Choosing your equipment: the "Coach Ilya Special"...

Updated: Aug 27

Dear all, here is a post I made in 2007, edited for some clarity and changes.

Some are asking about buying your own gear. I’m really happy to hear that, it means you like this sport! So I will explain what any fencer needs if they want to free fence and compete. I swear by Absolute gear as it really is the best selection and customer service, but you’re free to shop around. Leon Paul is up there as well, but mostly because of their wireless boxes and masks.

There are two major types of gear: “FIE” and “Non-FIE”. FIE gear is usually better and more expensive, but you can fence in any event up to the Olympics with it. Non-FIE is everything else and you cannot fence some USFA events in it. Basically OK for local/non official tournaments only. As of 1982, all fencing gear is over-engineered to be extremely safe. This is the reason. Russian proverb: a cheap man pays twice and sometimes not with money. I can give you an example: an Uhlmann “Olympian” jacket I bought lasted for 7 years, with no damage other than to the color, zipper and Velcro. A non “FIE” jacket would usually not last more than a year. So the best way to go is to buy some cheap stuff until you have a chance to try everything on at some tournament where vendors will be present. These days, even our local competitions are drawing vendors to the site, because we’ve grown as a sport so much.

My favorite vendors are PBT, Absolute, Leon Paul, Negrini and Saunier Incorporated, available right at CFA.

Here is the minimum you should purchase: (More details are in our Parent Handbook)

  • Weapon with an appropriately canted blade for either righty or lefty. Size 2 (kids under 10) or Size 5 (age 12 and up) (Canting is a process to configure the grip to place the hand in a relaxed position, thus making all actions easier on the wrist. Please insist that they cant the blade BEFORE they assemble the weapon. Tell them yes, the coach will inspect it and will know the difference, :) We recommend an Absolute Gold blade for beginners and a BF FIE blade for advanced competitors. M(edium) density for the first two years then transition to D(ense) density your third year.

  • Right or left handed glove.

  • Absolute mask

  • Front zip stretch jacket (Easier to put on than a back zip jacket.)

  • Knickers

  • Under arm protector

  • Plastic chest protector

  • Body Wire

  • Equipment bag that fits all of the above gear

Mask: a lot of variations, it’s really up to you what you get. FIE masks will be rated at 1800 newtons, non-FIE anywhere from 500 to 1200. I’ve fired a 9mm round into an old FIE mask at a test range and it did not penetrate the mesh. They are that safe. The trick is washing them, some masks have a removable bib that you can put in the laundry, but I always found that uncomfortable. This is now my favorite mask because you can remove the pads and wash them.

Jacket: Any of the FIE stretch jackets are the best. They are light, stretch, breath well and are rated at at least 800N. You can downgrade from there.

Knickers: same as jacket, best to get a matching set.

Glove: no big deal, comfort is the most important thing here. Your glove should allow you to make a fist, but not bunch up at the fingers.

Under-arm protector: this is an additional protective layer over your neck and chest. Required for USFA events. Some fencers should, but do not wear one in practice because they have not taken the time to find one that breathes, stretches and is light. This piece of equipment tends to be treated as a formality until it catches a broken blade that slipped through a carelessly zipped jacket.

Bag: tons of variations, whatever works for you. Some fencers use rigid golf bags, works great…

Body Cord: lots of variations, Uhlmann is still the best, it’s very sturdy, but the Chinese and other knock-offs are not bad at all. Hard to screw up three wires and two plugs. Make sure you specify you want an epee cord, the foil and saber ones are different.

Weapon: as your coach, this is the only unit of gear I will insist on specific parts and method of putting it together. I severely recommend not getting a fully assembled weapon from the vendor, as they will usually do a careless job of putting it together, and you will have to adjust it anyway. Getting a wired blade is ok, but it’s usually best to wire the blade yourself as well. This is the “Coach Ilya Special”

Blade: if you can afford it, get a “BF FIE” blue or white blade. “BF” is the forge, and many vendors put their own mark on it, so do not get confused by that. It will have a specific stamp on the blade. The blue ones tend to be just a bit more flexible at the upper 20% and are possibly lighter. The white ones are just a bit more stiff. These factors wary a bit from batch to batch, but both are very good and can last up to a year if you hit correctly. If you cannot afford a “BF FIE” blade, then you get to experiment with cheaper stuff and possibly find something good. Let me know, I’ve been out of touch with anything other than “BF FIE”. Every once in a while someone finds a great batch of non-BF FIE blades, but this has been inconsistent. There are now two densities available "M" for medium and "D" for dense I guess. All beginners and Y12 fencers need to start on an M blade.

Tip/wire/springs: German only. There is yet to be a tip created to beat German precision engineering. The knock-off Chinese, French and Russian tips all fail much quicker and use softer metal, therefore get sticky faster. The German wires use a plastic insulation layer underneath the cloth insulation, and that protects the wire from shorting out against the blade much better. The spring are not that big a deal, any type will do.

Guard: Ultra Light only. Many vendors sell light guards, and you need to get the lightest possible. The weight of the guard affects balance of the blade, and therefore precision. Vendors call their guards different things, so you have to talk to them and ask for the lightest. The Uhlmann aluminum and titanium lights are “Ultra light”, the Negrini ultralight alloy is great.

Socket: any will do, but the Uhlmann are the best for conductivity and “PitA” factor.

Pad: I like the plastic pad for the inside of the guard, but there are felt and cloth types. The pad protects your hand from rubbing on the metal of the guard, I like to feel my guard and therefore use a thin pad. Not that big a deal.

Grip/Pommel: Very important, will affect how you fence a great deal. Two major types: the french and the pistol. All my students should start with a french grip. The reason is technique related and that you can always cut down the tang of a blade and make it a pistol grip, but not otherwise. A beginner is much better trained with the french grip, because it forces to use proper leverage, fingers and footwork instead of brute force. After a few months of lessons, you can try the pistol grip. In general, the french grip gives you a few extra inches of blade and is used by footwork oriented, absence of blade fencers. The pistol grip is for those who prefer more power on the blade. In my opinion, most actions that are thought of as to be better for pistol grip can be done with the french as well, if you “choke up” on it. That means hold it close up to the guard so that your knuckles touch against the metal. Gives you better leverage, which combined with perfect technique can send the opponent’s blade flying out of the way. Harut Fencing Grip. Specifically the Cherry Pro.

Pistol grippers should use a non insulated Visconti small or medium sized grip.

Both styles should be available from Absolute.

There are a lot of opinions on grips, it can all get very personal, but work with your coach to at least find a starting point and then ask for a variation if you like.

Summary: You can shop around for all the parts, but I will insist on a German tip, as light a guard as possible and a rubber over metal or rubber over wood french grip.