John’s Guide to Sabre Equipment

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tldr; version:

“Buy the minimum set. For your body, right now. Of the best quality you can afford. Starting with things you can’t/don’t want to borrow.”


 

There is no requirement for people fencing at Sydney Sabre to have their own gear. However, 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. Virtually everyone has a full set of their own gear by the time they 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.

SSC does maintain a (limited) set of FIE gear that we lend out to cadets who are missing a few pieces for any given competitions, and other gear can usually be hired from us for the day (the distinction really comes down to what I, John, have in my personal collection and what we maintain in the main stocks).


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.

Off we go then!


We suggest that people get in order of importance:

  1. Shoes and Fencing Socks
  2. Glove
  3. Mask
  4. Lame
  5. Bag #1: Day Bag
  6. Plastron
  7. Jacket
  8. Breeches
  9. Body Cord(s)
  10. Mask Wire(s)
  11. Sabre(s)
  12. 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. You will almost certainly burn through the front heel in a couple of session though.

The more expensive fencing socks like the Leon Paul Advanced will last a lot longer, but are priced correspondingly. Mine last for a couple of months of near daily training, but others may get more mileage (I really really wear out my shoes and socks).

With shoes, it gets more complicated. There are tons of choices. Some are really expensive. Most are mediocre.

The gold standard are the Nike Ballestras/Air Zooms, but they are expensive and wear out fast. We stock them because I use them personally, but even I gasp at the cost. We also stock them cheaper than any other supplier in Australia (do let us know if someone manages to undercut us) because, again, I use them. I’ve 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 – but I’m yet to find a rival that’s as good.

Of the lower cost shoes, the two most likely models you will see are the HiTec Razors (which we stock) and the various permutations of the D’artagnan IV and Vs (which we don’t). They are both good shoes. The D’arts are better and more expensive. A lot of fencers swear by them, and I personally use an old pair for a lot of my coaching. Both 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.

The D’arts are no longer in production because Adidas is getting out of the fencing market. Rumour has it they sold their molds to Kempa, and the latter have started producing their own line of shoes which are similar but use their existing low-density soles with adhesive attachment to the uppers. Early reviews have not been positive. Apparently the soles wear down very quickly and come apart. That is based on their first edition and by professional fencers though. Give them a try and see how you go.

There are more expensive fencing shoes around. Without naming and dissing them, I will simply say that price is not a good indicator of quality when it comes to fencing shoes.

Non-fencing alternatives abound. The best ones are 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. If you tend to go to Europe a lot, Asic handball shoes are pretty good, almost as good as the D’arts and often significantly cheaper.

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. It hurts.

There are plenty of other shoes out there on the market, and every six months or so I go on a buying spree to try and find a cheaper/better alternative to the Nikes. Come have a chat to me and I can tell you about my personal guinea pig experiments.

Fencing shoes are crazy hard to resole. We can kinda resole them here at Sydney Sabre, occasionally (when we have the materials), but this is very time-consuming and expensive.

You may also wish to get a heavy-duty heel cup for your front foot to help prevent heel strike/bruising injuries. I use a thick elastic one, thicker than the little blue ones you can get at the supermarket. Some  fencers – usually those from spartan Asian countries – swear by the little hard plastic heel cups. I wore them once and … ow. Your mileage may vary.


Glove

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. None of these are particularly expensive, so get something good.

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.

Gloves should have the name marked very clearly on the outside because they do tend to go walk-about.

Some people choose to wear a glove on their off-hand as well to prevent injuries. Some people think this looks stupid. They’ve never had their thumbnail cut off before. I personally wear a glove on my off-hand for all serious training bouts and competitions. Most of the time I 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.


Mask

You will need an FIE-rated mask at 1600N for external competitions. These can be pricey.

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.

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.

LP also makes the X-change series of masks, and these have a diehard following. They are essentially a reinforced mesh mask with a replaceable bib, a couple different choices for head retention (spring case and the ‘contour fit’ system that uses a tension-loaded disc in place of the spring tab), and a lot of choices for removable inner linings. X-change masks are quite polarising in the market, partly because they look quite different to the predominant variants and also because they work really well if you have the right head shape and really don’t if you don’t.

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).

I personally use a Negrini mask (actually two, one for training and one for competitions), but have previously had good experiences with the LP X-change. Both contour-fit and spring case seem to work for me. Frances can’t use the X-changes though because of her head shape. Definitely try out masks before you buy.


Lame

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.

My personal choice these days are the Leon Paul stainless steel lames for price/performance, or the Negrini ones if I’m splurging. PBT deserves an honourable mention especially given their very reasonable cost. I avoid most of the others but keep an eye out for what are essentially OEM lame jackets 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.

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, but it might. Other countries do change their logos every 4 years (read, Olympic cycle) so be a bit careful. Looks cool though.

Some people try to anticipate the growth of their child, and buy accordingly. That’s totally fine – but I will share my own experience of my mother buying me a set of top-grade Uhlmann gear when I was 14…and looking on in dismay as I never grew into them.


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.

People who have been putting their bouts in diligently should already have earned a mask wire and body cord by recording 250 and 500 bouts in the centre computer, respectively.

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.


Sabres

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.

People who have been putting their bouts into the SSC computer may already have earned their first and second sabres at the 1000 and 2500 bout marks, respectively.

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 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. They have a lot of money. To be fair, they do last a lot longer than carbon blades if you stab a lot. They are also much less responsive, whippier, and did I mention how expensive they are? 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.

Other people use really cheap Y- or diamond-profile mild steel blades usually from China. There’s nothing wrong with those. They just tend to be heavy.

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 counterparries. Some manufacturers also do all kinds of tread designs and rubber/plastic/steel cores. Honestly, these don’t make much of a difference. Use them if you like them.

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. He also has massive massive hands and the crush strength of a vice (what do they put in that Bayer water?)…so maybe your experiences will be different. I tried using leather grips for years but eventually gave up when the shock waves going through my forearm gave me tendonitis.

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. 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.


Bags

Most people will need a bag at some point. SSC does 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 – so there’s no huge rush for these to be purchased.

We do suggest that people start off by purchasing a basic day bag first, like the LP Allkit or Latitude, and only move onto the big bags like the Freerunner/Freeroller, Icarus and Team bags when they start going to interstate or international competitions. Carrying a bag full of fencing gear around airports and trains stations gets old real fast. They typically 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.


There you go. I must have blown something like half a million dollars in fencing equipment of one sort or another for myself/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 above. For what it’s worth.

One last piece of advice – get a good armourer and treat them well. You’d be amazed by how far a little bit of love (and maybe booze) will go towards getting you a good deal on second-hand gear and extending the life of your equipment.

Good luck!

P.S. Let me know if you find a good Ballestra alternative.


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