The first thing we all want to buy first when we get into HEMA is the weapons. For me it was swords, I joined a club and the first thing I wanted to buy was a sword. The wiser people who had been around the HEMA block a few times advised conventional logic of mask and gloves, then jacket and so on. Swords were last on the list and like so many people I ignored it. That is my upfront confession. I then went diligently down the list asking which gloves, which mask? Having a great club at the time I got some great advice and tried a lot before I bought anything. It worked pretty well and soon I had a great collection of individual items that made up my HEMA gear. Did it work? Yes! Would I do it that way again? Probably not.
Now years later I am being asked the same question what first? Then inevitably what gloves? And yes… what swords? Being a little wiser and having spent more money than I wanted to, I ask a few questions before answering. Most people do not have the funds to buy everything at once so they buy incrementally, this means they look at things incrementally which can be expensive. People with the funds to buy it all often still look at gear as individual items. The thing is our gear isn’t really a collection of individual items it is a system which we add to incrementally. The martial art we study is more than a collection of moves, it is a system, there are individual moves in it, but it all works together to make something greater than its parts. Our gear if chosen correctly is more than a bunch of stuff, it works together, not apart. If we add in price, time, changing desires this can be an expensive journey if we take the wrong path.
So how do we choose the right path? Well we take a step back and ask a few questions. In the HEMA world we work decision trees all the time, but we often forget them when spending our hard earned cash. To get the cheapest result I advise our members to follow this route. What is your end goal based on what you are prepared to spend? It is a tough question for a few weeks in, or even a few years in, but worth being aware of even if we don’t have the definitive answer. Even in concept form it allows us to know what route to take. Before we can ever answer which gear we have to look at what it is used for and what is the end game. If Steel is in the future is it worth buying training gear in the mean time? This boils down to time and available funds. Using a Sword example we should consider a good standard Feder can come in at around £145 and a synthetic can come in at £35. The question we have to ask is would that £35 be better going towards the steel if that is your end game? Is it worth buying a lower rated mask for synthetic sparring or waiting to get one you can use with metal? The answer is personal to everyone, but every pound spent on one can detract from the other. However, years in club masks can get a little disheartening to the nose. The answer does not matter, it gives us our direction.
Once we have chosen the final route it is fairly simple. A synthetic future is a relatively straight leg of: this type of gloves, this type of mask and a few ideas on protection. The steel route is somewhat more problematic. Remember what I was saying about our gear should be a system? If you know what you are aiming for you are less likely to waste money along the way or worse get funnelled down a route that you end up with the best equipment for a style you do not ever need. HEMA gear is not universal fit, it is not easy plumbing so often this will not go with that in an easy way. The best way to avoid this is asking the same question again, what do I want out of HEMA. If it is heavy sparring that is one route, if it is light sparring, theory and nonlinear learning that is a different leg. Buying the biggest and most resistant equipment is something that is human nature to do. We all like to feel safe and we all like big numbers. The thing is if we are employing clear communication to our expectations and have low intensity activities that is keeping us safe. Similarly irresponsible actions in the best gear in the world can still lead to injury.
The usual rule of thumb is a lightweight base system of jacket and leg protection you can usually add to, a heavyweight system has a lot of the protection already there and needs a little less to add to it. If heavy sparring is your thing or will be the route is usually go heavy and add more the deeper you go. However if your route is lighter, buying a near bomb proof set of gear will be more expensive for a start but also massively tiring and warm for your needs. It will usually also be more restrictive of finer movement and can lead to disappointment. Historically we have viewed much the same with gloves, armguards and practically everything. This style are safer than that style, but these have greater dexterity, depending on what you want depends on what you get to complement the rest of your system. It is not quite this binary, put it places us on a scale and means we are more likely to see like supporting like. This way we are building a system rather than a collection of things.
We can already see at this point, even if the end goal is a year or two off, what area we want to be looking in, rather than in terms of this is the best, this is the cheapest, this is this… It lets us see the pool of things that are really important. It also means that we are more likely to get things that work together rather than being individually awesome. We are less likely to become the HEMA equivalent of going outside in shorts and a great coat (which while may be awesome) is doing a poor job of keeping us warm or cool. We will still have the choice this arm guard or those gloves but it makes the choices simpler, it gives us something that works together.
Things evolve things change. This is not a plan that has to be rigid, but it is a good way to get what you want rather than end up with a lot of things you don’t want or are not quite right. It is also a lot easier to amend the plan than not having one. It also stops us from giving our advice for our area not the person receiving it. If they don’t know the answer to the question, it is probably more important that they think about it first rather than get something that might not be the best thing for them, especially on a tight budget.
I have deliberately kept out actual gear from this blog, there is plenty of great advice out there. Similarly, I have kept out what to buy first, there is plenty of great advice out there. This blog is more about taking that step back and thinking what do we really want? For me it was always that sword and some stuff to keep me safe, which in hindsight was not the best. If I had taken this advice at the beginning I probably would have more swords right now and less armguards.