly in terms of minimum and maximum effective hit distance. I.e. the minimum distance is the closest position where the defender could be for your sabre to hit them during your launch; the maximum is the furthest.

For most beginners the kill zone is about 1m long. That is, your attack would hit the defender even if they moved half a meter forwards or backwards from where you aimed your attack.

This give us a more accurate description of range:

  • Bad range is when your attack barely reaches the defender even if they stay still. E.g. barely hitting them with the tip of your sabre.
  • Good range is when your attack reach the opponent even if they move forwards or backwards a bit.
  • Perfect range is when your attack will reach the opponent even if they move as far and as quickly as they conceivably can.

Hit the defender (at least at the same time they hit you)

So far we have focused on the defender moving backwards.

You might be thinking: who cares if the defender moves forwards? Just get as close as possible and use an attack with a big maximum hit distance so you hit even if the defender runs away.

(Or force them to parry).

It matters because the opponent can always hit you first and not get hit: Rule 1. That is, they can hit you and move closer than your minimum effective hit distance, so that you don’t hit them.

There are many ways to deal with this. Today we will just cover the four most common methods:

  1. Lancing: stick your sword horizontal in front of you and stab the defender, just like a lancer on horseback. This effectively reduces your minimum distance to 0. It also makes it easy for the defender to beat your blade or disarm you.
  2. Reacting: hold your blade back and wait for the defender to counterattack before finishing your attack. This is common and easy and effective, until you meet someone who knows how to fake counterattacks or forward parry or just counterattack really well.
  3. Surprising: stalk the defender slowly, then suddenly pounce to attack. This shocks or otherwise changes relative speed such that the defender is effectively standing still. This means they can neither move away or counterattack past the minimum distance in time. 
  4. Bombarding: launch attacks from far away – well outside the defender’s counterattack range – with such spread that they can neither move close enough to counterattack or move away to make the attack miss. In sabre, this means aiming your attack slightly in front of the defender then letting it cut through them to maximise the kill zone width.

Take your students through each of these four methods to hit to each of the three conventional or orthodox targets in sabre:

  • Head
  • Flank (under the opponent’s sword arm)
  • Chest (opposite the opponent’s sword arm)

Note that while lancing and reacting work well at this stage of their development, these methods are ineffective against more capable opponent who can parry (vs. lancing) and counterattack (vs. reacting). This also applies to the orthodox targets: hits to these targets are easy to parry with the orthodox parry positions (quinte, tierce, and quarte respectively). We will cover parries initially in Week 3 and counterattacks in Week 7.

Putting it together

Most of the time, the activities described about would be done in drills isolated from the 4m zone situation. It is important to now integrate it with the 4m zone so that your students can actually use those techniques in bouts.

I suggest doing this in two stages:

  1. Scenario: one sabreur always short attacks (rock), while the other sabreur plays either rock or paper. This should result in either simultaneous actions (if both sabreurs attack), or with the first sabreur falling short on their attack, resulting in the second sabreur gaining priority on the March.
  2. Conventional Bout: both sabruers fence as per a normal bout while still revising rock-paper-scissors from the previous week. Serendipity determines if and when one of them gains priority on the March.

In either case, once a sabreur gains priority you should remind them to get into range, launch their attack, and hit by one of the four methods to an orthodox target. The defending sabreur should attempt to make the attack miss, block, or hit without getting hit based on techniques from Intro.

As per last session, help the referee establish priority in the 4m zone then track priority and priority changes during the subsequent phase if applicable. In these early sessions, it is usually important to help the referee identify when an attacker has lost priority from missing an attack – students at this stage often have jerky motions and abrupt stops in their footwork which concedes priority unintentionally.

That’s all for this session. The defender is at a marked disadvantage at this stage; we will rectify this in part next week for Defence.

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