Sabre: Basic Defenses against Attack

Nota Bene: experienced fencers will see many holes in what is presented here. This is unavoidable – the following blog post is for the benefit of neophyte students at Great Plains Sword and BBQ who are still learning what a cut is (that is not a joke) and how to perform a basic block correctly.

Cuts are always numbered from the point of view of the person making the cut, not the point of view of the defender.

For the most basic exercise, we consider attacks like this:

  1. Descending forehand cut (to upper-body target)
  2. Descending backhand cut (to upper-body target)
  3. Rising forehand cut (to lower-body target)
  4. Rising backhand cut (to lower-body target)

The system considers “horizontal” cuts ( those which are neither rising nor falling) to be crude attacks which are easily defended against, and will be treated as a forehand or backhand blow more or less depending on the height at which the blow is thrown.  Thus, a high horizontal forehand cut will be considered semantically equal to a Cut 1.  (Note that this assumes similar “handedness.” A right-hander fencing a left-hander must treat forehand as backhand, and vice versa)

The system not having its origins in English, it does not distinguish between “blocks” and “parries,” though for convenience I will usually refer to a “block” collectively as defenses which stops the blade, whereas the word “parry” will not carry connotations of either “hardness” or “softness.” The word in this context is simply synonymous with “defense.”

Basic Defenses

Attack Defense
Cut 1 Parry 1
Cut 2 Parry 2
Cut 3 Parry 3
Cut 4 Parry 4

There are numerous subtleties to making the blocks which need to be explained:

  1. The body turns, typically no more than a maximum of thirty degrees from the centerline, in order to get the blade lined up with the angle of the attack.
  2. The hand turns the blade to create a 90 degree angle between the incoming blade and the parrying blade, while the arm rises or falls as needed to create contact. (Against a horizontal cut, the defender will not bother to ensure a 90-degree cut, because the attack angle does not require it – in this case the defender will simply ensure that the defense locks the incoming cut to the outside where it cannot be readily converted into either a thrust or a continued cut on a different angle).
  3. The blade is held in the center of the body, and the arm never drifts left or right of the defender’s center line in order to block or parry. For parries 1 and 2 the point is up, for parries 3 and 4 the point is down. In parries 1 and 2 the forward point of the blade forms a ramp which deflects incoming blades.
  4. The shock of the incoming blow is received on the blade and absorbed by the weight of the body, rather than using grip or shoulder strength to keep the parrying blade stable on impact.

Parries such as this are used in order to help the defender dictate a fighting geometry where the location of the opponent’s weapon is known. By doing this, the defender does two very important things:

  1. Removes the “guessing-game”
  2. Establishes superior positioning so that a riposte is always successful

The basic riposte will usually be whatever cut, thrust, or other action is required in order to return to guard, with the fighting geometry altered so that doing so puts the weapon through the opponent. There are edge cases.  What if the blow is thrown at the midsection?  In this case, we parry depending on the origin and angle of the cut.  For the “Basic Model” here, most rising cuts will still be met with parries 3 and 4, and most descending cuts will still be met with parries 1 and 2.

This is the first, base level that a student of the sabre should master.  This is not sophisticated fencing. That said, if the student is able ONLY to reliably parry incoming blows while setting up favorable fight geometry, mastering this basic skill will make the fencer a credible opponent who can hold his or her own against a more experienced opponent — and have a decided advantage over a peer-level opponent who has wasted time building castles of elaborate parries and athleticism on a foundation of sand.

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