Defining fencing as the art of time and measure is an age-old trope. In that regard, footwork determines the time and the place of the initial engagement. However, according to the core principles of the ecological approach, footwork cannot be divorced from a tangible goal one tries to achieve and the stimuli to which they are reacting. The point of this article is to discuss how to integrate footwork constraints to improve one’s game design.
Attacks with preparatory steps
There are plenty of training scenarios that require one of the two fencers to initiate the fight with a committed attack, be it training attacks in the first place (duh), close binds, remises, wrestling, etc. And the core tenets of the ecological approach highlight the flaws of a choreographed first strike. The direct attack drill has been discussed in depth by the legendary Steve Chesney in a previous article.
This results in genuine attacks and, thanks to its continuous self-scaling properties, can benefit both experienced fencers and beginners. Nevertheless, one could consider that the drill is a bit too limited as a training pattern: as both fencers start from a firm-footed position, any sudden motion initiated by (A) would reveal the incoming attack. For that reason, I like amending the drill in the following manner:
Fencers take the roles of attacker (A) and defender (B). (A) starts in an offensive guard, (B) starts in an open guard. Starting from a fixed distance, (A) throws a strike towards (B), which (B) attempts to parry. If the strike lands, (A) takes a small step back, if the strike is parried, (A) takes a small step forward, and the drill repeats. Before attacking, fencer (A) is allowed to perform one fencing advance. From there, they should either strike without delay or retreat back to their starting position.
Adding a preparatory step to the direct attack drill tends to extend the scope of the game in an interesting manner. During this preparatory step, various actions can be performed. This not only makes the attack less predictable but also results in a wider, more realistic measure.
This initial pattern (an attacker and a defender, self-scaling measure, one preparatory step being allowed) can then be tweaked in various ways, depending on the allowed targets, the guards the fencers start from, the defender’s options, or the way the drill should evolve if the original attack is parried. While the game archive offers a fair amount of exercises based on the original direct attack drill, here’s one that depends on the prior preparatory step:
A woman’s wrath
Fencer (A) starts in posta di donna, fencer (B) starts in tutta porta di ferro. (A)’s goal is to hit (B) anywhere, (B)’s goal is to parry the strike then riposte. (B) is allowed an immediate afterblow to the head after being hit that can cancel (A)’s initial hit. Before striking, (A) must chamber their sword on their shoulder during the preparatory step. Use the preparatory step and adjust the initial measure in a manner similar to the previous drill.
The purpose of this drill is to train the use of strongly chambered positions, either to break through the opponent’s parry or execute an unexpected indirect attack. The afterblow ensures that (A) cannot abuse (B)’s firm footed position and dive for the lower openings without fear.
It can be argued that the (almost) firm-footed nature of the direct attack drill does not prepare fencers for footwork-heavy bouts that require them to adjust the rhythm and width of their steps on the spot. In particular, conventional weapons such as modern sabre and foil may require a defender to retreat orderly from the energetic pursuit of an attacker. This pursuit, somewhat artificially induced by right of way in modern fencing bouts, makes for a great training pattern that could be summarized as follows:
Fencers take the roles of attacker (A) and defender (B). (A) can only advance, (B) can only retreat. (A)’s goal to hit (B) or (tactically, not physically) push them out of bounds, (B)’s goal is to defend themselves from (A)’s attack. (B) can also attack (A) on the preparation and exceptionally advance forward, but fail if their attack is parried.
This marching pattern is significantly more complex than the previous one as it involves a fair amount of preparations – both fencers will jockey for position and try to deceive their opponent in a variety of ways. For example, the attacker can relentlessly pressure the defender until they either get close enough to land their strike or induce a premature attack on the preparation that they can parry. Here’s a variant I enjoy training because it involves the defensive use of a fully extended posta longa:
Binding on the march
(B) stands in an extended posta longa, (A) can use whatever guard they like. (A)’s goal is to hit (B) with a thrust, reach wrestling distance, or push them out of bounds. (B)’s goal is to hit (A) with a thrust. Priority goes to (B) in the case of a double hit. Use the movement pattern (including the attack on the preparation) described previously.
The game is rather taxing technically speaking as the attacker’s footwork and bladework have to be on point to avoid being impaled, while the defender’s offensive options are somewhat limited by the full extension they must hold.
The two previous footwork patterns followed the constraint-led paradigm: limiting both fencers’ options so that they explore new solutions out of their comfort zones, thus addressing the attractor stability problem. However, an interesting expriment may be to approach the problem the other way around: finding the footwork patterns that support a predetermined goal. Consider the following drill:
Deep versus shallow
Fencer (A) stands in posta breve, hands forward and point online. Fencer (B) stands in a low guard such as dente di zenghiaro. (A) can only score with a thrust to a deep target. (B) can only score with a cut or a thrust to the arms or hands. Neither can parry. (A) has priority over (B) in case of double hit.
Empirically, role (A) favors strong commitment, and (B) tends instead to perform hit-and-run attacks from the edge of measure: the former can ignore doubles and thus extend without fear whenever they’re in range, while the latter has no choice but to void any counter-attack their opponent may throw. As a consequence, (A) is more likely to use passing footwork whereas (B) will probably rely on cautious lunges, baiting (A) into extending prematurely.
Such a behaviour fits Fiore’s advice: that boar’s tooth can avoid close play by avoiding passing footwork and aiming first and foremost for the hands. Games may therefore also provide a ‘proof of concept’ for interpretations, by organically demonstrating the relevance of the source material.