Every modern fencing group in the world demands that members wear their fencing masks while working with swords in hand. Most HEMA clubs demand similar behaviour for the purpose of safety of participants. However, there are some groups that, for whatever reason, do not see fencing masks as important pieces of equipment, and who quite happily permit members to train and even to spar without this most basic piece of protection.
The purpose of this article is to explain some of the reasons why fencing masks are such important pieces of equipment, hopefully helping more groups come to terms with this point of view, and promoting a safer community of sword enthusiasts.
If anything goes wrong
Of course, the most obvious reason to wear a fencing mask is that it provides protection for the head, face and neck. You can take a reasonably sturdy hit to the head, or a stiff thrust to the face, and it is not much of a problem if you are wearing a decent fencing mask.
If you choose not to wear fencing masks, the next best way to remain safe is to disallow strikes to the head and thrusts to the face, and with just a little practice, this is relatively easy to do. However, there is always the worry, and the potential legal responsibility, that something may go wrong. A parry might not be in the right place, the attacker may slip and send the sword where it was not intended to go – there are all kinds of random occurrences that can take place.
Mistakes happen! It is better to be protected and for a mistake to be harmless, than to take the risk and for a mistake to be critical.
You can train with more people
Although it may not seem like an immediate priority for groups that don’t tend to cross-train with other clubs, this can become a barrier to the development of the club and its members further down the line. If people are not accustomed to wearing fencing masks, they will be less likely to join training sessions where masks are required. Similarly, people who do wear masks for safety will be less inclined to train with a club that chooses not to do so.
Without cross-training with other people, without the opportunity to train and spar with new people and get new input from outwith your comfort zone of friends and clubmates, a group can stagnate quickly and skills will simply not develop as quickly as they could if club members had access to a wider pool of training partners and perhaps even guest instructors.
You can learn better when you can hit the head
If you never have the experience of what it feels like to land a hit on another person’s head, you cannot learn correct body mechanics to support such an action. It also becomes more difficult to learn other skills such as distance, range, and timing, if you cannot take your techniques to completion.
If you study a historical form of swordsmanship, but you never take the techniques to completion because you don’t want to hit friends on the head or stab them in the face, then in fact you learn to do everything just slightly wrong, and your ability to interpret and perform the techniques from the historical sources will suffer.
When you can take your techniques to completion, you have the opportunity to learn everything about the technique, to learn everything necessary to perform the action successfully.
You can learn better when you are being hit on the head
As mad as it sounds, being hit on the head is conducive to becoming a better swordsman – at least, in terms of learning how to defend yourself! If you know that your opponent will never actually try to hit you properly, then you never have to learn to defend yourself properly. However, if you know that every attack is supposed to smack you on the head, then you learn how to defend yourself much more effectively!
This skill can then be extremely beneficial if you decide to revisit the idea of training without masks, or with reduced levels of protective gear, at a later stage in your training. But clearly, if you have not learned to defend yourself properly because you never had to do so in training, then this is not ideal for an environment without fencing masks!
Bad habits linger
The final reason I will present is that bad habits linger. The more you train any action, the closer it moves to “muscle memory”, and the harder it is to train yourself to do something else. This is not a problem if you train everything perfectly, and have nothing but good habits! But if you train a bad habit (such as pulling your blows so that you don’t hit the head), then this becomes muscle memory with enough repetitions, and will have a direct effect on your ability to fight successfully later (such as the inability to land a hit on an opponent manifesting itself at inopportune times, such as during a tournament or during a sparring match with someone from another club).
If everyone in the club wears their fencing masks during training, sparring, and virtually all exercises where swords and partners are involved together, then this will have a very beneficial effect on the club. Not only will everyone be safer, but everyone’s fighting skills will improve much faster! Your ability to project your sword and perform techniques against other people will be better if you are able to hit them on the head, and your ability to defend yourself and keep yourself safe will be greater if you know that your opponent can hit you on the head whenever he wants.
So, if your club has avoided fencing masks too far, considering them an expensive investment, then please think again. Yes, fencing masks can be expensive for a new club just starting out, but how much more expensive will the legal repercussions be if something goes wrong and someone receives a catastrophic injury? How much do you value your ability to improve over time, and to develop a high level of skill at the art you have chosen to study?
Invest in some fencing masks, instil the discipline for everyone to wear them, and your club will never look back on this excellent decision.
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.