HEMA Blog post #2 – Following the gear requirements.

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Following the gear requirements. “the structural integrity has been compromised”

Matthys as referee during Swordfish

I have been involved in HEMA tournaments for some years now,  as a fighter, referee, organizer and spectator. I’ve seen the level of fencers, judges and the scene in general go up a lot through those years. Safety has always been an important factor in the tournaments and for a very good reason. We try to hit each other with swords. Injuries can happen and are “part of the deal” but unnecessary or severe injuries should be avoided.

As a referee or tournament manager I’m usually responsible for the gear check. The gear requirements have been set by the organization and often published well before the tournament so that fencers can adjust their gear if necessary. It happens very often though that fencers show up at the gear check with inadequate gear. It’s broken, damaged, incomplete or in other ways incorrect and I have to send them back, sometimes even disallowing them to participate in the tournament. This gets me angry looks and unpleasant comments from those fencers. Last weekend I was a referee at the Helsinki Open Longsword competition organized by the EHMS and I ended up disallowing 6 masks in total because of dents, and as far as I know the referee on the other mat disallowed a similar number.

some mask related injuries are minor

The gear requirements for the tournament were very standard and for the masks it said; “The mask must be in good condition, with no tears or large dents. The mask must fit the fencer; a mask that comes off too easily will be disallowed.” When I check peoples mask I always run my hand underneath the fabric that most fencers have on their mask. This is because it’s invisible without taking the fabric off and right on top of the mask where a lot of hits land that can dent the mask. Plenty of fencers never look there; they don’t take the fabric off the mask and are usually very surprised when there are big dents.

Fencing masks are made to withstand certain pressure and certain power. The shape of the masks gives it its strength. The mesh itself isn’t that strong, the protection comes from its structure. If there are some big dents, or several smaller ones, the mask isn’t as strong anymore. If there was a big dent and you hammered it back with the pommel of your sword, the structural integrity of the mask still suffers. Weak spots on masks are dangerous. I have seen masks cave in, I’ve seen someone get thrusted through a mask and I’m sure we can find plenty of examples of injuries through masks.

Masks aren’t the only problem that I encounter. Some fencers still use insufficient gloves, put their cup over their pants or have nothing on their shins. I’m not going in depth for each item why it’s dangerous. Most of it makes sense. But what it comes down to is that there are fencers who don’t follow the requirements set for the gear in a tournament. And that’s dumb.

What fencers need to realize is that there is a difference between sparring in your club and joining an international tournament. Gear that is accepted within your club is not necessarily good enough for tournaments. The intensity is often higher, people are more dedicated to get their hits, there is more pressure and because not everybody knows each other people care less about each other. I’m not saying fencers try to hurt other fencers in a tournament but there is a difference between sparring with a friend in training and fencing a stranger in a tournament.

the HEFFAC tournament in the Netherlands

Other than that, the responsibility also lies with someone else. In your club you or your instructor is responsible for the safety. In a tournament it might still legally be you (depending on the law of the specific country), but is also the organization, the referee and the tournament manager. If an injury happens during a tournament it backfires on the tournament itself, especially if it’s something that could or should have been avoided by for example the gear check. A dented mask might be accepted within your club, but I’m not allowing it in my ring because if someone does hit through the mask, it was my fault for allowing the mask. As referee I feel responsible for the safety of the fencers. That is also why in tournaments you get penalized for turning the back of the head to your opponent, even if you didn’t get hit there.

If you disagree with the gear requirements of a tournament, or with the rules, that’s fine. But then you can decide not to join. There are plenty of other tournaments you can join where they have different gear requirements and rulesets. If you do decide to join, you have to follow the rules and regulations set by the organization of that tournament. It’s as simple as that.