{mosimage}Q: In Foil, what constitutes an attack?

Bill Oliver of the US Fencing Officials Commission (FOC) provides an analysis of the rules surrounding the attack and interpretation on how the attack is defined.

Much has been said about what does and does not constitute an attack in foil. Tradition contends that the attack must have a straight arm, with the tip of the foil constantly pointing towards the opponent’s target, in a line drawn from the top of the shoulder thorough the tip of the blade. Any deviation from this results in a total loss of any priority of the action.

Popular belief has it that any aggressive action (footwork, bladework, bad breath) has priority, and nothing can remove that priority, except a parry.


Reality is, of course somewhere between.

Article t.7 states that

“The attack is the initial offensive action made by extending the arm and continuously threatening the opponent’s target, preceding the launching of the lunge or flèche “

This seems fairly obvious: In order to have the priority of attack, one must extend one’s arm and threaten the opponent’s target before beginning the lunge (the final action of the attack.) In other words, stick your arm out, charge down the strip and poke your opponent in the ribs. Key words: extending arm, continuous threat, preceding the launching of the lunge.

Further, article t.56 states:

…every initial offensive action which is correctly executed must be parried or completely avoided….

A correct attack retains priority until it fails.

So, what constitutes a “correct” attack? And, what makes it fail?

Article t.56 goes on to state:

In order to judge the correctness of an attack the following points must be considered:

The simple attack, direct or indirect (cf. t.8), is correctly executed when the extending of the arm, the point threatening the valid target, precedes the initiation of the lunge or the flèche.

What we are usually discussing when we talk attack is a simple attack: Extended arm, point threatening, before the front foot lands on the lunge or fleche.

However, this type of type attack is far less common than:

The compound attack (cf. t.8) is correctly executed when the arm is extending in the presentation of the first feint, with the point threatening the valid target, and the arm is not bent between the successive actions of the attack and the initiation of the lunge or the flèche.

This requires close examination. The arm has to be extending in the first action. It cannot be bent between the last action of the attack and the lunge or fleche. It doesn’t necessarily follow that bending of the arm constitutes an incorrectly executed attack.. Just that the arm is not bent between the final action of the attack and the initiation of the last footwork action.

To put it another way, in a compound attack, that first action must have an extending arm that constitutes a threat of valid target. It must then continually constitute a threat. And finally, the arm can’t be bent, or pulled back in the final action.

This means that what happens between the initial action and the final action is very broadly defined. The only requirement is that there must continually be a threat.

“Threat” can be defined in many ways. It is not defined in the foil section of the rules. Today, top referees have a very liberal definition of threat, but a strict interpretation of the initial and final actions. So, we might see a top-level foil fencer make an initial offensive action, by extending the arm (even slightly), and making a threat, followed by any number of arm motions, including bending the elbow, holding the blade up or down, or waiving it around, while making continuous advances toward the opponent. Then, as the opponent runs out of strip to retreat, and begins an offensive action of his/her own, the attacker begins the final action with an extending arm and a continuation of the threat. Two lights. The initial offensive action has the priority.

This does not mean that such an action cannot successfully be stopped.

Article t.8 states “Counter-attacks are offensive or offensive–defensive actions made during the offensive action of the opponent.”

Article t.59 goes on to state:

(d) When compound attacks are made, the opponent has the right to stop hit; but to be valid, the stop hit must precede the conclusion of the attack by an interval of fencing time; that is to say that the stop hit must arrive before the attacker has begun the final movement of the attack.

And this, I believe is the crux of foil fencing. To make an initial offensive action that satisfies the strict interpretation of today, then to make a series of foot/blade actions that constitute a continual threat, but that are difficult to parry, (while remaining out of counter-attack distance) and then to shrink the distance between the fencers such that the opponent has no choice but to counter attack, and to then launch the final action during that brief time between the start of the counter attack and it’s arrival on the attacker’s valid target. No small trick. At the highest levels of foil, such actions are usually obvious. Either the counter attack is in time, or it isn’t. Either the attack was continuous, or it wasn’t. In club-level bouts, it’s anything but obvious!

Article t.60 goes into some detail on exactly what is required for a counter attack to take over the priority from the attack::

2. Only the fencer who attacks is counted as touched:

(a) If he initiates his attack when his opponent has his point in line (cf. t.10) without deflecting the opponent’s weapon. Referees must ensure that a mere grazing of the blades is not considered as sufficient to deflect the opponent’s blade

(b) If he attempts to find the blade, does not succeed (is the object of a dérobement) and continues the attack.

(c) If, during a compound attack, his opponent finds the blade, but he continues the attack and his opponent ripostes immediately.

(d) If, during a compound attack, he makes a momentary pause, during which time the opponent makes a stop hit, after which the attacker continues his attack.

(e) If, during a compound attack, he is stop-hit in time before he begins his final movement.

(f) If he makes a touch by a remise, redoublement or reprise when his original attack has been parried and his opponent has made a riposte which is immediate, simple, and executed in one period of fencing time without withdrawing the arm.

If we all had the luxury of observing Olympic-class fencing, many of these discussions would be unnecessary. It’s in the local club, or weekend tournament that we have trouble. Many fencers are skilled enough to recognize small errors on the part of their opponent. The problem is that, in many cases, the gap between recognizing the opportunity and executing the response is often greater than the “window of opportunity.”

We see the situation that would allow a counter attack to “steal” the priority from an attack. We think of the correct response. We begin the correct action into the opening. The opponent begins the final action of the composed attack. We arrive on target. We’re hit.

A small error on the part of the attacker doesn’t usually result in a loss of priority. It takes a major error for that. A major error is either beginning the offensive action without an extending arm, or withdrawing the arm during the final action. Beginning or ending the offensive action without an extending arm is usually called a “preparation.”

Contemporary foil fencing has evolved into a much more aggressive sport, with a broad, liberal definition of “threat” but more strict guidelines for beginning and ending the attack. The rules definitely favor the aggressive fencer, and make few allowances for the opponent to take the priority away from the attack, short of a parry. They also penalize the aggressive fencer who fails to make an extension first and last.

Bill Oliver is a long-time member of the Fencing Officials Commission. He serves on the Rules committee, the Ratings committee, and is the FOC website administrator.


In addition to serving on the FOC, Bill is a highly rated National and International referee, manning the strip at most NAC’s, Nationals, and many World Cup competitions.