Week 5: Defensive Sweeps

Dear Instructor:

Welcome to Week 5.

Last week, your students should have learned how to use disengages as Attackers on the March. Disengages are excellent techniques for finishing the attack; I usually advise students to replace direct attacks with disengages in all situations once they are comfortable with the latter.

Disengages are a “hedged” move: they work against a wide variety of parries and counterattacks rather than being optimised against a specific defensive move. This makes them versatile, albeit less effective than a more specific technique (such as a feint cutover, which will will cover later in the Course).

Disengages are vulnerable, however, to a class of defensive techniques – “defensive beats” – of which the most common are the (defensive) “sweeps“: moves in which the Defender sweeps their blade through a plane in front of them to intercept the disengage before the hit. We will cover the true and feint versions of the sweep in this class, to counter the disengage, and to lay the seed for compound defensive techniques later in the Course.

Sweeps clear a plane between the Attacker and Defender

Attackers must launch their attacks through the space between them and the Defender; they cannot “warp” through without traversing this space.

This seems obvious – it is! – but novice Sabreurs rarely consider this when defending. Instead, they parry to cover a target or counterattack when they see the Attacker getting too close: both of these only succeed when the Defender has a significant technical or physical advantage.

The same applies to defensive beats in which the Defender tries to see the Attacker’s blade come too close, then attempts to beat it. The Attacker’s blade is a small fast moving target which the Attacker can disengage around the Defender’s beats. Interception in this manner, by reaction, is difficult.

Sweeps work differently: they clear a plane at the moment of the anticipated attack. If the Attacker’s blade traverses that plane, it will be intercepted, resulting in the Defender “parrying” the attack. The Defender doesn’t need to see where the Attacker’s blade is and be fast enough to intercept; the Defender only needs to roughly anticipate when the attack will occur, and through which plane, then sweep.

There are three common planes for the Defender to choose from:

  • Horizontal Plane: this is parallel to the ground at roughly the Attacker’s shoulder height. It is useful for catching attacks from high-line to low-line and vice-versa, e.g. disengages from and to opposite targets.
  • Vertical Plane: this is perpendicular to the ground at roughly the centreline axis of the Attacker, i.e. their spine. It is useful catching attacks from right to left or vice-versa.
  • Diagonal Plane: there are two, from the Attacker’s hip to shoulder. In practice, the useful one is from the off-side hip to the sword-arm shoulder; this differs between left-handed and right-handed opponents.

The sweeps along these planes should take advantage of the Defender’s biomechanics and gravity, where possible, for power. The biomechanics part is mainly to do with the relative strength of a person’s biceps and pectorals, to contract the arm, versus triceps and deltoids to extend the arm. Sweeps should start from the outside and curve in, like pincers, rather than start from the inside and sweep out, as when swimming breaststroke.

True sweeps, i.e. those that are meant to clear the space and intercept blade, should be set up with a fake counterattack. This encourages the Attacker to bring their blade forward and finish their attack, making it easier to intercept.

The standard sweeps are:

  • Horizontal sweep: fake counterattack to Attacker’s eyes, then sweep left in horizontal disc with sabre back edge, returning towards Tierce.
  • Vertical sweep: fake counterattack to Attacker’s eyes, then sweep down in vertical disc with sabre front edge, returning towards Quart.
  • Diagonal sweep: fake counterattack to Attacker’s offside hip, then sweep diagonally up with sabre back edge to sword-arm shoulder, returning towards Quinte.

Note that each sweep returns to a position which is almost, but not quite, a guard position. This helps the Defender parry: both by being close to the canonical parry (Tierce, Quart, Quinte, respectively) and by opening an obvious target for the Attacker to hit (low, right, and high respectively).

It is important for the students to understand that sweeps are a low probability but also low risk technique: the chances of them catching the Attacker’s blade on the first sweep is low, but it is also unlikely that the Attacker can hit during the sweep. Defenders should retreat each time they sweep, then repeat the sweep many times along different planes until they catch the Attacker’s blade or stress the Attacker sufficiently to trigger a short attack which the Defender can parry or make fall short.

To practice this, setup your students in pairs with a designated Attacker and Defender:

  • Attacker: March, and finish with disengage attack.
  • Defender: Sweep and Retreat, until they:
    1. Catch the Attacker’s blade, gain priority, and become the Attacker on the March
    2. See the Attacker launch too early and short, and parry or make the attack fall short.
    3. Inadvertently hit the Attacker with the “fake” counterattack.

Fake Sweeps set up real counterattacks and fake counterattacks for parries

Defenders can also use fake sweeps to setup other actions especially if they have been successful with sweeps in previous points. These actions include parries, counterattacks, and true sweeps.

The main thing with fake sweeps is to:

  • Omit the fake counterattack.
  • Use lots of body language to make the sweep very obvious.
  • Keep the arm slightly bent, to hide how far the Defender can actually reach.

There’s a lot of material to cover here, much of which is too advanced for your students at this stage. Use your judgement: I suggest introducing the concept at a minimum and showing them how to fake the sweeps and mix them with their true sweeps. We will cover using fake sweeps as a setup in much more detail later in the Course.

Putting it together

Use the same scenarios as in previous sessions:

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

Then when the March-Defence situation occurs, the Attacker should practice disengages vs. the Defender using true and fake sweeps to catch the blade or successfully parry. If the Defender gains priority, swap roles: i.e. Sabreur 1 becomes the Defender and practices sweeps on defence; Sabreur 2 becomes the Attacker and practices disengages.

It is likely that some Attackers will stop on their March during these exercises. When that happens, help the students understand that the Attacker has effectively “missed” their attack and lost priority. The Defender should advance – not just hit – to take up priority when this occurs.

It is important that the Defender does so before the Attacker starts moving forward again: in the modern rules interpretation, an Attacker who has lost priority in this way doesn’t automatically concede it to the Defender, and can regain it by advancing on the March before the Defender takes up priority.

Next week we will build on this idea to give the Attacker a counter against the sweep: the “skitter” or “lean-back“. These techniques use the Defender’s sweep as an opportunity under the rules for the Attacker to avoid the Defender’s blade by moving backwards, briefly, while retaining priority. It lays the foundation for more complex Attacker footwork later in the Course.

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