by Peter Smallridge
Leon Paul have a new HEMA mask in prototype production, and we tested it. Not scientifically, because we lack the qualifications, the patience, or the equipment. But with our own skulls inside, in the fires of the European federschwert tournament scene. In the best tradition of Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo journalism, we
took a bunch of drugs with a Samoan attorney threw ourselves into the task wholeheartedly. Three hard fought tournaments, three consecutive weekends, three countries. How did it fare? Is the world of HEMA forever changed? Or is it just another mask, with “HEMA” written on the side?
For any readers living shipwrecked on the rocky shores of Tierra del Fuego, the London-based Leon Paul are a big name in (Olympic) fencing. They’re the preferred suppliers of USFA, Fédération Française d’Escrime (FFE), Australian Fencing Federation, British Fencing and Real Federacion Espanola de Esgrima, and more to the point they equipped James Bond. They’ve recently branched out into actively marketing HEMA gear, rather than merely deigning to let HEMAists purchase their sport fencing ranges. This has included all-new “Titan” jackets and other kit, developed in co-operation with the leading HEMA-specific supplier of such things, SPES. The masks on offer, though, have not been HEMA-customized, being their existing X-Change Coaching Mask (in black, of course).
Now, that’s changing. Except for the defunct That Guy’s masks, no-one has ever made a mask specifically for modern HEMA before, as far as we know. Jacek Bujko, of Leon Paul Poland, has produced a mask based off the existing X-Change masks, but with:
- Mesh wire 10% thicker
- Unpainted on the outside
- Steel rims both front and back
- New prototype HEMA bib (thicker, longer)
- Contour Plus strap (absolutely no chance of tearing the mask off the head in combat)
Straight out of the box, this mask feels bomb-proof. No idea what the exact weight is, but the 10% difference in wire thickness seems noticeable. It should first be noted that the reviewer was shipped an early version, with the old style bib and no Contour Plus strap. The latter was remedied by Jacek at the Paris HEMA Open tournament, where he also passed over one of the new bibs for inspection. It’s nice, and folds easily so you can nod ready to the referee. More on the strap later…
The X-Change padding is snug, but fits well, and gives a clear space everywhere. How did it, the mesh, and the metal rims handle under pressure? First off, it was taken to regular friendly training, where the mask (with cover and back of head from SPES) felt invincible. At one point, “friends” of the reviewer were given rattan kali sticks and asked to play the intro to “In the Air Tonight” (now that’s in your YouTube history!) on the mask. The headache was more due to a hatred of Mr Collins than any force. No risk of the dreaded “Blutwaffle” nose, even with strong lunges to the front.
But these were friends! This is like testing Aikido by asking Steven Seagal’s PA to punch him; we need to stamp “Battle Tested” on the side of the mask. Fortunately, yr humble (and manic) correspondent had signed up to three tournaments in as many weekends.
First, the May Melee in the UK. A regional rather than national tournament, fought with Rawlings Nylons. Laid back, sunny, a good laugh. Thanks to the terrorizing effect of my SwordFish sleeveless tank, a medal was obtained. In an effort to test the mask, though, I tracked down the largest attendee, slapped him with a federschwert, and asked him to draw steel. He had also drawn me in the pools, and mentioned he had full steel kit with him, I should add. Again, the mask felt invulnerable, including some horizontal blows that my neck suggested I should have rolled with.
The next weekend, I took a (ghastly) WizzAir flight to Poland, for ŚKUNKS. I’d prefer to enthuse about seeing Gregor Medvesec with two functioning arms, and his excellent Kampfringen classes, but instead I’ll discuss the weekend’s tournament. One and a half years ago, Patryk Pilas illustrated the need for better head protection by concussing me in the SwordFish eliminations. Guess who I drew in my pool? Hint: he’s blond, weighs about a hundred kilos at under 180cm, won the longsword at ŚKUNKS 2014, and is from Gdansk. The fighting here was hard work, but I made it out of the pools undefeated, including a wonderful match with Patryk. My first eliminations match, alas, I came against the eventual winner and lost on a tie-break. I still demand a video replay and enquiry, damn it. Anyway, the mask! Well, between the tournament, longsword workshops run by Fechtschule Gdansk, and the wonderful “Fechtschule” not-tournament hosted to give all a chance to fight all comers – ŚKUNKS saw me get hit in the head a lot. On inspection in my Katowice hotel room, the mask had one scratch on the rubber coating of the forward rim. That was it. I did feel the need to upgrade my mask cover and back of head (or roll back to a full SPES Trinity) after a referee commented on how much neck he could see, but the mask itself was going strong.
The third weekend was the Paris HEMA Open – sponsored by Leon Paul, and with Jacek watching. First of all, congratulations to the Parisians for running a great event; I believe it’s only their second tournament and the first open international. It was friendly, well-organised… and tougher than $2 steak. My first day consisted of napping while watching a London friend dominate the rapier tournament, then holding the SwordFish 2014 middleweight Ringen finals, which had been somewhat delayed by injuries. The second day though. My god, the second day. The ruleset was an interesting experiment with right of way. When it worked, it produced good clean fencing, with a high skill level. When it didn’t… it still involved having one of the excellent and athletic French fencers flunging at my head. Or worse, my crotch.
The things we do to review your HEMA gear.
The final was against Arto Fama. The rest of the tournament was tough, but with a Gandalf-figure Irishman cornering and mentoring me I’d held it together. But Arto? I’d met him before. This was a fight to enjoy and learn from, not to win. I knew this.
Irish Mike told me to shut up, not worry about judges or rules, and win.
After Paris, I found two dents in the mesh of my mask. You can judge for yourselves what the force levels were like in the final. Earlier rounds felt harder, but that may have been adrenaline in the finals. I certainly had a bruise filling my whole tricep and continuing on the shoulder blade – that match I complained to the judges about force levels in after-blows.
The dents weren’t significant – a few mm deep at most, in the middle of the left hand side and the mid-upper right. See if you can spot them.
So what do I make of the mask, in conclusion? This isn’t a revolutionary product. It’s evolutionary. It’s a fencing mask, fed some prime steak and maybe a little “special sauce” and let loose in the barbell room. It’s a bit stronger, a bit tougher, more suited to the HEMAist. The Countour Plus strap is a genuinely game changing innovation though. As a grappler, I’m fed up with completing a Durchlauffen entry only to have the match halted because my opponent shucked his or my mask off before I could finish a takedown. The strap is simple. The catch is a little fancy, as it’s magnetic – too fiddly to attach with sparring gloves on, but easy to disconnect yourself. It attaches each side of the bib, and really secures the mask in place.
Now remember that this is a prototype. This isn’t even its final form! We’re promised a new more protective and yet more comfy bib (and I held the prototype, and it was good) among other adaptions, as well as a whole second generation of LP Titan kit. Obviously there’s much still to confirm, including the final price. But it looks like this might be a very nice piece of kit. More crucially, HEMA is getting the attention of an established and international fencing kit provider with new pieces of kit.
Coming soon: We interview Jacek Bujko of Leon Paul Poland about the challenges of designing and producing HEMA specific kit.