Buying HEMA Gear

mask and swords

This week’s guest article is courtesy of Tea Kew, from the Cambridge HEMA club.

One of the most common questions on HEMA forums and Facebook groups, perhaps the most common after “Where’s my nearest club?” and “What sword should I get?”, is some variation of “What protective gear should I get?” or “Is this piece of equipment worthwhile?”. Normally this is asked by new fencers, who are looking for the best balance of cost and effectiveness to equip themselves for safe training.

The general answer is always basically the same: buy the de-facto standard HEMA gear, from reputable HEMA-specific manufacturers.

In this article, we’ll look at some general principles to use when buying gear, that help explain why to buy the standard kit instead of alternatives. Depending on your local situation, some of this standard equipment might be difficult to obtain, but understanding these principles means you can make much more informed decisions about how to select replacements if necessary.

Bad gear is more dangerous than no gear

An important but counterintuitive thing about equipment is that bad gear (inappropriate for the task, insufficiently protective for the level of force being used, or suchlike) can often be more dangerous than no gear. An incident I’ve personally witnessed will help illustrate this.

Early in the history of my club, some members sparred in motorcycle gloves instead of more protective gear, thinking that at least the motorcycle glove would provide some protection. However, that apparent protection meant that their opponents tended to swing harder, which ended up causing our only broken bone (from a Rawlings nylon longsword, with a krumphaw to the thumb). In this instance, eschewing protective gloves entirely would remind the opponent not to attack the hands, which in turn would avoid the risk of breaking bones.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using less equipment, as long as you restrict your intensity and activity based on the level of equipment you are using. If you don’t have suitably protective gloves, don’t attack the hands. If you don’t have a puncture-resistant jacket, don’t thrust with steel swords. If you don’t have knee and shin protection, then don’t throw the geißler at a leg. Adding inadequate gear to try to incorporate these actions will put you at more risk of injury.

Cheap gear is a false economy

A common feature of questions about equipment is “this piece of HEMA specific gear is expensive, can I just use this other piece of non-HEMA gear instead?”. The answer to this is almost always no – for most expensive pieces of HEMA gear, the apparent alternatives are not worth buying, for several reasons.

Firstly, as just discussed above, inadequate gear as a stop-gap often doesn’t make you safer. It can tempt you to try riskier activities without providing sufficient protection, and this then exposes you to injury which you would otherwise have avoided. For example, many cheap re-enactment gambesons have none of enclosed armpits, an overlapping front, or a blade catching collar. These missing features mean that wearing one for sparring with steel swords is much more dangerous: because you have a gambeson, it seems safe to strike and thrust with power, but because the armpits and throat are open, a broken blade can cause fatal injuries.

Secondly, the money spent on inadequate but cheap gear is wasted money which could have been put towards quality kit, and will mean you spend longer without appropriate equipment. If you can lay aside £25/month, you can buy a cheap gambeson after 3 months or a SPES jacket after 6. Buying the cheap gambeson will then mean you take another 6 months to buy the SPES jacket, and so for a 9 month period you’ll be unable to fence hard with steel swords. Even once you do have the SPES jacket, you’re still out of pocket for 3 months of HEMA savings, and so it will take longer to buy Sparring Gloves or whatever other piece of equipment you need next, or perhaps you won’t be able to afford to go to an event this year.

There are two main exceptions to this, where a piece of equipment is so vital that it can be worth buying a lower quality version first and upgrading it later: Red Dragon gloves (with fingertip protectors) and a CEN1 fencing mask. However, in most cases (such as jackets) it’s better just to save up and go straight to the HEMA standard.

Standard gear is standard for a reason

Some equipment is a de-facto standard in HEMA: used by most fencers, and regularly recommended in answer to questions about what gear to use. This is because it’s appropriate for our art, well understood, and of good quality (it is also normally at a good balance of price to protection, so is good value). This equipment is the most sensible choice to buy, especially early in your HEMA journey.

One of the most important advantages of standard gear is that it is a known quantity. SPES plastic elbow protectors aren’t perfect, but the amount of protection they provide is well known, and so it’s easy to evaluate whether they’ll be suitable for a given activity. The same is true of Sparring Gloves, the PBT gorget,  Red Dragon gloves, and so on. By contrast, something like steel elbow cops aren’t as easy to evaluate. They may be made of thin spring-stainless, and provide excellent protection for minimal weight. Or they might be made of mild steel, and crumple under a solid hit from a nylon sword. This lack of consistency makes it much harder to make an informed decision about whether they’re suitable protection.

This is particularly valuable when you start to step out into the community beyond your club. At larger events, there’s rarely time to extensively check and test every random piece of gear someone is using for protection. Standard HEMA gear makes it quick and easy to work out if someone is properly equipped for the intensity of training at a seminar or tournament, or if they should be borrowing better gloves to participate in a given activity. It allows your training partner to make an informed decision about what activities can be safely performed, which improves your safety.

Alternatives have been tried

There can be a temptation to try and find interesting new alternatives, whether that’s smart materials like D3O, mass produced re-enactment gear, kendo gloves, or any of myriad other options. The HEMA community has been around for a few decades now, and has tried nearly every commonly suggested piece of alternative equipment. Cheap mass-produced gauntlets have been used. Kendo kote have been used. Non-Newtonian material gloves have been used. Mail gloves have been used. Loads of jacket designs have been tried.

The stuff which works reliably is already part of the standard equipment people use. The kit which people don’t use has been tried and rejected. This doesn’t mean that the standard equipment is perfect – gloves in particular still haven’t reached an ideal balance of dexterity, protection and price. However, other options are less suitable still. Much like medicine vs. alternative medicine, the rule of thumb to remember is “If it worked, we’d use it”.

Conclusions

In conclusion, the most sensible choice is to normally to buy equipment which is the de-facto standard for engaging in a particular HEMA activity. This equipment will provide you with a good balance of price to protection, it will keep you safe reliably, and save you money in the long run over buying experimental or inadequate gear first based solely on price. Once you want to participate in the wider community, using standard equipment makes it easier to train with people from other clubs, by making it easier to come to a common understanding about what activities and intensity will be safe.

Is it acceptable to teach non-HEMA techniques in a HEMA lesson?

Image of Kendo c.1920. The fencer on the right is in chudan-no-kamae. Image taken from Wikipedia.

Image of Kendo c.1920. The fencer on the right is in chudan-no-kamae. Image taken from Wikipedia.
Is it useful to take a similar position or technique from another martial art, adopt into our HEMA practice?

This is a question that does come up every so often when someone with non-HEMA experience discusses the idea of setting up a HEMA club. Of course it seems like quite a reasonable idea to continue teaching the non-HEMA material with which you are familiar, and there are probably techniques from your previous training that would be useful in various situations in HEMA sparring.

I worked through this process myself, several years ago, when I started looking at HEMA after spending around fourteen years studying karate. I had achieved my 3rd dan black belt in karate, and I thought that importing some karate techniques and concepts would help to shore up any of the many deficiencies I perceived in the HEMA systems I was trying to learn.

However, with more experience of HEMA now, I can see quite clearly that the biggest and most important deficiency was my own lack of skill at the systems I was trying to learn! Now I know that these systems can deal with almost any problem (within the appropriate context) if I apply the techniques and concepts properly – and if I need to solve a problem in a different context, I just use a different (and more appropriate) system.

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On painted masks

One practice that is quite common within HEMA is painting fencing masks.  The fencing mask is the most common item of safety kit that a HEMAist can own, and so many HEMAists will personalise their masks. There are many possible reasons why a HEMA practitioner might paint their own mask: it may be so they can find their own mask quicker if a group of masks are left together, or it could be so that they can identify themselves in photos more easily, or so that others in the HEMA community will recognise them more easily, or simply because they think the idea of a painted mask might look cool.

For quite some time, I wore a painted mask. Most recently, I wore a mask painted with a skull, and before that, I was borrowing a friend’s mask with a zombie/Jason design. When I got my mask back, freshly painted with a skull, I was very happy with it. The painting had been done well, it was very distinctive, and a few of the newer students said that the mask made it more intimidating to spar with me, which was very satisfying. After this I acquired a new mask, which hasn’t yet been painted. Taking time to think about exactly what I wanted to be painted on my new mask made me think about the entire practice of painting masks, and especially the problems associated with it. I was very happy with both of the painted masks I have used, but I have been thinking recently that the issue might be a little more complicated than simply having your mask painted because it looks cool, which was the only real consideration I ever had personally with regard to having a painted mask before.

Me, in my old mask painted with a skull. Photo copyright of Daniil Lapko.

Me, in my old mask painted with a skull.
Photo copyright of Daniil Lapko.

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Curved Swords and “Polish Sabre”

Keith Farrell with a Polish hussar sabre. Photo by Miroslav Zaruba, 2013.

Keith Farrell with a Polish hussar sabre. Photo by Miroslav Zaruba, 2013.

I have a curved sword. When I fence with it, am I practising Polish sabre?

The reconstruction of 17th century Polish fencing with the sabre has been gaining in popularity for a few years now, with various researchers and interpreters working to improve their own understanding of the issue, and teaching their ideas at events and gatherings. Several items of research have been produced and published, including translations, articles, books, and sword typologies.

However, along with the surge of interest among scholars and the publication of research, it is becoming more common to hear people state that they “do Polish sabre”, or to make assertions that this or that kind of guard or technique “can be found in Polish sabre”. In fact, it is quite possible to see some people “doing Polish sabre” and for the resulting fencing to look no different from how they “do British sabre” or indeed how they “do messer”. There are of course people who put incredible amounts of time and effort into training a fencing system that could well be an excellent reconstruction of 17th century Polish fencing with the sabre, but there are also people who dabble, and so “doing Polish sabre” has become a relatively common refrain.

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HEMA myths and fact-checking

Today I want to talk very briefly about the importance of fact checking things you say. It is not uncommon to hear people repeat “facts” that they have heard. They may go on to repeat these anecdotes or pieces of information in a conversation, or in a class. The people that hear these “facts” can then go to repeat them at a later time, and so these statements are continually brought up and told to new people without anyone actually checking if these “facts” actually have any basis in fact.

Three examples of this that spring to mind in particular are that:

– Italian longsword is flashy compared to the straight-forward German longsword system,
– that the messer was a weapon designed to get by through legal loopholes
– and that it was the advent of the gun in Europe that made swordsmanship skills die off.

These “facts” are all old; however I hear them repeated every now and again. It is therefore worth quickly debunking these stories.

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Unusual techniques 2: building on common techniques is an effective strategy

Mark Wilkie and Keith Farrell sparring at the AHA Loch Lomond 2012 training camp.

Maybe opening the majority of exchanges with a predictable Oberhaw is not such a bad thing?

A while ago, Alex posted an article on the subject of unusual techniques, and he discussed why he felt that it was not a good idea to spend too much time trying to use these unusual techniques in your sparring. I agree very much with his thoughts, and would like to propose an extension to this idea, that it is beneficial to work mainly with the more common techniques in your system, even if they are predictable.

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Why we shouldn’t accept injuries

Two weeks ago I wrote a post on Getting Used to Protective Gear. One of the reasons that it is important to get used to protective gear is so that we can wear the appropriate protection and thereby reduce our risk of injury. It is important that we do what we can to reduce the risk of injury, whether that is through wearing high quality protective gear, restricting target areas, deliberately controlling the intensity of the fight or any combination of the above.

Sometimes HEMAists dismiss the risk of injury, but there are several reasons why we should take injuries seriously, and make attempts to prevent them if our practices are unsafe.

It is worth bearing in mind that HEMA is a contact sport, and so of course, injuries will happen, and that when they do, we should simply move on with life. If we couldn’t accept any risk of injury at all, then we would never leave the house. I have had several patellar dislocations, and every time after I recovered, I went straight back to HEMA, but I’ve also done everything I can to prevent that happening to me in future. Fundamentally I believe that all HEMAist must make concerted actions to prevent injuries, for yourself, your training partners, and your students.

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Good fencing, bad fencing, and incorrect fencing

Keith Farrell and Mark Wilkie sparring with sabres at Edgebana 2015.

Is playing a game of parry/riposte an example of “correct fencing” or “incorrect fencing” for the system that you study? For sabre, it is often an example of “good” and “correct” fencing. What about for longsword?

Can “good fencing” ever be considered “bad fencing” or “incorrect fencing” at the same time?

Sometimes people integrate actions or concepts into their sparring that could be described as “good fencing”. However, sometimes these actions or concepts might also be described as “bad fencing”  or “incorrect fencing” at the same time, and I think this is an interesting paradox that is somewhat unique to historical fencing.

This article will present a few examples, and it is not the intention to say that any one skill or behaviour or idea is “bad” or “incorrect” all the time. Rather, the intention is to suggest circumstances that may lead to certain actions or concepts changing from “good” to “bad”, or vice versa, or perhaps remaining “good” but suffering from being “incorrect” according to the system. If you take from this article the inspiration to think about these notions, then I will have achieved my purpose, and hopefully more people will consider what counts as “correct fencing” in the system that they study.

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