Sword Play
Fencing Techniques-I

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We begin with basic techniques. For more advanced techniques, click here.

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1. The most common mistakes

Holding the grip too tight leads to numerous problems. The arm must be the primary strength control, although these muscles should be used to a minimum until action occurs. Many fencing attacks and parries require very flexible wrist movements in order to properly execute parries, counter-parries, envelopments, disengages and coupes. A tight grip also degrades the accuracy of point placement, since the arm will then move with the wrist and displace the point. Any preliminary arm movement is a signal of things to come ("telegraphing your moves"), and the movements become larger and slower. The famous Italian fencer and master, Santelli, told his fencers to "....grip the weapon as if you have a small bird in your hand". All of my fencing masters have made similar comments. First pick up the weapon with two or three fingers as shown below:

Three Finger Grip

(Note that this is a pistol grip foil, and that the French foil is held and fenced differently, since the grip is comparatively long and must be maneuvered around the wrist as the blade changes position). Then lightly wrap the other fingers around the grip as shown below. The blade should be in line with the arm, both vertically and horizontally. Note that three fingers do most of the holding.

 

Hand Position

 

A characteristic undesirable bend at the wrist is not unusual for beginning fencers, and it must be corrected at the earliest possible opportunity. There should be a slight bend at the elbow in the en garde position, and the elbow must be kept in toward the body. Keep the blade aligned with your forearm so that the arm lies in a vertical plane. The blade will tend to go toward the direction in which it is pointed, so the blade must be in line with both the target and the forearm, pointed toward the target. There is a tendency to bend the hand to the right and somewhat downward, which will make the point go towards the right and below the target. Aldo Nadi taught very small (with some exceptions), efficient movements and recommended the use of a tight wrist strap in order to be able to use very fine finger control for foil fencing. The wrist strap also helps keep the blade in line. Bela de Tuscan used very flexible wrist movements combined with finger control for sabre fencing, and this method can also be used for foil. The lunge will tend to move toward wherever you point your forward foot, so point it directly toward your opponent. The position of the knee can also cause problems, so keep it vertically over the front foot.

2. Improper distance:

Most fencers do not maintain sufficient distance between them and their opponent. You would not be standing so close if the opponent had a sharp weapon in his hand and he meant to use it on you. An opponent cannot score a hit against you if you maintain sufficient separation. Maintaining distance is not so easy to do in a competition, which is the reason why you must develop the proper techniques in practice. You should initially set the distance between you and your opponents one small step further than where you believe the tip of your weapon can hit your opponent in a full lunge. This distance should be maintained as you and your opponent move along the strip, which takes a lot of foot, leg and body control. If done properly, it will seem that you cannot reach your opponent in the lunge, which may seem uncomfortable. However, this is also true for your opponent, and you will be pleasantly surprised as to the results of this exercise.

3. Insufficient or Improper Lunge:

The lunge follows the arm thrust outward. As soon as you begin your thrust, raise the tip of your foot slightly and then move your front foot forward, powered by the quick straightening of the back leg. It is another common faux pas to raise the foot excessively in the lunge (looking like a "gazelle leaping across the plain", as my fencing masters would say). This simply wastes time and energy and actually slows down the movement. At the end of the lunge, the arm, the leg, the leading foot and the right shoulder should be in line with one another and pointing directly toward the targer. The knee should be over the leading foot, with the leg vertical, The lunge must be fully extended in order to make a touch on your opponent when maintaining proper distance. Some fencers simply refuse to extend to the full distance in their lunges (and they will never become top fencers). In the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the Chinese women's foil champion extender her lunge further than any other fencer that I have seen, and, not by coincidence, she won the gold medal. The knee of her fully extended left leg nearly touched the floor!

4. Large movements:

Large hand and arm movements are slow movements. The larger the movement, the slower the speed of the attack. The wrist movements do much of the work, so practice bending and twisting the wrist in order to move the point of the blade in space. The speed of the weapon may not always be the fastest for some movements, but the time that it takes to complete the movement should be minimal. Sometimes a large movement can work effectively (such as the coupe' combined with disengages). Inertia can work for you or against you. It usually works against you when using a wide overly powerful parry or beat, which is, again, typical for inexperienced fencers. It is better to practice the movement slowly and properly in the beginning, rather than going for speed. The speed will come with practice. The better fencers will easily counter large movements and use the excessive inertia and slow timing to their advantage. In order to maximize the speed of your attack, try to make the point with very small movements when thrusting. When disengaging (changing the line of the blade from one position to another around your opponents blade) in an indirect attack, watch your point as it moves around the opponents blade. If performed correctly, it should begin with the point moving forward and, as it reaches a point about 9 inches in front of the bell guard, try a semicircular movement around the opponent's blade with a diameter about the size of a quarter! The disengage movement should be very smooth (one continuous action). You will not be able to achieve such accuracy without a great deal of practice. This movement can be initially practiced slowly, with separate and distinct actions, and then must be made faster and smoother and until it becomes one complete movement.

5. The Arm:

I learned the hard way not to bend the arm excessively at the elbow when being attacked with an epee with a sharpened point in a "duel" and ended up with a puncture wound just above the crook of my arm. A lightly bent arm is especially beneficial when fencing epee, but Nadi taught that the arm is also only bent slightly in foil. When you go en garde, straighten the arm fully and then bend it slightly at the elbow. The elbow always seems to want to stick out from the body, which will cause problems on both on offense and defense. Make sure that you keep your elbow inward, that is towards the left if you are right handed. It helps to accentuate this in practice by keeping the elbow so far inward that it is somewhat uncomfortable. If you are having accuracy problems in placing the point during your attack, then you are most likely letting your elbow inadvertently move outward, which very nicely directs the point off target. The expert fencer strives to place the point to a target location within the diameter of a dime, which is very difficult to learn. A tight elbow is the cause of many problems, so loosen up your elbow so that it lies vertically downward in line with the center of your forward leg. The blade should also be completely in line with your forearm in the normal en garde position. The thrust, when done properly, does not feel like you are pushing the blade, but more like your arm, and then your body, are following the blade forward (this is a mind set that is not unlike the sport of boxing, where focus is very important). It is not easy to attain an extremely fast thrust with a loose arm, but it most certainly can be done, but it takes discipline to begin with a loose, slightly bent arm and end up with a straight arm. When retreating, it is generally best to move the body backward with the torso completely erect, starting with your back foot initiating the movement (but not lifting it too high). If this is not done prodigiously, the distance between you and your opponent will inevitably close, resulting in insufficient distance and a bent arm, potentially giving your opponent the advantage. However, if the distance closes very quickly, then the arm should be allowed to bend so as to avoid injuries to the opponent or a broken blade. This, too, requires much practice to achieve. If you are a new fencer and find this task difficult, you are not alone. It has always amused me as to how the arm and leg seem to be attached by a hidden rope. A beginning fencer most always will move the arm and leg together, with the leg (rather than the blade) mistakenly leading the attack, which "telegraphs" the message to your opponent that the attack is coming. A similar phenomenon occurs when concentrating on foot movements, where the elbow seems to want to bend outward. It takes a great deal of practice and concentration to perform these movements correctly and delay the leg movement..

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