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If you are interested in Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) and need help in choosing what to buy, then this is the post for you.

There has been a lot of talk about HEMA equipment and safety recently, partially regarding what is "appropriate protection" and on what is "good equipment". As I am running a small club that practices HEMA at Google and have experimented with quite a bit of equipment myself I decided to create this post both for my students to have as reference and for other people in the community.

I'll start by going over what I consider as appropriate protection and the risks we wish to prevent and then continue on recommending specific equipment to buy.

Appropriate Protection

Before we ask ourselves what is the protection that is appropriate, let us examine what we are doing and what are the risks involved.

There are different ways to practice HEMA, from purely technical drills at one end of the spectrum, to controlled flow sparring at the middle and full force sparring at the end of the spectrum.

Please mind your own and your partner's safety. You should always remain controlled and remember the consequences of delivering too much force, especially to the head or neck. Being hit with a sword has the very real risk of death or disability and you should avoid using excessive force.

If you believe fencing should always be done with full force, remember that multiple treatises suggest that it is the wrong way to fight as proper technique is all that you need and there are multiple techniques to fight against a Büffel, using their own force against them.

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Technical drills

These tend to be very controlled and safe way to practice HEMA. You are expected to do technical drills to learn new techniques, get the body structure correctly and strengthen your muscle memory.

Depending on your own and your partner's control you may be able to practice without any protective gear at all as you are able to focus on purely technical aspects of using the weapon.

Some protection however will be useful as it will allow you to experiment more and increase the pacing of the drills. When drilling. figure out the areas involved and consider appropriate protection.

Possible Risks

Many drills may involve cutting or thrusting at the face and throat which are especially vulnerable. In addition, your hands are always at risk of being hit by a blade either intentionally as part of the drill or unintentionally by doing incorrect movement.

Required Protection

None.

Mask, Neck Protection (Gorget / Blade Catcher), Gloves (Light).

Image from Diana Matthess and Friedrich Bialas

Flow Sparring

Flow sparring is similar to technical drills but takes the form of an open spar. The spar should be very controlled and focus on the technical and mechanical parts of fencing. There should be no sudden or twitchy actions as these both pose risk to your partner and result in "winning" by speed instead of by technical correctness.

When doing a flow spar it is very important to stay calm and relaxed even when you are clearly losing. Increasing your speed to avoid being hit only poses risk and the opportunity to do so will not be there in a real spar as the opponent will also be going at full speed. Instead, accept your loss and review with your partner what you have done wrong and how to correct it.

With enough control and practice flow sparring can be done without any equipment. However there is always room for mistakes and one might want to consider a mask, gorget and gloves.

Possible Risks

Lack of practice and twitch action or panic may cause unexpected response with more force than needed. Most of the risk is probably to the face and neck.

Required Protection

None.

Mask, Neck Protection (Gorget / Blade Catcher), Gloves (Light).

Light Sparring

This is similar to flow sparring, but with somewhat additional force and speed. While there is no excess force, there is substantially more risk compared to flow sparring.

For all intents and purposes you should treat it as proper sparring and not flow sparring, however as long as the amount of force does not exceed some threshold there is no risk of broken blades and broken bones are less likely.

Possible Risks

Blows and thrusts to the face, neck, hands and body pose danger of severe injury or death. Some of the worst case scenarios includes blows to the neck, eyes and head. Less severe but substantinal: blows to the hands could cause broken fingers.

There is also risk to the groin from an ascending cut or low thrust.

Gif via Peter Smallridge

Least severe are common bruises over the body.

Required Protection

Mask, Neck Protection (Gorget / Blade Catcher), Gloves, Groin Guard.

(In addition to Reequired Protection): Back of Head Protection, Fencing Jacket or Chest Protector, Leg Protection.

It is also recommended that any steel weapon used will have a curled tip and be made with a thick edge and not a blunted edge.

(Full) Sparring

Any free sparring you may do, either at tournament, local club or with friends, may full under this category.

In this form of sparring you can't always know what to expect. You might fight someone you know and be comfortable with the spar, or you might be at a tournament unknowingly about to fight someone who is convinced the sword should always be used with full force.

The possibility of excessive force adds the risk of broken blades which may penerate a fencing jacket.

My personal opinion is that even in full spar on should consider the safety of the partner and never go full force as such is not needed for correct cutting when we simulate the unarmored fight.

Possible Risks

Death is a real risk if there is no or improper protection. Risk of concussion and broken bones is significantly increased without proper protection.

There is also a very real risk of a blade breaking and parts flying towards someone and penerating even a fencing jacket.

Required Protection

Mask, Neck Protection (Gorget / Blade Catcher), Gloves, Back of Head Protection, Fencing Jacket, Leg Protection, Groin Guard.

(In addition to Reequired Protection): 800 Newtons Fencing Plastron. Consider plastic chest protection on top or under fencing jacket. Consider steel gorget.

It is also recommended that any steel weapon used will have a curled tip and be made with a thick edge and not a blunted edge.

Recommended Equipment

Now that we better understand the risks, let us consider some equipment. I'll be going through the different types of protective gear and recommend products that I have had experience using myself or that was used by others with good success.

Note that this list is probably not complete, but it should easily get you started.

Masks

A good mask is one of the most important pieces of equipment and may serve you for many years. My opinion is that it is best to buy a good mask once and not risk it by buying a cheaper mask to start with with the thought of upgrading later.

For that I recommend a mask with no less than 1600 Newtons / FiE certification.

The following is a good selection of masks, though not all listed are 1600 Newtons / FiE certified so ensure you are buying one that is.

Additional recommendation is that you get a mask with removable bib (the fabric part of the mask) so you can wish it. It is not required but it will make your life much nicer. :)

Back of Head Protection

Back of Head Protection tends to be difficult to buy as it may not always properly fit the mask.

My personal recommendation is for the SPES Trinity Overlay, however it can be quite hot and more constraining on the neck.

I've also heard some good words of the "SPES Unity Overlay PRO".

Gloves

The matter of gloves is a complicated one. As we wield the sword with our hands, we are at risk of broken fingers which may interfere with our daily life and jobs. For that, a good set of gloves is a worthy investment.

There is however the question of what weapon do you use and how intense is the spar. For this I'll divide this section into two: Heavy gloves and Light gloves.

Heavy Gloves

Heavy gloves are intended to be very protective and suitable for use with steel and longsword. Note that me calling them heavy does not mean they are literally heavy, though they may be bulky. Instead think of them as offering heavy protection.

The main problem with heavy gloves is indeed the bulk, as they may add additional bulk to protect your hand they may interfere with the use of the weapon.

For longsword, I'd say the top three and most protective gloves are the SPES Heavy Gloves, Sparring Glove and Koning Glove - all with their own pros and cons.

These gloves are very safe and you will barely feel impact to the hands. However, they do limit some of the grip on the sword and mobility of the thumb that is needed for some technique. They are also quite bulky, which means you might get hit on the hands through the crossguard.

Personally I find I can't hold the sword properly when using these, though it may be possible to cut through the plating on the thumb to amend that issue.

These gloves offer excellent protection and mobility. They aren't as protective as the SPES Heavy, but their mobility allows better grip and execution of technique. They can be customly made for your own hand size, or bought in set sizes. They are also less bulky than the SPES Heavy Gloves which means less blade will hit your hands through the crossguard.

Note that the sparring gloves come in 3 different model: "special" 5 fingered, hoof (3 fingered) and "Fechtschule Gdansk" (thumb finger).

These seems very protective, though many have noted that you can feel blows to the hand significantly more compared to the SPES Heavy Gloves and sparring gloves. Still, there are no reported injuries through the gloves at the time of writing.

In terms of mobility, they are very mobile, though I found some limitations in bending my thumb to the schilt and having to grip harder on the hilt of the sword due to the bulk. In contrast to my experience, other people claim no difficulty in their grip or thumb mobility. This may be due to sizing issues as the Koning Gloves only comes in one size which is somewhat too large for my hands.

As with the SPES, these add quite a bit of bulk and you may be hit on the hands through the crossguard.

Light Gloves

Light gloves offer less protection than heavy gloves, but may be suitable for when using nylons, controlled sparring or having a basket hilt to protect your hand from injury.

It is highly recommended NOT to use light gloves for longsword.

I'd also suggest to consider the use of fingertip protectors within the glove for extra safety (link).

SPES Light Gloves

These are my current favorite for use as they both look kinda cool and mediaeval like, and they offer good protection with the fingertip protectors.

(link)

Additional gloves

These are gloves I saw being used or used briefly myself that seem to be good light gloves, especially with the added fignertip protectors.

A word on the Red Dragon gloves

It is my opinion that the red dragon gloves do not provide sufficient protection for longsword or steel sparring and has many soft spots that can hurt even when using a single handed nylon weapon. Additionally, it is too bulky to use comfortably with most compelx hilts.

I recommend to avoid the red dragon gloves and invest in good heavy gloves, or light gloves depending on the intended use.

Gorgets

If possible, I recommend getting a steel gorget. My main two options for gorgets:

Leg Protection

The main three forms of leg protection are shin, skirts and pants.

In my experience most people use shin protectors and maybe a skirt. I have not seen many people use pants, but it can be a good idea.

The recommended shin protectors are the Red Dragon Shin Guards:

For skirt (used by both male and female), I only know of the SPES model:

As for pants, SPES and Neyman both have some options:

Fencing Jackets

Ah, fencing jackets! There are so many and I cannot possibly cover all of them.

The one I use is Neyman Fencing jacket as I think it's pretty and sufficiently protective, however the most common jacket I have seen used is the SPES Axel Pettersson (AP) jacket. I've also heard good things about the Black Armoury jacket which was recently reviewed by Matt Eason.

Plastron

These are worn underneath a fencing jacking to prevent peneration of a weapon into the body. The risk for penetration varies from weapon to weapon and may be greatly reduced by using curled tips, however many people forget that a blade snapped broken during a spar poses a real threat of having an edge and penerating through the fencing jacket.

In addition, a plastron protects certain areas such as they armpits in which jackets are often less padded at to allow mobility.

The recommended is the PBT 800 Newtons Plastron (link).

Groin Guards

Nope, no idea. As a lady I never felt the need for it, especially due to the skirt integrated to the Neyman Fencing jacket and SPES skirt I used before.

Sorry I cannot give any good advice on this, however I do think it is important to consider protection to that area, especially for men.

Here are some products on the market:

Conclusion

I hope this post was helpful for you to choose your starting and more advanced equipment. HEMA is extremely fun and having good equipment and attitude toward practice allows us to practice for longer and enjoy it more.

See you on the field! :)

Comments? Questions? Contact me on Twitter, Facebook or G+:

Google+ Shanee Nishry Twitter @Lunarsong

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Home About Recent Longsword Solo Drills - Meÿer Square Starting Historical European Martial Arts Group Historical European Martial Arts - Equipment D&D Journal: I Generic A* for Games Game development Generic A* for Games Procedural Island Generation Data-Oriented Design Matters Misconceptions of Component-Based Entity Systems Level of Detail Experiments Planet Generation - Part II Planet Generation - Part I Procedural Generation in Games Oculus Rift Integration Android Favorite Android Games NDK with Android Studio Android NDK Programming - Part III Android NDK Programming - Part II Android NDK Programming - Part I Personal Personal Stuff: Running! Global Game Jam 2014 Experiences Anime Claymore The Twelve Kingdoms Games Favorite Android Games Dungeons & dragons D&D Journal: I Historical european martial arts Longsword Solo Drills - Meÿer Square Starting Historical European Martial Arts Group Historical European Martial Arts - Equipment Longsword Longsword Solo Drills - Meÿer Square