The beat can perform a variety of functions as part of your offensive tool kit. That means that it is important to understand what the beat is, how it is performed, what it can do, and how to use it.
First – what is a beat? The simple answer is that it is a one tempo percussive action delivered to an opponent’s blade. Traditionally, beats have been classified with presses and froissements as attacks on the blade because the focus of the action is the opponent’s blade, not his target area.
Notice that I did not say that it is an action to remove an opponent’s blade from a line, or that it is part of an attack. That is because a beat can have a variety of tactical outcomes:
(1) simple annoyance – these are small beats delivered to the opponent’s blade, typically with the outer foible, with the intent of annoying the opponent and engaging her attention.
(2) beats to draw a reaction – these are more substantial beats with foible to mid-section of your blade to cause the opponent to react as preparation for the fencer’s attack or countertime action.
(3) destructive beats – beats with the inner foible to disrupt a developing attack plan or to deny an opponent the ability to use a line (thereby increasing his predictability).
(4) beats as part of an attack – beats with the inner foible or mid-section of your blade to displace the opponent’s blade, opening the line for your immediate attack.
(5) beats as a parry or as part of offensive countertime (as a beat straight thrust executed on the opponent’s stop hit). Under the current rules a beat effectively cannot be a parry in foil or sabre (a parry must be executed with the lower one-third of the blade). However, a beat certainly will displace the opponent’s blade from the line of the attack, and the beat parry has long been an accepted part of the fencing skill set. Understand that in foil and sabre you cannot simply beat into an opponent’s beat attack. The beat attack will be given right of way. If the opponent beats your blade, you must beat the attack coming off the beat so that there is a discernible sequence of beat-beat. But who knows how that action will be called by the referee.
A well delivered beat has certain characteristics in all three weapons. The more of these that are present, the better the probability of success in achieving the goal.
(1) the beat complies with the requirements of the rules. In epee, there are no requirements, but in foil and sabre beats must be delivered on the two-thirds of the blade furthest from the opponent’s guard (this has been redefined in the rules as the foible, as opposed to the long-standing usage that the foible is the forward half of the blade in foil and the blade beyond the Y, T, or I in a sabre blade) (see rules t.56.4 and t.78).
(2) the beat starts when the blades are not in contact. If the blades are in contact, bringing your blade off the opponent’s will provide her a clear indication of what you plan to do.
(3) the beat is not chambered or cocked – pulling the blade to the side to bring it back in the beat allows stop hits in epee, stop cuts in sabre, and derobements in all three weapons.
(4) the beat exerts sufficient power for its purpose. However, it is not a brute force action intended to propel the opponent’s blade across the room. Timing, enough force to move the blade from the line but no more, and quickness are more important than simply smashing the blade as hard as you can.
(5) the beat is quick – to be successful beats must give the opponent as little warning as possible. Quick fingers, with some wrist action, are necessary.
(6) the beat is crisp and dry – one impact with the blade with a crisp sound.
(7) the beat stops lateral or vertical motion on impact and transitions immediately to forward action. The beat should drive the opponent’s blade in the desired direction with an energy transfer at the point of contact. This transfer should leave the blade ready to immediately move forward from the point of impact toward the target. One way to think of this is as a shallow angle bounce off a trampoline.
(8) the resulting attacking action hits the target.
In the big scheme of fencing actions, beats do the same thing as compound attacks and takings of the blades. They put the opponent’s blade in motion, opening a line that you can exploit. In any of the weapons this makes them an important part of your toolkit of technique, and one that deserves constant practice.