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Review of the New Leon Paul HEMA Mask

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by Peter Smallridge

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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)

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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.

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11014970_10101606320504628_139456065953508237_nSo 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.

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6 thoughts on “Review of the New Leon Paul HEMA Mask

  1. It’s nice to see more companies making gear for HEMA, but…
    This is not much more than a modified sport fencing mask.
    An improvement, sure, but…
    We need something that protects the head, that is designed for HEMA, from scratch.

    For a mask to be truly made for HEMA, it needs to protect the back of the head.
    At the moment we use sport fencing masks, and add some crappy cover, that protects the back of the head. A cover that doesn’t necessarily protect that well …and isn’t all that safely secured to the mask.
    What we need is a mask/helmet that covers all of the head, straight from its basic design.
    The fundamental foundations of the mask, must cover the whole head.

    What we need, is for people to consider what protection we need for our head, and make a design for that, rather than just a few minor improvements to a design that is fundamentally not sufficient.

    The gear we have, that is truly and properly HEMA specific gear, is:
    * Training swords (which have improved by leaps and bounds. Wood and shinai have been ditched in favour of far better synthetics, that have been improving, and steel blunts and feders are cheaper, better and more numerous)
    * Jackets (I’m specifically thinking of the stuff SPES have made)
    * Gloves (though they are still in sore need of improvement and hopefully some completely new/different designs. Hope the Pro Gauntlet project goes well)

    In the case of protection for some bits, like the elbows and the groin, there is no specific HEMA need, so buying from other sports is fine (though knee protection pretty much always omits the sides, so that’s an issue), but we need better gloves and head protection
    …and neck protection.
    Neck protection that is from hockey, or as close to it that it makes no difference, isn’t really made to take hits. We need something more proper.
    Winter Tree Crafts make a gorget (http://wintertreecrafts.com/items/gorget.html) that seems to fit the bill, but I don’t really know of any others.
    …and the one I ordered pushed down on my Adam’s apple. (it fit perfectly, in all other ways, so it certainly wasn’t the wrong size)
    Now if they made it flare outwards, at the top front of the throat…
    A bit more of segmentation, with overlaps, would probably improve mobility and comfort a bit as well, though that might compromise protection.

  2. When is this mask coming onto the market? I can’t find any information anywhere about it other than this review.

    I emailed Leon Paul and they didn’t have any information to give and just linked to that same coaching mask: http://www.leonpaulusa.com/acatalog/Black-X-Change-Coaching-Mask-.html

    Any information would be much appreciated!

  3. I didn’t see a link to the product in the review, so I emailed Leon Paul to ask where I could get my hands on one of these masks. He said that it was this one here: http://www.leonpaulusa.com/acatalog/Black-X-Change-Coaching-Mask-.html

    Is that right? I feel like there are some differences in the photo you posted and the product photo and I’m just a little confused.

    If this is something that’s coming to the market soon do you know the release date?

  4. Do you know by when approximately the final form of this fencing mask will be ready for sale? I’m quite interested in this fencing mask and would like to test it as well.

  5. Looks good but I would love a few pictures of the internal padding of the mask.

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