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Gear Behaving Badly #1
Notes on Using Fencing Masks with Wooden Blunts
© 2013 James LaFond
The other day Adam called me up from Virginia and told me about a German long sword seminar he and his friends attended. During the course of his description he mentioned sparring, and that they used fencing masks; not the saber mask with the raised ridge over the nose, but the standard one. When Adam and I sparred last I told him that when I use my standard fencing mask with Charles and Brett I get my nose skinned and bent, and recommend the saber mask for stick-fighting.
He mentioned that they took some good face shots with the long swords without any nose trauma and that maybe the problem with my standard mask is the sizing. First of all I must take much of the blame because I have a beak of a nose that sticks out there. Always looking for a reason to write an article I decided to go into the next day’s sparring with Charles, with the intention of concentrating on the mask performance.
I have four fencing masks: a large saber, a large standard, a medium saber, and a small saber. I have only had my nose skinned with the large standard.
The large saber is too big and moves. Its loose fit prevents jaw trauma and the ridged weave prevents my nose from getting skinned and smashed, although it moves pretty freely.
The large standard fits tighter than the large saber, does not help with chin trauma much, and does little to protect the nose. I've come to favor this mask. Every session with Charles I get my nose bent, smashed or skinned.
The medium saber is the best fit for me overall, and I experience no nose trauma and the chin is pretty well protected.
The small saber mask has prevented nose trauma, but fits like a suction cup. When you get punched or stabbed on the chin you can get KO’d, and I have.
Now, long sword guys will reason that their bigger weapons should transfer more force, and this is proof that we are wearing the wrong size of fencing mask, since they experience no nose trauma. Perhaps, I thought, they are all Eskimos with flat noses. That is unlikely, this not being a baby seal harpooning seminar I was being told about.
When Charles and I sparred on the day after my conversation with Adam we had three traumatic mask results. I wore the large standard mask, he the small saber mask. We both have the same size head. We sparred with 12-inch rattan blunts with an inch wide ‘point’. The results were as follows:
  • Charles faked a supinated stab underneath and then shifted in with a pronated stab that angled down. The force of this blow smashed the mask into my face and bent the mesh of the mask, and bent my nose. I tasted snot from this shot, precisely as if I had been boxing. My mask was flat, and somewhat loose, and I believe this was a combination effect. However, no matter how tight the Velcro is on the back, and how close the thing fits my head, it is still a mask, not a helmet, and will shift against my face until it is stopped by my skull, if hit with enough force.
  • I stabbed Charles in the chin with a supinated lunge. This shocked him and drove the bottom rim of the mask into his throat. He checked his throat before we resumed and shook it off.
  • I did a leaping lunging supinated stab from a high step which took my forearm over his ‘blade’, which was in a high check and would have cut me, and scored a downward stab on his nose. The cage of this uncomfortably tight mask, with a ridge shaped over the nose, never-the-less slammed into his nose. [This was about a 300 Psi stike.]
These were 100% full contact rounds, which resulted in me spraining my ankle; we were shifting so aggressively. Despite the masks not working perfectly, we were not injured. On each of the three occasions the force of the blow was so jarring that it would have probably led to a KO if we had been boxing, since we were stunned in each instance. There was between 180 to 200 pounds being shifted into each of these blows at varying speeds. We were looking at between 250 and 300 PSI in force. A typical pro jab in boxing in the middle of the weight range is 80-100 PSI. Most martial artists cannot tolerate that and submit to jabs as soon as they begin boxing. 400 PSI and above is the KO range where even mutant jaws and necks have a hard time withstanding the punishment.
What I believe is happening with nose bends and scuffs with fencing masks is that the suspension system that secures a mask of any size, loosely, or tightly, will not save a nose from boxing or NFL type impacts. I am not a long sword guy [only did about 30 bouts and long ago with hockey helmets]. I will simply use my fencing mask and stick experience to work out the force progression nuances here and suggest a thing or two. Here is the force progression, from strikes that have never resulted in my beak being bent or scuffed, to those which usually result in trauma to said hominid proboscis.
  • High velocity [arm-breaking quality] lateral and diagonal stick slashes to the mask have never resulted in nose trauma.
  • Thrusts which are not pronanted or supinated have never resulted in nose trauma.
  • Pronated and supinated thrusts with sticks longer than two feet have [though imparting jarring force to the brain and neck] never resulted in nose trauma.
  • Thrusts with 1/2 -inch thick 18-inch long blunts have sometimes caused nose trauma.
  • Thrusts with 1-inch thick 12-14 inch long blunts have routinely caused nose trauma and sometimes caused sinus leakage and skin removal.
  • Punches with WEKAF or hockey gloves always cause nose trauma, usually with skinning of the nose and/or sinus leakage.
  • Stiff arms [not controlled martial arts checks, but NFL quality neck crunching stiff-arms] always result in nose trauma with either mask design. However, the saber mask does not remove skin from the nose, even when the mask is pushed against the face and rotated.
Note: in all cases saber masks are less likely to permit nose flexion and unknown to permit nose skinning. This may be, in part, due to the weave of the cage itself, not just the ridge. I have never had to scrub skin out of a saber mask. It’s in my fencing mask all the time, and I continue to prefer that mask because it will make me bleed if I eat a shot that would have penetrated my face or KO’d me without the mask.
Some Technical Points
What is happening here is that the longer the weapon is, and the narrower its tip, the more force is lost before being transferred into the opponent’s mask. The nastiest thing that can happen to you while stick-fighting with a standard fencing mask is to get stiff armed or punched. When Charles punches me in the face cage I can feel the screen smash into my forehead and then flex until it compresses my nose. Unless you have a hard shell helmet fitted to the skull you will have a piece that either gets rotated off the head [or maybe halfway, resulting in you trying to look out the ear-hole] or compressed against the face. With Western martial arts weapons I do not see this being an issue until you get into punching and smashing the face with shields, or using heavy two-handed pole-arms.
With WEKAF helmets this [not-being-a-helmet] factor causes a spin or a loss of the piece. With hockey helmets, being hard shelled all around and strapped to the head, what results is neck trauma. The longer and thinner our weapons are the less force is transferred to the mask. It is far worse to have your man miss with the point and slam his wrist bone into your mask than to have him score with the point of his short blunt dagger.
I had some experience years ago fighting with pole-arms: spears; quarter staffs; axes; tridents and pugil sticks. I sucked. Being a small guy I found out right off the bat that a big man—who might be a poor hand with a light one-handed weapon, or only fair with a two-handed waster—could crush you with a long heavy weapon that he could put both hands on; most importantly widely-spaced hands, that permit him to project his superior tactile strength. My sense is, and it is only an extrapolation, that using fencing masks with pugil sticks would result in some smashed and skinned noses.
If you are into blade shaped weapons, keep in mind that stick fighting, and dagger dueling with thick round blunts, will result in some contact that is more akin to football, boxing, lacrosse, or hockey than to any type of fencing. None of these sports employ masks. Boxing employs either no head protection or a soft helmet literally buckled around the head, with the fastening under the chin.
All of us in the western or hybrid/experimental arts are, by the nature of our undertakings, gathering evidence on impacts and the effects of and on gear. Please keep the information coming my way. It is much appreciated. To date I have done thousands of hours of sparring with helmets, and only about 200 hours sparring with masks. Any mask data will be useful.
Mask Impact Facts
We have recently discovered that the rivet on the top of your fencing mask that attaches the cage to the flange can be driven, like—well a rivet—down into the skull, with a vertical strike to the top of the head. In response we put a couple layers of double-stick tape beneath the pad and the bottom of the rivet.
Also, the fencing mask is no better at defending the ear from lateral stick strokes than the hockey helmets. Last month I had my right earlobe splattered by a lateral backhand that squished it between the steel rim of my saber mask and my skull. I could hear the pressurized blood squirt out of my ear. That was pretty cool actually, particularly since I was hitting him at the same time and the sensations of offense and defense blended into something my primordial sense of aesthetics could actually appreciate.
Additionally, I recently glanced a supinated thrust off of Charles' sternum and felt it sink into the pit of his throat. He was okay since my wrist kept supinating and the point kept tracking down into the pit above his breastbone instead of driving up into his Adam’s apple. Now, the saber mask, for my money, is offering the best throat protection. But, you still have to check your throat cuff for curling and lifting and be mindful that vertical fist stabs are not only poor energy transfer techniques and not very accurate, but they are the most likely to defeat neck gear by sliding up under the guard.
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