Over the last decade, the tactical wheel has become almost an article of faith among American fencing coaches looking for a way to systematize teaching tactics. First published in English in Szabo’s Fencing and the Master in 1977, the wheel suggests that fencing starts with simple attacks, which are countered by parries and ripostes. In turn the parry and riposte is defeated by the compound attack. Compound attacks are defeated by stop hits which are then defeated by simple attacks. This flow provides an easy to understand model that the fencer in the first year of training can apply to tactical situations in the bout.
However, there are a number of problems with this approach. In foil, the speed of a modern compound attack is such that the stop hit will only reliably arrive before the start of the final action if the attack is deliberately broken to draw the stop or if there is a fault in execution. The fencer executing the stop must launch his action when he perceives that the opponent is about to attack with absolute confidence that the attack will be compound, not when the attack is in progress. The stop with intercepting opposition can be successful, but requires an understanding of the opponent’s technique and tactical logic. In sabre and epee the stop to the advanced target is a realistic option on even straight thrust simple attacks, especially when the stop hitter is able to control the distance.
A second fundamental issue is that the tactical wheel does not address the use of prepared actions. Attacks on the blade or takings of the blade are not addressed. Neither is the second intention parry-counterriposte against the parry and riposte. As a practical matter, fencers in their first year will be executing beat attacks, and second intention can be understood and applied by even beginners. So where do these fit in the wheel logic? And do we need separate wheels for each weapon?
Finally, in all weapons, distance, direction of movement, and timing are equally important with blade actions in gaining success. If the attack gets to the right distance at the right time, the blade action the attacker chooses is not necessarily the decisive factor in scoring the hit. The tactical wheel focuses on blade action, and is essentially static in nature.
The challenge is to develop a logical tactical progression that can be taught to beginners and early intermediates and that will not have to be relearned as the fencer progresses. This means that the progression must be able to be applied in the bout and that it must offer a reasonable chance of success. Given that most fencers only employ a relatively limited set of techniques in most bouts, it must also allow the fencer and the coach to tailor the progression to the fencer’s strengths as well as to the opponent’s weaknesses. These requirements suggest it is time to rethink the tactical wheel.