Fencing Distance

The combination of distance, timing, tempo, and technique define fencing tactics. In this mix, distance, the actual separation between the fencers, is critical in that it establishes the minimum footwork requirements for any tactical application. To better understand the implications for tactics fencing coaches and authors of fencing textbooks have always defined distance based on the characteristics of the attack.

Fencing masters in the classical period up to World War II defined three distances as the basis for their teaching:

… Short – the separation at which the opponent could be hit by a simple extension from the guard position. This was sometimes referred to as extension distance.

… Medium – the separation at which a lunge was needed to hit the opponent with an attack. This was sometimes referred to as lunging distance.

… Long – the separation at which an advance was needed to bring the fencer into lunging distance. This was sometimes referred to as advance lunge distance.

These definitions originate in the second half of the 1800s when fencing was done from engagement. They made sense in the context of a sport in which bladework was more important than footwork. However, times have changed with a faster, more athletic game in which distance and timing is everything and footwork is the basis for scoring.

The three classical distances remain, but have been expanded with the addition of:

… Infighting – the distance at which unusual body and blade positions are needed due to the minimal separation between the fencers.

… Marching – the distance at which multiple steps and footwork maneuvers are required to bring the opponent to the distance at which an attack can be mounted.

At the same time changes in how all three weapons are fenced mean that the classical definitions require revision. With elite level fencers, the outer half of Medium Distance is becoming an Advance-Lunge Distance in which an accelerating footwork movement is needed to get inside the opponent’s reaction time, decision loop, and ability to step back out of range.

The classical Long Distance now requires multiple steps or footwork traps in preparation and is more accurately identified as Preparation Distance. The advance now simply gives the opponent the opportunity to maintain the distance by retreat.

This creates a more complicated picture, with the following scale of distances:

… Infighting

… Short

… Medium

… Advance-Lunge

… Preparation

… Marching

Operationally any distance effectively includes not only the distance between two fencers but also the distance available to the opponent in the retreat within the duration of the attack. As the speed of the sport has increased, any attack must consider where the opponent will be when the attack arrives, not where the opponent was when the attack started.

In addition it is important to identify which target is defining the distance you are considering in all three weapons. Differences in the target zone selected create differences in where the attack has to be launched. For example, Medium Distance to the advanced target or to the head or torso in epee or sabre are significantly different distances.

In this list the boundaries between Medium and Advance-Lunge, Advance-Lunge and Preparation, and Preparation and Marching Distances are fuzzy and are subject to individual reaction times, the fencers’ level of concentration, and several environmental factors. This means that a neat division is very difficult, and probably impossible, to develop. Some coaches would disagree with these divisions (and many still operate with the original three), and I should note that they are based on my experience with their names and descriptions being mine alone.

Regardless of how you classify and describe distance, it is a critical factor in modern fencing. I encourage you to think about distance and its impacts on tactics and to include distance problems in your teaching.