This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 13th November 2015. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
“Should I have siderings on my feder?” is a common question that people ask when contemplating the purchase of a new feder, especially if it is their first such purchase. Previously, I wrote an article about what to look for when buying your first feder from Regenyei Armory, and this article will hopefully be a useful companion piece to expand upon the subject of siderings.
The major advantage of siderings is that they offer more protection for the hand. As well as having your crossguard and schilt, siderings provide significantly more cover against attacks directed towards your hands, and against cuts that come towards your fingers when another sword slides down your blade in the bind. However, it is important to realise that siderings do not make your hands invulnerable, they just offer a little more cover than usual.
An action that siderings rarely protect against is the thrust that comes towards the hands. If someone thrusts at your hands deliberately, or if they thrust at your face while you happen to be rising into an Ochs position, or if you thrust at each other at the same time, there is a high chance that your opponent’s point will go through the space inside the ring and hit your fingers anyway. This can have exactly the same chance of breaking your finger as when you use a feder without siderings. So the siderings add extra protection against cuts and incidental contacts, but no additional benefits against thrusts.
Ideally, to keep this article balanced, I would provide an advantage, then a disadvantage, then another advantage and disadvantage, and so on. Unfortunately, that first advantage is the only advantage offered by siderings, so the rest of this article must point out the problems that come with having siderings on your feder.
The next problem is that of psychology: because it feels safer to have siderings on the sword, many people take greater risks and pay less attention to careful positioning of their crossguard. It is a perfect application of the Risk Homeostasis Theory: because it seems safer, people behave less safely. If something seems more risky, people go to greater lengths to be safer. So people who just have their crossguard to protect themselves will learn very quickly how to position the crossguard to keep themselves safe, which is a valuable skill that will be useful no matter what sword you use. People who come to rely on their siderings will not develop this skill quite as well, and will therefore be vulnerable against other attacks (like the thrusts mentioned above), and will have more difficulty when using swords without siderings.
Another problem is that the siderings get in the way of your grip and gloves when you are fencing, especially if you are trying to use some of the more complicated grips and techniques from the Liechtenauer tradition. The siderings make it difficult to place your thumb along the flat of the blade satisfactorily, which means that you may be less able to use techniques such as the Zwerhaw, the Schilhaw, or the Zornhaw Ort when under pressure. Of course, some people manage to do these techniques well enough when using swords with siderings, but the vast majority of people will find that siderings will stifle your ability to perform techniques correctly. This will make learning more difficult and frustrating, and will reduce the number of techniques that you can call upon happily and confidently when sparring.
So, siderings come with one advantage (greater safety from cuts that target your hands), and several disadvantages. If your hands are very important to you, for work or for whatever other reason, then you might consider siderings seriously. If you are alright with taking some bruises during low to medium intensity training, until you learn how to position your crossguard properly to keep your hands safe, then this is a much better way to go. In the long term, learning to fight with safe crossguard positioning and without relying on siderings will make you a safer and more effective fencer.
So what is the best configuration to keep your hands safe, in the long term? My suggestion is to invest in a pair of good gloves (such as the Sparring Gloves), use a feder with a broad schilt (not a spiky or slim schilt) and a simple crossguard (without any siderings!), and pay attention during your training so that you learn the physical skills necessary to defend yourself regardless of the situation and equipment you happen to be using.
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.