To attack or not to attack. That is the question.

It has often been debated as to whether the offender or defender has an innate advantage during a fight. It was debated during George Silver’s day, it was debated before Silver ever picked up a sword, and it’s still debated today in the minds of many newcomers to fencing. At the center is the question of where it is innately better to make the first attack (and thus get the jump on your opponent) or whether it’s innately better to lie in wait until you opponent attacks you, defend first, and attack him in the opening his own attack has created.

Silver did not agree with either saying that if the fighter who attacks first has the advantage, then what is the point of parrying. Similarly if the advantage lies in defending than why should a fighter risk his life to attack. Silver held instead that there is no absolute advantage in either attacking or defending. Rather he maintained than the advantage lied in having true pace, time, and space in the fight whether he is attacking or defending.

Interestingly, Saviolo also held a similar opinion. He maintained that a fighter should stay in guard until he had gained an advantage over his opponent, through body positioning, etc. and at that point only should he attack whether that means attacking first or not. However, there are times when he maintained that it was more advantageous to maintain your guard rather than to attack. For example, if a fighter found himself being charged by an opponent who was running intensely at him he should maintain his ward and thrust at his opponent when he comes in range. In this situation the defender would have the advantage because just as he maintained his stance, his opponent was neither in ward nor standing firm. Also, the more intense the attacker’s charge the more dangerous the defender’s stance is for him because his speed and momentum could easily run him upon the defender’s blade.

Personally I’ve always held the opinion, like Silver, that it depends on the situation. Sometimes you’ll want to defend first. Perhaps you want to feel out your opponent for a couple of passes to get an idea of the strength of his attack or his technical skill. Maybe you want to lull him into a false sense of security or maybe you are biding your time until he opens that hole you know he always opens on the 3rd pass. Then there are times when you will want to attack first. You’ll want to strike while your opponent isn’t paying attention or you want to close quickly before he can back out of range again. Your choice will depend greatly on the circumstances you find yourself in. If there was an innate advantage in always defending first no one would ever attack and vice versa. Instead, take the time to practice and drill you basics so you will be prepared for whatever situation you find yourself in.

One Reply to “To attack or not to attack. That is the question.”

  1. This is even further compounded by the rules of Italian Judicial Duel. In this format one of the fencers is required to throw the first blow. * Therefore, one must be prepared to both attack and defend. Further, you would be able to prepare, knowing whether you are going to be attacking or defending first.

    *This is based on research presented at WMAW by Tom Leoni.

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