The British Federation for Historical Swordplay

Safety Equipment in Historical Fencing and Western Martial Arts

It is not the place of the BFHS to dictate to its members what they can and cannot do. Individual members and instructors will make their own choices about what is safe, effective and appropriate under the circumstances that apply at the time. The following information and guidance is offered as a starting point.

In General

It is not possible to create a comprehensive set of requirements covering every possible situation and combination of pieces of equipment, and in any case no amount of safety equipment has any real value unless combined with workable and robust training and freeplay practices.

It must therefore be understood that the safety equipment recommended in this document is not ‘what is needed to be completely safe’ but should instead be considered as a recommended minimum level of protection when engaging in safe and well-controlled activities. Instructors are responsible for implementing policies regarding safe practice within their classes and regulating unusual activities. The BFHS and its officers cannot take any responsibility for failure on the part of instructors to run their class in a suitable manner.

When attempting to determine the necessary level and nature of protection for any given activity, we must consider the potential injuries that might be inflicted in any given activity. Safety equipment should be geared to what might happen rather than what will happen if everything goes to plan. 

By way of example, a simple drill involving only strikes to the head might seem not to require any protection other than a mask. This would be the case if it could be guaranteed that errors would not be made, but that simply cannot be achieved. Blades skip from imperfect parries; students miss the target or become over-excited… safety equipment must be adequate for the situation where a blow somehow goes somewhere it should not, even if this seems unlikely.

It should go without saying that equipment should be in good condition and free from flaws that could create an additional risk. Blades of any type – steel, nylon or wood – can become burred or develop a weak spot. Blades that are hazardous to use must be rendered safe (e.g. by deburring) or retired.

Obviously, this must be combined with good and safe practices – excessively hard hitting or a habit of making stiff-armed punching (rather than well-executed thrusting) attacks must be curbed by the instructor. Beyond a certain point, safe training practices are more valuable than any given amount of protective equipment.

Impaling Wounds are the most serious threat in most activities since such injuries, especially to the torso or neck, can be life-threatening. Penetration of even quite light protection is extremely unlikely with a properly rolled or buttoned tip, but a blade can break on a thrust and become at least semi-sharp. Blades can also find gaps in protection through mischance, e.g. sliding up the sleeve or under the bib of a mask. It should be noted that good technique renders most potential impaling wounds harmless – a blade that breaks on a properly executed and well controlled thrust becomes too short to reach the opponent. However, if one or both fencers are rushing at one another or stabbing wildly at close quarters the risk is much greater. Protection against impaling injuries generally takes the form of resilient material such as Kevlar.

Impact injuries can be very severe, especially to the head. Blows that strike bone can cause fractures, and whilst impact to softer areas such as large muscle groups would be unlikely to result in major injury it is still to be avoided. Impact protection generally takes the form of padding, though vulnerable bony areas such as the skull and elbow joints require rigid protection; padding will not be adequate against a heavy blow. No protection is flawless of course, and blows can get around armour. Thus protective equipment is in no way a substitute for good training practice and control when freeplaying. It should also be noted that a blade can become burred or even snap as a result of blows, creating a jagged edge or point. Some measure of penetration against laceration or impaling injuries is still necessary even when using non-thrusting weapons.

Crushing Injuries can occur when blades become entangled or a fencer tries to lever his/her weapon through a defence. The most likely situation is a finger (or fingers) becoming jammed between two blades and crushed. Some disarming movements can also cause similar injuries, especially with weapons where it is difficult to let go if the opponent attempts a disarm. Gloves offer some protection against crushing injuries, but ultimately this risk can only be mitigated by good training practice and due care when freeplaying.

Lacerations can occur even when a weapon is blunt. Metal or even nylon blades can become burred sufficiently to cut bare skin, and even quite a light contact can sometimes break the skin, for example where the fast-moving tip of a (blunt) blade strikes bare skin. The length of blades used in historical fencing make it impossible to rule out the possibility that such a strike could occur anywhere on the body. Even the slightest protection is of value against such an accidental strike or snagging of skin by burred weapons.


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