Week 3: The Defence


Your student should now know how to move safely (Intro), play the 4m zone (Week 1 – The Box of Death) and aim attacks on the March to where they anticipate the defender will be (Week 2 – The March).

This class (Week 3 – The Defence), in essence, a revision of the previous class but in pairs with focus on the defender.

Recapping the main points from earlier classes:

  • There are three main rules in sabre, in order of importance:
    1. Hit and don’t get hit.
    2. Run opponent off the end.
    3. If – and only if – you must get hit, attack first.
  • Every point starts in the 4m zone and most points end there.
  • Sometimes no one scores in the 4m zone; then there will be an attacker with priority and a defender without.

Last week we went through the basics of how to be an attacker. It is essentially an exercise in perfect targeting:

  1. Accurately ascertain range to defender.
  2. Anticipate where the defender will move to.
  3. Attack to that location.
  4. Hit an open target.

I strongly recommend you spend 20 mins revising this.

Defence is about disrupting the attacker

Reacting to the attacker is stupid. If a perfect attacker fights a perfect defender, the perfect attacker always wins.

The aim of the defender, then, is to make the attacker not perfect. Make the attacker make mistakes.

#1: Be a moving target

The first thing the attacker has to do is to determine the range to the defender. The first thing the defender should do is disrupt this.

Humans aren’t good at determining range precisely at long distances. They’re worse when the target moves closer and further randomly. People also use cues like blade position to estimate range.

Go forwards. Go backwards. Go far away – 5 metres, 6 metres – then come really close. As close as the defender can without

Then use the blade to amplify the effect of the above: extend blade close to attacker = makes defender appear closer. Pull blade back = makes defender appear further away.

#2: Hide and misdirect next move

Humans anticipate movement from body language. A defender who looks like they are about to move back can compel the attacker to think the defender will move back.

Body language and blade cues work well for the defender to lie about their next move. Examples include:

  • Leaning forwards, dashing forwards -> Pretend to go forwards.
  • Leaning backwards, starting retreat -> Pretend to go backwards.
  • Swipe at attacker’s blade -> Pretend to beat their blade.
  • Stab at attacker’s face -> Pretend to counterattack.

Then do the opposite.

#3: Inhibit attacker ability to launch

Stressed. Tense. Stationary. Skittering. All these conditions inhibit the attacker’s ability to launch.

A defender can induce these conditions by:

  • Moving a lot, so the attacker doubts their ability to accurately range.
  • Swiping at attacker’s blade, so the attacker physically pulls their blade back and exerts effort avoiding the defender’s blade.
  • Not moving! Then pose. The attacker may slow down or stop.
  • Run away! Sometimes the attacker will chase. This lets them launch far; but they can’t launch close. This enables the defender to beat blade or counterattack.

If the attacker can’t attack (well) the defender’s defence is easy.

#4: Show target, anticipate attack path, and block it.

A good attacker can still range accurately enough to reach the defender. So the defender must parry the attack.

There are many types of parries. All of them rely on the defender knowing two things:

  1. The path of the attack (not the target)
  2. When the attack will launch (not arrive)

A common mistake for defenders is to try and react to the attack. This is not possible against good attackers.

Another common mistake is for defenders to anticipate which target the attack will hit, and to protect that target with a parry. This is only partially successful: a parry blocks a path, not protects a target, and there is always more than one path to a given target.

The core aspect of a parry, then, is to anticipate the path of the attack and when it will launch so the defender can put their parry in the path.

Show target and stress the attacker to influence the attack path

Path is determined by two things: the start position of the attacker’s blade, the target, and the trajectory in between.

The defender can see the start position of the attacker’s blade.

The defender can influence the target, by showing an obvious one to the attacker. Especially a target that the attacker, from previous experience, likes to hit.

The defender can influence the trajectory, to some degree, by doing all the things above to stress the attacker. Specifically, an attacker who is stressed will typically select a short, if not the shortest, trajectory between start and target.


  1. See where the attacker’s blade is
  2. Show an obvious target
  3. Stress the attacker to set a short trajectory.

Fake counterattacks to trigger the attack launch

What makes an attacker attack? In theory, the attacker has the initiative and can launch their attack whenever they want. In practice, attackers typically launch under one of two conditions:

  1. When they see the defender is close, within comfortable attack range.
  2. When they see or sense or suspect a counterattack.

The defender can trigger both of these conditions by taking a pot-shot counterattack to the closest part of the attacker’s body. This is typically to the attacker’s wrist. The counterattack, to be clear, does not actually have to hit. It just has to look like it could hit. It is sufficient to tap the attacker’s sabre guard. It is sometimes sufficient to just look like the defender is about to hit the attacker’s sabre guard. Or face, or chest, or any other part of their body.

One fake counterattack is good. More is better.

So, in addition to the above target-opening exercise:

  1. Potshot the attacker’s wrist.
  2. Repeat.

Guard Positions are the simplest parries to intercept attacks

Then comes the parry itself to block the path. Of the many types of parries, the simplest are the guard parries: putting the defender’s sabre in the path.

For safety, the defender should put the middle of their sabre in the path of blade. This acts like error bars: gives the defender the best chance of intercepting the attack.

The specific position of the parry depends entirely on the path. While there are canonical guard parries, also known as guard positions, these are just names to help people describe parries. They are not parries in and of themselves. The most common are:

  • Parry 3, or “Tierce”, which is their on-guard position. This covers most paths to the defender’s flank (sword arm side).
  • Parry 4, or “Quarte”, which mirrors Tierce to the defender’s chest (off-hand side).
  • Parry 5, or “Quinte”, which forms a roof over and in front of the defender’s head.

The path the defender takes to the parry position is important. The defender should:

  1. Start from the opposite side to the parry position. For Tierce, this means starting with the blade vertical on the off-side.
  2. The defender’s blade should sweep a plane to the parry position, such that the parry position is perpendicular to the incoming attack.
  3. The defender’s blade must arrive at the parry position just before the attacker’s blade does – not too early, and not late.

It is okay for the parry to miss the attack, provided the attack also misses the defender. Think of the parry as insurance.

Riposte as soon as possible

A successful parry blocks the attack for a moment. It does not block the attack forever.

The defender should riposte as soon as possible. When is this? Immediately if the attacker is range. Later if the attacker has already pulled away. This may mean that the – now former – defender has to March.

This sets up the dynamic for the sabre game outside the 4m zone.

The main thing for the students to remember is that a perfect attacker always defeats the perfect defender. As the attacker, the sabreur should aspire to be perfect. As the defender, the sabreur should endeavour to make the attacker not perfect.

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