Protection and Pain: Finding the Balance

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In the picture above you can see two Valkyrie coaches going at with Cold Steel plastic Bowie trainers, and wearing partial High Gear body armour suits. High Gear suits are awesome. We are incredibly lucky to have a pair of these suits at the school. Each suit provides a set of wrist-to-instep protection that is guaranteed to keep you safe from injury while sparring with full intent. So why are we wearing only partial suits in this photo?

What makes the High Gear suits valuable, as explained on their website, is that they prevent injury but they don’t prevent pain. So if I punch you in the face while you are wearing the helm, you won’t get a broken nose. But your head will rock back and you will feel like you just got punched in the face. You will not enjoy it. But you won’t be injured.

Why is this a useful thing? For a martial artist, it’s the perfect balance between protection and realism. When I hit my sparring partner in the face, I get excellent feedback about what happens when I hit someone. I can see how the head snaps back, and about how the body curls up and instinctively turns away a little bit. I get a great sense of how I need to follow up my attacks, and I would not get that if we did non-contact sparring. The timing and tempo would be all wrong. At the same time, I have a hugely vested interest in not getting punched back, because it really, really hurts. But at the end of the session neither of us in any worse for the wear.

We are wearing partial suits because even though the pain is transmitted fairly well, you can eventually get used to it and start ignoring it. And the mass of the suits, as light as they are, still affects your fight and your body mechanics. It’s an artificial thing, and as such can add artifacts to your fight game that you might not want showing up in the event of a real altercation. In the above drill, we’ve added slaps to the face and knees to the body as counters we want to work on, so for this drill we have added just enough armour to protect the parts we expect to be hit, to allow realistic strikes.

When I started in the SCA doing rapier, the armour standards were pretty stringent. You had to be covered head-to-toe in tear resistant clothing. Your torso, inner thighs and biceps down to the extent of the exposure of the femoral and brachial artery, had to covered with puncture resistant clothing. There was even a test for this, using a device that had to be constructed to exact standards. I just accepted that as the way things were and all was good.

But then as I got more exposure to the wider world of the SCA and learned about it’s history and how it was being practiced outside of my little corner, things got clearer. When SCA rapier had started, people were using modern olympic foils and epee blades to fight with. Since the whole point of the organization was to at least try to look non-modern in your clothing, no one wanted to wear proper fencing jackets. Now, this is a truly risky thing because part of the game was using foils and epee’s to throw cuts, which was something they were never designed to do. If you don’t know, a broken foil or epee is truly a lethal weapon. It’s killed people. So yes, stringent requirements were made for clothing that would provide equivalent protection to proper fencing jackets.

Now the fun thing for me, is that in my little area, we never used foils or epees to fence with. Early on someone had discovered schlager blades could be purchased, and later a fantastic sparring blade from Del Tin was introduced and widely accepted. On the cheap, for a while people made do with fiberglass blades covered in duct tape. Horrible, but that was how things were. Nary an epee to be seen.

So why the hell were we (and still are) forced to wear armour intended to protect us against broken foil blades? Modern rapier simulators don’t break into jagged slivers of steel, they break into a flat, blunt screwdriver shape. It will still penetrate a body, but requires significantly more force. And much less protection is required to stop it.

The full body, no skin exposed coverage? It’s not durable enough to protect against a puncture by broken foil. I can only imagine the intent is to stop scratched and superficial cuts. I’m sure many people care about cuts and scratches while fencing, but…some of us don’t. We also don’t mind bruises. Absolutely we mind dying, or going blind! But yes, it did irritate me to no end to be told I couldn’t fight because the sleeve of my shirt could be pulled up enough past my gauntlets to expose a little bit of forearm flesh to the ravages of a blunt blade.

Which leads me to what I consider appropriate protective gear for rapier fencing.

And I would have to say, it not only depends on context, but that it should also vary.

When I’m coaching one-on-one, my preference would be a heavy leather welding jacket, leather apron, and good rigid martial arts body protection pad. I want my students hitting me with speed and intention, hundreds if not thousands of time during a coaching session. And I might be running many sessions during the day. If I’m working on drilling a specific entry with a student, I will also not be doing the normal defensive fade and shuffle I habitually do that reduces the oomph of incoming blows. I want to survive that, so…yeah. As armoured as I can be. I’m mostly a punching bag for this sort of training, anyway.

When I’m bouting friends? If we are working on things, or trying each other out…mask and gorget will do. Generally we wear clothes but whatever. I know I’m going to get bruises and maybe some blood, but I’m okay with that. If I get hit I will feel pain. I am seriously unlikely to get injured. If we are pushing our limits a little, we are also working on our defense as much as our offense and bluntly you need some fear to do that.

Drills in class? Depends on the lesson. If we are working finicky technical things, no protective gear. I want the students paying attention and never neglecting that they are at risk. I also want them constantly thinking of how even a blunt rapier can hurt their friend. Awareness of wounding and risk is important, and is never supposed to be a one-sided thing. If I want students to pay attention to a particular thing, and not be distracted by awareness of risk as much, I will have them put on masks. If we are doing speed drills, full gear. Competition drills? Extra padding because everyone is going to take repetitive hits and I want them working on a thing and not feeling fear for these techniques.

Tournament? Do I know and have fought everyone? Are the stakes low? Gorget and Mask. Buncha people I don’t know, high stakes, possible bad blood? Gorget, mask, fencing jacket or equivalent…for students I might reccomend additional padding. And honestly don’t fight if there is bad blood or potential temper eruptions. Tournaments are sport, no sport is worth dealing with situations or people like that.

Multiple hits/afterblow/other stuff tournament? Fencing jacket, extra padding, and some rigid protection where bone is close to skin. With less fear, people commit more and with a compound pace there will a commiserate change in control. Chaos will happen, and stupid also has a higher chance of happening.

I think to make a good fencer, the fencer should be well versed in the full continuum of fear. They should bout when they dread a slight touch, and they should bout when they blow off a shot or two in order to complete the technique/s they intend to land.

My context of training fencers is to prepare them for an actual fight with sharps, and in that context it makes no sense to let them specialize in any one format.

On top of all that you must think about weapon selection and alterations for safety, but that will another post for another day.

 

 

2 Comments

  1. As an aside the sport fencing jackets won’t actually prevent a person from being stabbed by a shard of foil. The jacket itself however won’t be penetrated. Makes removal easy.

    That said modern blades from reputable companies tend to break flat.

  2. So I’ve been honestly confused about the tech in these things. I’ve got 15 years competing/teaching sport fencing, FCS knife/stick/long blade, flogged, go out to hit with the foam sport guys, etc. From sport fencing, once of the biggest dangers is a hit to the armpit, because the inner side of joints is where the veins/arteries/nerves all go. Which is why a shoulder plastron is required in addition to a jacket. and the FCS stuff all backs this up: primary targets are all inner joints, where mobility is required, where it is easiest to relax armor requirements as in the partial armor pics. Any practical recreation of medieval weapon combat is gonna be designed to target the flaws/vulnerabilities of medieval armor.

    So I think, okay, if I were going to attack any given set of protective armor, what would I do? And it would obviously not be the things you are allowed to do safely, because they would not work.

    When I learned effective counterattacks vs. committed opponents (in sport fencing, after 7 years in), I started breaking my blades and not getting hit. Because they were all-in on body mass commitment but I had closed distance and changed angle so they were not on target. and the speed at that level was such that there was no way I could make it work and pull my counterattack at the same time.

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