Safety Basics

This can be a thorny topic. We talk a lot about safety, it sort of comes with the territory, but ask any gathering of historical fencers what safe-practice means to them and you’ll likely get more than one answer. People come to historical fencing from different backgrounds, with different gear, safety protocols, and expectations. This is an important point to keep in mind. It might be a window into your instructor’s approach, but also it may explain why your training partners have different attitudes toward safety in class.

In some respects, safety is a relative term. For example, I have friends and colleagues who generally wear only an unpadded canvas jacket. This is what they wore at the sala where they started out. The maestro who runs that school is classically trained and his program for Armizare, just as in his traditional fencing classes, inculcates an increasing amount of skill and control over time. Because his fencers have this control, and because they gradually build toward more intense drill, they can wear light jackets in relative safety. Not everyone starts this way—I see people from many backgrounds, classical, Olympic, MMA, Asian martial arts, and SCA. Each typically brings with them the safety protocols they are most familiar with, but naturally they don’t always meet up. Some are far more conservative, some downright dangerous. Combined with varying levels of skill differing ideas about safety can create a potential landmine.

In this clip, for example, my friend Mike Cherba, head instructor at Northwest Armizare, demonstrates that even a normal blow from a feder can wreck the typical fencing mask: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW1Imv7yHig I know Mike well, and trust me, this is not his hardest cut—strong as he is, Mike’s level of control is equal to it and he’s one of the few people I feel I could fence with in longsword with a normal mask. If you’ve followed any HEMA tourney footage then you’ve seen people hit way, way harder. What constitutes a “hard blow” is relative too.

What can we do to mitigate that? First, we need to be aware of these differences. It isn’t necessarily something people think about it, but they need to. Not just the instructor, everyone. Expectations within any group or school should be explicit. This ensures that anyone new to that school knows what the culture is, what gear requirements are, and armed with that information can decide whether or not it’s the school for them.

Second, people need to have a minimum of protective gear—just because they shouldn’t need it doesn’t mean they won’t. You have to plan for the lowest common denominator with chance of injury, not the best case scenario. A mask is a must, ditto a jacket, solid hand protection, and guards for groin and neck. Chest protectors are not a bad idea for both sexes as well. It will only take one broken rib to convince most people, but better they never get the broken rib. I was never a big fan of the gorget, but I also recently heard about two near-misses that convinced me that they’re a good idea (so that is me overcoming my own background and bias).

Third, the instructor must cultivate, and enforce, a culture of safety. Despite some excellent recent articles about the idiocy and dangers of the “go hard or go home” mentality, there is still a disproportionately large number of people who embrace the idea that only pain teaches. This is macho bullshit at its worst. If that’s your thing, fine, find a club that caters to the fight-club ethos, but it’s on you. If you’re young, just remember this—whatever fun you have now, whatever injuries you incur, they come back to haunt you later and will affect the quality of your life. I was never given to macho b.s. much, but in my twenties I was certainly less cautious and had no mind for the possible long-term effects of injury. Now, comfortably into my forties… I have joint issues all along my right side—knee, hip, elbow, and shoulder—thanks to over-training, fighting while injured, and a few unrelated accidents that compounded these existing problems; I have scar tissue from a stab wound and broken fingers that also compromise my ability to train and enjoy something I love. Be smarter than I was.

In designing curriculum, the instructor needs to assess the potential risk in each drill. This might mean working with another instructor or one of the more advanced students to test it out prior to class. Consulting with other, knowledgeable instructors can help too; there is no reason to go it alone. Stand on the shoulders of giants if you need to.

Lastly, each fencer must take responsibility for safety. They need to wear the right gear, ensure that their friends do, keep an eye out of hazards, help maintain weapons, and if they feel unsafe speak up. There’s no shame in that and it might save someone a trip to the ER.

Most of all, each fencer must work hard to become proficient enough that they have a basic level of control. This does several things. It develops one’s ability to handle the weapon, but in that process one also learns to read situations better; one realizes faster if one’s own attack is going wrong as well as if one’s partner’s is. Collectively this makes for a safer drilling and bouting environment. Every fencer’s first defense is the Art, is good technique well-applied—your gear is there, again, for when this fails.

Some basic guidelines everyone should follow:

  • Keep floors clean and gear out of the way
  • Wear your mask
  • When not engaged in a drill or bout, keep sword/weapon tips down, pointed at the floor
  • Maintain your weapons and safety gear; replace things when they wear out*
  • Refuse to play with anyone not as concerned about safety as you are—it’s not worth your eye
  • Don’t fence when too tired, angry, or otherwise distracted
  • Look out for your mates
  • Follow the rules, those of the sala and those provided with any drill or within a bout

*Romantic notions of the sword-as-heirloom aside, yes, even swords must be replaced in time

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