Note: This article was originally published in the United States Fencing Coaches Association Sword Master magazine, December 2022 issue. To join the USFCA and get access to Sword Master and other publications, visit the USFCA website.
Nearly one year ago, I had the honor of joining the Team USA Epee National Coaching Staff as the Director of Strategy/Analytics—directly as a result of the research I did for my United States Fencing Coaches Association (USFCA) Maître thesis.
The thesis sought to explore a (not so) simple question: why hasn’t the United States of America won an individual Olympic medal in senior epee since 1924? After analyzing 4,634 touches, 102 fencers across 26 different countries, 226 bouts, and collecting/analyzing 139,020 fields of metadata from 2019 – the present, I’m left with more questions than answers.
Though I bear no answers, the outcomes of this research have allowed us to engage our opponents with a thorough, quantitative strategic approach that empowers both our athletes and coaches to compete with our global competitors with maximal knowledge. Sports analytics are not the panacea for all; rather, a tertiary leg to the fencer’s supporting table behind their own technique and tactics and the coach’s strategic and psychological support in the midst of competition. When the data points to tells in the opponent’s game, it enables us to exploit chinks in the armor to complement coach and athlete as one collective team on the path to victory. Data identifies opportunities for our own improvement in an objective manner so that feedback is delivered to our athletes regularly and progression becomes iterative from event to event. Thus far, the journey with the analytics program has been enriching, edifying, eye-opening, and most importantly, rewarding.
One year into the project, I thought it would be of use to write a macro summary of relevant trends we’re seeing in senior-level international epee fencing. The hope is, that maybe as we begin to look at best practices, we can take these trends into account with respect to our own coaching methodologies and move towards ending a very long drought!
Now a few caveats: due to the proprietary nature of the data, both the data collection methodology used by Team USA plus much of the in the weeds data itself will remain private. Much of what you’re reading here are qualitative summaries of what the data’s told us. All trend analysis is strictly at the senior level, as cadet/junior fencing were not in scope for this project. All bouts included in this analysis were Direct Elimination bouts from the top 64 and above. Neither pools, nor preliminary tableau bouts were in scope.
The Modern Epee Fencer: a Qualitative Summary of the Trends
Note: this section uses the third person plural of “they” to be inclusive of all fencer gender identities
The Modern Epee Fencer is a daredevil. They fence at lunge distance, daring the other to encroach even one inch too close, applying pressure with varying preparation while the pulling fencer disrupts the opponent with provoking half advances and beats. The Modern Epee Fencer, as Clement Schrepfer describes in How to Fence Epee: The Fantastic Four Method, is “beyond the direct reach of the opponent while being close enough that you can easily threaten your opponent with your point without having to get to close.” (Schrepfer, 2015)
Though they fence on the precipice of danger with their distance, the Modern Epee Fencer is still patient, restrained, and calculated as they set up their closing actions—taking nearly 19 seconds to prepare and score.
The Modern Epee Fencer is enabled by their feet first, their hand and blade second, for the Modern Epee fencer understands that by the time they have begun their second tempo, their opponent has already hit them with their first tempo in half the time.
The Modern Fencer approaches the touch with the mantra of “complexity in the setup, and simplicity in the finish,” for they know that the window they create to attack is a small one, and when that window opens, the finish is driven by animalistic instincts, for to think in that moment is to hesitate, and to hesitate is to leave the attacker vulnerable to a responsive action.
For the Modern Epee Fencer, fortune favors their boldness, for the Modern Epee Fencer finds the most success when they initiate the attack, as the game favors proactivity over reactiveness.
The Modern Epee Fencer need not be of gargantuan height, the Modern Epee Fencer need not be a lefty, the Modern Fencer need not be a French grip or pistol grip fencer—for whatever advantages these things may have, the Modern Epee Fencer has a strategy for each.
And though the Modern Fencer typically finishes their actions with one single tempo—make no mistake of it, the Modern Epee Fencer has a deep repertoire of actions at their disposal, for they are creative, tactically diverse, and able to change strategy at a moment’s notice, or bout to bout to deceive their opponents.
Trends in Epee Tempo
Before we talk about tempo, let’s take a moment to get on the same page as to how tempo is defined in the context of this article. Maestro Zbiegnew Cjazkowski called out the vagueness of the definition of tempo in Understanding Fencing, noting that: “…most fencing textbooks, while stressing the element of “choice of time” delicately side-step the difficult problem of defining, describing, and discussing it.” Getting alignment on the definition of tempo can often be a fool’s errand, but after much handwringing and spirited discussion, the following represents how we’ve aligned on these definitions as a team. For the sake of this article, let us define a Fencing tempo through the lens of: what is the fewest number of movements in the hand and the feet required to score on the target? And more importantly—how can this be communicated to both coaches and athletes in a way that doesn’t descend into pedantry and chaos?
In Allen Evans’ Coaches Compendium, Evans describes the relationship between single and multi-tempo as follows: “An action in a single tempo scores against the opponent with one motion, one tempo. Attacks may be multi-action, or “compound” in their execution, but all actions preceding the final, scoring action are preparations. These actions may facilitate scoring, but do not score themselves. Further, an action may be one movement, but not be able to score in one tempo, such as a very long lunge.”
In Evans’ example, a beat, for instance, cannot score in and of itself, nor can the act of a parry. Such actions require a secondary movement of the hand and/or feet in order to score.
For the research with the team, Fencing tempos were recorded with the following definitions:
- One Tempo- Attacks or defensive maneuvers with a single movement finish in the hand or feet were classified as one tempo, or actions that were able to score independent of a secondary movement.
- Multi-Tempo- A compound action with more than one movement in the hand and/or feet were recorded as multi-tempo. For example, an advance lunge would be multi-tempo, a feint-disengage lunge, as were parry-ripostes if done in multiple, distinct tempos.
- Remise/Unintentional- Tempos were marked as unintentional/remise for attacks that fell short and continued in the same line, or more complicated and/or improvisational actions, such as a missed parry-riposte followed by remise, or a kerfuffle infighting sequence.
- Other- For P-red cards, red cards, going off the end of the strip, or other such events.
The results of my research found that unmistakably, senior Epee fencing has moved towards a single tempo meta. Based on an analysis in trends from 2021-2022, 57% of actions in the Men’s game are finishing on a single tempo attack, whereas the women are even higher at 62%.
|One Tempo/Direct||Multi-Tempo||Remise/ Unint.||Other|
There are a number of reasons why the game has trended in this direction: for one, the introduction of “unwillingness to fight rules” has upped the urgency of the game and forced the fencers into closer distance than the early 2000’s in which fencers had the luxury of time to prepare, close the distance, and score.
Evolution in athletic performance has also increased the speed, strength, and explosiveness of athletes, allowing them to score in half the fencing time. If you’ve seen a Yannick Borel fleche or a Lehis lunge for instance, you would see that a second tempo is often unnecessary to hit the opponent, as they’ve sufficiently prepared the closing action.
And if we look at the winners of the major international events from the previous season, you’ll see a common theme: they’re all predominately single tempo fencers:
|Fencer||Nationality||Major Events Won (2021-2022)||Number of Touches Analyzed||Percentage of One Tempo Actions|
|Yannick Borel||France||European Zonals, Cairo GP, Doha GP, WCH (Team)||263||65%|
|Romain Cannone||France||Heidenheim WC, Cairo WCH (Ind), Cairo WCH (Team)||229||72%|
|Nelson Lopez-Pourtier||France||Challenge Monal WC||124||55%|
|Ruben Limardo-Gascon||Venezuela||PanAm Zonals, West End GP, Berne WC||111||60%|
|Koki Kano||Japan||Asian Zonals||139||56%|
|Fencer||Nationality||Major Events Won (2021-2022)||Number of Touches Analyzed||Percentage of One Tempo Actions|
|Injeong Choi||Korea||Katowice WC, Cairo GP, Cairo WCH (Team)||143||67%|
|Sera Song||Korea||Cairo WCH (Individual, Team), Barcelona WC||185||65%|
|Katrina Lehis||Estonia||Doha GP||105||71%|
|Josephine Jacques Andre Coquin||France||Tallin WC||55||60%|
|Alberta Santuccio||Italy||Budapest GP||58||57%|
As you read this trend, it’s important to not reach a syllogistic conclusion based on the observation of this data. A two-tempo action executed tactically (and technically) correct works well, and for most of the Italians, Kazakhs, and Russians, the two-tempo game remains effective and dominant, mostly due to the gargantuan strength (both physically and on the blade) that many of their fencers have.
Diversity in tactics and bringing a deep repertoire to the piste is far more important than being a single tempo fencer. With that being said, the data found a strong, positive correlation between single tempo actions and victory!
Trends in Preparation: Footwork/Bladework
In 2019, Maestro Gil Pezza wrote: “En escrime aujourd’hui le jeu de jambes est plus sophistiqué que les phrases d’armes,” (Gil Pezza – 2019) Which translated tactically for epee means that the sophistication is in the footwork set up rather than in the closing action. The contemporary Epee game is won on preparation, and preparation is effective only with sound technique. Here are the most common preparations we’re seeing with the hand and feet:
Perpetual Movement/Bouncing: With few exceptions, Harmenberg’s legacy of bouncing-style footwork remains prominent at the international level. Rarely do the feet stop over the course of the preparation, as the sense of timing is so keen on fencers at this level that stagnant feet leave fencers far more open to punishment. The steps made on the bounce are calculated, controlled, and seldom extraneous, and the movement on the balls of the feet allows for immediate explosivity when the moment comes to attack.
Half Advances/Half Retreats: The half advance serves two purposes—to provoke the opponent into an attack or to disrupt their preparation by entering distance with just enough of a threat to illicit discomfort. For the best example of this in action, urge your students to watch any of Sera Song’s (KOR) tape. Song is a master 2-meter trapzone artist who despite clocking in at 5’4 is a distance management queen, and much of that starts with her half advance. We’re also seeing a half retreat as an effective means of breaking the tempo, pulling the opponent into distance and attacking on step forward.
Half Lunges (Both Forward and Back): When the half advance and/or half retreat doesn’t elicit the desired response in preparation from the opponent, we’re seeing more and more fencers utilize a half lunge to get deeper in preparation, create distance traps or to create a second intention opportunity. Fencers are often attacking to the foot with half lunge to then recover forward into the opponent’s distance and score. In the spirit of Valentina Vezzali, fencers will also lunge backwards and squat into the back leg with freakish acrobatics to conceal target and pull the opponent even closer into distance.
Acceleration/Deceleration: One of my favorite bouts of the 2021-2022 season was Valerio Cuomo’s out of nowhere Sochi World Cup win. Cuomo’s decisive 15-9 win in the gold medal bout over Cannone was a masterclass in the ability to deceive the opponent in preparation by starting fast and finishing slow, or starting slow and finishing fast, and varying the tempo in preparation to leave the opponent guessing on the close. The variations in the velocity of the preparation and the close are prominent in the contemporary epee meta.
Disruptive Beats: A disruptive beat game remains a strong aspect of the current meta, particularly in eight, two, and four. The beat rarely leads to a compound attack and is used more as a disruption or to force the opponent into a different line (in the spirit of Johan Harmenberg). Outside of the Hungarian school, we’re seeing a transition away from preparatory binds and engagements and more of a movement towards fast, low-risk beats.
Low/High Game: Constant transitioning of the tip in both the low and high lines is critical. The exaggeration of the low/high invitations varies between subtlety (the French) and drastic (the Koreans). This style of preparation is highly favored by Fencers who use second intention as a tactic in order to elicit the desired reaction from the opponent.
Flicks: While a flick accounts for 5% of all touches (more on this in the closing action section), the flick to the guard is a commonly used tactic to collapse the distance with an advance, to gauge opponent reaction, or to threaten the opponent/disrupt the opponent’s preparation. The flick is also a key preparation used to set up counter-time response, as fencers are making an intentional short action with flick to draw the counterattack and then close. For the fencers who favor second intention tactics, setting up a flick to draw the opponent’s attack and respond with a counterattack is happening with a strong degree of frequency, particularly with eastern European countries. Despite a lower number of flicks in the closing action for Women’s Epee, it’s being used more and more by the Italian women to great effect.
Body Invitation: Opening the line to the body with an invitation to attack (especially with half advance) is a commonly used/trending tactic to draw the opponent’s attack to respond with a counterattack or parry-riposte. The body invitation is especially prevalent with French grip fencers, who use this tactic to sucker opponents into what I call “instant regret attacks.” You know, the kind of attacks that as soon as you initiate, a voice inside your head screams: “I should not have done that.”
Trends in the Clock
Since the Tokyo Olympics, the Men’s average time per touch has gone up by a whole second to 19.43 seconds per touch. In Women’s, it has actually gone down about 1.5 seconds to 20.9 seconds/touch. In the first touch of a bout, the Men’s average is nearly 50 seconds, whereas in women’s that average is 51 seconds per touch. With the FIE’s passage of the new P-Card rules in the November 2022 Congress, these numbers could be significantly impacted (more on that in the “What’s Next” section).
Trends in the Opening (aka the “Oh $@#&” Moment)
At the highest levels of fencing, the window to attack is often small. Perhaps it comes on a small flinch of the opponent, or they step in close for just one moment too long. Perhaps they change direction with just a little bit too deep a step, or they overcommit in preparation or on the attack.
Existing fencing literature has heavily focused on the preparation and the closing action. These are of course, important in telling the overall story of a touch and how it’s set up to success.
But what we don’t often focus on is that miniscule quarter second window that opens up following successful preparation that enables the closing action.
When is the right time to hit? It’s not something you can think about in the heat of a touch. It’s something you feel. Because the moment you begin to think about the window you have, that window is already closed.
Oh $@&# moments rarely operate independently of one another. For example, a temps perdu (as defined below) is by virtue the creation of a distance trap. An instinctual folly can be generated off a punishment opportunity. These moments are interdependent, and to help you understand these openings, I’ve provided definitions below of the common openings we’re seeing in both Men’s and Women’s:
Distance: The most simple, common “Oh $@&#” moment comes when the distance collapses to striking range. Striking range may vary from opponent to opponent. For a 6’1 titan like Katrina Lehis, her striking range is going to be longer than that of say, Young Mi Kang who is 5’1. In general, Fencers will hover at ~2.5 meters (if we measure from the weapon armed shoulder to the same point on the opponent). Once they close to under ~2 meters, a fencer has typically entered into close distance, aka the “do something or get out of here” range. The French teach a concept of: “do not enter distance unless you intend to attack” and that’s a philosophy that must be considered for all of our methodologies.
Temps Perdu: In his article “In Search of Lost Time in Today’s Fencing,” Maestro Gil Pezza defines a Temps Perdu as “a momentary pause in a fencing action or movement. It can be intentional, accidental, or inevitable. If intentional, the temps perdu is called a broken tempo.” A temps perdu is ideally found with attack in the preparation, attacking not where the opponent is, but attacking to where they’re going to be as they transition and change directions before their front foot hits the ground. The current unwillingness to fight (aka P-Card) rules have made attack on the temps perdu even more relevant. Fencers with the lead are often pulling, while the fencer at a deficit is compelled to push and attack. One coach of a top ranked men’s epeeist told me that “90% of what we’re doing in lessons is now on temps perdu.”
Instinctual Folly: Instinctual follies are created when a fencer twitchily responds to a preparation, drawing the desired reaction (e.g. parry on a feint, counterattack on an invitation, biting on invitation with attack, or falling for the first intention). It is the act of baiting the opponent into something they don’t want to do, showing them “A” and giving them “B” instead.
Punishment: A punishment Oh $@&# moment is created when a fencer overcommits in preparation (often off balance) or sloppily recovers from attack, resulting in vulnerability. The French happen to be masters at capitalizing on these. Punishment touches can also occur when an opponent is moving in rhythmic patterns with the feet that allow the initiator to attack in time.
Technical Folly: A technical folly is when poor technique or extraneous movement (e.g. wide parry, large flick, leading with body) results in opponent spearing themselves. At the higher levels of fencing, these are few and far between, but they certainly happen! If you sense your opponent has flaws in their technique, this can be one of the easiest ways to use their openings to pick them apart.
Angle/Strip Positioning: This occurs when an opponent enters feeble lateral strip positioning, resulting in better angle/leverage on the attack (e.g. Fencing lefty in the middle of the piste). In his book How to Fence Epee: The Fantastic Four Method, Clement Schrepfer wrote:
“Not only do you have to use the length of the piste when creating opportunities for scoring touches, you have the width of the piste that also allows for many scoring possibilities (or mitigate those of the opponent). It is therefore important to position oneself laterally depending on your game plan and the intentions of the adversary.”
- Example 1 and 2
Trends in the Closing Action
It’s important to note that the closing action is all but irrelevant, and a hyper-focus on the closing action itself neglects to see the forest through the trees, and is likely to burn the forest down in the process. Fencing is no longer a game of “moves,” and the closing action is the icing on the cake once the preparation occurs and the window opens to attack (or respond).
By no surprise, 27% of touches are occurring on a lunge, followed by a counter-attack at 21%.
Where the closing actions between Men’s and Women’s diverge, is that we’re seeing a higher percentage of lunges in the Women’s game, and a higher percentage of fleches in the Men’s game. Otherwise, the percentages aren’t drastically different from action-to-action.
In late November, the FIE voted on a number of sweeping rule proposals, none more significant than the one to overhaul the P-Card rules. Internationally, this new rule will have an effective date of January 1, 2023. At the time of publication, these rules had not been ratified domestically in the United States, but are likely to be recommended by the Referees Commission (RC) and adopted by the Board of Directors. In summary, these changes would:
- Reduce the number of P-Cards from 4 to 3 (P-Yellow à P-Red à Direct to P-Black)
- Sanction both fencers after a minute of no touch scored with a P-Yellow followed by a P-Red regardless of who’s in the lead
- A P-Black in teams would end that match immediately (whereas in the current state a reserve can be used)
- P-Blacks would continue with the current logic (when scores are equal, the higher initial seed advances. When the scores are not equal, the fencer with the higher score wins)
Just as the 2018 P-Card rules shook up the Epee meta to drive more urgency in the bout, these proposed changes could once again blow up the game in the middle of an Olympic qualification cycle. With the passage of these rules, I hypothesize that the following impacts could be seen:
- An even higher percentage of P-Yellows to start the bout while the fencers play a game of “chicken” (with few bouts going to P-Red or P-Black from there on out)
- A reduction in average time per touch overall
- More touches occurring in the box or close to it
- Much more bold aggression from a fencer at a deficit score (particularly as a lead approaches 3+ touches)
- Faster, more combative team fencing overall
As the rule goes into effect in 2023, I will continue to report out on trends and changes to the overall Epee meta.
For more information and analysis from Damien Lehfeldt, follow The Fencing Coach on:
 Clement Schrepfer, How to Fence Epee: the Fantastic Four Method. Paris, France: Books on Demand, 2015
 From the agenda provided for one of Maestro Pezza’s coaching clinics