Intelligent fencing


Parrying a single attack, typically a mandritto cut or a stoccata thrust is arguably the foundation of all skill in Bolognese swordsmanship. Delivering them is the loyal companion of this skill, but the art is born out of the necessity of defense, not the necessity of offense. At least I tend to look at it this way, though it could be argued otherwise.

This skill is principally just one step, action or a tempo. It is a sword projected towards an opening in the fencer’s persona, which is shut off by the fencer’s parry before the sword can come to make contact. Even just with the two attacks mentioned above, this can happen in an infinite number of ways: first depending on the guards in which the fencers have settled (not to even mention if they haven’t, but are constantly on the move), then by the distance, then by smaller and smaller differences.

This skill can be easily learned even if it takes a considerable amount of practice to be able to consistently recognize the attack (in this case, cut or a thrust) and to choose and execute the correct defense at the correct time. Having this simple drill carry over to the more chaotic nature of freely fencing with your friends (or the hypothetical unfriendly fight or duel), is more difficult.

Fencing is an interesting art because it is essentially very simple and doesn’t require any skill to do. The concept of wounding someone with a sword and using it to protect oneself is something built in to every person I have ever met. People react to a weapon differently, and for some violence, fighting or working with the sword comes more easily and for some it is more alien. Still every one can do it even without any instruction.

While watching an untrained person fence with a sword for the first time can be a dreadful sight to the trained eye, there is no denying that by chance alone they might end up successful even against the most experienced opponent. Unlike in a fistfight, where hits can be taken, in a sword fight one simple mistake can have serious consequences. The trained fencer might even find himself in trouble against a novice, since their random and even suicidal actions can be much harder to ward off than the secure device of a trained, careful swordsman. In the end the training and skill (the art) should overcome random circumstances and all manner of opponents, but the experience required to become so good is considerable.

In our Bolognese classes this spring I have decided to experiment with ways of bringing more thought and intelligence into fencing. Less reacting and relying on chance or speed alone, but rather in intelligently built designs that can be safely carried out.

The first necessary step is to expand the process way beyond the one-step drills of attack and defense. That will be material for the beginners and those with more experience will be expected to move on. Adding another step will give us the provocations, including feints, beats to the sword, false attacks, invitations and engaging the opponent’s sword in order to make them move. Essentially this is learning to attack beyond merely doing one strike.

Finally a third step will be added, and this will be an action done out of measure in order to intelligently get into the right position from where to launch a given design. And all of this will have to be done so that the fencer simultaneously observes the opponent and makes sure he is in the correct position to allow for the design to work.

Of course this will be introduced through drills and eventually it should be natural – just the way fencing is for the novice – but guided by reason.

As an exercise to start learning this approach we had people practice in pairs, where one settles into a guard (this already teaches to work within a certain set of positions) and the other pair has to attack the opening. Then, the attacker has to approach the (static) opponent with two steps and actions, still aiming for the same opening. He has to visualize the sequence before committing. Then, a third step is added.

Then, the until now static fencer will make one parry against the incoming strike to the opening (just as in the first skill mentioned in the beginning) and the attacker has to change the attack into a feint and a strike to the other side (again visualizing the actions first). Then he has to approach with an action, then feint and then strike.

Then the exercise can be made to offer more challenge. The defender can choose to do either a single or two parries, and in case of two, the attacker has to do another feint. This will teach him to use the design as a guideline where options will come naturally: a strike can be a strike or a feint depending on the situation.

Then the defender can, after he has been hit, return with a thrust or a cut. This will teach the attacker to recover backwards safely under cover. In essence it will teach him to deal with the “after-blow”.

The amount of conscious thinking in the drill should be varied. In the beginning it should be emphasized but as the correct actions begin to flow more easily the conscious thinking phase can be used as a tool for the situations where the attacker does mistakes. On the other hand, if success is constant, more speed and a more dynamic and moving starting position can be utilized until the drill becomes more and more free-fencing like.

It should be noted, that this exercise can me mixed with doing a lot of repetitions of the single-step parry and strike under pressure with speed. This exchange should increase both the ability to quickly make the right decisions and to treat the situation with intelligence.

It will be interesting to see what kind of results this approach will have.

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