One of the most elusive pieces of protective gear for HEMA, the Holy Grail if you will, is good protective gloves that offer enough dexterity to not hinder us in our fencing, when we try to apply the techniques that we struggle to learn in the fencing treatises. For many years we made do with Lacrosse gloves, but those were still somewhat clumsy, and swollen, fractured or even broken fingers weren't uncommon, especially in the tournaments where more tension and power often came into play. This is of course not so surprising as Lacrosse gloves just weren't designed for our uses.
Mitten gloves that offer very good protection have become more and more common the last two years, but while I sincerely applaud their efforts and the great protection these gloves offer, I also have to admit to feeling a certain frustration with the lack of good enough dexterity and some annoying issues with the thumbs regularly popping out of the gloves. Of course this desire for great dexterity is highly personal and it depends much on one's own fencing style. For some fencers such issues are less apparent than for others, for one reason or the other, and it is clear that much great fencing is done with mitten gloves too.
One exception that goes against this trend of mitten gloves is the 5-fingered HEMA gloves by Black Lance Technologies. These are also the gloves used in the finals of the Fechtschule America 2013, where both fighters in the final elimination wore them. If you, like me, are looking for an alternative that is less restrictive in movement, but with a maintained level of protection, then this is a very good option to look into.
Black Lance Technologies offers two types of HEMA gloves, both with five fingers, but one with custom sizes, and a bit more elaborate in design. Consequently these are also somewhat more expensive, with a price tag of 225 USD. The simpler version, which comes in 3-4 ready made off-the-rack sizes, cost 179 USD and should suit many. The ones tested, and shown in the images, are the custom version. They have been tested with dagger, dussack, longsword, staff and sticks.
Having used these gloves in sparring for about a year I am happy to report that they offer great dexterity and I rarely even think about wearing them when sparring, which is the exact opposite of my experience with the mitten-type gloves, where I am constantly aware of the gloves limiting my choices.
Some sparring with the MFFG, me in all black, wearing the BL HEMA Gloves.
Again, it of course depends a bit on your own style, but reading the treatises and studying them carefully I believe really good dexterity is vital for our fencing and looking at masters like Meyer, Talhoffer and Mair shows a strong use of moving the fingers and the thumb over the cross to reinforce one's blade in the bind or to change the balance slightly for better control of the point. And not only that, we need to be able to shift the grip in various ways throughout the striking and parrying, just by changing the angle of our grip on the hilt forwards, backwards and to the sides. All this is affected by the glove design and consequently a good glove design is one that feels as if you weren't wearing one, but which still protects you against permanent injury. Pain prohibition, however, is not a necessary requirement here.
The forearm and wrist is protected similarly to the mitten type gloves with overlapping rings covering the wrist and this works really well. The fingers and the back of the hand are protected by hard shell pieces that overlap and extend to completely cover the fingers, thus protecting them very well.
The forearm guards are of a good size and thickness and no forearm guards are really needed for most fencing. Cups for the elbows usually is enough in combination with these and perhaps a good HEMA jacket. Personally, I like to open up the forearm guards as much as possible to really get a lot of freedom in movement and since getting hit in the gap created is extremely rare. I've actually never been hit there, although I bet it will happen at practice tomorrow just due to me mentioning it...
Many of the gloves we have used over the years have been quite bulky, which has made them awkward or even unusable for practice with sabre, rapier or other similar complex-hilt swords. To a degree, our gloves have to be since at a miminum, size-wise, we need to protect the fingers with full-cover plastic or steel parts. However, the design of these gloves, where the full cover protects by having the sides of the covers stopping the blows when pressed against the grip, is the tightest possible. And as you can see in this clip with the great Ilkka Hartikainen, they can even be used with sideswords that have a bow and finger rings.
Ilkka Hartikainen and Kristian Ruokonen sparring with sideswords and BL gloves
Weightwise, these gloves are quite light and you won't notice wearing them. This is good, as it also means you don't get any real increased power in punches.
So do they protect against everything?
Well not quite, but well enough I think. You will still suffer some pain and the occasional blue nail. Shit is bound to happen eventually, since we are actually doing something meant to cause injury. But these, combined with learning to protect your hands by moving them out of harm's way I think is a great leap forward. I have several other pairs of gloves, but these are the ones I choose to use regularly.
Are they the perfect solution?
Almost. The design of the version I have, which is some 18 months old, uses leather that was a bit too soft which has led to some stretching. Eventually this caused a few rivets to pop out of the leather and also created some gaps between the plates covering the joints of the index finger. Also the stitching securing the plates to the fingertips of one finger have broken, but that is easily fixed. And as the maker is now using stronger, more durable and less flexible leather and some new professional sewing machines this is reportedly less of an issue with the latest version of the gloves. Not having seen them, I can't really comment on this, but the makers are quite dedicated to this, being HEMA fencers themselves and are constantly improving on the design and manufacture, so I trust their word on it.
Being completely made of leather, they do tend to get quite warm and sweaty and perhaps some ventilation areas would be a good thing to implement in the future?
All in all, I feel no hesitation in recommending these if you can afford them. They are well worth their price and there is currently no better glove in terms of combined good protection and dexterity.
For European customers; do note that ordering from overseas usually involves customs' fees which can add some 25-30% to the price, but using alternatives like UPS, DHL or Fedex means that such fees are often skipped.
Product: HEMA Gloves
Manufacturer: Black Lance Technologies
Price: Off-the rack sizes - 179 USD / Custom sizes - 225 USD