The FIE Technical Rules (“Rules”) define “fencing time” as “the duration of execution of a simple action”. In my opinion this definition has become obsolete. Furthermore, the current definition of “fencing time” makes no distinction between epee and the conventional weapons.
The FIE was officially established on November 29, 1913. Although the various fencing schools and politics of the time certainly influenced the first set of Rules, the sport of fencing, in 1913, was still strongly connected to duelling. For this reason, the Rules governing the training weapons used in fencing salles, i.e., the foil (also known as the “salle épée” as opposed to the terrain épée), and the salle sabre were strongly predicated on terrain fencing.
In a real duel the touch to be avoided was the so-called “two-widows” touch, which today we call the double touch. This implied prudence in initiating an offensive action because of the existential need to avoid being hit; hence, the rule adopted in salle fencing to deflect the opponent’s weapon from the line before scoring a touch. This could be done either with an effective beat, or with an immediate riposte after a parry with the blade. More difficult actions, but highly effective, were those actions that we Italians now call “actions in tempo,” which in the Italian school are designated as counteroffensive actions. Many of these actions, like contractions (appuntata and imbroccata) and target removal (inquartata and passata sotto) were performed during the final phase of an offensive action. However, when they failed, the outcome resulted in a double touch and this failure was correctly attributed to the fencer who had poorly executed the “action in tempo.“ Under ROW, the score was awarded to the fencer who had successfully completed the offensive action.
The problem (to create a technical rule according to this logic) was to establish the way to attribute the ROW with the remaining “actions in tempo” in which the counter-offensive touch was supposed to precede the touch of the offensive action (which had started first). It was thought, with good reason, that a touch that landed first would have stopped the opponent’s action, taking away its momentum.
Yes. But how long before should the counteroffensive touch land ahead of the offensive touch?
In épée, this problem was empirically resolved by setting the timing on the scoring machine to a twentieth of a second (from 40 to 50 milliseconds).
In foil and in sabre (rather than being left to the scoring machine as in épée), this judgment was left to the referee, guided in his evaluation of the fencing time by his perception and experience. It became necessary, however, to define this elusive concept in writing. We can all agree that a sharp épée point that pierces flesh has a different effect on different targets. In addition, the pain caused by a touch in a real duel would have stopped a fencing action. This is not the case, in salle fencing.
And, voilà, a concept borne out of a method of training became the infamous “fencing time.”
When teaching fencing, it is customary to break down fencing actions in units of tempos, which are determined by the coordinated movements of the arm with the legs. An action performed with an advance and lunge is broken down into three moments, or tempos: one for the movement of the front foot, one for the rear foot, the third for the lunge. If the action is performed with only the lunge, the number of “tempos” will result from the corresponding blade movements. For example, a beat followed by a feint and deceive, is considered an action in three units of tempos. In theoretical fencing, the study of the applicable countermeasures is spawned from the analysis of these tempos and the breakdown of the corresponding underlying movements. While this artifice is very helpful in the teaching of fencing, it does not reflect reality.
The breakdown of fencing actions into tempos connected to the movement of the legs was not problematic but it became so when the units of tempos were connected to the so-called “simple actions”. In the Italian school, an offensive action is considered a “simple action” if it does not elude a parry. Therefore, it may consist in more than one movement, e.g., as in a beat followed by a straight thrust.
But in the French school, which prevailed at that time, a fencing action is considered “simple,” only if executed in one movement. For example, a disengage is a simple action even if it is a complex movement in which the tip of the blade goes around the hand or the blade of the opponent. A coupé (or cut over), also a simple action in the French school, is even more complex since it involves lifting the blade back and over that of the opponent, to then lower it again to deliver the hit. Most likely, there was a mix-up between the concept of “simplicity” and that of “speed of execution”.
By adopting the French definition that the fencing time is the duration of a simple action, another fundamental factor was overlooked: that the speed of execution is not the same for each fencer and therefore, it is different for any two fencers facing each other during a bout on the strip.
Then came the electrical scoring machine. On the one hand it solved the problem of establishing the materiality of the touch, but on the other hand it led to a lower – much less – linearity of the touches, i.e., the arm was more bent and not in line. This led to increased bending of the fencing arm during the attack. In turn, this caused increased difficulty, to the referee in determining the actual start of an attack action, which under the current FIE rules, should be considered as such only when the arm is fully extended. Of all the Rules, this is the most disregarded.
But let’s go back to “fencing time” and consider some practical examples.
Imagine an action of feint -deceive against an opponent who is in a sixth invitation, thereby anticipating the opponent’s parry in four. The offensive action is in two tempos and the theory tells us that on the first tempo, i.e., while the attacker performs the straight feint, it is possible to anticipate him with a stop thrust to the chest. In reality, the feint-deceive attack is executed as an action that cannot be stopped (or changed mid-way) and the stop thrust will be executed in outward opposition landing during the first movement of the attack while the deceive will land, immediately afterwards against the closed line. If the attack were to hit the target anyway, Masaniello Parise would blame the fencer for poor execution of the stop thrust, but a careful referee should still give the ROW to the stop thrust, because it was executed in the correct tempo.
Now imagine that the attacker incorrectly anticipates that the opponent (always in a sixth invitation) will react with two lateral parries (moving to four and then back to six) to his straight feint, deceive-deceive to the inside chest. His opponent, guessing the intention of the attacker, decides, instead, to execute a stop thrust on the straight feint; therefore, with a two-tempo advantage. But suppose that the attack, albeit with a two-tempo delay, reaches the target. If both lights go on, do you think the referee will still give the ROW to the stop thrust?
The concept of fencing time was conceived more than a century ago by the drafters of the first technical rules. It is now fantasy with no concrete application. It is not by chance that the timing for the double lights in foil, which previously was one and a half seconds and up to two seconds, is now fixed at about one third of a second; and in the sabre it is even less.
In competition therefore, we see the referee always giving ROW to the attacker if both lights go on. And many fencing masters who are guided by the rules protest and take it out on the referees. And this is just one example of the many differences between the written rules and their application. Wouldn’t it be better to change the Rules, and make sure that this difference disappears?
by Giancarlo Toràn
translated by Gil Pezza