by Jayson Barrons
Let me get this out of the way – I adore this jacket, and this review will not hide that fact. I do my best to be objective, but my fawning over what Gajardoni has done is simply going to show through the entire review. Take that how you will.
Despite all the innovation we have seen in HEMA equipment in the past two years, jackets seemed like they were destined to stagnate – people seemed ‘ok’ with the offering on the market, and manufacturers were obliged to not change anything up.
And then suddenly there was an explosion of jacket R&D, and we’re starting to see those products hit the market. Neyman, Superior fencing, and even SPES and PBT came out with new jackets in the past 8 months.
But I wasn’t happy.
I’m a gear snob, and I make no apologies about it. I was going to write an article that would serve as a call to action to jacket manufacturers, challenging them to make smarter jackets – focused protection, modularity, and more breathable materials. Make it lighter if you can, and let me choose where I need protection to the most.
And then a relatively unknown Italian fencing manufacturer, Gajardoni, decided not to play by everyone’s rules. I suddenly found myself without a need to write that article anymore.
Gajardoni hasn’t made just another jacket – it’s built the first ever torso protection system. This is an important distinction that cannot be understated – this is the most advanced system on the market today.
The jacket was purchased through the standard channel – Gajardoni’s website. Through the purchase experience, they were completely unaware of my intent to write a review.
I typically don’t review equipment until it has been through at least one tournament, and I wore the Gajardoni Challenge Jacket at Longpoint 2016.
I informed Gajardoni before the review went live that it was being written, along with notice of my general complaints. They took my feedback very positively.
The challenge deviates from nearly all other jackets on the market currently in one very big way; it’s a back zip.
HOLY SHIT, CHILL THE FUCK OUT PEOPLE, IT’S JUST A ZIPPER.
I know I know, take a deep breath. It’s so different from your SPES! How could you possibly zip something in the back?
It’s not only NOT the end of the world, but there are some seriously good reasons for this design choice. I was skeptical at first as well.
Thankfully, the back zip is one of those zippers that doesn’t slowly unzip if it’s not 100% zipped (have I said ‘zip’ too much already?), but loose enough to make the zip-up fast. It comes with an extension on the zipper pull, which makes putting the jacket on a snap.
And as an aesthetic touch, there is a lovely pattern sewn into the front of the jacket, which would not have been possible had this been a front zip.
This is one of the reasons why this jacket shines.
Aside from the 800N shell of the jacket, the base lining is a simple foam constructed in a small honey combed pattern, wrapped in an additional mesh layer. It’s thin and lightweight. This makes the jacket the incredibly breathable.
If you know anything about me, I’m deeply concerned with heat exhaustion (I’m the guy who proposed riveting the back of a jacket to help with heat dissipation). As a larger man, I’m simply more prone to it, and my asthma tends to be irritated when I overheat.
My latest setup previous to this jacket was a thin PBT coach’s jacket with a padded undershirt. I loved the freedom of movement, and it did much better than my SPES when it came to heat dissipation.
Despite this, Gajardoni still blows it out of the water. Do I still get hot in it? Absolutely! But the heat never feels like it’s building up, and inside the jacket, you’re kept moderately comfortable. It’s also much easier to partially unzip the jacket in the back in between matches to cool down even further – due to the larger opening, it breathes better than a SPES opened the front.
I will be honest – the base lining is not completely up to the necessary level of protection you would need for longsword fencing. (Disciplines such as Rapier & Dagger would be perfectly fine with just the base layer, and this might be the first jacket you could wear in any event). It’s simply too thin, and while it did an admirable job, things stung a little more than I’d like.
Enter their padding system.
YOU get padding and YOU get padding and YOU get padding. So much padding.
Inside the jacket is a series of velcro strips, where the included padding can be attached to. The padding is constructed of two layers of foam and the matching velcro needed to attach it to the inside of the jacket.
Even the throat has an additional layer of padding in it, almost alleviating the need for a gorget.
You should be excited about this padding system. You can install it nearly any way that you’d like – there’s an option for collar and sternum padding, a large section for the rib cage, under the arm, even the side of the arm. You can mix and match as you please – I currently have the sternum and arm protection in, but since I wear a padded shirt still, I left the rib cage protection out.
The arms also have velcro attach in them
NO OTHER JACKET GIVES YOU THIS FLEXIBILITY.
It’s not perfect, at least not yet. The padding can be a little stiffer than I’d like, and I’d like to be even more modular than it is. If there were options for different padding types (such as ones offering less protection but more flexibility), the system would be perfect.
Integrated Elbows and Shoulders
Gajardoni added elbows and shoulders to this jacket, with a particular stiff molded foam. Both are slipped into pockets on the outside of the jacket, making for easy removable when it comes time to wash the jacket.
While the shoulders have been fantastic (they don’t get in the way of my fencing at all, while still protecting the sensitive shoulder joint), the elbow leave a little bit to be desired.
I’d so as far as to say that the elbows are the weakest part of the jacket. Since they’re on the outside of the jacket, and the jacket isn’t tight to the arm, they move around, and since they aren’t particularly large, they very easily move off of the elbows.
This is unsafe. Gajardoni might need to add some stretchy material or straps in the elbow to bring the closer to the joint. In the mean time, I’m using my spes elbows, and have had no problems with them in combination with the jacket.
This is the most protective collar on the market. It’s tall and robust, with plenty of room for your gorget undernearth. It plays very nicely with the additional sternum throat padding included with the jacket.
As mentioned earlier, it comes with some additional padding that is velcro’ed in the fold, and makes the collar extremely protective. Additionally, being a back-zip jacket means that the collar is also safer – the collar wraps completely around the neck, with no potential gap in the front.
A lazy fencer who forgets to zip their jacket all the way no longer runs an unneccessary risk.
The cuffs are elastic, and this is dreamier than I imagined it would be. They stay in place, rarely slip, but the jacket is much easier to take off because of them.
Putting the Jacket On
While, at first, it felt awkward putting the back zipped jacket on, within a few tries it was objectively faster than putting on a SPES or any other front-zip style jacket. In those jackets. I’d always have trouble with the overlap layer or getting the zipper started.
I just had to slide my arms in, get the zipper started, and within seconds I was zipped up.
They were smart enough to flare the jacket oh so slightly at the hem, to give you some additional room to zip it up. I’m never a huge fan of trying to do anything behind my back, but I’ve found it simple to do in this jacket.
Fencing in this Ferrari
I absolutely love fighting in this jacket. Being mesh, the lining can take some getting used to, but it doesn’t irritate my skin in any way.
High guards weren’t impeded in any way – right Ochs has vexed me for a very long time, but in this jacket ,it has found it’s way into my fencing very organically.
Due to the thinner lining, movement generally felt free. Not once did I feel the jacket bunching up, or getting in the way, or tightening in the wrong spot at the wrong time. It did what I needed it getting- getting the fuck out of my way while I’m doing work.
Strikes on the areas with additional protection were laughed off- the padding is almost too sufficient, and I think a little pain and bruising is what reminds me of what I need to work. A thrust to lower throat, where most gorgets don’t protect, made me extremely grateful for the additional attention Gajardoni paid to the area. The blade bowed, but my life didn’t feel threatened in any way.
The additional arm pads were noticeable on occasion, but again, I didn’t feel that they slowed me down. Having said that, they’ll be the first ones I replace with a more supple foam or padding that’s not as stiff.
Being a back-zipped jacket, my coach was able to unzip it 90% of the way in between matches, and even during a match when the judges were deliberating. It takes literally 2 seconds to zip back up, but that extra time cooling off was an immense help. This is simply not something that could not be done with a front zip jacket.
The forearms are thinner than I’d like, and I’d recommended additional forearm protection when wearing this jacket (although, to be fair, I feel that everyone should be wearing forearm protection with any jacket on the market).
The only actual challenge I had with the jacket was the length of the arms – to accommodate my chest I had to go a size up, and this mean that the arms were huge in diameter. They were prone to sliding a little too far down my arm and onto my hand.
A trip to my tailor (who even commented on how well the jacket was made) and the problem is now solved, but if sizing is a problem for you, I might recommend going with a custom jacket from them. The tailoring wasn’t expensive, but I also have a tailor who is experienced with my fencing equipment, and you might not be so lucky.
Gajardoni is an utter joy to work with. While they were a little slow on email responses, their facebook responses were always same day. They were always kind, always honest, and professional.
After the jacket was ordered, Gajardoni had a problem with one of their suppliers of the 800N material they use in the jackets. What did Gajardoni do? They wrote a letter to all of their affected customers, explaining that their equipment would be delayed, and wrote a facebook post on top of it.
This level of honesty is sadly not as common as it should be in HEMA today, and it was a breath of fresh air.
When I wrote Gajardoni to bring up my fears that the jacket would not be ready in time for Longpoint, they told me exactly what order I was in the queue, and even what day I was scheduled to have my jacket made on!
I’m big on loyalty, and Gajardoni has shown me that they are worthy of my trust. So many of our vendors in HEMA could learn a lot from how they operate.
Cost & Delivery
The jacket was $350 USD, including shipping from Italy for 50 bucks. Shipping would be cheaper if you’re in the EU, but you’d also need to pay the VAT.
2 day shipping from Italy to Colorado. It showed up in 2 days. Nuff said.
Everyone who makes jackets in HEMA today needs to look at what Gajardoni has done, or else expect their lunch to be eaten.
Despite all the innovations in this jacket, the price isn’t even particularly high.
Very rarely does a product make me excited – my natural state is to be skeptical of everything. But not only was I excited to receive the Challenge jacket, it’s exceeded what I wanted out of it. I can’t imagine going to something that’s heavier, less breathable, harder to put on, or doesn’t have the same level of modularity.
They’ve put a love for details, some clever solutions to real problems, and a desire to be excellent into a single jacket.
We are getting closer and closer to some incredible equipment in HEMA, and make no mistake – Gajardoni is at the forefront.