How to Understand Fencing Tactics as a Spectator

The amazing tactical complexity of modern fencing has earned the sport the nickname, “Physical Chess”. To the uninitiated, watching fencing can be difficult and baffling. Here is a primer on basic tactics to help you understand the intricacies of each fencing phrase.


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    Observe and study The Tactical Wheel- imagine a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, but with many more components. The basic tactical wheel is similar, as each tactic will defeat the one before it, and be defeated by the one following if executed properly. The pieces are as follows:Simple Attack (an attack executed as one quick action) is defeated by Parry and Riposte (defending with the blade and/or distance, and then attacking) is defeated by Compound Attack (an attack executed with multiple “feints” to close distance and draw out the final parry) is defeated by Counter Attack/Attack on Preparation (a timed Simple Attack into the early, non-threatening phase of the Compound Attack) is defeated by Counter Time (a feint or preparation used to draw the Counter Attack so the ATTACKER may then make Parry and Riposte) is defeated by Feint in Tempo (a compound counter attack used to evade the Counter-time) is defeated by Simple Attack (the wheel comes full-circle.).

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    Compound knowledge of fencing tactics with The Second Intention- Each of the above actions may also be executed with a specific, pre-determined follow-up action in mind. For example, instead of answering Parry and Riposte with Compound Attack, a subtle fencer may make her next attack just out of distance, to allow time for a ‘counter-parry and counter-riposte”. Her first action would thus be called “Second Intention Simple Attack”. Actions can also be made in The Third (or Fourth) Intention, but discerning and employing this level of subtlety can be extremely difficult.

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    Understand that experienced fencers will generally try to jump around the Tactical Wheel in order to “out-think” their opponent, rather than trying to score touches with speed and power alone, the object being to maneuver the opponent into a position where they are vulnerable to the fencer’s best actions. Keep this in mind when watching bouts.

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    Always remember that in Foil and Saber fencing, the Tactical Wheel plays a role in determining “priority” or “right-of-way”. The referee’s decision about which fencer has priority when a touch occurs determines which fencer is awarded points, if any. Try to determine the fencers’ intentions while you watch. This will help you to understand why some touches are awarded, and some are not. In Epee fencing, the first fencer to hit scores and there is no priority. When both fencers hit simultaneously (within 1/25th of a second), both score. Understanding the tactical wheel will help you to “get inside the fencers’ heads”, increasing your enjoyment of the sport.

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    In Foil and Saber fencing, it may be difficult to understand why a fencer has right-of-way when both fencers hit. If either fencer asks the referee to “reconstruct” (the proper way, according to fencing etiquette, for a fencer to ask for an explanation), listen carefully to the words of the referee. It will often make what you missed clearer. Some referees explain regardless of such a request, but many simply award the touche (the formal name for a point in fencing) with no explanation or hand motions. Reading the rapid motions of a referee employing hand motions may be difficult, so remember these basics: a finger pointed towards the ground on one side of the referee signifies right-of-way for the fencer on that side, an arm sticking straight out in one direction signifies an attack or counterattack made by the fencer on the side opposite that arm, arms crossed in the air signify a parry made on the side of the referee on which his or her arms are crossed, and a hand held up in the air (sometimes with the arm showing attack or counterattack still extended) signifies a touche for the fencer on that side of the referee.

“Six Inches of Steel”: Bowie knife fighting instruction by Louis Juan Ohnimus (1890)

Thanks to Maxime Chouinard for locating and forwarding this fascinating, unique technical account of close-combat instruction with the famous Bowie knife.  The article transcribed here was originally published in the “St.Louis Republic” of June 14th, 1890; it was evidently heavily based on an earlier article published in the San Francisco Examiner.

Ohnimus portrait

The subject of the article, Louis Juan Ohnimus was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania on October 27, 1857.  His family had moved to California when he was twelve years old.  By circa 1880 Ohnimus had taken up a position as the Superintendant of Woodward’s Gardens, a large botanical garden/zoo/museum/amusement park complex in San Francisco’s Mission District.  He had the reputation of being an athletic outdoorsman and animal-catcher with years of experience in the wilderness, and also seems to have been considered a local authority in exotic weaponry; another San Francisco Examiner article details his expertise with the riata (lariat).

After Woodward’s Gardens closed in 1891, Ohnimus became the President of the San Francisco Civil Service Commission, a position he held until his untimely death due to pneumonia on April 2, 1903.


Deadly Accuracy of a Bowie Knife in a Hand-to-Hand Conflict

A Weapon that Never Misses Fire if You Know How to Use It
How to Avoid a Fatal Thrust

In a dusty corner of the office at Woodward’s Gardens, says the San Francisco Examiner, hangs an old bowie knife.  The blade is long and heavy and the rough handle is weighted to balance it.  It has been there for years and years, and if there is any story connected with it, it has been forgotten long ago.

A reporter, looking at the old relic, suggested that the time for such weapons had passed.

“That wouldn’t be of much use in these days of double-action six-shooters, would it?” said the newspaper man.  “Another thing is that there is little to be learned about handling a knife.  Men are pretty nearly equal when you put a knife in the hand of each.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Mr. Ohnimus. “More men carry knives than you think, and I know of those who, at a distance inside of twenty feet, could best any man, except an expert, with a pistol, and even the expert would find it hard work to get away with them.  As to the question of skill, there is a great difference between men in handling knives as there is in fencing.  You can judge how skilful men may become when you know that some of the celebrated knife duels lasted for hours – and the men trying to cut each other all the time – before one went under.  I’m not an expert, but if you like, I’ll show you a little of the science of the knife.

The first thing, of course, is to have a knife you can depend on.  It must be just the right weight, perfectly balanced, slender enough to penetrate easily and yet so strong as to go through an inch board without breaking.  Such a knife is easily worth $40 or $50, and no gold or silver filigree on it, either.”

“A double edge is the best, isn’t it?”

“Not to my notion.  I’ll show you why.”

He produced a couple of common knives, one double-edged and one bowie.

“Now, lunge at me,” said Mr. Ohnimus.  The newspaper man, with the two-edged weapon, did as he was bid.



The two knives rung together, edge to edge.  They cut a notch in each other that locked them fast.

“Now, I’ll thrust, and you try the same thing.”

When the bowie came the other knife went down on its smooth back.  The edge of the dagger was dented again, but it slipped right off the Bowie.

“You hold your knife like the stage avengers,” said Ohnimus.  “That’s wrong for half a dozen reasons.  You should take it just as you would a sword.  In the first place, you lose reach, and in the second place, if I can grab your wrist or get my hand over yours, you are helpless, and if I am strong enough I can force your hand down and stab you with your own knife.  That’s the way Porfirio Gomez killed an Italian gambler at Culebra Pass.  Gomez was entirely unarmed, and the faro-dealer came for him.  The Mexican was very strong and as quick as a cat, and before the Italian knew what was up, his knife, with his own hand still grasping the handle, was into him up to the hilt.

Besides, you can’t throw a knife from that position, and in a row you always want to be ready to do that.  Another thing you must not do is wave your knife or fence like you would do with a sword.  Move your hand as much or as quickly as you please, but keep the point directly toward your adversary.  The Mexicans, and I guess they know more about handling knives than any other people on earth, keep the point directly toward the other man’s eyes.  They keep it circling about like a flash of fire, compelling the other man to keep his eyes on it.  They work around quicker and quicker until they see a chance, and then down goes the knife quicker than the eye can follow it.”

“Yes, but if I keep my knife ready, how can you help running on to it?”

“Well, just try and I’ll show you.”


The two took their positions with wooden knives and Ohnimus’ knife point began to dance before the reporter’s eyes.  A few seconds of this during which Ohnimus constantly shifted his position, then the man who understood knives dashed his hat into his opponent’s face and at the same instant brought his knife against his breast.

“That is an old trick,” he said.  “A man must do it awful quick.  His adversary must not see his hand move to his hat.  That hand must go even faster than the one that holds the knife.”

“How would you avoid that if someone tried it on you?”

“By jumping sideways, backward or dodging.  Fighting with knives is like boxing and everything else. Every attack has its defense, but the quickest and coolest man can, of course, sometimes get in a thrust even if the other man knows how it ought to be stopped – like La Blanche’s swing that knocked Dempsey out.  I remember a case.  Lightning Jake was about as good a knifeman as I ever saw.  He beat numbers of great fighters.  Well, one day a young fellow got into a dispute with him, and both drew their knives.  Jake had fought so many good men that he was always looking for fancy work and the young fellow poked out like a farmer and got him.

Now I’ll show you how to meet a thrust.  Let drive!”

Out went the reporter’s blade.


Ohnimus caught his arm on his knife, and with the left hand knocked the blow down, and the reporter’s weapon flew to the ground.

“That would have disabled your fighting arm,” said Ohnimus, “besides disarming you.  Another way of stopping that down thrust is this.”   This time, just as the blade touched Ohnimus’ body, he brought his own down full on the other’s wrist.  Almost the same moment, he struck the back of his own blade heavily with his left hand.

“That would come pretty near cutting off your hand,” he said.

“Probably a safer way than either,” he resumed, “is simply to catch you about the biceps muscles when you strike.  That will stop you quick enough.”


“Well, how would you get the thrust in?”

“I would try to get so low that you could not reach me.”


“Well, if I did that, how would you avoid it?”

“I’d simply drop to the floor, and then you could not get under my guard.  As you see, there is a way to stop everything, and the quickest man wins.  You keep your man’s eyes on the point of your knife, and then you have to decide how to fight.  You may be able to run past him on one side, and stick your knife into his side as you go.

Twisting Dan’s best trick was a good one.  He would dodge around his man, suddenly grab his knife arm by the elbow, twist him around with the jerk and stab him in the back.  He made a grab at a slippery little chap once, though,  and missed the elbow, and his friends buried him right there.


A favorite attack is to catch your adversary’s arm between your arm and your body, and while you pinion him in this shape, drive your knife in between his shoulder blades.  You usually aim for his neck or the armpit nearest you, where there are no bones to interfere.  The stomach is, of course, the best place to reach a man to end him, but you want to keep as far from your adversary as possible, so you aim for the nearest spot.

Another trick that has caught many a good man is this: you retreat before your adversary’s attack, and at last start to run.  If he runs after you, you increase your pace until your are sure he cannot stop.  Then you drop directly in his path and either hold your knife so he will run into it or let him fall over you and, as he turns, stab him in the back.”


Getting down onto the floor is a pretty safe thing to do in a knife fight of you are on the defensive.  You can pivot on one knee, and a cool man with a knife in that position is awful hard to get at.  The only thing to do is to get down, too, and fight it out on the ground.”

“You spoke of a knife against a revolver.  Do you mean to say you could get away with me if I wanted to shoot you?”

“Try it,” said Ohnimus.

The reporter strapped on a revolver.

“Now, draw and snap it,” taking a position over ten feet away.



Almost before the pistol was out of the scabbard, Ohnimus’ knife struck gently on the reporter’s armpit.  Before the trigger was pulled, Ohnimus had caught the pistol and thrown it up.

“It is not much of a trick to throw a knife, but it is dangerous.  You part with your weapon and if you don’t win on the one throw you are gone.  Still, in many cases that it the only chance, and it has won lots of times.

There is a Mexican over in San Quentin now who killed two men by throwing his knife.  One came for him with a pistol and the other had a Winchester rifle.”

“A rifle!”

“Oh, yes.  That is easier to beat with a knife than a pistol at close range.  In a room, for instance, an expert with a knife would have an advantage of a man with a rifle.  A quick man would not even have to throw his knife.  Before the fellow with the rifle would aim and fire, he could dodge and come up under the rifle barrel and throw it up.


Don’t let anybody tell you that the knife is no good.  A clever man will do more with it than with a pistol, and it never misses fire.”


The ‘Second intention’ tactic, in German Fechtbuch of 16th century


By George E. Georgas

An integral part of the art of fencing is the matter of tactic. The trainee in the art of fencing deals with the use tactic, from his first lessons. One of the greatest chapters of tactic is the Second intention. You will be able to give a general definition of the Second Intention as Maestro Charis Tsolakis (Federal coach and scientific partner of Hellenic Fencing Federation) wrote in his book with title ‘Specific issues of Fencing’:
‘Second Intention are defined the preparations which cause the parry or the counter attack of the opponent, and which should be confront with offensive of defensive way.’

With other words, Second Intention are the actions of the fencer who have the intention to create the illusion to his opponent that he is doing a simple attack, while in fact he is hiding a ‘plan’. But what is the simple attack?

Simple attacks are the actions which hit the opponent in one fencing time. For example a lunge, a thrust (An attack made by moving the sword parallel to its length and landing with the point), a cut (An attack made with a chopping motion of the blade, landing with the edge), the disengagements, a riposte (after a parry) and also the cut-over. All of them are simple attacks.
From the other hand the ‘Second Intention’ is more complicated. A classical version of Second Intention is a false attack which executed as a feint, and it has the result the parry and the riposte of the opponent and following with a parry and a contre riposte from the initial attacker. So in fact the attacker had the intention to hit his opponent with the tactic as I describe above.
The ‘key’ of this matter is the initial illusion of the attacker which with this act he provoke his opponent to act as he wish, but he is using also the time and the distance for his advantage. His goal is to make his opponent to think that with a parry and a riposte should win the duel. At this point here comes the ‘Second Intention’, where the initial attacker gives the initiative for a reason to his opponent and he is getting back.
Off course this is just an example. In a duel we are not sure that everything is as we want to be. The defender for example could be executing a contra attack instead of parry riposte, so if this should be done that going to change the plan of the initial attacker.
The second important point of this tactic is the response of the opponent. If the opponent attack at once, then it is easy for the initial attacker to parry and riposte and hit his opponent. Off course all these involve that the initial false attack must be done with a way that it does not scare his opponent and make him to open the distance or do something against the ‘plan’, but he must persuade him to attack him with dragging a false confidence that he will win.
This technique is applying in Classical and also in Modern fencing. We can find it in French school of fencing and also in Italian school of fencing. However this tactic is much older and it was to use the application with long swords which are much heavier than a saber, a small sword or a foil.

One of the first detailed record of this tactic we can found from one Fechtbuch of the German fencing master Joachim Meÿer. As we know Joachim Meÿer was a 16th century Freifechter and fencing master and the last great figure of the tradition of the grand master Johannes Liechtenauer. Let me give some information for those that does not know his work.
Joachim Meyer was born at 1537 in the city of Basel (located in north Switzerland). We do not know much about his youth and his travels to foreign lands searching the secrets of sword techniques. From his manual of 1560 we know that maybe he had military training also, because he wrote in this that he was serving in military with the person the manual was created for. We suppose that he gain rapier skills from his travels, probably from France or Italy and also the thrusts and cuts techniques of rapier (side sword) come from Bolognese school of fencing which was very popular in North Italy. This evidence come from the rapier (side sword) section of his Fechtbuch he mentions he studied a broad learning the art of the thrust from foreigners which he is now teaching to Germans, alluding to his travels to a “foreign country“. These countries were probably Italy or France. At those two countries this new weapon was very popular. Maybe he even came in contact with other foreign long sword styles (perhaps from Italian circle).

Also there were fade evidences that probably he was trained in the Marxbruder and could possibly even have been a formative influence to the Federfechter which came to rival the Marxbruder is stature and imperial favor. There are several references to Meyer being connected to the Marxbruder and his service and association with the Dukes of Mecklenberg who were the patrons to the Federfechter guild are the only clues. Master Meyer himself only describes himself as a Freyfechter or free fencer which is a guild rank.
He was also famous about the writing of the Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens (1570) and also the two manuscripts, the MS A.4º.2 (1560s) and the MS Varia 82 (1570-71). The legacy of Joachim Meyer does not stop there. He was established a fencing school in Strasbourg. His Fechtschule (fencing school) in Strasbourg, was very popular in Holy Roman empire. As a result when was taken over during the Acquisition of Strasbourg by Louis XIV in 1681; it was turned into the “Academie de Arms” and essentially absorbed into the French school of fence. So, the art of Meyer transformed to something new and many of his handworks and techniques were used (or there still in use) as strategy and tactics in the France school of fencing.
In one of his books, Meÿer is making an analysis the tactic of the second Intention as a long sword technique and he wrote:
‘Start an attack which will not hit to provoke your opponent to attack you. Be prepared for this and displace his strike. “Wait” for him to lift his sword from the bind for a secondstrike, and hit him (in vor) while he is doing this.’
As we can observe here in this technique does not record at his book with the name ‘Second Intention’, but we can say that it is an early form of it. Also I have to underline that the word ‘Vor’ one of its meaning is the ‘initiative’. Maybe the use of long sword were stopped to use many years after his death but his thoughts and his teachings were used as tactics and strategies in the “Academie de Arms”, which is one of the fundamental tactics of the school until the present day using other weapons than the long sword.
As a result we can see that the tactics and the strategy of a fencer it has not to do of what type of sword he use. The root is the same. For this reason I am going to close this article with a quote that wrote the founder of the German school of fencing Johannes Liechtenauer :
‘In fact, there is only one art of the sword which is identical and unchanged for centuries and it is the core and the matrix of all martial arts.’

I thank Mr. Johannes Pelzer for the translation of the original text, from the German language to English.

– Ειδικά Θέματα Ξιφασκίας, Χάρης Τσολάκης, εκδόσεις Αθλότυπο, Αθήνα 2007
– A Thorough Description of the Free Knightly and Noble Art of Combat with all Customary Weapons, adorned and presented with many fine    and useful illustrations, By Joachim Meyer, Freifechter of Strassburg, 1570. By privilege of His Majesty the Holy Roman Emperor not to be printed again in any form for ten years
– The Art and Practice of Longsword Combat according to Joachim Meyer, Free Fencer . By Mike Cartier © 2005
– Introduction to Meyer Longsword, By Mike Carter April 2006 Meyer Frei Fechter
– Ξιφασκία Μεθοδολογία Προπόνησης, Χ.Τσολάκης,Κ. Αθανασιαδης, Π.Ντουράκος, εκδόσεις Αθλότυπο
– Ξιφασκία Χ.Τσολάκης, A.Szabo, Aθήνα 1996

George E. Georgas is the founder of the Hellenic Academy of Historical European Martial Arts ‘Leontes’. He is certificated fencing instructor of the Hellenic Fencing Federation and also national referee of the Hellenic Fencing Federation at the epee. He is instructor of Meyer Freifechter Guild with the rank of Fecther and he is the Guild Unterhauptman for Greece. He is also member of Learn Sword Fight (Gladiatores). He is in the Administration Council of the ‘Pammachon’. He is also instructor of weapon fighting of the Association of Historical studies ‘KORYVANTES’. He is studying the ancient Greek and Byzantine warfare, such as the use of rompaia, spathion and paramirion types of swords and other weapons such as the spear. He is also give stage fighting lessons to the theatrical team ‘The Blue Rose.’

Οι θέσεις Φυλάξης της Γερμανικής σπαθασκίας, από τον Joachim Meyer . Εδώ φαίνονται οι τέσσερεις βασικές μαζί με τις -δευτερεύουσες θέσεις φυλάξεως από τον Joachim Meyer ο οποίος ήταν δάσκαλος οπλομαχίας.