by Robert Brooks, Marshal of the Hotspur School
New students coming into Historical European Martial Arts are often conscious of the cost of taking up what appears to be, at face value, an expensive hobby. Let's face it - for most would-be participants, there's a big fat kit list staring you right in the face from the word go.
While HEMA covers a wide variety of disciplines spanning many centuries, there is generally a baseline for what is required to take part in an average class. This will usually begin with appropriate training attire pertinent to the identity of the club, plus a decent fencing mask, gauntlets and a jacket. And, of course, there is the purchase of a training weapon - or weapons - to contend with.
In this blog, I want to examine just how much it costs to participate in what I'll term 'entry-level' HEMA here in the United Kingdom. This includes both drilling and free-fencing with a partner, or in the club environment, as opposed to higher-level activities such as tournament fencing.
All equipment will be considered to be brand spanking new and bought from a reputable supplier, as well as meeting nationally-recognised safety standards.
I'll not cover second-hand gear, club fees, insurances, travel costs and such, as these are so highly variable.
Crucially, I'll also compare the costs associated with entering HEMA to other activities, with the following governors to ensure we're not comparing apples with pears.
The comparison activity must be:
Note that all prices are based on what is available here in the UK, although they may be comparable with other Western nations.
'I CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT YOU'
Theoretically, you can practice HEMA without any special equipment. You and your training partner could get together in a park with a copy of a fencing treatise and a stick. But that's not why we're doing this. We need a baseline of what is considered the norm across the HEMA community. For the vast majority of clubs, the core kit list includes the following:
In choosing a mask, I always advise my own students to buy the very best they can afford - after all, what price would you put on your face? But there are some excellent entry-level masks out there.
Leon Paul produces what it calls its Ultimate Club Mask, retailing at £71 before postage. We use these heavily at the HSD and they have proven their worth.
Towards the top of their price range, meanwhile, is the HEMA-specific Titan Mask, which comes in at £193.
Hungarian fencing firm PBT does a similar product for just over 152 Euros (just shy of £119).
Depending on the type of HEMA you want to take up, the jacket should afford adequate protection for the weapon in hand. For lighter weapons, such as smallsword, epee du combat, duelling sabre (Radaelli etc) or La Canne, a standard Sport Fencing jacket can suffice. For heavier weapons, predominantly longsword but also including meatier single-handed blades such as messers, backswords, some rapiers, sidewords and military sabres, you'll need a specialist piece of protective gear if you're planning contact freeplay.
Leon Paul's base model Spartan Fencing Jacket retails direct for £61 in both men's and women's cut.
At the top of their range, you'll find the Apex Jacket at £199.
On the heavier side, there is the excellent HEMA-specific range of jackets by SPES. An entry-level piece comes in at between £140 and £160. However, for those really on a tight budget, a reenactment grade gambeson or arming jacket from Get Dressed for Battle or The Knight Shop will cost between £80 and £100.
Again, dependent on the type of HEMA you're studying, or the level of contact you're prepared to face, there is a choice between light and heavier hand protection.
A simple pair of leather gloves for light drilling can cost as little as £10. For more intense work, or where the risk of hand injury is increased, padded or armoured gauntlets are available.
A few choices from The Knight Shop include their Light HEMA Gloves at £50, Red Dragon Weapon Sparring Gloves also at £50, or, the beast from the East, SPES Heavy Gloves at £128.
Now, this is where things get a bit trickier, as the variables increase dramatically. So I'll keep it short.
A functional, off-the-rack, rebated steel training sword - regardless of type or era - can be found from a swathe of reputable suppliers across the Web for less than £200. When you factor in choices such as nylon wasters, you're looking at the £50 mark for a longsword, backsword, messer or arming sword.
A double-wide epee blade from LP can also be used as a training tool for smallsword and there are modifications available for grips, knucklebows etc.
LET'S DO THE MATH
Remember, we're looking at entry-level HEMA here, so we'll tot up a couple of examples for the purposes of our starting budget.
Mask: Leon Paul Ultimate Club Mask - £71
Jacket: Leon Paul Spartan - £61
Gauntlets: Basic leather - £10
Weapon: Smallsword trainer made with LP double-width epee blade, light duelling sabre - £100
TOTAL COST: £242
Mask: Leon Paul Ultimate Club Mask - £71
Jacket: Knight Shop Arming Jacket - £80
Gauntlets: Red Dragon - £50
Weapon: Rawlings Nylon Longsword, Messer, Backsword, Arming Sword - £50
TOTAL COST: £251
GO COMPARE, GO COMPARE ....
We have our entry level cost for starting HEMA, but how does it stack up to other pursuits?
I'll look at three other examples of equipment-dependent participation activities that can be done at least once a week, but usually more.
Instead of swinging swords, why not take to the fairways of Great Britain with the four million other golfers who participate in the sport?
A set of entry-level Wilson clubs, consisting of driver, wood, hybrid, irons and putter, plus a stand bag, can be bought online from the Discount Golf Store for just under £190.
But that's not all you'll need. You must also have ... balls. American Golf, which has stores across the UK, does two-dozen for £20. Bargain.
According to Lets Get Golfing, the standard 'kit' list also includes golf shoes. American Golf's cheapest pair are Footjoy HydroLite, priced at £50. Gloves are also recommended and Wilson does a basic pair for £8.
Throw in a golf umbrella and that's an extra £13 for a Fazer double canopy.
TOTAL COST: £281
If you thought swords were expensive, price tags for the latest up-to-spec road cycles typically start from £1,000.
However, website Road.CC produced a list of its best road bike bargains for 2016, the cheapest of which was the Carrera Zelos at just under £250. So there we have our starting point.
Add on £35 for a budget Kask Rapido helmet, plus a further £60 for budget cycling clothing of shorts and vest (just consider that the Castelli Gabba 2 Short Sleeve Jersey alone costs £140!!!), and a bottom-of-the-pile pair of Shimano bike shoes at £30 (compared to Sidi Wire Carbon Vernice Chris Froome Limited Edition Cycling Shoes for £310!!!!).
TOTAL COST: £375
WELL BOLLOCKS WITH HEMA, I'LL JUST FIGHT ONLINE ...
So you really can't be bothered with all that sweaty, (wo)manly HEMA action, can you? But you still want to be a warrior, crush your enemies and hear the lamentations of their women.
I have three words for you - Call of Duty.
Don't get me wrong, playing online is fun. But what does it cost when compared to HEMA in terms of actual set-up?
You'll first need a console - I'm not even going to indulge in the price madness that is gaming PCs. Let's go with an XBOX One, since it's a cheaper purchase than a PS4.
You can get a standard 500MB unit for around £250 at various outlets, including Argos or online via Amazon.
You'll then need the game itself - let's go all combative and play Call of Duty Black Ops 3. You can find this everywhere, hovering around the £30 mark.
Finally, you'll need an XBOX Gold account - £32 for the year.
Throw in a headset with microphone for your party chat, the cheapest wired version can be had for £7.
You're all set - now go be the ultimate badass from the comfort of your recliner.
TOTAL COST: £319
Hopefully, the above exercise demonstrates that HEMA is by no means any more of a financial commitment than many other activities which rely on basic starting equipment. And, of course, this list is by no means exhaustive or even mandatory.
The simple answer is this. You can begin studying HEMA with very little outlay. You don't even need to join a club - you can start with just a friend, or two, to learn with. There are hundreds of sources online to choose from, not least the magnificent repository that is Wiktenauer.
Like every hobby, activity or sporting pursuit, you can save up over time to own more expensive kit. But it's starting that really matters.
For options on buying beginners' kit, or if you're simply looking for a reputable supplier of HEMA gear, feel free to check out the Hotspur School's Trusted Suppliers section under the ALLIES tab on this site.
And if that's still too much for you, there's always a stick.