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Priority

Priority is the system of conventions governing which fencer is to be awarded a point in foil and sabre (the "conventional" weapons) should both fencers hit.  It has no relevance to epée.  Priority takes into account when actions began, not when they finished, thus it does not consider which hit actually landed first, but which action had priority over another.  It is sometimes expressed as determining which action landed first in "fencing time", as opposed to real time.  The following are merely some of the general principles underpinning the rules of the priority, not an exhaustive discussion of those rules. This, like the "Principles to Refereeing Fencing" is intended to explain the rules simply to parents of fencers.

 

 

Priority belongs to an action, not a fencer, and determines the relation of that action to others.  Thus, when we speak of priority, it is really the priority of one action over another.  Conceptually, this can be imagined as determining all the actions in an exchange and listing them.  Priority is used to determine the order of the list, then the president goes down the list until he/she reaches the first action to hit (whether on or off target).  That hit is then awarded.  If the hit is off-target in foil there is no point awarded but all subsequent actions (subsequent in terms of priority – even if they hit first in real time) are annulled and the fencers are replaced on guard.

 Thus, while we often say "He/she had priority" what we mean is that his or her action which landed had priority over the opponent's action which also landed.

The priority of the attack and the riposte are the two most important points, and the most commonly applied in bouts.

 

 Priority is gained by the attack which starts first.  The attack is an offensive action with a straight or straightening arm that moves forward continuously threatening valid target.  The opponent's attack into this is a counter-attack, and the attack has priority over it.  The attack only consists of the final step-lunge or fleche – this is conceptually difficult, but important for judging an opponent's stop-hit or line.

  

Priority is lost when the attack stops.  This may be by failing to hit, falling short, the fencer stopping or pulling back the arm, or being parried.  Any continuation of the attack is a new action, and does not share the attack's priority; the counter-attack, or a subsequent action of the opponent such as a riposte, may have priority over it.

  

The riposte has priority provided that it is simple and immediate.  This means that the riposte (after a successful parry) has priority over any continuation of the attack if it starts immediately after the parry and does not include feints.  If it does include feints, then a continuation made during one of those feints may have priority over the final action of the riposte.  The basic principle is that, having survived the attack, the fencer has the right to respond.  This can also mean that a fencer who was retreating at speed might make a riposte which starts after the continuation, due to the time taken to change direction, but still have this considered to have been immediate, as they cannot have their right of reply denied simply because it is impossible to stop instantly.  This principle can also be applied to attacks after an opponent's attack fell short rather than being parried.


Certain preparations gain priority for an attack which follows immediately.  Strictly, any action which is not an attack or a parry is a preparation – stepping forward and back, engaging the blade etc. are preparations.  However, some preparations such as beats or takings of the blade gain priority for any attack made by that fencer immediately after.  Thus, if one fencer beats the opponent's blade, then immediately both attack and hit, the attack by the fencer who made the beat has priority; the other is the counter-attack.

 

The stop-hit can have priority if it is "in time".  The stop-hit is a form of counter-attack which can have priority if it is made into a preparation (i.e. the opponent was not really attacking) or if it hits in time, i.e. before the final action or the final step-lunge or fleche of the attack.  The problem is that it must hit before the final action starts to be in time; otherwise it is described as "out of time".  This is an exception to the rule that priority cares about when actions start, not when they finish.

  

The line can have priority, even though it is not an offensive action.  The line, more correctly, the point-in-line position, can gain priority if it starts before the attack.  The line must be maintained with a straight arm pointing at target and can move forward, backwards or stay still.  The line starts once the arm is straight, while the attack starts when the arm begins to straighten, so if two fencers straighten their arms together, one in attack and one in a line, the attack must have priority.  But, because the attack is only the final step-lunge or fleche, if the line is established before this it then has priority, similarly to the stop-hit.  The line ends when it is broken, by the fencer bending the arm, or taken, by a beat or pris-de-fer by the opponent's blade.

  

Simultaneous attacks do not have priority.  If two fencers simultaneously start an attack, then the attacks have no priority over one another.  If both hit then no point is awarded (even if one hits on target and one off).  If one misses and the other hits, then the one that hits is awarded.  True simultaneous attacks are extremely rare, but the presidents are only human, and to judge which fencer started the actual attack first can be extremely difficult.

 

The president will phrase the action after calling "Halt".  Once the president has called "Halt" due to a hit, he/she will phrase the action, i.e. describe in fencing terminology the actions which he/she saw and determine which hit.  Then, by applying the rules of priority, the president will award any point.  As only the last few actions are relevant, the president will only phrase them.  Usually the president only needs to phrase one or two actions and usually only in terms of attacks and what happened to them, but presidents will often phrase more, both to explain their decision to the fencers and to let them know how their actions are being interpreted.  Fencers can ask (politely!) for the president to rephrase the action if they do not understand.  They may not, however, address the president until his/her decision is given and the president cannot really change that decision once it is given.  This is a Catch-22 which was deliberately created to discourage fencers from trying to influence the president.

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