by Meg Floyd
“How much does gear cost?” It’s probably the most frequent question I get from newbies looking to get into HEMA, both as students joining my club, and new people online. Let’s face it, HEMA isn’t a cheap hobby. Building out a tournament-legal steel longsword kit, including your feder, is going to run upwards of $1,000. And there’s other hurdles–limited stock from dealers, long wait times from the mom & pop style blademakers, and the occasional unfortunate circumstance of a sheisty vendor who takes your money and vanishes into thin air, and maybe you get what you ordered a year later. I usually follow this up with letting them know that they don’t have to, and really shouldn’t, buy their gear all at once. My club’s lucky enough to have gear and swords from almost every reputable vendor, and we encourage new people to try everything and really get a feel for their preference before plunking down any cash. However, I know this is a luxury not everyone has, especially those starting out in a small club or an isolated area without gear to borrow. Therefore, I decided to take a walk through what I’ve arrived at as my preferred longsword tournament kit, after about four years of trial and error.
Things worth noting: I’m what you might call curvaceous if you’re being polite about it, so some of the things I had to order custom many women can probably get off the shelf for slightly cheaper. Also, I’m writing this an American fencer, which means things from European dealers are a touch more expensive. However, head to toe, let’s go through my gear.
I’ve had, and loved, my Absolute Force HEMA mask for three years now. No serious head dents. They come in sizes S-L and tend to run a tch big in my experience.
Alternately you can buy the same mask with no built-in back of head protector for $60.00. I may be purchasing one of these in a smaller size, because mine’s gotten a bit loose, and doing a Destroyer Modz style modification to it with some kydex and a heat gun. However, that’s a project (and an article) for another day.
You need to wear throat protection. Let me repeat that. You need to wear throat protection. I wear my gorget religiously now after a couple of close calls that were purely the result of me being an idiot and not wearing mine to spar in class. It’s not 2010 anymore; longsword fencers thrust now.
As for what I wear, I had a ton of trouble with gorgets because, being female, I have a short neck, and it was difficult to find a gorget I could fit under my jacket without being strangled. I wear a bespoke one someone gave me years ago that’s small enough, but the best alternative I’ve found readily available on the market is the PBT gorget, in junior size. I found I had to chop off the side wings to get it to fit under my jacket comfortably. A sharp pair of scissors will do for this–or leave them if it’s comfortable, because it does offer some collarbone protection.
Cost: 30 euro, or roughly $32.00 + shipping from Hungary, which comes out to about $50-60 by my best guess.
You’re going to need a padded, puncture resistant jacket if you want to compete in steel longsword tournaments. I’d also recommend them for the average person wanting to spar a lot, because hematomas do add up and get really annoying over time. Perhaps the most ubiquitous piece of HEMA equipment is SPES’s Axel Petterson jacket. Lucky for us, they’ve offered a women’s cut for a few years. You can pick one of these up for $239.00 if you run in the standard sizes. Because of my unique proportions, I had a custom one made. It was an extra $70, but my jacket fits me and stays put, so it’s been worth every penny to me. Plus the clean lines look snazzy and professional, which I like.
Cost: $310.70 (Custom)
Now, I’m sure some of you are wondering, what about chest protection? There’s plenty of sport fencing plastrons out there that will run you $20-40. I prefer not to use any, having never found one whose size doesn’t restrict my movement so much I can’t go into overhead guards. (I’ve previously written regarding the question of whether hard chest protection is absolutely necessary, as well as the pernicious myth that getting bruises on your boobs will give you cancer. You can read about it here.)
I’ve worn a lot of creative solutions for gloves over my HEMA career, including some very sketchy modified lacrosse gloves back in the day, but my vast preference for safety purposes are Barbara Cheblowska’s Sparring Gloves. I highly suggest the mitten model over the hoof model. I’ve modified mine so many times at this point they more closely resemble Frankengloves at this point, but until St. Mark’s Koning glove comes out in a size that will fit me, that’s what I’m going to use. Mine cost me roughly $200.00 with shipping for a custom size. I’m not sure what the current pricing is through the US dealer, but likely around $200~.
Cost: $200.00 (Custom)
Not surprisingly, the best elbows to fit over the SPES jacket I’ve found are the SPES elbows. They’re pretty bomb proof, and also refreshingly cheap compared to the rest of my gear.
My knee guards are a pair of ancient ones I picked up out of the club loaner bin years ago, because they happened to fit me, and I never gave them up. However, most of the folks in my club are very happy with the Knee Pro’s, which conveniently are quite cheap on Amazon.
For shins, most people use street hockey or catcher’s guards. I have yet to find a pair that fit really well. At the moment I’m using SPES’s shins. I don’t love them, but they get the job done for now.
Let me introduce you to the ubiquitous black cheap flat-soled HEMA shoe–the Asics Matflex 4. Don’t sweat that it’s a men’s shoe–just measure your foot to get the right size. Note: these run a bit small. I’ve seen dozens of people wearing these, both American and European, probably because they’re cheap and easy to get a hold of, and non-skid. I know the ankle support and flat heel really cut down on some of my knee problems.
I’ve used a bunch of swords as my primary training weapons, including an Ensifer Light, a Regenyei heavy, and an Albion Meyer. By far the one that felt the best in my hands and was most appropriate for my size (I’m 5’4”/163 cm tall) was the Albion Meyer. Do pay attention to how a sword feels in your hands. If it’s too heavy or too long, it’s going to feel slow to swing and the point’s going to squirrel around all over the place when you’re trying to do bladework. The bonus of the Meyer? A bomb proof lifetime warranty. I had a rattling crossguard on mine a few months after purchase. I mailed it back in, and got it back with a straightened and polished blade, re-wrapped handle, and fixed crossguard, free of charge. Albions fall in the category of worth the extra money, in my opinion.
There’s a few other concerns, of course, like what kind of bra or pants to wear? This radically differs between women, so I’m not going to address it. I wear yoga pants and a regular bra. Some people might wear a sports bra (I can’t stand the tight feeling of being bound up.) Therefore I’m skipping it for the purposes of this article. Any ladies reading this probably know what works best for them from other exercising they’ve done in the past.
So what does it all add up to? Going back through my gear and the cost at the time at which I purchased it, it adds up to $1297.43 for my entire kit, including my feder. You can push this number up or down depending on a lot of things–for example, if you don’t get custom, you can probably save a couple hundred bucks. Over the course of a year or two, this isn’t so bad. And helpfully HEMA has a way of sucking up all your spare cash once you decide you want to get into it.