Looking at how the HEMA community looks today it is easy to forget how hard we have been working to get the attention of manufacturers hoping to get proper protective gear for our specific brand of martial arts. Only three years ago things were very different and there simply were no good fencing jackets for HEMA, and what we instead used had several issues simply due to the fact that they weren't originally designed for what we do.
Things have changed dramatically though and today we even have several brands to choose from, some of them created by HEMA fencers even. HEMA appears to be booming and on the verge of becoming a quite recognized martial art/sport, which is very satisfying to see.
Manufacturer: SPES Historical Fencing Gear
Model: Axel Pettersson Fencing Jacket
Weight: 2.5 kg / 5lbs 8oz
Colours: Black, Red, White
To give a little background on what influences my preferences here I would just shortly like to step back in time a bit: About three years ago we discussed how to design a proper HEMA jacket and I was part of creating a prototype together with another manufacturer that unfortunately didn't quite come through all the way with the design ideas suggested. The material and padding wasn't quite optimal and my suggestion for adding a lot extra material in the armpit in order to increase dexterity and keep the jacket in place in high guards like Tag and Ochs was only half implemented, despite initial testing showing very good results. However, the basic design with several features were done well enough to promise good things for the future and with good input from people like Axel Pettersson and others, things were looking bright.
Unfortunately, the continued development of this prototype was halted by the manufacturer and then the prototype was sold as a finished product. And while it works for some fencers, it wasn't quite what I personally had in mind. Luckily another manufacturer saw an opening and stepped in to pick up on this idea and run ahead with it, in continued collaboration with Axel and others in the Swedish HEMA community. And we see the results of their creative work in many HEMA tournaments today; the SPES Axel P Fencing Jacket.
What do we need?
To begin with, any piece of equipment we use only needs to stand up to the amount of violence we subject it too and be able to remove whatever level of pain we feel uncomfortable with. Adding to this, there also needs to be a safety concern implemented in the sense that it ideally should also be able to handle unexpected accidents, like broken blades etc. These factors vary around the world in different clubs and with different weapons and sparring cultures. Therefore there isn't just a single solution for everything. A jacket that suits one fencing tradition, club or tournament doesn't necessarily suit another.
Furthermore, as we mostly aim to emulate unarmoured fencing our jackets should be similar in dexterity and restriction to what was worn by the fencers of old, thus not limiting our fencing in any undesired way, which has been an issue with sports fencing coach jackets that weren't designed for raised arms etc. Ideally, we should be able to move more or less freely without thinking about what we wear.
This also means that the jackets need to adapt and work with different body types, as there are many different types of bodies out there and a product that provides good dexterity for one fighter might not do the same for another.
Me, I am a longsword fencer with a background in Sigmund Ringeck and Hs3227a ("Döbringer") but I switched towards Joachim Meyer a few years back. I also teach & train regularly with Meyer's staff, dussack and to a lesser degree also study his dagger. This is what I want my jacket to work with, and these are quite tough requirements as the movement patterns are quite different between Ringeck and Meyer.
Finally, a good HEMA fencing jacket should also look good and preferably help build the identity of HEMA. What that is and how it is to be defined I will leave for another time, but suffice to say, there has been a push for finding a middle road nodding to history while staying somewhat modern by looking at the HEMA-pioneers of the 19th century and there finding a style that suits longsworders, rapier and sabre fencers alike.
What is it like?
The jacket is made out of one thicker outer layer of cotton, capable of withstanding 200N (tear resistance), one protective layer, and one layer of cotton lining, giving four layers of fabric in total. The front part is somewhat longer than the back. The upper arms have an excess of fabric and the whole arms have a curved shape as seen in the picture above.
The collar is secured with velcro, as is the bottom of the jacket. The collar is also folded so that it can help catch any thrust that slips underneath the bib of the fencing mask.
The jacket is closed with a zipper, hidden and thus protected under the torso fold. The torso is overlapped by the two sides of the jacket, providing double protection for the centre of the torso. Lower arms and the back have only thin padding.
The jacket comes in four different sizes, fitting sizes according to the table below.
However, at an extra fee of 30% of the price, it is also possible to order custom sizes to get a jacket that suits your body the best.
Amazingly, the jacket also come in a Womens' version, cut to suit the specific needs of women. This is something we can't commend SPES for enough! Brilliantly done! Reportedly though, it might still be worth considering having it made to measure.
Currently, the jacket comes in three different colours; black, red and white, but other colours are available, with some notorious Dutch sporting bright orange jackets. Currently, however, only the black variant is made of the stronger cotton, but in a couple of months other colours will be as well.
Weight-wise it is somewhat heavy, weighing in at 2.5 kg / 5lbs 8oz, but that is only to be expected with natural materials like cotton.
As you can imagine from the background description I am automatically quite positive to the basic design of the jacket as it has pretty much everything of what I had in mind with the prototype we were working on three years ago, and more great features on top of that. The quality of material is sturdy and strong with durable fabric and thick enough padding in the places where it is needed and little or no padding where you are to wear other protection, like on the forearms. The zipper is placed in a much more comfortable position and although it wasn't so durable in the first versions, the makers are clearly quite attentive to the voices of the HEMA community and replaced the zipper with a much stronger one in February 2013. Seemingly they are working hard at continued improvement of all of their products.
Dexterity & cut
As a fairly big guy I often have problems finding a fencing jacket that fits well. For some reason the cut of many jackets in my chest size mean that it fits well over the chest, but stands out like a damn umbrella over my belly, probably as the largest sizes are intended to work for big and superbig alike. The issue is often worsened by the use of stiff, synthetic materials. However, this gets disturbing for obvious reasons, and I can imagine size small-fencers having the same issues of a size that is supposed to include a wider range of sizes.
Very impressively, this is not an issue at all with this jacket. The particular cut with heavy fabric in front and thin in the back makes it fall comfortably even on a big guy like me, thus fitting very nicely and not disturbing me particularly in the fencing. Dexterity is very good and the design with "extra fabric" in the armpit works as well as hoped in keeping the torso parts from lifting as you raise your arms.
The thinner padding on the forearms and none on the wrists is great as that means they don't get clumsy as long as you have forearm guards that work well with your gloves. The wrists also have slits which means that despite the forearms being sewn fairly tightly in order to not get bulky under forearm guards, the wrist can still flex unhindered by the tight arms.
SPES of course also manufactures the other pieces needed to complete the kit, and their forearm guards with detachable elbow protection appear to fit this jacket very nicely without adding any dexterity issues. However, this hasn't been tested for the review as I currently don't have access to a pair of these elbow cups.
The collar, while cleverly designed to stop accidental thrusts, can be a bit awkward depending on what kind of extra throat protection you wear. The type of throat guard that extends over your shoulders do not work so well, especially with raised arms. Some prefer to not wear throat protection at all and instead stick the bib of the fencing mask inside of the collar, but personally I don't quite see how that would work with many fencing styles.
As with any jacket of this type it of course gets hot, very hot, when you move around, Luckily, the somewhat excess of fabric in the back, combined with the cut means that some air comes in that way, and anyhow; that is just the trade-off you just have to accept when wearing thicker fencing jackets.
To me, the nodding towards the fencing jackets and pants of the HEMA pioneers of the 19th cent. works very well as it is much in line with my personal tastes in this respect. I like that there is a historical reference, with maintained style that is distinctly different to both sports fencing, reenactment and the SCA. As such, in the future it can be part of helping the outside world quickly identifying what and who we are, at the same time as it helps us building an identity that is distinct and strenghtening to the community.
Room for improvement?
What we are still in need of though is something that is properly tested as safe and puncture proof in case of an accident like a blade breakage. We still do not have any such piece of equipment yet, but I have heard rumours that something is on its way in this area too.
Also, one idea that would be interesting to experiment with is to have inserts for rigid protection in certain areas of the jacket, as shown in the prototype illustration at the top, particularly on the arms. That could enable the use of less thick soft padding, thus meaning less issues with heat and also making it easier to wash.
Finally, I would also like to see a dual slider on the zipper, so that it would be possible to keep it closed in the top, but open it up in the bottom, in line with what we see in illustrations of Meyer fencers. That would enable much better ventilation in controlled sparring, while still providing good protection against most cuts.
Right now, of the five jackets I have tried in the last few years, this is the best one for my body type and my style of Joachim Meyer-based fencing with dussack, longsword and staff. The design is well-thought out to suit HEMA fencing and the attention to detail both in design and exectution is impressive. The price of the jacket at the time of writing is 175€, which is quite a bit of money, but still a good price considering the quality of manufacture, the features and the current competition of similar products and I can happily recommend it to anyone who is seeking strong and good torso protection for historical fencing.