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Building Your Longsword Tournament Kit (Women’s Edition)

by Meg Floyd

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“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.

Head Protection

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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.

Cost: $109.99 

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.

 

Throat Protection

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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. 

 

Torso Protection: 

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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.)

 

Gloves

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) 

 

Knees/Elbows/Shins

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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.

Cost: $24.70 

 

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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.

Cost: $31.04 

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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.

Cost: $21.00 

 

Footwear

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.

Cost: $60.00 

 

Swords

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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.

Cost: $490.00

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.

 


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Comfort Fencing Gloves: A Review

HEMA deserves better
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Comfort Fencing gloves after two months of use and slight modification

As modern practitioners of an ancient deadly art, we are constantly confronted with a paradox; how do we perform armorless combat as it was meant to, while not wearing armor? How do we keep us and our partners safe, while still executing techniques with the proper sense of vigor?

Out of all the gear that a historical fencer uses, nothing has fallen short as much as our gloves. This is tragic, as hand dexterity is one of the most critical aspects of being able to properly perform the graceful techniques that the masters ask of us.There are, of course, hundreds of attempts to address this issue. Some work better than others, some are still pipe dreams, and more still just fall short.

But ever since a couple of U.S. fencers began wearing a certain gauntlet with modern aesthetics, fencers have been clamoring for a pair of comfort fencing gloves. The thumb dexterity! The wrist maneuverability! The protection! The $200 USD price tag! Could these gloves be what we were looking for?

Short answer – no. Longer answer – did you even read the short answer? It was no.

Review Approach

To conduct a thorough review, comfort fencing was unaware that we were looking to test the gloves. This avoided any “review” products or special treatment. The gloves were used for 3 months in heavy sparring and one tournament.

Design

The Good

The gloves in full
The gloves were designed with a leather under glove (the sort used for gardening) with batting glued to the fingers. The under glove was used as a chassis, having the actual “armor” literally strapped to the under glove.

Finger plates are attached to woven straps, which are then attached to the back of the hand protector. In a stroke of genius, the back of the hand is hinged, along it to cover most of the first section of the fingers while maintaining dexterity when closing the hand.

The wrist is equally as clever – the back of the hand is concave, with the wrist being convex. While this is hardly perfect, it offers great protection, while still allowing the fencer to bend and twist his wrist freely.

The Bad

All is not perfect, however.

While the back of the hand wraps around the sides to offer protection, the pinky and index fingers are naked on the sides.

The finger scales are intended to protect the tips by extending slightly over the end, but it’s hardly protective. In order to feel comfortable wearing the gloves, I had to install SPES finger tip protectors on the pinky and index.

The finger scales protruding outward rather than inward is borderline dangerous, and confers no real safety or dexterity benefits. In fact, if struck at just the right angle, they act as a chisel; once I had a finger plate on my pinky struck, and a full chunk of meat removed from my finger (yes, even through the protective batting and leather under glove). This would not have happened if the scales were reversed ( plenty of gauntlets from older days have the scales in this fashion, truth be told).

Additionally, the way that the protection is attached to the under glove is curious at best, lazy at worst. Straps are used on the fingers to keep them in place, but they are extremely loose (apparently CF recommends sewing the straps tighter, but this bit of information was never communicated to me). The straps are constantly getting tangled in the plates, and if you’re not careful you can find yourself sparring with an extra loose finger because the strap unwrapped from the finger.

To add insult to injury, the back of the hand is held in place by two non-adjustable woven straps with velcro. One of these straps is directly across the first knuckle on the palm…right where you hold a longsword. It adds unnecessary bulk, is uncomfortable, and comes loose often.

(Dear equipment makers: can we stop using velcro?)

Construction

It was hard to produce a list of pros and cons for the construction, given that the construction is so positively awful. One might attempt to argue that I simply got a bad set of gloves, but upon speaking to a number of people who received gloves at the same time as me, it seems to be simply a case of lazy construction.

Multiple people have had finger scales simply fall off (one person actually had two scales fall off the very first time he sparred in the gloves). The scales are attached via rivets, but they easily slip through the woven strap. I myself had had the thumb plate slip out from its strap, and only with major surgery can I repair it.

The tips of the fingers are attached to the under glove with cheap, red thread, the sort that you might attach a button to a shirt with. You are almost assured that this will fall apart, and it comes nowhere close to handling the rigors of sparring.

The finger tip threading is not sufficient.
The fingertip threading is insufficient
The under glove is cheap, the sort of $2 pair you might buy at home depot. They’re so flimsy they make taking the glove on and off incredibly difficult. In places where the protection was attached, I noticed some tearing. It became such a concern that I had to replace the entire under glove on my right hand with something new. Even the $5 pair I purchased was leagues better than what was used.
The replaced underglove
The underglove and padding needed to be completely replaced on the right hand.
Admittedly, their quality control simply seems nonexistant, as there are high quality gloves out in the wild. Anecdotally they appear to be owned by people with higher visibility in the community, but I do know of a number of people who have had no problems with their gloves.

Performance

As with almost all five-fingered gloves, being able to hold your sword in a proper grip is difficult to let go once you have it. Clamshells tend to make a hammer grip more comfortable, whereas the comfort fencers have no such problem.

While the gauntlets are noticeably heavier than the SPES or sparringgloves.com protection, they don’t seem to impede hand speed much.

Finger dexterity is excellent, and the ability to change to a thumb grip without making it obvious to your opponent is addicting.

The wrist’s design also makes short edge cuts and high guards much easier to use compared to sparring gloves, and they don’t add unnecessary bulk that can make crossed arm actions difficult to execute.

Customer Experience

Sadly, the customer experience is so poor, that no amount of quality control or fencing performance can overcome it.

Comfort Fencing has a long history of hilariously long delays (some people have told me they were waiting a year or more), empty promises, and wrong deliveries. The internet is riddled with these stories.

Supposedly the gloves are custom made for each owner, but it appears that they may simply be made in bulk – despite myself and other people having different sized hands, we all could not tell the difference between our gloves when they were delivered.

I confronted the owner before purchasing about his delays, and he assured me on multiple occasions that all of his problems were solved. They would surely arrive on time, he said. He’s far more transparent about delays, he reiterated.

My gloves arrived two months late, after repeated delays. They also arrived 1 month earlier than a pair purchased someone I knew who ordered them seven months before I did.

Multiple times I was told they were shipped, and when I questioned where the tracking # was, I was simply told they were shipping the next week. Never once was it acknowledged that his previous declarations bore out to be untrue.

On top of all of this, the feder I purchased alongside the gloves, and was told would ship with them, arrived one month later. Despite ordering it custom, I simply got a stock feder, and was told by the owner the important point was that someone else got the feder I ordered.

…I never heard back from him.

Conclusion

Dreams and wishful thinking can be powerful agents on your brain.

Two more experienced people told me to avoid the gloves, and I did not listen. People thinking of purchasing them today say they heard the same declarations of improvements by the owner, and had the same high hopes things had changed.

Personally, I do not want my gear to protect me from every bruise and scrape. I am willing to sacrifice small levels of safety from the edge cases of sparring, in order to practice my art as best as I can.

But gear has to be reliable. What we do is a serious, violent endeavor, and it has to take repeated abuse. It cannot fail at the worse time. Almost as important, gear cannot protect you if it’s sitting on a bench in Poland not being made.

There is hope on the horizon. Pro gauntlet is supposedly a still a thing that will one day be made, and the new St Mark Koning gauntlets not only seem incredible, but made by people with actual reputations at stake.

But today? HEMA deserves better.


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Review: The Polish Saber by Richard Marsden

by Peter Smallridge

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Richard Marsden, former President Tyrant of the HEMA Alliance, founder of the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship, etc., has a problem. Historical European Martial Arts is a hobby where we work to resurrect dead martial arts from the recorded systems. Many such systems have substantial details recorded, from the interrelated works of the Liechtenauer tradition over several centuries to the detailed textbooks of Italian rapier. Many HEMA-ists prefer to work from the most substantial sources, with the most information, but others prefer to work from more limited sources, preferring the harder challenge of interpreting unique systems with fewer details in the explanation. I.33, I’m looking at you here. Marsden has gone a step beyond merely working on a highly obscure manuscript, and tackled a historical martial art for which there is no treatise, namely Polish saber fencing during the 17th Century.

It’s understandable why he’d want to. Without regurgitating the whole history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 17th Century, they were Interesting Times. Invasions, civil wars, and a near-constant background level of lesser violence. The szabla came to full popularity, and the Polish style of saber-fencing was recognized as distinct. The szabla was the weapon of the Szlachta nobles, whose Sarmatism fashion not only acknowledged mythologized origins, but reflected the East-meets-West nature of Poland at the time.

I’ve always considered the Historical in HEMA to be defined as something similar to “this martial art not only existed in history, but is well enough documented that we have sufficient detail of the system to reconstruct it.” Others have previously attempted similar feats to Marsden, creating their own arts to fit historical but scantly-recorded martial arts such as Viking Combat. I’m not sure I could call it strictly HEMA. By Chidester’s typology, it’s a Type III – evidenced but not really detailed. On the other hand, the line between reconstruction and speculation is blurry. I’ve worked with the Basingstoke Bartitsu Irregulars (re)constructing boxing, ju-jitsu, cane etc. sub-systems for Bartitsu – where we don’t have substantial information on the full details of what the Bartitsu Club trained c.1900, but we have detailed manuals from similar times, and often with direct linkage to the club. Obviously, we feel these can justifiably be used to go beyond Barton-Wright’s own recorded techniques to flesh out a fuller system.

How much speculation is too much to be HEMA? Marsden has certainly had to speculate, in the absence of any surviving manual. His sources, though, seem fairly comprehensive, to my inexpert eye; there may well be sources out there that have yet to be touched by historians though (or at least English-language history) – perhaps in half a dozen years, some Polish equivalent of the Lost Second Book of Giganti will surface from an archive. Marsden first lays out the background of Polish 17th century saber and its historical and cultural context. Then he systematically lays out his evidence – here his academic background is clear. I’d read many of them before, both contemporary accounts like Jan Chryzostom Pasek’s memoirs and indirect but suggestive sources such as Starzewski’s 19th century writings on 17th century saber, and Meyer’s 16th century dussack chapter. The “closest” source may be from Henning’s 1658 work on “Cut-Fencing”, which is not only temporally correct but addresses the Polish style of saber fighting from the point of view of a German prospective opponent, albeit briefly. It’s good to see the relevant sections reproduced in full for convenient reference.

With the foundations justifying his interpretation laid out, approximately 120 of the book’s 240-odd pages are then devoted to interpretation. I’m not really fluent in saber, but it all seems sound enough. Certainly Marsden’s vision is interestingly distinct from the 19th century military styles I’ve seen elsewhere. The explanations are excellent; they’re clear and well-structured, with superb full-colour photography illustrating them. There’s also a refreshing honesty as Marsden confesses the speculative interpretation of many of the techniques and their support. He also gives a separate section for dussack techniques which may be applicable. The interpretation section is comprehensive enough to equip the reader to become a well-rounded szabla fencer, without wasting space giving repetitive exercises or variations of combination cuts.

Finally, the book is completed by appendices on equipment for practice, glossaries, acknowledgements, a bibliography and guide to further resources, and, helpfully for monolingual readers, a guide to pronouncing Polish terms.

This is HEMA with a slightly different sense of Historical to that which I’m used to insisting on. It’s moved beyond the recreation of one source system to establishing a system implied or at least supported by many sources. Marsden has gone from coloring inside the lines to drawing new line-work to fill gaps of a sketch. As mentioned, I’m generally hostile to too much guesswork in my HEMA. I accuse it of leading to half-arsed theories about how cross-guards protect the hand against punching shields rather than the opponent’s blade, the specialized role of claymores for breaking pike shafts or any number of glorious reenactor-isms, which don’t really hold up to common sense let alone have evidence to support them. This is different. Marsden supports his suppositions with sources and cites his conjectures with comparison. He has produced something which certainly goes beyond HEMA in the strictest sense, but perhaps it’s a transcendence rather than a transgression. In trying to provide a martial art that can be practiced, Marsden has produced a work of scholarship.

The survival or otherwise of historical source-material is undeniably a matter of history itself. The record left us by the past is fragmentary, and the process of selection has not always been arbitrary. But historians have always known this, and have always thought it important to situate the surviving fragments in a broader context created by other remaining fragments, thus gaining some sense of the whole even where significant parts of it are missing. […] The fragmentary nature of the traces left to us by the past is thus no reason for supposing that historians’ imagination is entirely unfettered when it comes to reconstructing it.

Richard J Evans, In Defence of History (1997) pp.88-9.


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Review of the New Leon Paul HEMA Mask

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)

Continue reading


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HEMA Events In 2015

by Meg Floyd 

Below is as accurate and complete a list of HEMA events this year I could cobble together, between Facebook and posts floating around on Tumblr. It is by no means necessarily comprehensive of ALL events happening in the world this year. If you do not see your event listed here, please email me so I can add it! 

January

Kron LA HEMA Block Party – California

Helsinki Longsword Open – Finland
Encuentro de Artes Marciales Europeas – Mexico

February

Dreynevent – Vienna, Austria

March

SWASH – Leeds UK
Purpleheart Open – Texas
Historical Mixed Martial Arts Torneo del NordOvest – Italy
Bunny Bash – Belgium
Brass Frog – Connecticut
Shortpoint 2015 – Baltimore
Florentia 2015 – Italy

Vancouver Int’l Swordplay Symposium

Int’l Saber Symposium – Germany 

Vasaslaget – Sweden

Meyerstag – Slovenia

April

International Meeting FISAS – Italy
Bratislava Fecht – Slovakia
Copenhagen Open Longsword – Denmark
Study In Steel – South Carolina

Nord Fecht – Poland

American Smallsword Symposium – Maryland

May

HEMAC – Dijon, France
Krieges-Schule – Colorado & Florida (Postponed until 2016) 
Feder SKUNKS – Poland
Örebro Open – Sweden
Meyer Convivium – Italy
Ladies’ Weekend – Austria

Fechtschule New York – New York

June

Paris HEMA Open
Schwertkampfturnier ‘Sword of Vienna’ – Austria
London HEMA Open (postponed until 2016) – UK
CombatCon – Las Vegas

July

Barcelona Historical Fencing Meeting – Spain
Longpoint – Maryland
Donnerschlag – Germany
Edgebana 2015 – Scotland

August

FightCamp UK
Pacific Northwest HEMA Gathering – Seattle
Torre de Hércules – Spain
Bergen Open (cancelled) – Norway
World Wide Open Longsword and Rapier Championships – Hannover, Germany
Bellum Nobile – Düsseldorf, Germany
Rossfechten Symposium – Switzerland
Fechtwoche auf Burg Reichenstein 2015 – Austria
Fechtschule Frisbee – New Hampshire

September

International Lowlands HEMA Gathering – Netherlands
Western Martial Arts Workshop – Chicago
Sword Island – Spain
Fechtfest (cancelled) – Germany
Taurhemachia – Italy
Trainerlehrgang Langes Schwert 2015 – Austria

HEMA Celje

October

SoCal Swordfight – California (Maybe? Not positive on this one.)
Encuentro Internacional AEEA – Spain
Historical European Fighting & Fencing Arts Coalition – Netherlands
Iron Gate Exhibition – Boston

W3 Warsaw – Poland

Smallsword Symposium – UK 

November

Swordfish – Gothenburg, Sweden
Feder SMDF – Poland
Malta Historical Fencing Association International Meeting

December

NA

Further resources:

HEMA Events Map International

Sources: http://mindhost.tumblr.com/post/95176785497/hema-international-event-calendar

* My personal FB events page.

Edits: I’ve added a few more, W3 Warsaw in Poland, Vasaslaget in Sweden, VISS, ISS, American Smallsword Symposium, and Smallsword Symposium. I’ve also added Feile na Gaiscigh in Ireland.