I was brought up as a stereotypical Scotsman, making many purchasing decisions with my wallet-brain. This meant I almost always went for the cheapest option, and didn’t even consider more expensive options. However, this also meant that I ended up making poor decisions and often ended up buying more expensive equipment in the end, so I wasted quite a lot of money in the process.
Buying equipment on a budget is an issue that almost everyone will face at some point in time. The budget may be very tight, or it might have quite a bit of space in it for more purchases, but inevitably everyone will reach a point where they will think “what can I afford, and should I maybe take a cheaper option?”
Often, and most especially when starting out, I believe that the best policy is not to skimp on certain purchases. It is far better, for many reasons, to save up for a little longer and to buy something better as a result.
Swords are shiny and cool, and also expensive. It can be very tempting to choose a cheaper sword when budget is a concern. However, this is often poor economy, and it does more harm than good.
Looking at steel longswords, for example, it might be possible to buy:
– a Hanwei practical hand-and-a-half for around £120
– a Hanwei feder for around £140
– a Berbekucz feder for around £160
– a Regenyei feder for around £180
– an Ensifer feder for around £300
– an Albion Meyer for around £400
– a Leon Paul feder for around £600
When setting a budget for this purchase, where do you draw the line? Do you say “swords over £200 are out of the question”? Do you say “I want the cheapest sword on the market”? Or might you say “I want the cheapest sword that still performs reasonably well”? What about saying “I want the cheapest sword that I’m still likely to be using five years from now”? Each of these questions provides a different result or set of results.
In the list of swords above, the cheapest sword is a terrible piece of equipment, that is suitable for almost nothing related to HEMA. If you buy this, thinking that you are saving money, you may find that actually in six months you are looking to buy a new sword again anyway, since your first choice was a really bad sword.
The second cheapest sword is renowned and infamous for being not only really bad, but also very dangerous for your training partners. Several HEMA practitioners have been injured by Hanwei feders breaking and then causing a bleeding cut or a penetration wound. If you buy this sword, you might enjoy using it much more than you would the practical hand-and-a-half, and it is still cheap, but every time you use this sword you would be risking the lives of your training partners. Since we have a responsibility to our training partners to keep them safe and not injure them, we should discard this option as a matter of course. At no point does saving a few pounds outweigh the risk of genuinely injuring our training partners.
If we start looking at the third and fourth options on the list, we are now looking to spend over £150, we have discarded the cheaper options, but the budget is still within £200. Swords by Viktor Berbekucz and by Peter Regenyei receive many positive reviews, and these are some of the most common training swords in circulation, for good reasons. Although buying one of these means ignoring the cheaper options, these swords are not significantly more expensive, and you will get two or three years (or more!) of use from one of these swords, rather than needing to upgrade within six months.
If you look at the fifth, sixth or seventh options from the list, the swords are now priced at £300 or more. These swords also tend to have positive reviews. Is it worth buying one of these as your very first sword? Maybe not. These swords might be more appropriate for someone who already has a good sword for normal training, but who wants another option and is willing to pay more for the particular handling characteristics known to come with these particular swords.
So, the most important points are that your choice must be a safe choice for your training partners, and that you should choose something durable and functional enough that you will get your money’s worth in terms of usage. If the sword is so awful that you need to buy a new one in six months, and if you end up paying £160 or £180 anyway, then you will have wasted whatever you spent on your first purchase. That is not good economy, it doesn’t help your budget, and it’s also a waste of time.
Similarly, when considering the purchase of protective equipment such as fencing mask, protective gloves, or padded jacket, you will have a variety of options ranging from relatively cheap to very expensive.
With masks, you will see CEN level 1 and CEN level 2 masks (sometimes (erroneously) called “350N” and “1600N” masks, please see this article for the difference between these types of masks and what the ratings mean), and also unbranded masks without any obvious rating. Generally speaking, the better masks with a higher rated strength of both bib and mesh tend to be more expensive; in other words, masks that are more protective tend to be more expensive, and masks that offer less protection tend to be cheaper. The question here is how much you value your face, throat, brain and head in general – are these parts of you only worth £50 or £60, or is it worth paying £150 or even £200 to keep these body parts safe and in good condition?
With gloves, as shown in this article comparing different types of gloves for longsword fencing, there are so many different options. Again, the options range from very cheap to very expensive; and, as with masks, the best gloves that offer the best protection tend to be further down the list and typically cost more. How much do you value your hands? Can you work or study without a thumb for a few months? Can you enjoy your hobbies without an index finger for a few months? Of course, you needn’t buy the most expensive set of gloves immediately, as you can always restrict the intensity and scope of the practice to be appropriate for the type and quantity of protective gear that you are wearing.
However, there is very little point in buying a £30 pair of gloves, only to take a severe bruise and realise that they are not good enough; then spend £50 on another pair of gloves, only to receive a broken finger; then spend £150 on a pair of Sparring Gloves anyway. It is better to make one of two choices: buy on a budget and ONLY practise gently, or extend your budget in order to get the RIGHT item so that you can practise at any intensity.
In conclusion, having a budget in mind when buying gear is important, since otherwise you may run out of money and not be able to afford to attend your training sessions! The purpose of this article is most definitely not to suggest that you should run out and buy the most expensive set of equipment that is available. Rather, you should think about your budget and what you are actually looking to achieve. Do you want low quality equipment that is a hazard both to you and to your training partners, but that is cheap? Or are you willing to pay a little more to receive equipment that will do a much better job of keeping you safe and letting you enjoy your training without undue risk to your training partners?
Buying cheaply in the short run usually leads to spending more money over time. Pitching your budget a little bit higher may sting more in the short term, but will save you significant quantities of money in the long run, and will help you stay safe and will help keep others safe when you train with them.
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.