Attack or Counter

Should I initiate the attack or wait for the counter opportunity?

Surely the burning question for anyone engaging in a live sword fight is whether to initiate an attack or wait for the other party to initiate the attack and deliver deadly counter. When I consider the myriad of literature on the topic, it is clear that either option is a tactic, however, many have suggested that the counter attack is the most effective. Ultimately after considering the subject, I believe it is a lack of training and understanding that leads people to believe this is the better option. In fact I believe that the initial attacker must have the advantage, but it is dependent on a number of qualities which can be aligned to the training and skill of the swords person. This training and skill can be aligned to 4 levels of competency.

Level 1 - Able to demonstrate the techniques of the art.

When initiating an attack, one of the key element is tactics; to deliver the tactics the swords person uses technique. The technique must deliver the weapon to the target to cause the desired or appropriate amount of damage within the framework of the art (I wouldn't use a rapier in the same way as a Japanese Sword). Simultaneously it must include some self protection (safety) component. That is to say my attack shouldn't become a 'mutual slaying' situation. I must neutralise my opponent response as I engage them and all in one motion. The technique may achieve this by tapping an opponent's blade, or it may be a technique that disengages the blades and attacks an open area that will allow you to break away without receiving a hit. A great deal of time is spent in schools practising techniques to the point where muscle memory is created and the exponent can 'forget it' meaning deliver a technique without conscious thought. Obviously this is the base level of any sword system. The combatant must understand the weapon and the associated techniques.

Level 2 Understands the concepts of engagement

The second element can be broken into 3 components; timing, speed and distance. These are the concepts of engagement; any combatant must understand these because they are the translation of the learned technique into combat. It is the difference between learning the swimming actions and actually jumping into water (to quote Bruce Lee). Timing can be described as being in the right position to take advantage of an opening as it occurs. In any combat scenario, if you observe and opening it is too late to take advantage of it, your opponent is engage and dynamic not static. Speed is about covering the distance between the weapon start point and the target, distance refers to being in a balanced position to deliver weapon to the target without compromising your own safety. Unlike empty handed martial arts, sword work leaves very little room for error, a punch to the head may be just a wake up call for the boxer, however, for the swords person it is much more serious. Distance brings speed and timing together, I need to move my body into position in a balance way whilst recognising the flow of the fight. Speed needs to be developed in students in a different way to pure technique, but has a large physiological component, timing is a result of continual practise in realistic situations and is a mental development issue and distance is a combination of the two.

As an element of timing there must be patience, 'seldom found in women and never in a man' the old saying goes. Charging in to initiate an attack where a clear opportunity doesn't exist is suicide; it means your action is without real purpose. By definition it can't have purpose because you are creating something that exists only in your mind not reacting to what is actually happening. If there is no opening how can the attack have purpose, therefore timing is also about movement at the appropriate juncture.

Level 3 Includes observations as part of the strategy

The third element is body language, what information am I transmitting even microseconds prior to moving. My assessment of the old sword masters, whom some claimed could read minds, is that they were very good at reading body language. Prior to moving in a non stress situation, students often telegraph their moves, when put in a high stress situation (like a live sword fight) that telegraphy can be magnified. When initiating an attack, any telegraphing of action provides my opponent with information to act on; therefore, when I initiate an attack I must disguise all actions. Some do this through faints, which have a marked effect on students and less and less affect as the opponents are more and more accomplished. Others do this through explosive action delivered without pre thought; this brings us to the final element Mental Training.

Level 4 Self mastery

On the basis of the previous paragraphs, a successful attack must be launched whilst observing the opponent without prejudice and with an open mind. Simultaneously initiating and delivering a personally safe attack using an appropriate technique based on the situation. The technique must be delivered with the right timing, speed and distance within the flow and ebb of a highly stressful environment. At the same time you must do this without passing any information to your opponent and be able to react to things as they really are and as they occur using a free flowing mind. This extensive list of qualities requires a great deal of training over and above the physical elements of the art. Few people reach this level and very few schools even address the mental aspects, or at best hope that it will be acquired naturally.

It is no wonder so many people studying sword work are either frustrated by initiating the attack or feel that the counter attack is the best option.

Scenario One: the novice combatant launches an attack

The swords person engages in combat, the flow and ebb of the fight is nothing like training. They see an opening and, to take advantage of it, launch their attack it. A number of things are happening, the novice is impatient and keen to 'force' the fight, the window of opportunity closes almost the instant it is seen, the attack is telegraphed, a well tried technique is executed with self abandon, and the attack is easily neutralised and a counter delivered by an equally novice opponent. Conclusion: counter attacking is more effective.

Scenario Two: the level 4 combatant launches an attack

The combatant is continually observing the opponent, gathering as much information as possible. The mind is clear, focused and calm. A period of testing commences and again the reactions are observed, the combatant is patient. There is no attachment to a particular technique. The rhythm of the fight is noted. The opponent starts to move and the combatant sees what is happening and immediately launches an appropriate attack that arrives at the target opening having taken into account the movement of the opponent. It is a complete surprise. If it misses its mark, the process starts again. If the combatant dies at the hands of an equal or better opponent then that will be as much a surprise because for the combatant; there was nothing but the encounter, no other attachment. However, the control of the fight was never handed over to the opponent and the chances of success lie heavily on the side of the initial attacker. Conclusion: Initial attack and controlling the action is more effective.

In scenario 2 the attacker has control. In scenario 1 the attacker thinks they have control, however, they quickly pass that control over to the opponent. Clearly the person controlling the situation has the advantage as per my original statement. Counter attacks suit the novice, failure to continually grow to level 4 locks in that notion.

Much has been written about the mental training of a warrior, level 1, 2 and 3 can be taught, even inherent in some people. Level 4 takes time, training, experience and, above all, self discipline. In a world of sport and instant self gratification, most never bother to even consider the highest level, there is no fast pay off. Self-discipline, however, is a path to be followed as a life long adventure, there is a continually increasing payoff for those on this path.