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”.
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.