I travel to HEMA events all over the world and have the opportunity to examine and fence with many different types of HEMA gear, both in terms of training swords and the protective equipment. There are certain items that I think are better than others, and so these are the pieces of equipment I use for my own practice and sparring.
In this article, I would like to share my recommendations for the HEMA gear that I believe is most worthwhile, and I will also offer some thoughts about what I think is best to avoid.
I am currently using a CEN 2 Leon Paul X-Change coaching mask. It is about seven years old now and is beginning to show its age, so I am probably going to have to replace it before the end of the year.
I really like the strapping system at the back of the Leon Paul masks, but unfortunately their quality control seems to be a bit rubbish at the moment, and their HEMA mask seems to receive more negative reviews than comments from people with something positive to say about it. I don’t think I’m going to risk buying another.
My replacement mask is probably going to come from Allstar. These masks seem to be very tough and durable, and the quality control seems to be some of the best on the market at the moment. However, I won’t be able to recommend it properly until I have a chance to use it for a few months and see how it performs.
I do like the CEN 1 masks from Red Dragon. These are excellent masks at a reasonable price, and are great for club loaner gear or for students looking to buy their first mask. The mesh is tough and durable and the quality control seems to be pleasantly effective. This is the model that I buy as standard loaner gear in my school.
Over my own mask, I currently use the Superior Fencing leather mask overlay pro. The padding is reasonable, but it is not quite as form-fitting as some of the other overlays – this was probably because I asked for the wrong size, because they provide a variety of different sizing options, and I think I asked for large because I had a large mask. I should probably have asked for a medium overlay for my large mask.
I really like the SPES Unity overlay. This is a fantastic piece of equipment, and even though it us unisize, I have never had any problems in the past with how it fits over my mask.
Body & neck protection
I tend to wear the standard SPES jacket with no modifications. I find that there is little need for any further protection because this is quite simply a great jacket and, for the majority of people, you cannot go too far wrong by having it.
Around my neck I tend to wear the DestroyerModz gorget. I used to use the PBT gorget, but the DestroyerModz gorget is simply slimmer and less bulky, and I appreciate that greatly.
Arm & hand protection
To protect my elbows, I wear the simple SPES elbow protectors over my standard SPES jacket. They are slim and low profile, and the hard plastic does a good job of protecting the joint. I am perfect happy with these.
I know that many people swear by the Neyman Fencing elbow protection. I have nothing against this piece of equipment, and it does seem to be very good at protecting the elbows. I would be happy to buy it from a shop that has the item in stock and available, but would be hesitant to purchase a set directly from the manufacturer.
For my hands, I tend to rely on the simple mitten Sparring Gloves for longsword and any other weapon without a more complex hilt. The mitten Sparring Gloves are very protective (better than any fingered gloves), and they are dexterous enough to let you do just about everything you need to do, as long as you do it properly with decent mechanics. If your mechanics are bad then you will struggle with the dexterity, but that is hardly the fault of the gloves!
Alternatively, I might wear the SPES Heavy gloves for longsword, but I don’t like them all that much. Their main advantage is that the inner glove is more comfortable, and if I have been doing a lot of fencing, then having a softer glove on my palm helps to reduce the likelihood of blistering. They allow more dexterity in the wrist but less dexterity in the thumb. They are protective, but they are also huge, and I get hit on the hands more often when I wear these compared to when I wear the Sparring Gloves.
For lighter training, or for use inside the basket of swords with a more complex hilt, I use the Superior Fencing leather padded fencing gloves. These are sufficiently comfortable and they protect my hands from light, incidental hits and scrapes. I have no problem with these at all and I think my training has become more comfortable since receiving these gloves.
There are other options for gloves, but I don’t really like any of them. They are either too big, too bulky, too heavy, lack sufficient protection, are manufactured by companies that I don’t really approve of (for any one of a variety of reasons), or any combination of the above.
For my knees, I wear the KneePro UltraFlex III knee guards. I think these are amazing and have been wearing them consistently for the last several years. It is a shame that they are not easily available in the UK; I have tried several times to import boxes of them from North America, but the manufacturer was bought out by another company a few years ago, and they haven’t bothered responding to any of my business enquiries since then, which is pretty poor show.
For my shins, I use a pair of Greys shinguards for hockey. These go outside the sock, unfortunately, since I would prefer something to slip inside my fencing socks, but I have yet to find any low-profile shinguards to go inside socks that give sufficient coverage around my shins. I’m still looking, but until I find something, the Greys hockey shinguards are quite sufficient for my needs.
I don’t like the massive bulky protection for the knees. These present massive targets, and my training partners often seem to need to stop fencing in order to correct the strapping, which can be a little annoying (no doubt it is even more annoying for the person wearing them).
The Neyman Fencing knee protectors seem to be very good, and I wouldn’t mind recommending them to anyone, as long as you can buy them from a shop that has them in stock. I wouldn’t recommend trying to buy them directly from the manufacturer.
For my thighs, I use the Superior Fencing 800N HEMA trousers. These are comfortable enough and have decent padding, and they are cut well enough to let me perform a variety of footwork and techniques without any problems.
I haven’t tried the SPES Locust fencing trousers, but these seem to be pretty good, and would probably have been what I would have bought if I had not received a pair of the Superior Fencing trousers.
Groin guards are groin guards. I use the standard, simple groin guard from SPES because it is simple and comfortable enough and doesn’t get in the way. It has saved me from some potentially quite painful shots over the past few years! I also sometimes use the Shock Doctor groin guard with compression shorts when I know I am going to be doing a lot of sparring or competition over the course of a day. I find it a bit less comfortable, but the protection is better.
I use a variety of training swords for different purposes. It would take me too long to list the various swords that I like for their different purposes!
Instead, I would like to say that a good training sword should have certain characteristics, so that it is safe for use. We all have a responsibility to our training partners to keep them safe, and to use appropriate training tools that do not injure our partners.
Good training swords should have a point with sufficient surface area or some kind of external tip to increase the surface area. I wrote about this in a previous article about tipping solutions for safe training swords.
Good training swords should be reasonably flexible so that thrusts are less likely to cause any damage. They do not need to be ridiculously flexible, but they should not be so stiff that we hurt our partners with thrusting techniques. I wrote about this in a previous article about measuring flexibility for safe training swords.
Good training swords should also have a blade that is sufficiently broad at the base to give the fingers protection, if the original swords of this type had a broader blade at the base. This can be achieved by adding a schilt or simply flaring the blade so that it is appropriately broad. I wrote about this in a previous article about schilts on safe training swords.
I quite like the protective equipment I am wearing at the moment, and see no real need to change any of it for any activity between light training and full-intensity tournament fencing. Wearing good equipment does make the activity a little easier when compared to wearing equipment that doesn’t quite do what it is supposed to do.
I hope this summary of my current recommendations will be helpful to those of you who are thinking about upcoming purchases.
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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.