Absolute Force, a (newish) brand under AF International Sporting, the company that also makes Absolute Fencing Gear, is about to release a full line of purpose-built HEMA gear. This gear has been developed with significant input from HEMA-ists in and out of the HEMA Alliance. My club has tested all of the equipment and we are very, very pleased with it.
[DISCLAIMER] Please note that I didn't design the equipment, and I haven't been paid to say nice things about it (though we did get to keep most of the prototypes that we tested). Likewise, I am NOT an official or unofficial representative of AF. These comments are based on what I know now and on my experience with them and their prototypes. In other words, the final versions could be different, better, rainbow colored, made of gold, whatever...[/DISCLAIMER]
I plan on posting pictures very soon, perhaps tonight or tomorrow, of the "final" prototypes, which are about 90% or more of what the final versions will look like. These final versions should be commercially available around mid-late March, if not sooner, and there should be samples as prizes at Fechtschule America, where I'll have mine for inspection, too. Absolute Force is planning on attending Longpoint 2012 as a vendor, so there's another in-person chance to see the stuff pretty soon.
Absolute Force is now making equipment for multiple martial arts and combat sports. Their webpage will be up soon, if I'm not mistaken. This is a major movement for the company. As part of their all-in support of HEMA as a market, they've added a section of their website specifically for HEMA gear, giving it equal billing with Boxing, MMA, Karate, Wrestling, and Sport Fencing. The splash page features a photo Axel Pettersson and Carl Ryberg from the Swordfish 2011 finals (used with permission ).
All of AF's HEMA Gear will feature a logo that says "Absolute Force HEMA" on it. For those of us that have been at this a while, I hope this is as mind-blowing for you as it is for me. A lot of us have been trying to gain increased public recognition of our martial art for a decade or longer, and this is an enormous step in that direction. Plus the web page looks great. Don't go looking for it yet, though...it's not publicly visible yet.
AF is planning a complete line of purpose-built gear for HEMA training and competition. In March or thereabouts we'll be able to buy masks, jackets, knickers, shin/knee protection, throat guards, judging flags, and maybe competitor arm-bands. Around that same time they should also have socks and both fencing and wrestling shoes available, though those are pretty generic items. Other items currently in the R&D stage include gloves (target price under $100!!!) and anything else that the community show interest in buying. (And no, I can't tell you about the gloves yet. We don't even have a prototype of those yet.)
Right now all of this gear comes in "coaching black." That's it.
The AF HEMA mask is a modified version of the AF coach's mask with integral saber cover. It includes back-of-the-head protection a little similar to what AllStar offers, but with a number of upgrades, including a zipper down the middle (I was skeptical when they proposed it, but now I really like it) and further coverage down the back of the neck. There are also side-flaps not unlike what you see in kendo or escrima masks. The flaps are a little distracting if you're not wearing a jacket, but with the jacket I don't notice them at all. They do a good job covering the gaps that just a fencing mask-with-back-cover miss. The whole rig is riveted together, and I do not believe they will be sold as a separate unit. To me this is a plus, since the separate-unit kind always seem to fit poorly and slide around when you don't want them to. The mesh of the mask is a good, heavy gauge, and we haven't been able to dent it despite a number of nasty head and face blows.
Price: $95-ish, I think. Don't quote me.
Take the torso of the AF washable leather coach's jacket, then...
- Add 4"-wide pockets running from the under-arm to the waist for high-impact foam to protect the sides of the ribs. The foam comes in the jacket, but can be removed for lighter play (and then returned for the heavier stuff).
- Add double-layer elastic panels from the center-back zipper out to the shoulder-blades on both sides. There is still some padding between layers here. These panels run from neck to waist. There is absolutely zero resistance for any "hugging" motion, or drawing the arms across the chest. It's pretty cool.
- Add a velcro panel to cover the zipper (and the lanyard, which prevents it from flopping around)
- Add high-density foam padding over the collarbone/shoulders, about 4 or 5" in a square-ish trapezoid-ish shape. Like the rib padding, this is in a little pocket and can be removed.
- Add an internal all-velcro belt that is attached to the front, near the navel, and then wraps around the waist inside of the jacket. This belt is removable. Some of the folks at the club really liked it, and I think it's particularly useful if the jacket is a bit large. My jacket fits me about perfectly, so I ditched it. Anyways, this belt helps keep the jacket seated, prevents it from "hiking up" or riding forward and exposing the belly.
- Retain the pocket for the plastic chest guard. This is useful for rapier fencers and all-steel tournaments. Chest guard not included, as far as I know.
- Retain the fold-over collar.
The sleeves have been completely redesigned. For starters, they're considerably thinner/less padded than the washable leather coach's jacket. More importantly:
- The sleeves have a sewn-in "bend" in the elbow, much like on many gambesons
- The sleeves have extra room in the elbow for small protection, like rollerblade pads...but not so much room that you couldn't wear something bulkier over the sleeve.
- The forearm is "shaped" and tapered down to the wrist, which has half a band of elastic around it. This makes it super-easy to get into gloves, including Ensifers, lacrosse gloves, and period gauntlets.
- The forearm also has a series of "slats," made of the same plastic as the chest protector, which cover the outside half of the forearm, from the center of the inside of the elbow to the center of the outside of the elbow. These are pretty light but, based on what I saw at Swordfish, might be one of the best elements of the design.
The jacket is better than other coach's jackets at raising your arms above your head, but not significantly so. Fixing that will require a much higher seam on the shoulder, and I don't think it was a move that AF was willing to take until they have an idea of how these are going to sell. That said, as "German" style fencer, I haven't really noticed once fighting. I can still do VT over the head, and the jacket doesn't ride up and expose my belly like other models I've used.
Target price: about $220, only $20 more than the regular coach's jacket. Don't quote me.
These are AF's standard 350N fencing pants with a high-waist (which helps cover the gaps left by the jacket if your arms are up) and suspenders. Velcro closure up front. Elastic bands under the knees. Unlike AF's regular pants, these come in black. More importantly, they've inserted internal pockets that hold removable high-density foam pads which cover from the top of the hip bone to about the bottom of the hip bone. This was one of those "lessons learned" in high-intensity steel matches... The foam is seated back a little bit so that it doesn't interfere with deep stances and bending at the waist.
Best guess on price: about $50.
This is a custom piece that goes under the jacket. It's a very wide collar which only covers the neck, not the collarbones. It is shaped on the top edge to fit the contours of the jaw/throat. It's padded all the way around with horizontal slats of heavy plastic across the throat. Like all throat protectors, it's more about preventing punctures and absorbing lower-impact hits. When coupled with the jacket and the mask, it's the most complete throat protection I've used. I still wouldn't want to get thrust full-bore in the throat, though.
These are simple cloth-and-plastic slat constructions with wrap-around velcro straps. They're similar to AF's plastron/vest or the Vectir shin protection. These cover the shins, calves, and knees. They're fairly light. I have no idea what they'll cost, but they seem fairly inexpensive to me. I've been using a prototype for a few weeks which has much thinner slatting than the production model, and I've been pleased so far.
These are about 18" long or so, aluminum handles, and come in red and blue. The material is some kind of silky stuff. The actual flags will probably be rectangular in shape. This may not seem like a big deal, but if you've tried to find red and blue flags in the US, you'll be excited about this. I like them. They look professional. They've also offered to screen-print "HEMA" on them or something to that effect. Cool.
Competitor's Arm Bands
These are still in development, but the idea is to have quick velcro-based arm bands in red and blue to quickly identify tournament fighters. Swordfish used something like this that worked pretty well...certainly better than the sashes we used at Longpoint 2011, or the vests at WWOC 2010. Yikes! No idea of cost, but probably cheap. I don't think these will be ready before FA12.
Still in R&D! I can say no more! (but I'm trying to talk them into a three-fingered glove).
Anyways, I hope that gives people an idea of what we've been bursting at the seams to tell you about for a few months of development now (actually more than a year, but I digress...). I don't get any "kickbacks" for these, I just want to see good gear available...and the only way that is going to happen is if we buy it, use it, and then send the manufacturers feedback. AF has proven to be very, very open to feedback, and they've told me that they're very excited to get the first rounds of feedback from the HEMA community.
You heard it here first!