I’ve spoken some about the types of training tools we use in KDF in terms of swords and sword simulators, but I haven’t spoken much about the protective gear we use. There are different philosophies towards protective gear. As far as I understand it, there are two arguments in favor of wearing less gear. The first is that one should train for the combat scenario one is ostensibly training for. If one is training to fight armored, then one should wear armor; but if one is training to fight without armor (and unarmored longsword fighting is considered the foundation of the whole art), then the more armor one wears, the less realistic one’s training is and the more one’s technique will be distorted. The second is that we shouldn’t be afraid of getitng hurt. It’s a martial art, after all - most martial artists expect to break bones and otherwise injure themselves over the course of their training. Those injuries are thought by many to be a good teaching tool.
In favor of protective gear is the fact that injuries can prevent one from training at all, and that full-power sparring with wasters and blunt steel is really quite dangerous - the moreso because of how many of our techniques target parts of the body that are naturally not very padded, such as the skull. I’ve cut a partner’s forearm in drills with blunt steel; I don’t care to think what would happen if a full-powered strike in sparring slipped through to hit somebody’s head or neck. This risk can be mitigated by partners fencing at less than full speed or by pulling their strikes at the last instant, but that too distorts technique.
As with the problems presented by the various types of training swords, I think the answer is to practice in a variety of ways with a variety of gear. This is the approach we take, anyway. Sometimes we practice slow, and sometimes we practice fast. Sometimes we drill with no contact or light contact, wearing no protective gear. Sometimes we drill with full contact but in a very targeted way (practicing only strikes to the head, say), wearing only partial gear. We only ever spar at full speed, wearing full gear, which is one of the things I like about my school. I do understand the arguments for slow-speed freeform sparring in less than full gear, but I personally feel like I have enough issues with aggression that I need to practice at full speed.
So what is “full gear?” As historical European martial arts becomes more of a commercial market, that definition changes, but here is what it means to me right now. Here is the full panoply of protective gear that I personally own or would like to own at some point.
The first thing is a fencing helmet. I say “helmet” rather than “mask” because head protection in HEMA should protect not just the face but also the side, back, and top of the head - any of which might be targeted. I use a fencing helmet from Absolute Force. It shares a lot of construction details with a traditional sport fencing mask, but it’s got a lot more structure on the sides, back, and top. I haven’t taken a full blow to the back of the head yet, but I have been hit pretty hard everywhere else, and while some hits have stunned me, I haven’t yet sustained even a minor head injury.
Most fencers seem to feel that the neck deserves special protection, above and beyond the bib of a fencing helmet and a high-collared fencing jacket with a blade catcher. I don’t currently own a gorget, but at some point I would like to get one. I haven’t really identified a particular model I’m interested in.
My torso is protected by a thickly quilted fencing jacket, which is essentially a gambeson with that takes advantage of modern fasterners like zippers and Velcro. I use an Axel Peterssen Pro, which also has a leather plastron to offer extra protection against accidental penetration. Like most jackets, mine also covers my arms. Most fencers feel the arms deserve rigid protection over at least the elbows and forearms (the elbows because they have so little natural padding, and the forearms even though they have somewhat more padding because they are a frequent target). My jacket incorporates hard plastic plates all the way down the outside of the arms from shoulder to forearm, which have so far prevented even bruising from the hardest strikes I’ve received.
The hands are one area where I think HEMA is still struggling for a really good commercially available solution. The difficulty is that there are not many sports in which the hands must be dextrous (KDF requires a fairly loose grip on the sword because the grip changes fairly frequently) and yet are expected to take a hefty wallop on a regular basis. A lot of fencers settled on lacrosse gloves as offering a good compromise between padding and dexterity. I use a cheap pair of Maverik lacrosse gloves, which I don’t really feel are particularly adequate. Of course, that’s not really a surprise - one doesn’t grip a lacrosse stick the way one grips a sword, one doesn’t swing or check with a lacrosse stick the way one swings a sword, and targeting the hands in lacrosse is against the rules (it is often considered unwise in KDF, but not always, and it certainly isn’t off limits). I haven’t broken any fingers in my lacrosse gloves, but I regularly bruise in them even though I am getting better at protecting my hands. What I’d really like is a pair of five-finger hard-shell gloves, preferably with at least some padding. Steel gauntlets are one option, though they’re really expensive. When I can afford them, I intend to pick up a pair of gloves by Black Lance Technologies, which also protect the inside of the forearm (my jacket has no plating on the inside of the forearm, only the outside), and can be bought in a model without a palm glove, so the sword is still gripped more with bare skin but the outside of the hand has protection. Black Lance is a very new company, but they make the only non-steel fencing glove I’m aware of that fits all my criteria.
I wear a pair of Absolute Force HEMA pants, which I am quite happy with. They are close fitting but allow my legs to move without binding, and are designed to stop a broken fencing weapon from penetrating the legs. They don’t have any padding except for a strip of dense foam to cover the top of the hip bone, though, so I’d like to add a padded fencing skirt by SPES to give my upper legs some more protection. I’ve never taken a truly solid hit to the legs, but I’ve certainly delivered them, and the size and severity of the bruises I’ve seen on legs have convinced me that actual padding around the upper legs is probably a good idea. I also wear a hard shell cup from Absolute Force, because I never want to hear my doctor utter the words “penile fracture.”
My lower legs are protected by a pair of SPES fencing socks, which offer extra padding around the shins, and SPES shin guards. I am not entirely happy with the shin guards in three respects. The first is that the elastic straps that hold them in place need some extra Velcro to really be cinched tight enough around my calves. I can certainly do this; I just haven’t quite gotten around to it. The second deficiency is that they don’t offer any ankle protection, the way that, say, proper riot gear does. Hitting the ankle with a sword is not exactly easy, and perhaps not especially wise in most cases, but I have been hit there, and I’m not really sure why HEMA shin guards shouldn’t protect the ankle. The third deficiency is that they don’t really cover the knee - they are tall enough to offer some knee protection, but at some point I think I should pick up some actual kneepads. On the other hand, I will say that I am happy with the level of wraparound protection they offer (not just the front but the sides and back of the lower leg as well), and their slim profile has never given me any problems while fencing.
Because I wear fencing socks with my shin guards, I need something to give my feet some more grip. We generally drill in bare feet, so I tried sparring in socks for a while, but I found them much too slippery. There doesn’t really seem to be much need for rigid protection over the foot (and I don’t think there are any commercially available products for any martial art that offers it, anyway), or even much padding beyond the socks - it’s just a matter of grip. Some people seem to like tae kwon do or other martial arts shoes, which are designed to give grip but have as thin a sole as possible. I’ve started using my old dance sneakers, reasoning that they’ve always left me plenty light on my feet yet very connected to the floor. I’m not sure how well that’s going to work out in the long run but I am hopeful.
All this gear - particularly the jacket and helmet - can get pretty sweaty, especially since we generally don’t “gear up” with jackets unless we’re going to spar, which is itself pretty winding. Even with the gear, though, it isn’t as winding as a good polka (maybe it should be and my form just isn’t quite there?), so I make it a policy not to take any breaks during sparring except to let other students get their time on the floor. After all, while I do want to get good at the actual art of fighting (four years and nine months to go based on my original challenge to myself), this is also about physical fitness. This is a martial art, and the foundation of all martial arts is physical fitness. Then too, even leaving aside the martial arts aspect, it’s simply important to me that I at least be fit enough to spar in full gear for an hour straight - just as it’s important to me that I be at least fit enough to dance for three hours straight, or redowa for five minutes without breathing hard. As Master Döbringer said, exercise is better than art - for art without exercise is useless, but exercise is beneficial even without art.