Classical Fencing: The Appel

    The Appel (also known in English as the Call) is one of the misunderstood actions of classical fencing. An instructional tool to ensure proper balance in the guard position, it has also been claimed as being able to scare opponents and increase the effectiveness of attacks, even in modern fencing. So we have to ask how was the Appel described during the classical period?

    1877 – the French Ministry of War (Fencing Manual) – two light strikes by the forward foot on the ground. The body remained immobile. The Appel was used as part of coming on guard.

    1890 – Heintz (Theory of Fencing With the Foil) – the Double Appel with the front foot somewhat elevated to tap the ground in the same place twice to test the equilibrium of the fencer.

    1890 – Pollock, Grove, and Prevost (Fencing, Boxing, and Wrestling) – a slap of the sole of the forward foot. They remark that it had been abandoned by elite fencers and commented (page 42):

    “In the days when idiocy played so large a part in fencing, it was thought that the Appel frightened the adversary. Of course it never frightened anyone over five, and served no purpose but to put the antagonist on his guard and to retard the attack of the booby who made it.”

    The authors describe Fencing Masters in exhibitions starting from guard with an Appel and a shout of “Voila Monsieur,” presumably for dramatic effect. The suspicion that this was stage craft is reinforced by their note that the Appel was a favorite of audiences.

    1892 – Rondelle (Foil and Sabre) – the Call as striking the floor sharply once or twice with the forward foot without changing the body position to test the fencer’s equilibrium.

    1898 – La Marche (L’Epee, House’s translation) – use of the Appel in the flying guard, short advances with Appels, and finally with a forward gain and shout, to alarm the opponent.

    1908 – French Ministry of War (Fencing, translation for the Amateur Fencers League of America) – action of striking the ground with the forward foot to: (1) disconcert the opponent, (2) reinforce the effect of a false attack, and (3) ensure students’ bodies were properly balanced.

    1920 – Manrique (Fencing Foil Class Work Illustrated) – the call as one or two stamps of the forward foot, with the body remaining immobile, to check the fencer’s balance or to signal an opponent to halt the bout.

    1930 – Cass (The Book of Fencing) – the Call performed after the guard is assumed with two stamps of the forward foot as a test of balance.

    These sources agree; the Appel is a footwork movement that makes a distinctive sound by a slap of the front foot on the piste from the guard position. In making the Appel the fencer does not move the torso. This can only be done by raising the toes of the front foot and executing the slap from the knee. To avoid added impact to the knee do not do this as a stamp.

    There is wide variance in descriptions of how the technique should be employed:

    • All agree the Appel is done to check the fencer’s balance on guard. Trying to execute the Appel with the weight forward provides instant feedback that your weight is not evenly distributed. The Appel is consistent with the formal process of coming on guard taught in the classical period.

    • The Appel to emphasize a false attack draws attention to the action. However, to be effective, enough actual attacks would have to be conducted with Appels to prevent opponents immediately recognizing an Appel as a false action.

    • Appels to alarm, disconcert, or frighten the opponent, may work against unduly nervous or inexperienced opponents. However, Pollock, Grove, and Prevost were correct in their assessment that it alerted opponents to the intent to attack. The extra tempo in the attack for the foot slap would add time for opponent reaction. If done as an accelerant to break inertia at the start of a lunge, the Appel may actually increase speed. However, descriptions of use in the classical period do not include speed as an objective.

    • There are better ways to signal an opponent to halt than by Appel; it is an ambiguous signal. As late as the 1960s a sequence of Appel, back foot stamp, and Appel was taught to signal the referee to call a halt.

    • However, if you do exhibitions of classical fencing, a loud Appel and shout of “Voila Monsieur” was a crowd pleaser then and would add definite color to such events today.

    Use the Appel in the role for which it was designed, as a training tool. As for its employment in the bout, perhaps the most telling thing about the Appel is its absence from a wide variety of well-respected fencing texts of the classical period.

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