The British Federation for Historical Swordplay

Equipment, Rules and Etiquette

Each member group within the BFHS has its own rules on safety equipment and etiquette within the group, and will make its own decisions about how strictly those rules are to be enforced. What follows is a general guide to the sort of equipment that should be required and what a new starter might expect in a typical BFHS group. It is not intended to dictate to members how they run their own groups or classes.

Starting Equipment

All you need to start fencing is clothing and footwear suitable to play sports in, which leaves no bare skin when a fencing mask and gloves are added. This is important since blades can become burred along the edges, which will cut or tear bare skin even if the blade itself has no cutting edge. Traditionally, fencing students wear dark trousers and white above the waist but different groups have their own rules about this.

Most clubs have small quantities of equipment for loan during sessions; there is no need to buy specialist safety equipment until you are sure you want to pursue historical fencing. A full set of kit includes the following items:

Footwear should be sensible and not prone to slipping. Thin-soled ‘indoor’ trainers such as squash shoes (or even fencing shoes!) are better than thick soled running shoes, but the difference is not enormous.

Legs should be completely covered by (at the least) trousers, jog pants or the like. Fencing breeches offer better protection from a broken blade, but must be worn with socks that cover the rest of the leg and stay up. Cuts to the lower leg are rare in most systems we teach but they do happen, and not always deliberately. Additional leg protection such as shin guards are used in some historical fencing systems but are not necessary for most of our activities.

Torso and Arms should be completely covered by a long-sleeved top at the very least. Students are strongly encouraged to obtain a fencing jacket; there are some activities that cannot be permitted without this level of protection. However, it is not necessary to conform to the FIE rules for sport fencing equipment – our requirements are somewhat different. Most clubs expect that a fencing jacket should be white for non-instructors.

Additional torso protection in the form or rigid or padded impact protection for the ribs area is required for freeplay. Various equipment is available, some specifically for fencing and some for other sports. Opinions vary as to what is best; it is worth consulting the instructors before buying kit. Apart from anything else, it’s fun to watch them argue.

Additional forearm/elbow protection is necessary for heavy cutting weapons such as the backsword or sabre. Skateboard or BMX equipment is very suitable, though there are other options too.

Both hands need to be covered by gloves, which should have a gauntlet long enough to cover the end of the sleeve to prevent a blade from entering. Soft gloves are entirely suitable for some weapons such as smallsword, but the additional protection of armoured gloves is advisable for heavier blades. These are available for a variety of applications ranging from security to sports such as lacrosse.

Head protection is provided by a fencing mask. Inserts are available to protect the back of the head and neck, but these are not necessary for most activities.

Note: Historical fencing has different safety requirements to ‘sport’ fencing for various reasons, mainly the way attacks are made and the fact that the thin blades used in sport fencing pose a greater hazard if they break. It is not necessary that historical fencing equipment conforms to current international sport-fencing tournament standards, but it must conform to the needs of historical fencing.

Most commercially available fencing equipment meets or exceeds our requirements, but historical fencing does require additional impact protection and a glove for each hand. Additional equipment is sometimes required for some weapons and in tournament situations.

General Rules

As noted elsewhere, most groups have their own set of rules and will outline them to new starters. Common rules include:

  • No bare skin when training or freeplaying
  • Full safety equipment must be used unless the instructor says it is not necessary for this activity
  • Do not turn your back on anyone who is freeplaying
  • Apply common sense when freeplay is in action. Wait for a safe moment to pass by; do not wander through the middle of a sword fight.
  • The instructors have the right to veto any activity on safety grounds
  • Freeplay is not permitted unless the instructors have agreed to it
  • Specific safety rules apply to certain weapons and must be followed


Some classes are more formal than others, but all have at least a basic etiquette. Common courtesy also applies – keeping instructors or other students waiting while you faff about getting ready is ill-mannered at best.  There may or may not be special titles or modes of address for instructors, but a certain level of mutual respect is always necessary. This is a two-way street of course – respect must be mutual.

Typically, instructions are usually phrased as polite requests. They still need to be followed, and of course students are expected not to behave in a way that makes it difficult for the instructors to teach and other students to learn.

Courtesy is part of fencing. Rather than trying to score points by any means and arguing about whether a given touch should count or not, most groups expect students to acknowledge hits against them fairly and to refuse to accept a hit that they think is too marginal to be valid. It is still possible to be highly competitive in this environment; we simply expect courtesy and fair play.

Courtesy also includes taking care not to hit hard, and following the agreed rules of a bout. Issues of this sort can become a safety matter for the instructors to deal with, but common sense and courtesy will ensure that most safety rules are never needed.

The Salute

Typically a historical fencing class begins and ends with a salute led by one of the instructors. Each fencing class has its own salute.

A freeplay bout also begins with a salute and ends with a handshake. The pre-freeplay salute is often simpler than the ‘academy salute’ but it is an important part of the courtesy associated with fencing.

A salute need not be overcomplex or time-consuming, but it should be sincere. It cannot be stressed enough that in an environment where heavy pieces of metal are moving fast, respect for one another is of paramount importance.

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