Recently, I’ve been trying to drill down on the French authors’ conceptual and mechanical distinctions between fausse attaques—i.e., false attacks—and feints. Although ostensibly different, it appeared to me that the boundaries between false attacks and feints could easily be blurred. To better make the distinction for my fellow fencers at CCF, I pulled out my (frankly limited) resources to see what the 18th– and 19th-century French authors had to say for themselves.
Besides getting a better understanding of the feint and the false attack, I noticed an evolution from the late 1600s to the late 1800s, one that no one ever pointed out to me. That is, as the French authors described it, the false attack appeared to develop strictly from the foil; apparently it was an indulgence of the 19th-century salle. Thus, we see little to no recognition of it in the usual small-sword treatises, which tended to focus on the tried-and-true feint.
II. Definitional Distinctions between the False Attack and the Feint
First, let’s get our terms straight. The difference between the false attack and a feint was made clear by Antonin Gomard, who was very punctilious about his definitions. In his 1845 Theory of Fencing, Gomard distinguished the two.
The false attack is a display of an attack by some movement with the blade, the legs, or the body, making the adversary believe that you are going to attack. It is difficult to precisely identify the false attack because it fakes, more or less, a real attack. Most often, the false attack is made by an absence of blade with a forward bodily movement, accompanied by an appel. The false attack’s goal is to rattle the enemy and to expose his parry’s movement in order to profit from the enemy’s disorder or reveal his plans.
Gomard’s contemporary, Augustin Grisier, agreed: “The principal goal of the false attack is to see if the adversary wants to thrust at the same time as you.” Modern fencing uses the term “probing action” to describe what was once called the false attack. This is an apt term, as it makes clear that one is probing, seeking information.
As for the feint, Gomard defines it as “a faked thrust. It is the way to draw the enemy steel to another line by faking an attack, so as to strike in another.” Those authors writing about the feint made clear that it was not intended, unlike the false attack, to merely make the opponent react. For instance, in his 1836 Manual of Fencing, Captain de Bast described the feint as “the simulation of a hit that is made before lunging, in order to force the adversary to expose himself, so as to reach him more easily.” (Emphasis added.) Grisier specified that the feint was “a movement of the sword which has its goal to divert the adversary’s attention from the idea of the hit that one wants to deliver.”
III. The Emergence of the False Attack
As noted, the false attack as Gomard and others define it does not seem to have been identified as such until the 19th century. For instance, Domenico Angelo seems to be referring to what we could call false attacks when he mentions those “fencers, who feint by making large motions of the body or the point, or large [advances] from the right foot in order to induce the enemy to precipitate his defense . . . .” (Not surprisingly, he disapproves of this practice.)
In one of the last fencing treatises of 18th-century France, M.C. Navarre’s 1775 Manuel Militaire devotes a section to feints and hints at an incipient conception of the false attack: “Feints are movements of the blade that change and deceive the combinations of those who want to thrust or parry. They also facilitate the opening and disturbance of the enemy that you want to take by surprise.” (Emphasis added.) On the other hand, Nicolas Demeuse’s 1778 Nouveau Traité de l’Art des Armes seems to make no reference to something we would identify as a false attack. (The absence of the false attack in Demeuse’s work is notable because his was one of the last significant French fencing texts of the 18th century: evidently it is hard to find time to publish fencing works amongst profound social upheaval, revolution, and pan-European war.)
Indeed, the earliest discrete reference I can find to a “fausse attaque” is in St. Martin’s 1804 L’Art de Faire des Armes Réduit á Ses Vrais Principes. And even then, St. Martin describes the “false attack of the feint of low quarte by an appel with the foot.” Again, this reads like an inchoate notion of the false attack, one still emerging from the feint.
Later in the century, the false attack proper is elaborated by French writers such as Gomard and Grisier, then towards the end of the century with Camille Prévost and Louis Rondelle. And this development is interesting because it closely tracks the foil’s increasing departure from dueling practice towards the 20th century.
For instance, Gomard and Grisier wrote at a time when duels were a comparatively common reality. Both treated the false attack only as a matter of reconnaissance: it was used to “rattle” the enemy or “expose” his plans. In fact, for Grisier, seems to have used it more as precaution than a strategic device: he recommended using it to make sure the opponent would not extend into his attack. In this line of thinking, the false attack precedes taking the risk of lunging at your opponent.
But, as embellished by later French writers, the false attack becomes riskier. It is actually used to draw your opponent’s attack onto you. Thus, by 1891, Prévost uses the false attack to induce the opponent’s parry-riposte so he can counter-riposte. And for Rondelle, the false attack is almost brinkmanship, to be used against a trigger-happy opponent: “The False Attack is very useful against an ambitious adversary who precipitates himself against you at every opportunity, and also against those who favor Time-Thrusts.”
This sort of advice is not consistent with the more conservative feint, which carries a more established lineage than the relatively recent false attack.
IV. The Feint
The feint was known and used in some of the earliest Italian works. The French writers of the 17th and 18th centuries could only apply to their specific weapons what Italian authors such as Nicoletto Giganti had already said.
Consistently, the French masters instructed that the feint must convincingly indicate a hit in a given line. In other words, the feint must distinctly show, from all appearances, a genuine attack. You must ensure that your signals are clear enough to get the preferred reaction from your opponent. For instance, in 1676, Le Perche recommended that, when making the feint, you “leave the blade’s point in front of the enemy so that the feint represents the hit.”
Hence, as Lafaugère notes, feints should not be made too quickly: feints “are used to deceive the adversary’s parry, that is, to make him parry to the side opposite to where you want to thrust; and if the parries are too rapid, they will be without effect.”
The French masters make clear your opponent needs to be able to detect the action of the feint: an overly fast feint may not send a sufficiently detectable signal. We should not make a fast feint and then immediately proceed to our true attack, ignoring our opponent’s action.
Putting their recommendations together, French writers seem to suggest initiating the feint quickly but then not rushing to the final thrust (what some authors elegantly called “la finale”). For instance, Danet wrote that the feint should “start from the point and be made in the blink of an eye.” Later, Louis-Justin Lafaugère cautioned that feints should be well defined and, as noted, not made too quickly. “The greatest possible speed,” Lafaugère added, should be reserved for la finale.
Thus, by making the feint sudden—Danet’s blink of an eye—the fencer makes his opponent flinch, adding to the reaction. But, by not hurrying to an immediate finale into what is still probably a closed line, the fencer pronounces the feint’s action, ensuring that the opponent opens the desired line.
Indeed, one of the tougher parts of using feints is the readiness to turn them into a true attack if the opponent does not respond. As Angelo notes, “You should not always count on the adversary parrying when you feint, for you can easily be deceived by this.” Likewise, you may have to quickly shift to defense if, rather than parrying, the opponent extends into your feint. To that end, the authors always recommended keeping yourself adequately covered in the feints.
The French authorities agree on a number of points in the feint’s mechanics. A longstanding recommendation with both small-sword and foil practitioners was that the feint should be accompanied by an appel, that is, a stomp of the foot that is supposed to startle your opponent, especially when coupled with traditional “Et, lá!” (Understandably, these appels were ultimately discouraged: imagine a salle full of stomping and yelling Frenchmen.)
Another very typical recommendation was that the feint should be made close to the opponent’s guard. In a rare agreement between these two antagonists, both Danet and Angelo wrote that keeping the blade’s point very close to the adversary’s guard or fort will allow you “to reach him more promptly.” Still, Angelo added that your feint should lead the opponent’s blade far enough away to create the opening in which you want to attack.
Clearly, a light touch is required here. Le Perche added that, when feinting with a petit degagement—a “little disengage”—you should be careful to not allow your blade to touch the opponent’s. No doubt, brushing your blade against his would allow your opponent to detect your petit degagement through his sentiment du fer, giving advance notice of your feint and diminish its suddenness.
Ever advocates of doigté, the French authorities routinely advised using only the fingers to steer the blade in the feints. Danet: “The point’s movements should be subtly made by the thumb and the fingers . . . .” And Gomard stressed that “[t]he thumb and the index finger are . . . the only two making the feints.” The emphasis on using the fingers was reinforced by the constant reminder to “support the point” and ensure that the point moves first when feinting. Presumably, the comparatively slower movement of the hand and the guard would expose you to a counter-attack.
Most authors also agree that the elbow must be a little bent, keeping the arm flexible, while being careful not to lean the body forward. Le Perche again: “you must have the body well to the rear.”
As for the hand, Gomard details its position in the feint:
Generally, the engagements, the feints, and the parries are made in middle pronation or middle supination. Complete pronation or complete supination is only employed for the botte or the end of the final thrust.
Lafaugère called this position “having the hand turned between tierce and quarte.”
The authors agree that you can feint from immobility or while using footwork. You can be in measure when you make the feint, but your timing will have to be spot on: being in measure requires that the deceive happen around the opponent’s blade and not his arm.
Alternatively, you can enter into distance using the feint, but fluidity and continuous motion becomes important, lest you give the signal that you are only feinting. This, in turn, invites the stop thrust.
V. Using the Feints and the False Attacks
Today, historical fencers and classical fencers distinguish themselves by asserting that they fence according to the practices of certain periods.
Thus, if you are a small-sword practitioner adhering to 18th-century French principles, then, based on the sources above, you should avoid the false attacks in your fencing. Instead, you would preferably use the feint, heeding Angelo’s advice against making the feint in three motions: (1) advancing the blade, then, upon the parry, (2) pulling back the blade to facilitate deceiving the blade, and finally (3) changing the line while thrusting forward. Angelo notes that “these three motions are contrary to one other, and are so slow, that, if the adversary thrusts at the time that [such fencers] pull back their arms, then they would be touched before they had finished their feint.”
Likewise, if you try to fence classically (that is, consistent with the principles of the 19th century, more or less), then your style may incorporate some false attacks. Although I would consider Rondelle’s application of the false attack to be extreme for the classical fencer, there does seem to be a place for conservative and judicious actions, tailored to your skill level and mindful of your opponent’s measure. For instance, how does the opponent respond to a quick beat on his blade coupled with a small-but-sudden advance from out of measure. Does he retreat? Or does he stand his ground? Does he move his blade? How so? Does he make a motion to extend into your attack?
All the sources agree that you must be intelligent about using the false attacks (and, as a matter of fact, the feints too). If they are not real or too numerous, then you set yourself up for a counterattack, such as a time or stop thrust. You do not have a lot of time to do these things: with each of your false actions you provide the enemy information too.
Indeed, authors advised against making false attacks merely to rattle the enemy, rather than gaining information. Lafaugère called such actions “feints of refinement,” perhaps to suggest they were too precious to be useful. “The feints of refinement are made with the greatest speed; they do not seek to deceive a parry but to make the adversary uncertain as to which line one is going to attack into.” Certainly, he recommended against them as being too dangerous because such refined feints risked a double touch. All of us have either seen, or at one time been, this type of fencer, the one who feverishly hops in and out of his measure, attempting to set up the opponent.
Whether making a feint or a false attack, don’t be that fencer. As Angelo notes, those sorts of actions “only succeed against any those who are timid and easily disturbed.” Instead, be the fencer who Angelo said is impervious to such things, the one “who is skillful and cool, and who keeps his point close and in line with his adversary’s body and who seeks his adversary’s blade only with the wrist, according to the rules of fencing.”
Angelo, Domenico, L’École des Armes (1763).
De Bast, B., Manuel d’Escrime (1836).
Danet, Guillaume, L’Art des Armes (1766).
Demeuse, Nicolas, Nouveau Traité de l’Art des Armes (1778).
Girard, P.J.F., Nouveau Traité de la Perfection sur le Fait des Armes (1736).
Gomard, Antonin, Le Theorie d’Escrime (1845).
Grisier, Augustin, Les Armes et Le Duel (1864).
La Boëssière, Traité de l’Art des Armes, à l’Usage des Professeurs et des Amateurs (1818).
Lafaugère, Louis-Justin, Traité de l’Art de Faire des Armes (1825).
Le Perche, L’Exercice des Armes ou le Maniement du Fleuret (1676).
Olivier, J., L’art des Armes Simplifié, ou Nouveau Traité sur la Manière de se Servir de l’Épée (1771).
Prévost, C., & G. Jollivet, L’Escrime et Le Duel (1891).
Rondelle, Louis, Foil and Sabre: A Grammar of Fencing (1892).
St. Martin, 1804 L’Art de Faire des Armes Réduit á Ses Vrais Principes (1804).
Interesting review of the texts selected. A similar conversation on the same subject occurred very recently in a different place. The problem for one side of the argument, one that you seem to share, is that ultimately the differentiation between the false attack and the feint is not technical, but rather tactical. You cannot glean this from most texts because most texts do not cover tactical information to the degree they cover technical information. Before carrying on there, I would also like to point out that your observation that “Today, historical fencers and classical fencers distinguish themselves by asserting that they fence according to the practices of certain periods” is a dangerous generalization. In fact, the CFS has used this against other fencers for well over 10 years now. We train for a specific weapon and to maximize its efficacy – not to remain loyal to an author or arbitrary time period.
Back to the differentiation: the false attack and the feint share much in common technically. In the same way, for example, that a stable disengagement and a disengagement in time do. Both are mechanically identical, they simply take place at different times (fencing Time). So the feint and false attack are difficult to differentiate in terms of technique. If you are conducting archival research and your text selections are principally technical manuals then you won’t discover it. You may infer it, but that won’t often be sufficient.
Tactically the difference is vast. Let me also prelude this by saying that probing actions are not “modern” as they have been extant to Italian fencing as the _scandaglio_ (lit. the ‘sounding out’) for a long time. The false attack is not a probing action, but rather an component of second intention. Because of this it is rarely identified itself, but rather described. We identify the action in second intention, and we can describe the initial attack as false, viz. with no intention (first) to strike or complete to target. Therefore, the differentiation is tactical in nature.
The feint is more useful, tactically, if you are unsure about the adversary’s response to your threat; whereas an action in second intention is more useful when you are pretty sure the adversary will parry-riposte (as an example).