The British Federation for Historical Swordplay

Protective Equipment

Protective Equipment

The protective equipment in use throughout the BFHS can vary considerably, so it is not possible to create hard-and-fast requirements. The following general comments are a starting point; instructors must assess the needs of their own class and its current activities.

General Protection is afforded by having no bare skin showing. Even quite light clothing offers some protection against an accidental contact or a burred blade. There should be no gaps in protection, for example gloves that do not meet the sleeve of a jacket or a jacket that rides up and exposes a gap above the trousers.

Fencing Masks vary in degree of protection. The Newton rating of masks refers only to the bib, which is not the main consideration since this area is covered by jacket or gambeson. Far more important is the resilience of the mesh, which can vary even between masks of the same Newton rating. For activities where significant impact to the head is expected, reinforcement is recommended – standard fencing masks are designed to protect against a light thrusting sword, not a heavy piece of steel swung with both hands. Back of head protection is recommended for cutting weapons, especially those with long blades which are more likely to reach the back of the head.

Masks should fit well and not slide about on the head or come off if a jerky motion is made. The backstrap fitted to modern fencing masks should be fastened to prevent this. The bib should be in good condition and must lie flat rather than curling up, as this can allow a blade to slide up under it.

Body Protection generally takes the form of a fencing jacket or padded gambeson. Each has its merits and is of greater value against some threats than others, and so should be chosen with regard to the weapon in use. Fencing jackets are rated in Newtons, which is a measure of the pressure they can withstand. A standard 350 Newton jacket offers good protection against laceration and most impaling threats, but the 800N jackets used in competition are no more bulky and are far more resilient. As a simple rule, the higher the Newton rating the better.

Many fencing jackets are padded, essentially combining impact and impaling protection. Whilst not as effective as an 800N jacket or a heavily padded gambeson, a padded fencing jacket is a good compromise and can of course be augmented with additional protection.

Attention should be paid to neck protection, both in terms of the possibility a blade could slide up under the mask and also against a strike from the side slipping in under the mask. The collar of most fencing jackets is rolled to trap a blade, but the degree of neck protection varies and the height of the collar can make a difference. A high collar translates to better neck protection.

Similarly, body protection should overlap with trousers, breeches or other leg protection, and with the gloves. Overlap should be sufficient that normal movement does not expose skin, e.g. when the arm is raised high on an overhead stroke.

Additional protection can be added to the body as necessary. For example, an under-plastron as used in sport fencing provides excellent protection against impaling wounds, especially the serious situation where a blade penetrates the armpit area. A padded plastron (over-plastron) offers impact protection to the ribs, as does a rigid plastic chest protector. A gorget or similar neck and shoulder protector can be added; this is particularly desirable if heavy blows to the collarbone area are expected.

Gloves should be appropriate to the activity at hand. For light thrusting weapons such as the smallsword or where impact is likely to be minor (e.g. when working with daggers), a soft glove is entirely adequate. When significant impact is expected, e.g. with most cutting swords, heavy gloves with some form of armour are necessary. Motorcycle gloves offer good protection; a Kevlar lining is desirable to provide protection from a thrust to the hand. The gauntlet of the glove should cover the sleeve to prevent a blade entering, and gloves should not have gaps that expose bare skin.

Legwear varies considerably. At the very least it must cover all skin and overlap with the jacket or gambeson. Tough jeans are adequate for most activities, and provide better protection against lacerations than softer jog pants. Fencing breeches or coaching trousers offer far better protection, and are rated the same as fencing jackets – typically 350N or 800N.  Legwear can be augmented with rigid protection such a shin guards and/or a cup. If breeches are worn then some form of lower-leg protection against laceration is necessary. It is usual to wear long socks with breeches. If so, they should overlap the breeches and leave no skin bare.

Shoes of almost any sort offer a degree of protection to the foot, so the key consideration is grip and suitability to fencing. Thin-soled indoor trainers are generally a better choice than running shoes, but this is a matter of preference. Choice of shoe is more about avoiding secondary hazards like falling than protection against a blow, though it should be mentioned that squash shoes have a reinforced toe area. They are commonly used in sport fencing as a much cheaper alternative to fencing shoes, and are equally suitable to historical martial arts.


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