Week 6: Skitter

Dear Instructor:

Welcome to Week 6.

Your students should look authentic now: able to fight effectively and adapt to their opponent in the 4m zone, on the March, and on Defence, with textbook techniques for parries, disengages and sweeps.

This class continues our exploration of moves and countermoves with a non-traditional move which they will need to defeat sweeps: the skitter, or lean-back, for the Attacker on the March.

Sweeps give the Attacker an opportunity to dodge and retain priority

Cast your mind back to the original Three Rules of Sabre:

  1. Hit and don’t get hit.
  2. Run the opponent off the back line.
  3. Hit with priority, if you must get hit.

Once a Sabreur gain priority and becomes the Attacker, they keep priority until they miss their attack.

The problem is, what defines an attack?

The flippant but accurate answer is the referee decides. Some referees are harsh, some less harsh, and they will have different ideas for what constitutes a missed attack.

The complication is that sabreurs are dishonourable and will often try to hide when they’ve started to launch an attack but aborted mid-launch – often because they see the defender pulling away out of range. Referees therefore spend much of their efforts trying to distinguish between such aborted launches – which concede priority – and legitimate actions on the March which don’t lose priority such as feints or other manoeuvres.

To maintain consistency and practicality, referees often rely on a small number of general rules-of-thumb or interpretations of the official written rules in the FIE Rulebook. A good analogy is in modern Common Law systems: judges use precedents to make consistent rulings as a cohort, which build on collective interpretations of the written relevant legislation.

One of these interpretations is that the Attacker maintains priority as long as they move forwards smoothly. They can advance or skip or step; they can move fast or slow or at moderate pace; they can show target or put up a guard or aim feints – they still maintain priority as long as they do these things while moving forwards.

Once the Attacker stops or moves backwards, however, they lose priority.

(A distinction here: in this scenario, the Attacker loses priority but the Defender does not automatically gain it. If the Attacker actually launches a complete attack and it misses or is parried, they concede priority to the Defender automatically).

This means that if the Defender makes no action against the Attacker and the Attacker stops or moves back, the Defender can immediately advance to take priority and become the new Attacker.

However, if the Defender makes an offensive action against the Attacker, another rule interpretation applies: the Defender is considered to have made an attack without priority, the Attacker is permitted to dodge this attack, and the Attacker can regain priority immediately to continue their March.


There’s a lot of backstory here which all ultimately comes down to the game being broken if the Attacker is forced to just trundle forwards into the Defender’s action. All your students need to know is:

  • The Attacker must keep moving forwards on the March; unless,
  • The Defender tries to counterattack or beat the Attacker’s blade, e.g. with a sweep.
  • The Attacker can stop or move backwards to dodge the Defender’s action and retain priority, for the duration of this action.

This last point is core to this class: the Attacker may dodge backwards, but only under these circumstances, and only briefly.

Skitters enable the Attacker to dodge, lose priority, and regain priority fast

The quickest way for an Attacker to dodge is to simply jump back a short distance, using their calf muscles – rather than the larger but slower quadriceps – to launch themselves up and backwards. We call this move a “skitter“, after the jerky and jittery movements of lightweight creatures such birds and beetles.

Skitters themselves are simple moves.

From the stationary on guard stance, guide your students to jump backwards using only their calves. Help them launch completely off the ground, briefly, and displace backwards a few centimeters. This should be all they need: provided they have maintained good distance on the March, this displacement should suffice to take them out of sweep and counterattack range.

The next part is to do this while moving. Have your students advance slowly, as if on the March, and skitter back on your signal: pretend to sweep or counterattack. Then resume advancing. After a few minutes, they should be able to skitter from any position during their March: on guard, immediately after they’ve made the first step, and immediately after they’ve landed their second step. This is the biggest advantage of the skitter using calf muscles – you can launch it at any time, unlike larger jumps with quadriceps.

Your students should also be able to rebound from the skitter into the next advance. This is important: as per the above, the Attacker has only a small window of opportunity to regain priority after the Defender’s action. If the Attacker stops for too long – or continues moving backwards – after the skitter, the Defender can advance and take priority.

I suggest you guide your students through this as a pure footwork exercise, with the Instructor setting distance and pace, the Students following distance. When the Instructor pretends to sweep or counterattack, the Students should skitter back then immediately resume their March. When the Instructor stops without sweeping or counterattack, or reaches their warning zone on the piste, the Students should finish their attack with a disengage.

(Some Instructors give a cue for the Students to attack: raising a hand, or opening a target with a Parry. I’ve deprecated this in more recent classes because it conditions the Students as Attackers to follow a Defender’s cues – a major mistake).

The lean-back variation helps propel an attack

One of the issues with the simple skitter described above is that it lacks power. The Attacker has jumped back, losing all forward momentum; they often need to launch their attack immediately afterwards from what is essentially a stationary position (not quite, as there is some rebound force, but this effect is small).

To mitigate this, the Attacker can lean back when they skitter, then rebound forwards to generate momentum for their attack. The trick here is to do both actions at the same time, and at the individual Sabreur’s natural rhythm. The latter is a function of their biomechanics – their body will rebound at a particular rate and trying to go faster or slower than this rate is counterproductive (and potentially damaging).

I suggest you the Instructor guide your students through this action progressively as for the skitter above: from stationary, to the advance, then while following you on the March.

Skitter until the Defender tires then launch

Time to put it in action. Pair up your students:

  • Attacker: March just outside of Defender’s reach; skitter and lean-back to avoid sweeps and counterattacks while maintaining priority on the March. Finish attack at will.
  • Defender: Stay outside of Attacker’s range. Use all techniques from prior weeks (defence and sweep) to deceive, disrupt, and defeat the Attacker.

If the Defender gains priority, become the Attacker and practice skitter on the March.

What your students should figure out – perhaps with prompts – is that the Attacker has two good opportunities to finish their attack:

  • By surprise: launching their attack before the Defender has properly set up their web of defensive actions.
  • By attrition: skittering for long enough that the Defender tires from their sweeps and other actions.

Remind the Attacker that they should add the skitter to the other techniques they’ve learned so far, e.g. the anticipation, the feints, the disengages etc. Skitters add to these techniques; they don’t replace them.

Putting it together

I suggest splitting this into two rounds:

  1. Scenario as per previous sessions, i.e. with a designated Attacker and Defender off the start line:
    • Student-Attacker: a) short attack and b) fall-short
    • Coach-Defender: a) short attack and b) chase.
  2. 5-point Bouts with a referee.

You might think why bother with the first scenario – it is very similar to the drills earlier in this class. The reason is that the element of uncertainty in whether the Sabreurs get out of the 4m zone, and adapting quickly to their new role as Attackers or Defenders, adds difficulty to these exercises. Many students are capable of these techniques during Attacker-Defender drills but stumble (sometimes literally) when doing so from the 4m setup.

The second scenario is a real bout, and adds the referee to help train the Students in self-recognising when an Attacker has skittered correctly or lost priority. I suggest running at least a couple of real bouts, in whites, for this class.

Next week we will counter the skitter with a really technical technique: the counterattack by attack-on-preparation (counterattack AoP). It brings together several concepts introduced so far into a single spectacular move which is rarely executed well even by experienced sabreurs.

You will do better with your students by helping them understand each of the components for this move, combine them, and execute at the correct moment and rhythm.

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