Friday, March 13, 2015

Proper Fitting Armour


            The purpose of this article is to address the question of the proper fit of armour on combatants. Proper fitting armour is one of the keys to safety of combatants. While this is primarily designed for the combatants participating in “Swordplay 2015”, held in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, it is also useful for other combatants involved in Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). One of the prime issues that will be addressed is that of the proper fitting and constructed gorget. This is a subject which has emerged both locally and in the wider HEMA community of late. It is a subject which will be addressed in some detail due to its importance. Armour in general will also be addressed in a general sense to complete the picture.

Proper Fit

            Wearing armour is one thing but wearing armour with a proper fit is another. Armour which does not fit properly can impede a combatant’s performance as it may rub against the combatant or restrict certain movements. More to the point, armour which does not fit properly can offer negligible protection, and in some instances can actually cause safety issues.
            Armour is very individual and in most cases needs to be fitted to the individual. Even “off the shelf” armours often need some modification and wearing-in by the combatant before they fit properly. The armour must fit the individual and should be fitted to the individual, borrowed armour will never be the same and never fit, nor be effective, as your own armour. This is primarily due to body shape, but there are other factors which can affect this such as age of the armour itself. All new armour needs some time to “wear-in”. To be really safe, you need your own armour, and you need it fitted to you. As the article below progresses, more will be said of the proper fit of armour along with what the armour should be protecting. These two elements work hand in hand as often armour which does not fit properly will not cover what it is supposed to protect.

What Needs to Be Protected?

            Vital areas are the highest on the list in the answer to this question, but more detail is required. The following will examine what needs to be protected both from a general point of view and also more specifically for weapons of note. It will also address the idea of minimum armour, areas of importance and some recommendations also.

Minimum Armour

            Each HEMA group will, or should, have a document somewhere, or a known standard, which describes the minimum armour which each combatant requires for participation in free-sparring and most forms of bouting in their particular club. The same can be said for HEMA events, once again these describe the minimums required to participate in these events. In the case of Swordplay 2015, the armour requirements are displayed below in an appendix.
            These rules, regardless of where they originate, describe the minimums required to participate. What is important is that they are not necessarily the same as a person’s personal minimums. Each individual should consider what they require to be safe and if this is above and beyond the minimum, they should feel no issue in wearing such armour, it should be encouraged.
            The foundation of a minimum armour standard is that the armour is designed to protect those areas most significant with regard to significant amounts of damage to the individual. The armour is designed to prevent serious injury as a minimum standard. In this there are areas which are common to all weapons and these are the ones where the most significant amount of damage can occur should they be struck.
            The armour needs to be appropriate to the weapon, and thus there will be differences in armour standard between weapons. This is due to the nature of the weapons being used and the potential damage that the weapon may cause. In this particular case some weapons will require more armour, some will require less armour, and the armour may focus on different areas of the body to be protected. The weapon needs to be taken into account when considering armour.

Areas of Importance

            There are some areas of importance which need special attention paid to them when considering armour. These are the focus of the minimum armour requirements. Depending on what weapon is being used will decide how much armour is required.
            First of all is the head and neck. Of all the areas of the body this is the most significant. Improper protection of the head can cause serious and lasting injury. The importance of this area will be highlighted in a focused discussion below.
            The groin for males is a special consideration for males, as is the breasts for females. Females should also have some consideration with regard to groin protection also. These special areas need to be protected as the damage to these areas can also be long-lasting.
            The next area to look at is the limbs and more specifically the elbows and knees. These joints are particularly exposed to damage and need to be protected from percussive hits as they can be damaged relatively easily. The entire joint in the case of both elbows and knees need to be protected.
Protection for the hands and wrists are also important and should be a significant consideration. This is most important for longsword use however the same can be said for any weapon of significant cutting ability. This is less important for the rapier however the hands should still be covered. Suitable hand protection should be a serious consideration for any combatant. Damage can occur to hands and fingers quite easily where proper protection is not being worn. The entire hand and wrist needs to be protected and covered.
Finally, there are feet and ankles. For the most part this can be protected by the correct kind of footwear. Many combatants underestimate the importance of footwear which is suitable to their activity. A lack of decent footwear can lead to damage to both foot and ankle.


            While the following are only recommendations, they are some which should be considered seriously, regardless of the weapon being used. While a puncture-proof jacket will protect against a broken blade penetrating the torso, it is also recommended that some supplementary armour be worn on the torso for simple impact protection. This is especially aimed at the protection of the chest, fractured ribs are no joke. The other recommendation is for lower leg protection. The upper leg is mostly protected by muscle however the shin is quite exposed to damage.

Skin Coverage

            The final recommendation that will be made is with regard to skin coverage. This is for protection against burrs and the like from damaged blades. While these lacerations may be small they can be quite significant and have the potential for infection. It is therefore encouraged that all skin is covered at least by a simple layer of material to protect against this. This coverage can also do something to protect against other types of damage to the combatant.

Armour Coverage

            A piece of armour is designed to cover a specific area of the person wearing the armour. Needless to say, it is important that the armour covers the area properly for the area to be protected properly. Needless to say, in the case of those areas mentioned above indicated to be of importance, it is vital that the armour can do its job properly.
            The head and neck will be covered by some combination of gorget, mask or helm and coif. This combination of armours will be discussed in some detail later on. For now it is important to highlight that the entire neck and head need to be covered in some fashion, and the most vulnerable parts in rigid material. Groin and breast protection need to be fitted properly, and any lack of coverage here or lack of fit will be noticed very quickly.
            Knees may be covered by a simple covering, but it is important to ensure that the entire joint is covered this is the same for elbows. Often the protection will protect the tip of the elbow or knee very well, but will leave the sides of the knee or elbow exposed. The same can be said for the upper and lower parts of the knee or elbow. Proper fitting armour in both cases will cover all of these areas.
            Like the elbows and knees, special attention needs to be paid to hands and wrists. In some cases the hand will be protected well but the wrist will be exposed to damage. With regard to this coverage it is important that the entire hand is protected properly. In this particular case, special attention needs to be paid to the tips of the fingers and thumbs, and also the knuckles. When examining the hands protection do not forget about the sides of the fingers as well.


            Next in this topic, is the discussion of overlap, it is more useful if armour overlaps as this provides better protection and ensures that there is no exposure. This is especially significant when examining skin exposure. Each place where a piece of armour joins up with another should be inspected to make sure that when the combatant is stationary and moving there is no exposure and no gapping. In some cases this should also be inspected for individual pieces of armour, especially where they are made from multiple parts.

Head and Neck Protection

            With regard to the protection of the head and neck there are three pieces of armour concerned, the gorget, the coif and the mask or helm. In the discussion of these three there needs to be certain things discussed, individually and how they fit together. For the most part the helm or mask is a relatively simple item, so most of the discussion will be on the coif and the gorget, two items which are surprisingly often forgotten. There will, however be some discussion of the mask and helm.

Mask or Helm

            When discussing the mask and helm, it is often that the front of the head is the focus of discussion, so much so that the rear of the head is an after-thought. For the most part this is covered by a fencing mask or similar steel covering, and is often the first piece of armour bought. The back of the head needs to be protected by rigid material. This is something that will not flex when it is struck and can take the impact of a weapon. A simple rigid covering would seem to be enough, but padding is also highly recommended for any contact with the rear of the head. This is enhanced by the presence of a coif.


            The coif is a simple cloth covering which is designed most often to go under the mask. This is best made from either abrasion or puncture resistant material for the best effect. Frequently this piece of armour is disregarded as excessive or supplementary, however it is highly recommended that the combatant obtain one. Its purpose is to prevent abrasion of the mask against the combatant’s head. It also supplies extra padding for the back of the head, and also coverage for the skin on the head and the neck. As a piece of convenience this item is also good for soaking up sweat. Purpose-made ones can be bought which are made of the same puncture resistant material that is found in fencing jackets.


            The subject of the gorget has been particularly topical of late and in this particular case will occupy quite a large amount of the discussion. This simple piece of armour can decide the difference between a combatant being seriously injured or even killed or not. In order to address this properly, this particular piece of armour will be discussed in and of itself.


            The first thing that needs to be stated is what qualifies as a minimum and what does not. A simple padded collar is not enough. A stiffened jacket collar is not enough. The gorget needs to be rigid and padded on the inside in order for this piece of armour to do the job properly. This is a very simple description for the requirements of a gorget, more detail is obviously required.


            First is the question of rigidity and what qualifies under this particular heading. With regard to the concept of rigidity, it is a material which will not bend when put under a certain amount of stress, following the safety standards of the fencing mask that would be a 12kg pressure. In this particular instance it would have to withstand the blow of the weapon being used without bending. Materials which would qualify under the concept of “rigid” in this particular case would be: 0.8 mm stainless steel, 1.0 mm mild steel, 1 layer of hardened leather (8oz, 4mm), or their equivalent.

Necessity of Rigid Material

            The rigid material is necessary to prevent penetration and crushing damage from a weapon. Penetration is most likely going to come from a broken weapon or one which has had a tip punch through. Crushing damage would be the standard damage which would be caused by the tip or edge striking the target. Such damage applied to the neck can be severely damaging or even lethal.


            Something has already been said about armour coverage with regard to the other armours discussed and also with regard to the head and neck armours. In the case of the gorget and what it is supposed to cover, this is especially important. The entire neck needs to be covered. It is a simple as that. There are areas of special importance which need to be noted.
            The front of the neck is especially important and needs to be covered. This includes the hollow of the throat which sits a little lower than the typically considered “neck”. This is the first reason why the simple collar gorget is simply not enough. It needs to be extended downward to cover this area at the front, and far enough that a blade cannot slip up underneath it. Usually a simple flap is added to cover this, however it should be considered that something substantial should be added to cover this area.
            The back of the neck also needs attention to be paid to it. In this case it is the vertebrae which need to be protected. The protection should extend down to below the shoulders to cover all of the cervical vertebrae, the second reason why the simple collar gorget is not enough. Once again, often a simple flap is added to cover this but it should be covered by something more substantial.
            This covers the two really obvious areas which need to be covered. The sides of the neck should not be ignored. While the sides of the neck are protected by substantial muscle, this does not mean that rigid protection should be missed. A substantial hit to the side of the neck can cause quite an issue for the combatant and as such rigid protection should be used for the sides of the neck as well.


            In the combination of gorget, coif and helm or mask the combatant needs to make sure that the armours combine properly and still cover the required areas, both stationary and in movement. This is especially significant when considering the gorget and the helm/mask combination. In some instances there will be a gap left between and this can leave an area of serious vulnerability. The combatant should put all three of the armours on and then have them inspected by a buddy to ensure that they are covered in all areas. Of all the times to ensure that you are covered, the head and neck are the most important.

Appendix: Swordplay ‘15 Armour Requirements

6 Armour Requirements
6.1 The minimum armour levels (for all weapons) are as follows:
6.2 Three-weapon fencing mask (often known as 12kg masks) or masks / helmets of full metal construction, similar to ‘That Guy’s’
6.2.1 Fencing Mask is fitted with a reinforcing bib. Any non-standard (custom made) mask must have a bib or some construction to stop sword tip reaching the neck or face
6.2.2 It is strongly recommended that fencing masks have an external (padded) protective layer
6.2.3 A basic coif / cap must be worn such that the mask cannot directly impact scalp.
6.2.4 A back of head / neck covering is to be minimum rigid material (hardened leather, plastic or metal).
6.3 Fencing jacket of padded material construction of no less than 10mm in the uncompressed state with outer materiel to be of durable material (ie: drill cotton / canvas / wool blend / gabardine); commercially available HEMA / fencing specific padded jackets are also suitable for rapier and sword;
6.4 Neck protector (gorget), puncture proof and specifically including rigid plates to cover front, sides and back of neck;
6.5 Groin protection and/or breast protection as appropriate;
6.6 Simple gloves when using any complex hilted sword
6.7 All longsword competitors must wear additional protective gloves, IE padded with hardened leather, plastic or steel plating. These can be custom made or otherwise, but must cover entire hand and wrist. Motorcycle gloves are not sufficient. Lacrosse gloves are not sufficient. Any non-standard (hand-made) gloves are at the discretion of Safety Marshal and Event Coordinator. Gloves should have no uncovered areas on the back of the hand / fingers / wrist (including fingertip coverage).
6.8 Hard knee and elbow protection is highly recommended, especially for longsword.
6.9 Enclosed footwear (with ankle support highly recommended); and
6.10 Arms and legs are also to be covered (however kilts are acceptable)
6.11 All competitors armour will be checked at the start of the Swordplay 2015 weekend by the Safety Marshal(s) at same time as weapon checks.
6.12 Any competitor not wearing minimum armour will be refused entry to any tournament
6.13 Competitors are encouraged to wear additional protective gear for their own comfort level. Some form of rigid torso is recommended for Longsword. The level of protective gear described is the MINIMUM required to participate in the Swordplay 2015 and all participants are encouraged to adopt additional safety gear if they feel inclined to do so. However please note that minimum or additional armour does NOT reflect an increase in any tempo or power of strikes delivered in combat.
6.14 The Swordplay 2015 Event Coordinator may delegate any responsibility to Swordplay 2015 Crew for weapon & safety requirements but retains veto power over any decision made thereunto.
6.15 Competitors must provide own weapons and safety equipment. Equipment will not be supplied by event organisers.