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Owning Your Own Equipment...A Guide To Buying Fencing Gear.
Fencing is blessed with relatively unsophisticated equipment requirements. It is possible to fence a large selection of tournaments with equipment that costs under $250. Unfortunately, fencing is also cursed with very little real information on how to select, purchase, or evaluate the equipment you need to fence. This is a quick guide to buying equipment for your first lesson or tournament.
When you start to purchase equipment, you will often hear fencers talk of "FIE" equipment and "non-FIE" equipment. FIE stands for Federation International d'Escrime, the international organization that governs our sport. When fencers speak of FIE equipment, what they are really referring to is an FIE homologated piece of equipment. That means that the manufacturer has submitted samples of the equipment to an independent testing lab, and the equipment has been tested to rigorous standards, as set by a commission of the FIE. If the equipment meets these standards, the lab then certifies this equipment, and the manufacturer agrees to continue to produce the equipment the same way in the future. It is understood that any changes to the process of manufacturing the equipment requires the equipment to be re-submitted. Naturally this testing process is very expensive, and FIE equipment is the most expensive line of equipment available from any maker.
Non-FIE equipment may conform to many of the same standards as FIE equipment, and may surpasses some of them (if you believe the manufacturers). The equipment is "non-FIE" because the manufacturer has not submitted samples to be certified – usually due to the expense and time involved in the testing. Even non-FIE clothing (including masks) is usually required to meet a certain standard of durability to prevent injury. For the beginner, FIE clothing, with its additional expense, is probably not a wise purchase.
The United States has determined that the difference between FIE and non-FIE gear is minimal, and does not require FIE gear for national and local competitions. That may change, but for now, non-FIE gear is still legal for competition in the United States..
Fencers need a variety of equipment to compete at a competition.
The Jacket and Knickers. There is FIE, and everything else. The USA does not require FIE jackets and knickers. If you will be fencing many competitions, or fencing in Canada, buy an FIE uniform: it is good protection, and wears like iron. The next choice, if the expense of FIE is daunting, is stretch nylon. Nylon uniforms offer less protection, but they are more comfortable, and nylon wears well. Lastly, cotton or duck jackets are available. They wear out quickly, get dirty faster, and shrink when washed. But cotton/duck is cheap, and many fencers find it more comfortable. If the jacket is to be used only a short time – by a growing child, for example – this may be the best choice. No matter what uniform you purchase, buy a front zip jacket, and remember to specify on the order whether you are right-handed or left-handed. For safety reasons, the seam on a fencing jacket is offset to one side or the other, so there will not be a weak zipper seam facing an opponent's weapon.
Wash your uniform regularly, or plan on being unpopular at club! For longest wear, wash normally, but do not use a dryer, hang dry it instead. Consider using Scotch Guard™ or one of the other fabric protectors around the neck and cuffs, where the jacket will get the dirtiest.
The Mask. The most important part of your equipment is the mask. All masks sold in the US must pass a test before being used in competition: the 14K-punch test. Armorers at every National tournament (and many local ones) will perform this test; the armorer at your club may also perform it, if you are lucky enough to have an armorer at your club. If both masks must pass the same test, what is the difference between FIE masks and non-FIE masks? FIE masks have a stronger bib, often made of ballistic nylon or kevlar. Non-FIE masks can be as strong as an FIE mask, but usually wear much faster. If you are considering purchasing any piece of FIE equipment, the mask should be your first purchase.
As of August 1, 2012, a conductive bib is required for all USA Fencing-sanctioned events in foil, at all levels (local, division, regional, and national). Masks are now being sold with this bib, or the mask can be retrofited with a sewn-on kit or one of your own design (make sure you check the regulations for the conductive bib carefully in order to comply). Along with the bib, the mask now must have a conductive cord to electriclally connect the mask to the fencer's lame (this is now true in both saber and foil).
There are no changes to rules regarding masks for epee, but notably you may NOT use a saber mask or a foil mask with electric bib in epee. The metal on the bib/mask can ground out the opponent's tip. Every weapon now has its own unique mask which is not interchangable with the other weapons.
Masks with a transparent visor (very popular a few years ago) are prohibited by the rules in foil and epee, and optional for use in saber. For beginners, we do not recoomend these masks for saber. They are very expensive and provide little or no advantage to the fencer.
Have your mask checked regularly with a punch test. When it fails the punch test, or the bib develops large holes or tears (very small rips can be mended with dental floss) destroy the mask. Do not use a weakened or damaged mask as a "practice mask". More fencers are injured in practices than in competitions!
An additional note: for those fencers who intend to fence saber in competition, a special mask – completely covered with a conducing material – is necessary.
Many masks are sold with removable liners which can be pulled out and washed separately from the mask. If you have sensitive skin, or are prone to breaking out, this might be a good choice when purchasing a mask. These masks are slightly more expensive than "on-piece" masks, however.
The Glove. A glove should overlap the cuff of the jacket by a considerable amount, reaching up to about half of the length of the forearm. There is a wide range of gloves to choose from, but consider that the glove is going to take a considerable amount of abuse. The new synthetic "washable" gloves are a big improvement, over the old leather gloves. Some fencers like the feel of a leather glove, but they are hard to care for, and often do not wear well. Gloves will be the fastest wearing piece of your uniform. Plan on having to buy one every year if you fence a lot, and chose accordingly.
The Underarm protector or plastron. This is an inner sleeve worn under the jacket when fencing. In case you should be hit with a broken blade, it is your last line of defense between the broken end of the blade and your skin (and the squishy organ-stuff underneath that). A plastron is required to be worn during competition. As with other fencing gear, there is the FIE homologated version, and an non-FIE version. FIE plastrons are made of very tough stuff indeed, usually kevlar. Currently, the USFA does not require FIE plastrons for competition. Many types of plastrons exist, usually differentiated by the thickness of the padding. A thick plastron adds a layer of padding against bruising. If you are purchasing a very thick plastron for extra protection, be sure to buy a jacket a size larger to accommodate the extra bulk.
Rigid breast protection. Women are required, in addition to a plastron, to wear rigid breast protection over both breasts. This may take the form of plastic or aluminum cups that fit (usually poorly) into pockets on the jacket (many fencers wear two sports bras and insert them in between the two, instead) or a one-piece breastplate of plastic. Most women agree that the one-piece breastplate fits the best, and gives better protection.
There has lately come onto the market rigid plastic chest protection for men. If you are prone to bruising or very slightly built. Consider it. Especially in épée, stiff blades driven at great speed can cause injury or bruising, even with a durable jacket.
Shoes and Stockings.There are several specialized fencing shoes on the market, made by Adidas and Nike. Many fencers feel that they cannot fence in anything else, even though these shoes are expensive, and do not wear well. But many fencers swear by cross-trainer and court shoes available at any sporting goods store. Avoid running shoes, which often have cantilevered heals that make lunging difficult. Shoes should fit like any other athletic shoe or cross-trainer shoe: they should hold the heel in place, give the toes ½ to ¾ of an inch to move in, and keep the fencer's foot in place when they lunge – the fencer shouldn't "fall off" the back foot.
Socks must cover all skin not covered by the knichers on the leg, and knickers should overlap them. Don't plan on fencing a major tournament without meeting this requirement. There are fencing socks on the market, but depending on the length of your calf, basketball or soccer socks may work as well.
The Weapons.Your first weapon will probably be a "dry" weapon – which means that the weapon is not capable of being plugged into the electrical scoring apparatus. You may, as a beginner, purchase an "electrical" weapon for taking lessons or work in class. No matter what type of weapon you buy, each type comes with an array of possible blade and grip choices. This is one area where people have the most questions, and it's difficult to make recommendations. What one fencer considers the ideal blade and grip, another won't touch.
As with everything else discussed in equipment, there are FIE blades (made of "Maraging" steel – a special steel forged to resist breaking) and everything else. FIE blades tend to be more consistent quality, stiffer, and last longer. But this comes at a considerable price. Often FIE blades are two, or even three times the price of a non-FIE blade by the same manufacture and while they will usually last longer, there is always some doubt about whether they will last 2-3 times longer than a non-FIE blade.
When selecting a blade type for your weapon, your best choice will be a mid-priced, non-FIE blade from the manufacturer.
Grips are another matter. Everyone should fence for the first year with a French grip: a long, straight training grip which will help with finger control and build up hand strength. While fencing with a French grip, ask to hold the orthopedic or pistol grips you will see other fencers using. Use these tests to determine what grip might be best for you, and then plan on buying few other grips after that. Many fencers try two or three grips before they settle on one that they like. Remember that grips are usually inter-changeable between weapons, and that any French grip blades that you have can be modified to fit into the pistol grip you decide on in the future.
A word about the Italian grip: this is a very specialized grip that was very much in vogue in the early 1900's. It is a very difficult grip to use, and should be avoided.
Electrical foil and épées have tips on the end of the blade which are part of the scoring apparatus. As with grips, there is an astonishing number of different tips on the market, each with their advantages and disadvantages, too many to go into here. Again, ask your club mates what tips they use, and why.
Body Cords. In the case of épée and foil, the electrical weapons score with a tip on the end of the weapon which acts as a "switch". With a saber, the entire blade forms part of the scoring apparatus. For épée and foil, a wire or wires run from the scoring tip to a plug, or socket, behind the guard. In saber, a socket is also used, but as it makes contact with the blade of the weapon, there are no wires in the weapon itself.
Body cords attach to the plug behind the weapons guard, run up the fencer's arm, and out the back of the jacket, where they are attached to another cable and in turn, connects with the scoring box. There are two types of body cords, depending on the type of socket being used in the weapon: the "two-prong" type, or the "bayonet" type. Both types of sockets have their advantages and disadvantages, and it is not easy to change between them. When buying electrical weapons, you will be asked what socket you want put into the weapon, which will determine your choice of body cords. At the start, it is usually best to see what everyone else in your club is using, and copy them, since it will be your teammates you borrow body cords from when yours fail!
Saber and foil fencers will need an additional cord to make an electrical connection between the mask (which is target) and the saber of foil lame. This "head cord" is simply a length of cord with two clips on it: one clips to the mask, and the other to a tab on the saber lame. You should have two of these, as well, though they fail much less frequently than body cords. Other than being of a certain length, and requiring soldered connections at both ends, the differences between one head cord and another are minimal.
The Lame and Over Glove. In foil and saber, the target is restricted, and the lame is a conductive over-jacket or vest that defines that target for each weapon. There is no such thing as an "FIE lame" but at bigger competitions, lames will be checked to make sure that they are fully conductive. Up until a few years ago, lames were made by stitching copper or steel thread onto a backing. Needless to say, this was less than satisfactory. Copper corroded quickly and even stainless steel wire was not immune to effects of violent movement and sweat. There are many new materials out on the market now, and picking the right lame is as much an art as it is a science. The club armorer will be able to recommend a lame that is long lasting and durable. Resign yourself, however, to replacing your lame every few years. The life of a lame can be extended through careful post-competition rinsing and storage, but eventually, they all fail.
Care of Your Equipment
Jackets, Knickers, Plastrons and Gloves can be washed in a regular washing machine and then hung dry. Using a dryer subjects the material to a lot of abuse, and in the case of cotton or canvas equipment, shrinkage. Do not use bleach on FIE Uniforms, stubborn dirt or stains might be lightly dabbed with bleach or a commercial spot remover (we like Wink), but washing an FIE Uniform in bleach weakens the fibers that the fabric relies on for its protection.
Blades and Body Cords. Moisture is the enemy of steel and electrical connections. Don't store your blades next to sweaty t-shirts or uniforms. The blades and body cords will rust and corrode, and your clothing will be stained. If you fence a lot, it's a good idea to rub your blades down with steel wool to remove any burrs or "risers" that serve as an entry way for corrosion, as well as invisible splinters to catch your hands and fingers when you touch your blade. Body cord connections should be checked and tightened if necessary every month or so. Cords will often develop breaks inside the insulation (where the break can't be seen) and stop functioning. The cord then has to be taken apart, cut back, and re-affixed to the plug. An armorer will show you how to do this. Blades, likewise, stop working for a variety of reasons, and must be rewired. There are several pamphlets on armoring that can be helpful to do this (it's a simple process) or one of the more experienced fencers at club can show you.
Masks can and should be rinsed frequently in warm water, and then air dried. A great deal of sweat and face oils accumulate on the mask, and failure to clean the mask regularly can result in the mask developing a bad smell, or even worse, causing skin irritation. Some masks (such as the high end Leon Paul and some Uhlman masks) have inserts that pull out that can be washed separately. If you are prone to skin irritation or breakout, a mask like this might be worth investing in. At Dominion, we've also been successful in cleaning masks by making a slurry of baking soda and water, scrubbing it onto the inside padding of the mask, allowing it to soak in for an hour, and then thoroughly rinsing the mask. This seems to do a good job in removing smells. If absolutely necessary, a mask bib and padding can be spot bleached to remove stains, but make sure the mask is rinsed thoroughly after bleaching, and keep in mind that bleach weakens the fibers in FIE masks.
Lame material, including saber and foil masks and saber over-gloves should not be stored wet. Some fencers wrap their lames in dry towels at the end of fencing, both to protect the material and to absorb any moisture. Like any metal object, lames and lame-covered masks (saber and foil) should not be stored with wet t-shirts or uniforms.
At the very least, at the end of the day, a lame should be folded and put in a plastic bag before being stored in the fencing bag. A saber or foil mask might be put into its own bag as well.
With lames and saber and foil masks, hard scrubbing of the lame material can destroy the conductivity, so it's best to simply rinse them and air dry them if you fence frequently. The enemy of lame material are salt crystals that remain after a workout. They act like tiny razors to corrode and break the conductive materials. Rinsing anything with lame material helps remove the residue salt and dirt.
There are new lame materials on the market which are said to be "machine washable". Our experience with these materials is limited, so we can't attest to the manufactures claims.
What Should I Buy?
Below is a list of equipment from one of our favorite vendors, Absolute Fencing. We mention them here because most of the equipment you have used at club comes from Absolute, and we have a very good relationship with them. However, they are not the only equipment supplier, and it could be argued that they are not the best equipment supplier. But we provide this chart, and a link to their web site as a way to get you started shopping for equipment. For more equipment suppliers, check out the US Fencing page (Note that these prices date from several years ago, and are not intended to be accurate quotes).
Again, we want to emphasize that this is not the only equipment we might recommend. We would urge all of you to start with this table and comparison shop. In addition, a lot of manufactures offer complete "kits" for beginning fencers, at a substantial savings over buying each piece individually. Often this is their lower priced equipment, but some sellers offer a limited amount of substitutions for better quality equipment.
We hope that this has been helpful for you in selecting equipment. Please don't hesitate to talk to any one of the coaches about any questions you might have before making a purchase. We are always happy to help.