“Buy the minimum set. For your body, right now. Of the best quality you can afford. Starting with things you can’t or don’t want to borrow.”
People fencing at Sydney Sabre don’t need to have their own gear — we have gear here. But that’s not the case in most fencing clubs. Even here, most people tend to get their own set as they progress through the course, because having at least some of your own gear is preferable to using the hire gear. You also need your own gear if you go to external competitions.
This guide is written for people considering purchasing gear for external competitions. If you’re not planning on fencing outside of Sydney Sabre or similar clubs, much of the below may not be relevant. That said, it will still be a useful guide to what is out there.
Usual caveat: these are the super-biased, unscientific, deeply unreasonable, and stubbornly held opinions of a single madman who has taken this hobby far too seriously for far too many years.
We suggest that people get in order of importance:
- Shoes and Fencing Socks
- Bag #1: Day Bag
- Body Cord(s)
- Mask Wire(s)
- Bag #2: Roller Bag
Shoes and Fencing Socks
There’s a lot to choose from.
With fencing socks, you get what you pay for. A cheap hack is to use the holeproof short socks from Bonds or equivalent wear-resistant ones for training, and then have a pair of cheap long fencing socks (e.g. the Sydney Sabre ones we sell) just for competitions. My Sydney Sabre socks last about three months, but I don’t wear heel cups or smash hard into the ground when I lunge.
The more expensive fencing socks like the Leon Paul Advanced will last a lot longer, but are priced correspondingly. Mine last for about six months of near daily training, these days.
With shoes, it gets more complicated. There are tons of choices. Some are really expensive. Most are mediocre.
The gold standard used to be the Nike Ballestras/Air Zooms. We stock them because I use them personally, and we also stock them cheaper than any other supplier in Australia because I use them. But I’ve also been looking for alternatives ever since I got my first pair in 2010 – they were originally introduced for a small number of fencing teams by Nike for the Beijing 2008 Olympics and could only be obtained through third-parties unless you were on one of those teams for years. The reasons are because they are expensive and wear out fast.
Of the alternatives, the two models you will often see are the various permutations of the D’artagnan IV and Vs. They are good shoes. A lot of fencers swear by them. They have good fencing characteristics and are much more resilient than the Nikes, especially for people who tend to scrape the side of their back foot on the ground.
Problem is, the D’arts are no longer in production because Adidas got out of the fencing market. Rumour has it they sold their moulds, and the others have started producing their own line of shoes which are similar but use various permutations of soles and upper materials, some softer, some stiffer.
The best of these we have found so far are the Rophoo Paratroopers, made by an ex-Adidas engineer who set up his own little shop. These are somewhat lighter than the original D’arts, and somewhat heavier than the Nike’s. I wear them now instead of the Nike’s, because the Paratroopers have better grip and wear resistance.
There are other fencing shoes around. Some are more expensive. Without naming and dissing them, I will simply say that price is not a good indicator of quality when it comes to fencing shoes.
You don’t have to use fencing shoes. You can fence wearing indoor football shoes, handball shoes, squash shoes, and weirdly, driving shoes. None of these have any top side armour, but all have dense thick grippy soles and often rounded heels. Just be careful of anything with low density foam (e.g. running shoes) and mesh tops because you will eventually scrape your foot through the sole and the mesh.
You should consider getting a heavy-duty heel cup for your front foot to help prevent heel strike/bruising injuries. I used to use a thick elastic one, thicker than the little blue ones you can get at the supermarket. You don’t need them if you can lunge properly, but they can be helpful in your first year or two of fencing.
You will need to get an FIE-rated glove for external competitions, made of 800N material and generally quite padded compared to non-FIE gloves. These can be expensive for what they are. I suggest getting a basic 350N pair, like these, for training and most competitions; save the FIE gloves for the fancy comps.
Note that sabre gloves are different from epee and foil gloves. Sabre gloves have a conductive cuff. I strongly recommend getting a cuff made of either stainless steel or other hard-wearing material rather than lightweight lame material, because the gloves take a lot of wear and tear and lightweight lame materials usually don’t hold up well.
Some people choose to wear a glove on their off-hand as well to prevent injuries. I wear a glove on my off-hand for all serious training bouts and competitions. These days I wear a chainmail glove from Honeywell. I used to use a golf glove, but any short cuff thing will do. Just be aware that you need enough finger sensitivity to do things like hooking onto the piste etc. so don’t go overboard with the padding.
You will need an FIE-rated mask at 1600N for external competitions. These can be pricey. Again, I suggest having one for training, like this, and reserving your FIE mask for competitions.
Masks vary dramatically in quality. The things to watch out for is the quality of the mesh, the lame, and the inner lining (removable or not). Great masks are heavy. They have thick gauge wire for the mesh and lots of heavy reinforcement around the front face and the cheek plates. The bibs also tend to be thick and padded (to reduce damage from throat stabs) and dense lame coverage. The inner linings also tend to be thick padded fabric and have little features like covering up the edges of the spring case tab, which can rub against the top of the head.
Avoid masks that are light, plasticky, use low-density lame and have thin bibs/inner linings. I also recommend against removable linings for the most part. I find the velcro attachments tend to wear out really quickly, and frankly, you can wash the mask just as well with the lining attached as you can by taking the lining out and laundering it separately (which also adds to wear and tear).
There are basically three models of masks out there. The most common are the Allstar/Uhlmann/PBT types with a faintly tapering chin, big bib, and enough flexibility to ’shape’ by squashing and stretching the mesh. There are slight differences between manufacturers – e.g. PBT masks tend to be a bit wider for the same size – but they all follow essentially the same template. They are often referred to as ’spring case’ masks due to the combination of spring tab and elastic band at the back for head retention.
Most equipment brands have outsourced manufacturing for this type of mask to a handful of OEM factories in China. If you don’t care about the label, you can buy one for significantly less than the brand price, e.g. this one.
Leon Paul is a bit odd in the sense that they make two other models of masks.
One is essentially the one above with a short bib. They aren’t particularly popular for various aesthetic reasons, and for people with long necks can be problematic.
The other is the X-change series of masks. These have a small diehard following. The X-change mask is essentially a reinforced mesh shell with a replaceable bib, plus a couple choices for head retention (spring case and the ‘contour fit’ system that uses a tension-loaded disc in place of the spring tab), and many choices for removable inner linings. X-change quite different to the predominant mask variants and work really well if you have the right head shape and really don’t if you don’t.
I use both Negrini and Leon Paul X-change masks. The Negrini is essentially a much better (and pricier) variant of the Allstar/Uhlmann design. The Leon Paul X-changes are even heavier and more robust, but the bib and contour design doesn’t work for everyone, e.g. Frances because of her head shape.
Definitely try out masks before you buy.
With lames, things start getting expensive.
Most sabre lames, as of 2019, run between AUD$250 and AUD$350 per unit. Again, note that sabre lame jackets are different from foil lames vests. As with the gloves, I always recommend that sabre fencers choose stainless steel or equivalent lame materials over lightweight lames, because they take a lot of damage during bouts. Some people will have lightweight lames. They tend to be sponsored (e.g. national teams) or at a stage of development where the minuscule differences in weight and flexibility are worth it (e.g. national teams).
Lame quality – it all comes down to the density of the conductive thread relative to the structural fabric. You want to get thick stainless steel bands that are densely packed on the fabric. Avoid nickel and alternative metals which wear down too fast. Also avoid really thin conductive wires which will snap quickly. Some lames are constructed with alternating thick and thin bands to give similar performance to high density lames while reducing cost.
High-density lames tend to be quite expensive but are generally worth it for how long they last. There’s nothing wrong with getting a cheap lame but be ready to patch them – see below.
I use Leon Paul stainless steel lames for competitions because they are the best on the market in terms of density and cut. They are, however, expensive. I avoid most of the others because most are OEM lame jackets out of factories in China. A lot of top manufacturers have outsourced their lame manufacturing and these factories often sell their extra units under a different brand for a much lower cost. I use one for training.
At some stage, the lame jacket and the glove lame will lose conductivity and ‘die’. Don’t throw them away! These can be patched by a competent armourer, up to a point. Come have a chat to us. As an emergency (aka dead spot in a comp) a temporary patch with conductive tape can work.
You will eventually need to buy a new lame jacket and glove (usually when weapons check at competitions starts giving you a hard time). Get them patched up again and use them for training sessions . I’ve patched Frankenlames to almost 80% replacement of original parts before. They probably won’t be good enough for competitions, but they will be fine for training.
Your lame and glove will eventually die beyond repair. I suggest using the glove as a training glove, under your lame when not in comps, and donating the lame to an armoury for scrap.
A stencilled lame with last name and country code is only required for people going to international comps. A lot of people get them stencilled anyway as soon as they buy their first one regardless. Makes it less likely someone will steal it, for one thing.
Plastron, Jacket, Breeches
This is where kids run into real trouble because they are still growing. The gear also needs to be FIE rated for competitions, so look for the label.
With plastrons, just buy the best one you can afford. These last practically forever, and unless there is a major growth spurt, it will fit as well. The plastron sits close to/on the skin, so a bad plastron feels really really bad, and often wears out after a couple years to boot.
With jackets and breeches, there are basically two models – heavy-duty ones designed to take a lot of point impact, and light-weight ones.
The heavy-duty ones are cheaper and usually designed for epeeists rather than sabreurs. This would be like the Leon Paul Team 360 series.
The light-weight ones are much pricier but feel almost like a T-shirt when bouting. They are great. It also hurts when you get hit. Sometimes a lot. This would be like the Leon Paul Apex. Again, I suggest picking a model and buying the best one you can afford. The price differential isn’t that significant compared to how long they last (and potential resale value).
A lot of people get their name and country code stencilled to their jacket. This is not necessary, but helpful if you think people will nick your gear. You’re unlikely to be able to resell stencilled jackets though (unless you’re famous or something).
You do however need to get your country logo stencilled to your breeches. I don’t think the AUS one will change anytime soon. Other countries do change their logos every 4 years (read, Olympic cycle) so be a bit careful.
Some people try to anticipate the growth of their child, and buy accordingly. My mother did this, when I was 14, in the expectation that I would grow up.
Mask wires and body cords
Mask wires and body cords – you will need 3 apiece for major external competitions. These are fairly easy to share around though.
Stick to the conventional designs – thick alligator clips for the mask cords with a straight wire (not coiled) and a two-prong aka German plug. They work well, are robust, and easily repairable. That last point is important. Your wires will break and they will need repair. This will happen a lot. Reduce your suffering/armoury bills by sticking to the common types.
As for the cord materials themselves, I’ve spent years looking for decent OEM cords and the closest I got to was high-end speaker wire. These days I just buy good quality body cords and repair the hell out of them until they get too short, in which case I rebirth them as mask cords.
Most people will get a sabre as their first item, and we totally get that. Sabres, however, are easy to borrow and share around in a competition, whereas other items are less transferrable.
For major competitions, each cadet must have two sabres at a minimum to enter. Most pack 3. With spare blades. Nothing more embarrassing than having to forfeit a competition because you broke all your weapons and no one is willing to lend you one.
With sabres, I am going to be super dogmatic: there is one decent design and you really should stick to it. It is, of course, the Allstar / Dynamo guard design with a removable socket and a conventional sabre pommel. Everyone on the circuit who has to pay for their own equipment uses this design. The guard material comes in a few different materials and minor variants, ranging from heavy steel to aircraft aluminium, and some sport rounded edges to reduce the chances of having sharp dinks in the guard which can potentially fail weapons check and cut flesh. Most people should stick to aluminium without rounded edges.
With blades and grips, things get a bit more variable. Most people will have the most success sticking with a Dynamo/StM style Y-profile carbon steel blade and a smooth rubber grip. Carbon steel is light and responsive and cheap. Their only drawback is that they tend to break quickly if you stab a lot. Rubber is thick and grippy and shock absorbent. There are no drawbacks.
Some people like to use maraging blades. These are expensive. To be fair, they do last a lot longer than carbon blades if you stab a lot. They are also much less responsive and whippier.
Sabre has fortunately remained exempt from the maraging-mandatory requirements that foil and epee have had for years. Until they change this, I’m going to do what most teams (that aren’t sponsored) do and sticking to carbon steel blades, even if I have to pack extras for competitions.
Now maraging blades for sabre are mandatory. The best on the market are Leon Paul Apex blades. These are still expensive, but somewhat less expensive than the former leaders Blaise Freres.
I use cheap Y-profile mild steel blades usually from China whenever I can. They are cheap and heavy and robust. I like them, and I’d even use them in competitions if I could.
With grips, things can get very weird.
There are orthopaedic grips for sabre, but they haven’t taken off at least partly because they aren’t very good – they all lock your hand into a particular position which is both unnecessary for sabre and sometimes counterproductive for particular moves like counter-parries. Don’t use these.
Leather grips are fantastic. They look great and weigh nothing. They also have no shock absorption and are super slippery. I know literally one person on the circuit who uses them, and he’s pretty good, so clearly there’s nothing wrong with a bit of leather. I don’t use them though.
I stick to the standard rubber grips with a plastic core. Some manufacturers also do all kinds of tread designs and metal cores. Honestly, these don’t make much of a difference. Use them if you like them.
Regardless of what you buy for your sabre, get a decent sabre armourer (not a foil or epee armourer) to assemble and calibrate/set your first sabre while showing you how to do it yourself. Or make friends with a decent sabre armourer who will do it for you on a regular basis. An unset sabre feels horrible. It takes 5 minutes to set.
Never buy complete sabres online. Never buy complete sabres without testing it yourself (and possible re-setting it). And, personally, I always trim the tang rather than sticking washers up the back-end as spacers.
Most people will need a bag at some point. We have a couple of bags that we lend out for cadet competitions – this is a bit of a tradition for cadets to add-stencil their names to the bag on their first comp – but your club may not.
We do suggest that you start off by purchasing a basic day bag first, like these, and only move onto the big bags like the Freerunner/Freeroller, Icarus and Team bags when you start going to interstate or international competitions.
Carrying a bag full of fencing gear around airports and trains stations gets old real fast. Bags last a long time, so it’s worth getting something decent. Get something which can serve simultaneously as both a fencing bag and a standard travel luggage: you do not want to be hauling both.
That’s all the important stuff. I must have blown something like half a million dollars in fencing equipment of one sort or another for myself and club in the last decade alone. I reckon I would have saved myself a fair bit of cash and a whole lot more in terms of stress if I had stuck to the principles I’ve written above.
One last piece of advice: get a good armourer. Treat them well. You’d be amazed by how far a little bit of love will go towards getting you a good deal on second-hand gear and extending the life of your equipment.