This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 22nd April 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
When looking to buy a fencing mask, there are a huge variety of makes and models, and they all come with some numbers to describe how protective they are.
If you have listened to club members talking about masks and their protectiveness (or, even worse, read some of the nonsense that people spout online when discussing fencing masks), you may have come across the terms “350N”, “800N”, “1600N”, or even “12kg” or “25kg”. Unfortunately, most people do not understand correctly what these numbers mean – and if you are going to buy a fencing mask, you should make your decision based on a proper understanding of what the ratings actually mean.
“350N” and “1600N” masks; the EN 13567 standard
People usually refer to just two kinds of masks: “350N” masks and “1600N” masks. This is a bit of a shorthand way of referring to CEN level 1 and CEN level 2 masks, although it also misses a lot of other valuable information.
There is a European standard for the manufacture and rating of fencing masks (EN 13567), and this divides masks into two categories: level 1 and level 2. There are no other ratings described by this document, and no other ratings have any kind of international ratification or recognition. Therefore, these two levels are the only two ratings that matter.
Masks rated according to EN 13567 have two main features: the bib and the mesh. The standard also sets out requirements for the strength and durability of the wire for the mesh, the chemical composition, the gaps between the wire when woven into the mesh, etc. However, only the bib and the mesh are assigned numbers to describe their protective qualities.
A CEN level 1 mask (that is, a mask rated to level 1 according to EN 13567) has a bib rated to protect against at least 350 Newtons of penetrative force, and a mesh rated to protect against at least 600 Newtons of penetrative force.
A CEN level 2 mask has a bib rated to protect against at least 1600 Newtons of penetrative force, and a mesh rated to protect against at least 1000 Newtons of penetrative force. A CEN level 2 mask may also be called an “FIE” mask or an “FIE certified” mask. FIE is the international governing body for modern fencing, and they require competitors at the international level to wear CEN level 2 equipment.
It is quite obvious from these numbers that a CEN level 2 mask offers significantly more guaranteed protection than a mask rated to CEN level 1.
For more information about how fencing masks are constructed, and the requirements therein, I recommend reading an article I wrote on the subject previously, available through the Academy of Historical Arts website: Keith Farrell, 2012, Construction of a Fencing Mask.
The reason why it is more correct and helpful to use the terms “CEN level 1” and “CEN level 2” rather than “350N” and “1600N” is that masks can of course exceed the minimum requirements for a level, but cannot fall below them.
A typical (cheap) CEN level 1 mask will probably meet the minimum requirements of 350N and 600N (bib and mesh), but a slightly better CEN level 1 mask might have a stronger mesh. For example, when the Academy of Historical Arts bought a box of CEN level 1 fencing masks from Blue Gauntlet a few years ago, we were surprised and impressed to see that while the bibs were rated to just 350N (as expected), the meshes were in fact rated to 1000N. So these masks were better than the minimum requirements for their rating – referring to them as “350N” masks would be to do them a disservice and to misrepresent their level of protection, whereas saying that they are “CEN level 1 masks that exceed the minimum requirements” conveys exactly what they are, and shows that they are a superior option to typical level 1 masks, although still inferior to level 2 masks.
You might hear people talking about masks passing a 12kg or 25kg punch test. The 12kg punch is a device that is used in modern fencing to test the strength of a mask’s mesh, to ensure that it is acceptable for use in competition. The punch test is more common in America than in Europe. If a mask fails the punch test, then it usually means that it has had a hole punched through the mesh! Each application of a punch test does damage the mesh, which is why modern fencing competitions in Europe tend not to use the punch test, to improve the longevity of the masks.
People often speak of CEN level 1 masks passing a 12kg punch test, and CEN level 2 masks passing a 25kg punch test. However, in all my reading and searching, I have been unable to find any reference to a 25kg punch test in any technical or official literature, nor any vendors who sell such a device. The “Rules for Competitions” book by British Fencing describes only the 12 kg punch test. My advice is to ignore anything said about the strength or durability of fencing masks in terms of punch tests, because these are not proper tests conducted during the construction and validation phases, but are piste-side tests to ensure that a mask is still suitable for use in competition. Furthermore, only the 12 kg punch test has any relation to modern fencing; any reference to a 25 kg punch test is not grounded in published technical literature, so it is conjecture at best or a complete misunderstanding of the situation at worst.
Sometimes fencing masks are described as “800N”, and this is an old measurement that is not used anymore in modern fencing, before the EN 13567 standard came into force. Although “800N” sounds better than “350N”, it is important to realise that such masks are non-standard and do not necessarily have a rating according to EN 13567 (when considering all of the various measurements, strengths, and tests mandated by the standard).
At the end of the day, the fencing mask is worn to protect your face, head and throat from penetrative strikes. It can perform this task exceptionally well, but it is important to recognise the limitations. It is also important to realise that historical fencing weapons can produce significantly more force than the swords used in modern fencing, and that if we want to wield military sabres or longswords with a high level of strength and intensity, then we need to wear a mask that is able to cope with such quantities of force.
Therefore, CEN level 1 masks are suitable for beginners and for people who fence in a friendly, low- to medium-intensity fashion. If you want to fence at a higher level of intensity, then you owe it to yourself to buy a CEN level 2 mask that provides a greater level of protection that is more likely to keep your head safe against greater levels of force.
If money is a problem, then the only solution is to buy what you can afford in terms of masks, but then only to practise at a level of intensity that matches the rating of the mask. If you decide to buy a CEN level 1 mask then you have to keep a lid on the amount of force and intensity you use during training and sparring; if you decide to buy a CEN level 2 mask, then you still need to keep the force and intensity within reason, but perhaps you can work at a higher level of intensity than if you bought an inferior mask.
If you don’t know what kind of mask to buy, but money isn’t so much of an issue, then buy a CEN level 2 mask. The make and model is up to you in terms of what fits best or fits your sense of aesthetics, but don’t be cheap with your mask if you can afford better.
Bibliography, and further reading
European Standard EN 13567, July 2002. Protective Clothing – Hand, arm, chest, abdomen, leg, genital and face protectors for fencers – Requirements and test methods. British Fencing, 2010. Rules for Competitions; Book 3, Material Rules.
Keith Farrell, 2012. Construction of a Fencing Mask.
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.