A sensible progression for buying longsword equipment

Sparring Gloves and an Albion Meyer
Sparring Gloves and an Albion Meyer. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2015.

When people begin training at a club, it is only reasonable for them to be able to borrow some equipment from the club. After all, no one can reasonably expect that a complete beginner will run out and buy themselves all the protective gear to participate in high intensity longsword fencing, right from the first session! However, people will inevitably want to begin to acquire their own kit – or, if they don’t, the club may need to wean members from borrowing equipment after a while, to free it up for newer members.

This article will attempt to advise a sensible progression for buying equipment for learning to fence with the longsword, along with suggestions for items that might be most suitable and useful.

When deciding the order in which to buy protective equipment, it makes sense to buy the most important items first, and gradually work towards obtaining the less critical items. It also makes sense to buy the RIGHT items from the very beginning. It might cost more to buy a set of properly protective gloves than it would to buy a lighter set of gloves, but eventually people will need the more protective gloves anyway, so it makes more sense (financially speaking) to go straight to the best gear. Needless to say, going straight to the good quality protection without taking chances with items offering an inferior amount of protection can only be the safer option, too.

The first piece of equipment that students should be encouraged to buy is their own fencing mask. It may not be as glamorous as a sword, but if they have their own fencing mask, then this frees up one more club mask for a more recent beginner. Furthermore, having their own masks will mean that students don’t have to share masks, and sharing is less than ideal from the point of view of hygiene or comfort.

It would be most ideal if students could buy a CEN level 2 mask for themselves, rather than a CEN level 1 mask. I have written on this blog before about the difference between level 1 and level 2 masks, and I believe it is only sensible to choose a mask that offers better protection for the head, especially if the practice of longsword in the club involves strikes to the head.

The second piece of equipment for longsword fencing should be a good pair of gloves. Again, gloves are not very glamorous, but fingers and hands are very fragile, and a broken finger is even less glamorous than spending money on a pair of gloves. Depending on where in the world the club is located, and the medical costs that might result from a broken finger, this might actually be a high priority from the financial point of view! In some places in the world, a broken finger can cost more in medical bills than it would cost to buy a full outfit for high intensity sparring, and therefore, speaking purely from the point of view of money, without even considering the issue of pain and inconvenience, it is a worthwhile investment to acquire a good pair of gloves.

This means going straight to the heavy gloves and ignoring the lighter, softer options. I would recommend the Sparring Gloves as a good first set of gloves. They have enough dexterity and mobility to let you perform every single motion correctly, although perhaps not enough mobility to let you do things badly (which itself is a great state of affairs for a beginner); they are reasonably form-fitting and not massively bulky; they offer enough protection for almost everything except the very highest levels of intensity, at which point there are not really any gloves that offer complete protection.

Yes, it might be cheaper to get a set of Red Dragon gloves, or some other lacrosse gloves. Sure. But if you spend £50 on a pair of gloves, and get a broken finger, was that worth it? Even if you don’t break a finger, you will probably need to upgrade to Sparring Gloves (or something similar) down the line ANYWAY, so why not just spend the money upfront and then not have to worry about hand injuries at all? It is cheaper to spend £150 on a pair of Sparring Gloves in the beginning, rather than spending £50 on a set of basic gloves, then £100 on a pair of better gloves, then £150 on the Sparring Gloves anyway. There’s no need to throw away money and run the risk of a broken hand when you can just buy the right equipment in the first place.

The third piece of equipment would be an overlay for the mask that incorporates both some kind of padding for the top of the head and some kind of back of head protection. Something like the SPES leather overlay, the PBT overlay, or the Allstar overlay, would be a perfectly good option. These overlays combine padding for the top of the head and quite reasonable protection for the back of the head and the neck.

Why not just get a simple hard plate to put across the back of the head? Well, every time a sword hits a mask, the mask runs the risk of being damaged. By putting a padded cover on top of the mask, the mask has a better chance of surviving for longer, so this is a method of protecting your investment in the fencing mask. Also, the brain doesn’t enjoy being rattled about inside the head, so the more padding you can put on (and under) the mask, the less your brain will suffer from repeated hits.

I wrote an article on the subject of dementia pugilistica in HEMA: the kind of brain damage suffered by boxers and by people who sustain a lot of head hits over a period of time. My conclusions were, in brief, that most people in HEMA have very little likelihood of having such a problem, as long as they are wearing appropriate protective equipment and as long as the level of intensity of striking is kept in check. If you sustain a concussion during fencing, or even worse, have sustained several concussions from fencing, then this may be an issue that you should look into further.

Generally speaking, as you and your training partners start to get better at fencing with the longsword, you will be more likely to use side steps rather than fighting in a purely linear fashion, and techniques such as the Zwerhaw will become more common. There are several things that can lead to strikes coming towards the back of your head, and you really don’t want to risk taking a hit there. So buy a decent overlay for your mask, and you will be able to protect the back of your head, your brain, and the structural integrity of your mask, all in one easy purchase.

The fourth piece of equipment would be a good jacket. What do padded jackets designed specifically for HEMA do, and why are they useful? The first and most obvious advantage is that the padding makes it less likely that a hit will hurt or cause serious damage. Padding will not offer as much protection as hard plate, but it is a very good start. Thrusts against the torso will also be made less painful and less damaging if you wear a jacket.

A good jacket should protect your armpits, even as you raise your arms, and so many cheap re-enactment style gambesons will be entirely inappropriate for this task, as many of them have open armpits without any protection at all, or perhaps just the merest piece of fabric covering the opening. This is one of the important things to check whenever you consider a jacket option: will your armpits be safe? A thrust entering the armpit area can cause serious health problems, with a collapsed lung as a good example. Even more serious injuries have been sustained in the world of modern fencing when broken blades have gone into the armpit, with disastrous results. Don’t settle for anything that doesn’t protect this part of your body sufficiently.

There are now several HEMA jackets that have been rated to offer 350 Newtons worth of protection against penetration. This means that if a steel blade were to snap, and the broken blade were to thrust into the jacket, the jacket should resist up to 350 Newtons of force before any penetration could occur. Some jackets are rated up to 800 Newtons for penetration, and this is obviously even better. It is worth buying a jacket that has a Newton rating, because these jackets are demonstrably more protective than a jacket (or cheap re-enactment gambeson) that has no Newton rating.

For longsword fencing, you need the protection of BOTH padding (against strikes) and penetration resistance (against thrusts that go wrong). If you wear an 800N rated modern fencing jacket, you risk suffering broken bones; if you wear a re-enactment style gambeson that is very thick and does well against strikes, you may find yourself vulnerable to broken blades. To this end, the jackets by SPES are currently some of the best on the market, and are possibly the best jackets to consider. PBT Historical Fencing, Neyman Fencing and Black Armoury also make good jackets worth considering.

The fifth piece of equipment would be elbow protectors. I like the SPES elbow guards, as these slip easily over a padded jacket, and coupled with the padding of the jacket, they provide sufficient protection for the joint.

The sixth piece of equipment would be competent leg protection. For the knees, I really like the Knee Pro Ultra Flex III knee pads, as these protect not only the front of the knee, but the sides as well, without constricting movement at all. Knee protection can perhaps be avoided earlier in training, because it is no bad thing to avoid striking at the legs – they may be a viable target, but they may not be an intelligent target, until you have learned how to set up intelligent opportunities (see my article on attacking the legs for more information).

For the shins, I would recommend hockey shinguards. There are some models that strap over your socks, and some models that slip comfortably inside your socks. Football shinguards tend to be too short, and things like cricket shinguards tend to be too large and bulky to be convenient.

Once people have leg protection, legs can be introduced as a target area, but it is not such a bad thing until this point in time to avoid attacking the legs while learning more about fencing on the higher line.

The seventh piece of equipment would be a gorget, or throat protector. It may seem like overkill to wear throat protection as well as the bib of the fencing mask, as well the padded collar of a jacket… But I have seen several instances of people having difficulty breathing after receiving a stiff and well-structured thrust to the throat. The impact is what is important, and if the force of the thrust transfers through the bib and jacket, then a gorget is what is going to prevent you from sinking to the floor gasping for breath.

In many clubs, throat protection is prioritised much more heavily than in this list. In my opinion, the mask bib and the jacket’s collar do provide reasonable protection, as long as the intensity of the fencing is kept reasonable. Throat protection really must be acquired as soon as high intensity fencing comes on the cards – if people want to fence hard, then they need to protect their throat. If the club is happy to pursue a slightly more relaxed and lower intensity of fencing until people have all the appropriate gear, then throat protection isn’t as important as hard protection for the joints, in my opinion. Different clubs will have a different opinion on this matter.

The eighth piece of equipment would be a groin guard, if you don’t have one yet. To be perfectly honest, I would recommend that guys buy one of these as soon as you have a spare £10 or £15 to spend on one. Really, they aren’t very expensive, and how much do you value your crown jewels? I shouldn’t need to say very much about this. Don’t fall for the old suggestion of “oh, let’s just not do any groin shots.” People might mean well, but eventually, someone misses their target, or someone turns the wrong way at the wrong time, and someone gets smacked in the groin. Just buy a groin guard and be done with it.

In conclusion, once you have the necessary safety equipment, then you can think about swords. Certain pieces of protective equipment are almost as expensive as a sword, yet in my opinion, the protective equipment is more important. You can always swing a stick to get the feeling of a sword, or you can buy an inexpensive synthetic sword to work on edge alignment, but if you don’t have good gloves, you risk breaking your fingers every time you come to a training session.

This article has tried to explain my thoughts about buying equipment, in order of importance of keeping parts of you safe. For students, I hope this inspires you to upgrade your fencing equipment accordingly. For club leaders, I hope this inspires you to give some thought into how you advise your students go about collecting protective equipment, and the intensity at which your club trains.

Much of the equipment discussed in this article is available through the Academy of Historical Arts online shop. If you like the articles on this website, and especially if you are part of a club affiliated with the Academy of Historical Arts, please do consider buying your equipment from us – it helps to keep the lights on and allows us to continue offering the services that you enjoy.