This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 5th June 2015. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
When HEMA practitioners discuss protective gear, and for which kind of activity it is most suitable, someone usually says that a piece of gear is “suitable for steel” or “good for synthetics but not for steel”. However, I believe this is the wrong way to look at the use of training swords for historical fencing, and the protective equipment that must be worn, as it forces a certain dichotomy that ignores the most important aspect of risk when fencing: intensity.
Different types of synthetics
There are different types of synthetic materials that can be used for fencing swords, and they each possess different characteristics. Some are more rigid and will not bend or flex very much, leading to better parries and better winding actions in a bind, but thrusts will be more painful to receive. Other synthetic materials are more flexible and give less painful thrusts, but are less useful for working in the bind.
It is not necessarily helpful to lump together all synthetic swords in a “synthetic” category from the point of view of protective gear, since different brands of synthetic swords tend to perform differently from each other, and create different conditions in terms of risk and safety. A Red Dragon synthetic longsword will perform very differently from a Black Fencer style longsword and will present different challenges for safety gear.
Pros and cons of synthetic swords
One of the main advantages of synthetic swords is that they appear to be safer, which can help to calm people’s fears, and show people that the activity is not as dangerous as they feared initially. I have organised classes and demonstrations in Scotland where I was not allowed to bring steel swords into a venue, because these would be “dangerous”, but plastic swords were seen as perfectly safe and were not a problem.
Another main advantage is that plastics tend to be lighter than steel, which can be good for people who have not yet developed the musculature and stamina to work properly with a fully weighted sword for the full length of a training session. Similarly, for people who have back or shoulder injuries, working with a lighter sword can be beneficial for rehabilitation.
However, one of the key disadvantages of synthetic swords is a product of these two advantages: because they are light and easy to swing quickly, and because people assume that they are “safe” tools, people often use them in a very unsafe fashion by swinging faster and harder and without due regard or respect for their partner’s safety. This is a classic example of the “risk homeostasis theory”, whereby the safer an item appears to be, the more risks people will take when using the item; conversely, the more dangerous and risky an item appears to be, the more care people will take to remain safe while using it.
Synthetic swords will maybe not hit as hard as steel swords swung with the same intent, but they can hit hard enough to do serious damage to a training partner. I have heard reports of synthetic swords breaking fingers (just like steel), giving concussions (just like steel), dealing eye injuries (because people did not wear appropriate face protection), and collapsing lungs (because people did not wear adequate protection).
The moral of the story is that while synthetic swords appear to be safer than steel swords, they can hit hard enough to cause major damage and injury if people do not use them in a safe fashion, or if people do not wear the correct protective equipment for the intensity of the activity.
Pros and cons of steel swords
Probably the greatest advantage of steel swords is that they usually simulate more accurately the weight, balance, and handling of the original swords that were used by the fencing masters who wrote the systems that you study.
Another advantages of steel swords is that they tend to be rigid enough to perform sufficient and safe parries, to perform winding actions in a bind, and yet can be flexible enough in the final third of the blade for thrusts to be relatively safe.
Yet another advantage is that the weight of steel swords can make them more difficult to flail about mindlessly, as can be done with the lighter synthetic options. Fencers need to choose an action and use the correct muscles to initiate the motion when using a heavier sword, and so strikes tend to be more precise and deliberate (and therefore more technical and accurate) than with light, synthetic swords.
A disadvantage is that steel swords can hit harder than their synthetic counterparts. The greater weight and the thinner, narrower edge can lead to very forceful strikes landing in a very small area. Protective gear has to be able to deal with receiving such concentrated force.
Another huge disadvantage is that if a steel blade breaks, it can snap in such a fashion as to leave a sharp and narrow point. Synthetic swords can also do this, but they tend to snap without a particularly narrow point, making penetration a much less likely risk. Broken blades should be a risk considered by anyone training with steel swords.
The level of intensity
While it is true that steel swords can hit harder than synthetics, people fencing with “light contact” or “medium contact” will tend to hit with the same amount of force regardless of the material in their sword. A light tap to the hands will be a light tap regardless of whether the sword was made from steel, synthetics, or wood. A strike to the fencing mask with a medium level of force will not be any more painful when delivered with a sword made from one material or another.
The intensity of the activity is what actually matters in terms of safety. Light contact and low intensity is relatively safe regardless of the sword material. Medium contact and medium intensity will require more protective gear to render the activity safe, but medium contact and intensity is not any more dangerous with steel swords than with synthetic swords – it only becomes more dangerous if people do not treat it as what it is: medium contact and intensity, requiring a certain level of protective gear to keep it safe.
Full contact and high intensity fencing is not a particularly safe activity. Things can go wrong, injuries can happen. Hits will land with more force. However, if people have a healthy mindset (that the activity is potentially dangerous, therefore self-preservation and a mature and responsible behaviour is required) and wear the appropriate protective gear to minimise the chance of injury, then the risks will be mitigated significantly.
The moral of the story is that when discussing protective gear, the question should not be “is this suitable for steel or synthetic fencing?” Instead, the question should be “for what level of intensity is this gear suitable?”
An item that is suitable only for light contact and low intensity is perfectly fine for activities conducted within those parameters. However, it is inappropriate to use such an item when the level of force or intensity increases beyond this state.
If people want to hit each other hard and fast, with lots of force and with a high level of intensity, then it does not matter if the swords are made from steel or synthetic materials. The only two things that matter are that the fencers are skilled and mature enough to conduct the activity safely and responsibly, and that they wear protective gear that is sufficient for the task. If either of these two things are missing, if the fencers are not able to handle the intensity of the practice or if the safety gear is not able to protect from the level of force employed, then it is not a matter of changing to a “safer” sword material, but changing the parameters of the practice to ensure that the activity remains safe and constructive.
The intensity of the practice is a much more valuable and pertinent factor in the risk assessment of any activity or piece of equipment than the sword materials to be used.
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.