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Mike's European Fencing and Swordsmanship:

Fencing Tempo.

by Michael Liem

Copyright February 2003 (All Rights Reserved)


What is fencing tempo? Also referred to as "fencing time", it is the manner of responding to an adversary's attack, measured in relation to the timing of the adversary's movements. This article serves to outline how fencing tempo analysis may be applied to a modern-day, hand-to-hand, self-defense encounter. Analyzing one's multiple combat movements in terms of tempo can assist in training for modern-day self-defense situations, just as it did for the practice of rapier play during the 17th century in Italy.

In this context, the term "tempo" should not be confused with clock time, nor with "timing" as a matter of judgment as to when to make certain movements in relation to the distance, position and velocity of the adversary's movements. I am aware that there are some who refer to "tempo" as meaning "timing" and instead use the term "fencing time". My choice of the term "tempo" reflects the fact that it is analyzed in terms that involve the word "tempo", as will be demonstrated below.

The Crisis.

Suppose a modern-day pedestrian ("defender") is attacked by a common mugger ("attacker") by way of a punch to the defender's face. There are a variety of ways the defender may respond to such an attack. If the defender uses multiple moves, such as a combination of a block with a counterpunch, there are a variety of "tempi" for the defender to choose from in executing such moves.

Dui tempi.

For example, a defender may decide to address the punch first, then follow with a counter-punch to the adversary's throat. Thus, the first and second movement are separate, consecutive actions. This kind of defensive-counterattacking response is described as having "two times", or as the Italians call it, "dui tempi". One "time" is the attacking move; the other "time" is the following counter-attack by the defender after a successful defensive move. In classical fencing and smallsword fencing, the common parry of a thrust followed by an immediate riposte is the archetypical dui-tempi response to an attack.

Stesso tempo.

However, the defender may also choose to respond to the oncoming punch by shifting to the side, warding off the punch with one hand while striking at the adverary's vulnerable solar plexus with the other simultaneously. Alternatively, the defender simply steps in and thrusts with the lead side, simultaneously deflecting the punch by way of arm position. Thus the defensive-counterattacking response is performed in a "single time", or "stesso tempo" in Italian: the attacking move and the responding defense and counter-attack happen at the same time. Although this kind of response could be applied in classical and smallsword fencing, it was necessary for historical fencing with rapiers or larger swords, due to their size and lack of speed to succeed using a dui tempi response.

Mezzo tempo.

If the defender is fortunate enough, or skillful enough, to foresee the attack before it is executed, the defender has a third option, which is to preempt the attack with his own movement. For example, if the attacker is the process of chambering or cocking back his fist to prepare for the strike, the defender may utilize the chance to launch a premptive attack, such as by seizing the attacker's non-punching arm while shifting away from the punching hand, so as to use the attacker's own torso as an obstacle to the punching hand. Thus, the defender responded "in the middle of" the attacker's "time", or "mezzo tempo". Another example of a mezzo tempo response would be, in the event the attacker's punch were intended only as a feint, to be followed by a punch with the other hand to a different target area such as the kidney or ribs, but the defender launches a real counter-attack immediately after or during the feint and prior to the development of the attacker's real punch. For instance, the attacker tosses out a weak, uncommitted fake boxing jab into the air, to toy with the intended victim before throwing the real attack. However, before the attacker can throw the real attack, the defender surprises the attacker by lunging forward, opposing the jab with one forearm while blasting the nose with the fist of the other arm. The response thus falls somewhere in the middle of the feint move and the real attacking move, thus exemplifying "mezzo tempo". Mezzo tempo attacks are often seen in sabre bouts, particularly in cases where one fencer lunges and scores a touch while the other fencer is preparing to moulinet-cut.


A fourth kind of tempo contemplated by the Italian rapier masters is called "countratempo", or "counter-time". This complex concept involves the execution of a "time-hit" or "stop-hit" by the attacker, to which the defender responds. For example, the defender, in responding to the attacker's punch, decides to use a "two-time" response, such as by blocking and then counter-punching. In anticipation of this tactic, before the defender has the opportunity to develop her counterpunch, the attacker attempts to respond by throwing a second punch with the other hand, expecting the defender to step forward into the second punch. Bruce Lee referred to this tactic as an "intercepting" hit, which became the namesake of his combat philosophy, "Jeet Kune Do" (Way of the Intercepting Fist). However, instead of launching the expected counterpunch, the defender responds to the second punch, such as by moving forward to parry the punch with two hands and then seizing the arm to execute an armbar submission hold, or more simply, to grab the wrist of the attacker's extended hand, pull and blast the temple with the other fist. In fencing, contratempo is exemplified by a fencer A that feints, provoking the other fencer B to attempt a stop-thrust, whereupon the fencer A to capitalize on the stop-thrust attempt by a pris-de-fer. The pris-de-fer attack is in contratempo because it is a response to a stop (or time) attack.

Additional Applications.

Analyzing combat movements in terms of tempo can assist one in mentally preparing for a real self-defense situation in a number of ways. Primarily, one might use tempo analysis to develop defensive tactics for any number of situations, depending on what is available per the particular situation, such as the examples mentioned above.

Secondarily, one may apply one's knowledge of tempo to the use of weapons. Suppose the pedestrian is faced with an armed opponent, and is lucky enough to see that it is a large, heavy crowbar. Suppose the pedestrian manages to disarm the attacker, i.e., and seizes the crowbar, but now must face the attacker's allies who have suddenly appeared out of the darkness. One is wielding a baseball bat; another, a nightstick. The pedestrian, having been cornered by the two armed toughs, wields it with her strong right hand near the hooked end, and her weaker left hand one third of its length away from the other end, both hands pronated, and roots her weight by keeping her knees bent. She decides to take the initiative and attacks the nearest one, Mr. Baseball Bat, by advancing and making a thrusting poke with the non-curved end. The pedestrian has not practiced fighting with a heavy crowbar, but knows that it is not capable of quick, agile dui tempi movements. Fortunately, the baseball-bat wielding thug does not think of this. Mr. Bat takes a mighty swing, thinking that baseball bats were meant to be used the same way it would be used in a baseball diamond, going for the home run with each swing. The pedestrian draws herself back to mover herself and the crowbar out of the bat's path. Now Mr. Bat does not have time to force the bat to change direction quickly enough to avoid another attack. The pedestrian swings the crowbar overhead, sliding the right hand up away from the hooked end to join with the left hand, and shifts her weight forward with a twist of her waist, thus covering enough distance and generating enough momentum to bring the curved end through the top of Mr. Bat's skull. This was a mezzo tempo move, attacking in the middle of Mr. Bat's time in attempting to take another swing.

But here comes Mr. Nightstick, who was already in the middle of lunging forward as Mr. Bat bit the dust. The pedestrian, whose crowbar is trapped in Mr. Bat's skull, pulls Mr. Bat's still-standing corpse between herself and the remaining thug, and uses the crowbar to throw the body in Mr. Nightstick's direction, while at the same time grabbing the bat from Mr. Bat's lifeless hands. Mr. Bat falls with a thud, and Mr. Nightstick dodges around, now nervous yet enraged for revenge. Mr. Nightstick decides that his thirst for revenge is stronger than his instinct to run. The pedestrian wields the bat with her pronated right hand at the grip area and the other hand cupping the fat end in her supinated palm. Her weapon is the longer of the two and has the advantage of reach. Mr. Nightstick's is smaller and more agile, capable of dui tempi moves. She knows that if she tries to moulinet-swing, her attacker may time the swing and close in on her, neutralizing her reach-advantage. Nevetheless, she releases the fat end of the bat with her left and swings with the right hand to the left, behind the head, and steps forward to aim the swing low at Mr. Nightstick's ankles. Mr. Nightstick jumps back, then shoots forward for a quick strike with the stick to her exposed head. However, she catches the middle of the bat with her left hand and lunges in with her left foot to strike his face with the fat end while blocking the stick with the narrow end of the bat. This is a stesso tempo move. His face is shoved backwards, distracting and unbalancing him, allowing the pedestrian to either continue striking, to use a disarming technique, or perhaps to kneel down and swing low with the bat around his tottering ankles to catch the other end of the bat with the other hand, in order to pull him off his feet using the bat to sweep both ankles.


Ultimately, the goal in training is to be able to control one's self as well as one's surroundings, and to be able to establish control sometimes involves any kind of analysis that will help achieve that control. An analysis of fencing tempo, along with serious and effective training, may supplement one's ability to analyze a self-defense situation in order to judge how to respond to a given attack, whether or not weapons are involved, and thus assist in achieving that control. However, may it be that prevention shall suffice in our lifetimes.


My salle-mate Ken Mondschien, in his article It's All in the Timing, explores tempo, or "fencing time" as he prefers to call it, with further depth and, unlike my informal writings above, includes scholarly citations to actual treatises of the Italian masters. In addition to studying classical fencing and historical swordsmanship, Ken has earned recognition for his skill in armored sword combat. He also holds a black belt in Seido-Kan Karate-Do.

Provost Stephen Hand, who heads the Stoccata School of Defense in Sydney, Australia, has also published an article on the history of the contribution of fencing tempo, or fencing time, toward the evolution of European swords and fencing, called A Matter of Time. Provost Hand bases his teachings and practice primarily on the works of the historical Italian master Vincentio Saviolo.

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