Week 3: The Defence

Dear Instructor:

Your student should now know how to move safely, play the 4m zone, and launch attacks accurately on the March. This class focuses on what the Defender should do outside the 4m zone.

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 with priority.
      • Gain priority by attacking first initially, or taking it from the attacker.
  • 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 on the March with priority and a Defender on Defence without priority.

Last week we went through the basics of how to be an Attacker:

  1. Get into Range
  2. Launch the attack
  3. Hit the opponent

Good attacks on the March result from good targeting. To do the above well, the Attacker must:

  1. Accurately ascertain range to the Defender.
  2. Anticipate where the Defender will move to.
  3. Launch to where the Defender will be.
  4. Hit one of the Defender’s open targets, before they can parry it or hit you and dodge your attack.

I suggest revising the movements to date, and drills for the March in particular, in the first half of this session.

Defence is about disrupting the attacker

As Defender, simply reacting to the Attacker is unwise. The Attacker has initiative and priority in their favour.

Remember: A perfect Attacker always defeats even a perfect Defender.

The aim of the Defender is to make the Attacker not perfect. Make the attacker make mistakes.

This session covers how to disrupt the four things listed above for the Attacker’s aim:

  1. Range: the Defender should move near and far from the Attacker, always, so the Attacker cannot easily estimate range.
  2. Anticipate: the Defender should feint unpredictably where they will next move to, using body language.
  3. Launch: the Defender should use bladework and the above to stress the Attacker, making it difficult to launch an attack.
  4. Hit: the Defender should deliberately show an obvious target for the Attacker to hit, then intercept the attack with a parry.

Go through each of these with your students. Depending on their ability, you can either take each of them in turn (I have them line up) and have them practice on you, or have them work in pairs for these exercises.

1: Be a moving target

The first thing the Attacker must do is to determine 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 such as blade position to estimate range.

So: Go forwards. Go backwards. Go far away – 5 metres, 6 metres – then come really close. As close as the Defender can without being hit – suggest just outside the Attacker’s lunge range.

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. Conversely, a Defender who looks like they are preparing to dart forwards can compel the Attacker to think a counterattack is inbound.

Body language and blade cues work well for the Defender to feint 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 the Defender should do the opposite for their actual action:

  • Pretend to go forwards -> actually pull away
  • Pretend to go backwards -> actually move forwards (with counterattack)
  • Pretend to beat their blade -> actually counterattack, or parry
  • Pretend to counterattack -> actually beat the Attacker’s blade, or parry.

3: Inhibit attacker ability to launch

Stressed. Tense. Stationary. 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 determine range.
  • Swiping at the Attacker’s blade, so they pull their blade back and exerts physical and mental effort to avoid.
  • Not moving then pose: The classic Zhuge Liang mindgame. The attacker may slow down or stop in confusion.
  • Run away! The classic Mongol tactic. Often the Attacker will chase overeagerly, bringing them too close with too little energy to launch on demand. The Defender can then beat blade or counterattack.

Upshot: When the Attacker can’t attack well, the Defender’s defence is easy.

Parries intercept attacks

Despite the above, a good Attacker can still range accurately enough to launch and reach the Defender.

Then Defender must parry.

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

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

Common mistakes for Defenders is to:

  • Wait for the attack and try to react in time: This is not possible against a good attack with surprise.
  • Anticipate which target the attack will hit, and to cover that target with a parry, as opposed to the path of the attack. A parry blocks a path. It doesn’t actually protect a target. There is always more than one path to a given target.

The core of a parry is to intercept the attack along its path at the correct moment. This brings us to the 4th and final thing for the Defender to do:

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

Path is determined by two things:

  • the start position of the Attacker’s blade
  • the target on the Defender.

All possible trajectories in between may be the path of the attack.

This seems like a lot. In theory – and against advanced Attackers – this is true. In practice, most Attackers will choose a path which is a) short and b) direct between start position and target, because this mitigates against being counterattacked.

So the Defender should:

  • Track the position of the Attacker’s blade.
  • Show an obvious target for the Attacker to hit, especially one that the Attacker is biased towards (as seen in previous points)
  • Pretend to counterattack, so the Attacker:
    • Launches their attack.
    • Chooses a short and direct path.

Fake counterattacks to trigger the attack launch

What makes an attacker attack?

In theory, the Attacker has initiative and can launch whenever they want.

In practice, attackers typically launch when they:

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

Defender can trigger both faking an obvious counterattack.

This is typically to the Attacker’s eyes – so they can see it!

The counterattack, to be clear, need not actually hit. It might, but it doesn’t need to. It must look like it could hit.

One fake counterattack is good. More is better. Spam fake counterattacks.

Guard Positions are the simplest parries to intercept attacks

Then the Defender must parry.

Of the many types of parries, the simplest are the Guard Parries: just putting the Defender’s sabre, stationary, in the attack path.

The Defender should put the middle of their sabre in the path of blade. This acts like error bars and makes it more likely for the parry to intercept, by increasing the margin of error for the Defender to estimate the attack path and reducing the Attacker’s ability to disengage their attack around the parry.

The specific position of the parry depends entirely on the attack path.

While there are canonical / orthodox / conventional Guard Parries Position, 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. Sweep a plane to the parry position, such that the parry position is perpendicular to the incoming attack.
  3. 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 in 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.

Remember: a perfect attacker always defeats even a perfect defender.

Attackers should aspire to be perfect. Defenders should be devious and disrupt.

Putting it all together

Most of this session will be in drills: either in pairs or with you the Instructor in turn, and isolated from the context of the bout. Set aside at least 15 minutes at the end to bring it into the 4m situation.

I suggest starting with the same scenario we used last session to take students from the 4m zone to the March and Defence:

  • Sabreur 1 (“Coach” – eventual Attacker): Either a) short attack or b) fall short, from the start line.
  • Sabreur 2 (“Student” – eventual Defender): Either a) short attack or b) chase, from the start line.

This scenario, if all goes well, will result in:

  • Simultaneous actions: both Sabreurs short attack.
  • Immediate Student win: Student chases, Coach fall short.
  • March and Defence: Student short attacks and Coach fall short.

From this last situation the Student can practice Defence as the Defender and the Coach can practice Attack as the attacker.

Swap partners often. It is important for Students to continue developing their ability to match rhythm in the 4m zone, and calibrate their cues and feints and combat sense against a wide variety of opponents.

At this stage, the Defender should have roughly equal chances of winning against the Attacker. Next week we will tilt the odds back in the Attacker’s favour by strengthening their attack against parries using Disengages.

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