Classical Fencing: The Epee Straight Arm Guard

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In classical epee there are four possible guards a fencer can adopt as the basis for attack and defense. These include the straight arm or long guard, the medium or bent-arm guard, the short guard, and the same basic guard as prevalent in foil. Of these, three (medium, short, and foil) survive in modern fencing. This makes the straight arm guard a distinctly classical approach to the basic fighting position of the fencer who fences with a French grip. It is described by Castello (1933), Grave (1934), Vince (1937), Lidstone (1952), and illustrations in Faire, Fildes, and Gray's history of The Epee Club (2000) show the guard in use as early as 1901, often with the hand positioned toward the pommel end of the grip.

The fencer assumes the straight arm guard from a normal position of guard with the legs and torso. The weapon arm is extended fully, creating a straight line between the forward shoulder and the point of the weapon in the line of sixth. The point continually threatens the opponent's nearest target area, conceptually the hand and forearm. The muscles of the shoulder and arm should be relaxed to allow rapid, smooth movement of the blade. In defense parries are executed either with the blade or the bell.

The straight arm guard offers significant advantages:

• Like the point in line in foil or sabre, the straight arm guard presents an immediate threat to any forward movement by the opponent.

• The forward position of the point reduces the distance to target, increasing the effective tactical speed of an attack or counterattack from the guard.

• The forward position of the arm and bell makes it possible for relatively small blade and bell movements to cut off angles to the target and intercept attacking blades, increasing the protection it offers.

There are, however, disadvantages to the guard:

• The fencer using the straight arm guard has to be accustomed to the guard in order to reliably relax the hand, arm, and shoulder - otherwise movement is slower and may be irregular.

• The fully extended blade is vulnerable to attacks on the blade and takings of the blade. The fencer has to maintain constant vigilance to be able to deceive such actions.

• The fully extended arm is vulnerable to digs from below (attacks with angulation directed upwards), and any error in position exposes the hand as a target.

The straight arm guard is a thoroughly classical guard - we can document its use as early as 1901 and by the 1950s its was disappearing from fencing texts. It adds to the epee fencer's tool kit the ability to change guards, complicating opponent's offensive challenges. To a degree unmatched by the other guards, it offers a balanced capability for offense and defense, maintaining a forward threat and occupying a position that reduces opponents' access to the fencer's target. Any classical epee fencer should know the tactics for its employment, and, for those schools which embraced the straight arm guard, be skilled in its application.