Week 7: Counterattack

Dear Instructor:

Welcome to Week 7. This session covers the most conceptually simple but technically challenging move in Level 1: the Counterattack.

Counterattacks are all moves by the Defender, without priority, to hit the Attacker without the Defender being hit, as per Rule 1 of Sabre. We classify counterattacks into two groups:

  • Defender hits, then moves backwards out of distance: We call these “stop cuts“.
  • Defender hits, then moves forwards and to the side to dodge: We call these “attacks-on-preparation“.

Counterattacks complete the trifecta of a Defender’s defensive moves, complementing the parry / fall-short and the sweep / defensive beat. You can use fake counterattacks to set up a parry or a sweep; conversely you can use fake parries and sweeps to set up the counterattack. That’s why it is important for a sabreur to be able to counterattack well: you might not ever use it to actually score a point in a bout, but you need to present a credible threat of counterattacking so other defensive moves might succeed.

The reason we distinguish between stop cuts and attacks-on-preparation is that they differ in how they are set up and the defensive moves they are good at setting up.

Your students have, so far, learned fall-short with guard parries and sweeps as their other defensive moves. These are low-risk moves in which the Defender moves back each time, giving them the opportunity to try again. These moves also mean that an Attacker can simply stay out of the Defender’s reach and slowly March the latter off the back of the piste. To counter this, the Defender should have a counterattack which goes forwards, i.e. attacks-on-preparation.

Counterattacks are a big topic so don’t feel obligated to explain everything to your students at this stage. The most important things for them to know are:

  • Counterattacks complement parries and sweeps to complete a Defender’s defensive repertoire.
  • There are two types of counterattack, and Attacks-on-Preparation are the type that goes forwards.
  • Attacks-on-Preparation work well in concert with fall short guard parries and sweeps.

Setup is the most important part of the counterattack

Counterattacks are flashy. The move is sudden and spectacular – some people levitate almost horizontally – and this catches the eye, leading observers to believe that the most important part of the counterattack lies in its execution.

This is a misunderstanding. The success of a counterattack depends far more on the setup than the action, because the success of the counterattack is predicated on the Attacker making one big mistake: overshooting the Defender.

No counterattack can succeed if the Attacker knows when and at what range the counterattack will arrive; the Attacker can simply launch to that position and score with priority. The most important part of the counterattack setup is therefore to trick the Attacker into launching too far and too late.

One of the better ways to do this is “fishing“, a trick that Aldo Montano taught to a young Max Hartung once upon a time. This move works with the Defender:

  1. Pretending to hit to the Attacker’s eyes, without fully extending their arm.
  2. Retreating and pulling the tip of their sabre back (not the arm, as this would slow down the eventual counterattack).
  3. Repeat, until the Attacker starts hovering just outside the range of this action.
  4. Actually counterattack, by:
    • Pulling the sabre tip backwards first, instead of pretending to counterattack.
    • Pretending to retreat.
    • As the Attacker moves forwards to maintain distance, counterattack the Attacker at full arm extension.

The main thing with this setup is to trick the Attacker into believing they are out of range, and know when the counterattack will occur. Then actually being in-range and hitting at an unexpected moment.

Counterattacks hit at an unexpected moment

An unexpected moment is difficult to predict. Defenders typically cannot read an Attacker’s mind. It is, however, possible to infer when an Attacker expects to launch their attack – and by extension, when they are ready to attack to counter a counterattack – by sensing the rhythm of the Attacker’s March.

We haven’t yet introduced the ideas of movement rhythms and timing to the student – these come in Level 2 – but here we should seed the idea that an Attacker cannot launch at will during their March. For example, an Attacker can only lunge when they have returned to stance; they cannot lunge immediately after they step.

Most Attackers, especially at this stage, will finish with a lunge or an advance-lunge. This means they can only launch immediately after an advance, whether this advance is part of the preceding March or part of the advance-lunge action. They cannot launch mid-way through the advance, i.e. after their front foot has landed the step but before their back foot has moved forwards and landed.

This is the unexpected moment for the counterattack to hit.

The Defender can predict when this moment will occur by observing the Attacker and synchronising their own movements to the same rhythm. That is, during the setup the Defender should retreat in the same rhythm as the Attacker advances. The Defender should:

  • Pretend to counterattack when the Attacker steps.
  • Retreat when the Attacker finishes their advance.

This means that on the final advance when the Defender actually counterattacks, the Defender:

  • Pretends to retreat when the Attacker steps (and thus starts moving out of range when the Attacker is able to launch)
  • Hits when the Attacker finishes their advance (when the Attacker can’t launch).

Attacks-on-preparation move the Defender past the Attacker

Once the Defender hits, they have to avoid the Attacker’s blade for the cut-off time: currently 180ms. This may not seem like a long time but it is enough time for a typical Attacker to:

  • Sense that they’ve been hit
  • Abort whatever action they were doing before
  • Aim and Launch their attack

The Defender must avoid this attack. The better the setup, the easier this becomes, because the Attacker will take longer to recognise they’ve been hit.

Another factor influences the success of the attack-on-preparation is how fast the Attacker is moving and, by inference, how far the Attacker plans to launch their attack.

For Attacks-on-preparation, it is better if the Attacker is moving fast and launching far. This is because:

  • the faster the Attacker is moving;
  • the further their base launch range and hit zone; and,
  • the easier it is for the Defender to counterattack and move forwards to a distance too close for the Attacker to hit.

The Defender should therefore trick the Attacker into moving fast during the setup, by advancing and retreating quickly on defence, and generally giving off frantic body language.

Add Opposition with similar setup to a parry for more safety

The Defender can also block or delay the Attacker’s attack with a blade “opposition” after their counterattack. This is simply putting the Defender’s blade in the path of the attack, akin to a guard parry, only forwards.

As with parries, the success of opposition depends on inferring the path of the attack from the Attacker’s start position and their target. The Defender can observe the start position and influence the target by opening an obvious one.

Your students will discover that Attackers often have a strong (sometimes unshakeable) bias to finish to particular targets in response to a counterattack. Common ones include:

  • Head
  • Chest
  • Flank
  • Underflank

The Defender should guess this bias target the first time, open the target, and attempt opposition with the counterattack. Then note how the Attacker actually responded and adjust their opposition accordingly.

Note for the Instructor: as a general rule, opposition (and thus attacks-on-preparation) work better on Attackers in high-line versus low-line, because the attack paths are easier to intercept.

We will cover low-line attacks and their counters later in the Course; for now, note that stop-cut parry ripostes work better against low-line attacks, e.g. low-line to underflank.

Putting it together

My guidance for this session is to cover each technical component in isolation, then combine them one-at-a-time in pairs, then in the usual 4m short-attack vs. fall-short scenario to practice. Suggested schedule:

15 mins: Footwork and revision for attacks and movements for counterattack with attack-on-preparation
15 mins: Practice each component in isolation: fishing, attack-on-preparation, opposition
15 mins: Integrate components into the complete counterattack
15 mins: Put into the 4m scenario with Attacker and Defender

Remind the students that it is more important to avoid the Attacker’s hit than to actually land the counterattack.

Next week we will cover the counter: preparatory beats. Preparatory beats work against counterattacks by disrupting the setup – the most important part of the counterattack – rather than the counterattack itself. Tell your students; it may help convince them of the setup’s importance.

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