Weapons arts practitioners study a wide range of techniques for potentially lethal encounters. Unfortunately, because of the possibility of killing or being killed, most of these practitioners never get to try what they have learned in any kind of sparring situation. Here I have put together a review of equipment that I have tried and used, to build a safe, reasonably realistic weapons sparring curriculum on a shoe-string budget. Although originally purchased and used at the school I attend for Korean-style sword sparring, the following have been tried in class for sword, staff (bo/bong), and stick engagements. Let me begin this review by stating two obvious facts: 1. Real He-Man Martial Artists do not use any padding for weapons sparring. 2. I am not a Real He-Man Martial Artist. I am a Mom. I have this thing about safety, and not wanting students to leave class with anything broken or bleeding. I tend to be on the 'conservative' side when it comes to sparring safety. With that in mind, I started taking notes on my experience with different types of equipment for daehan kumdo, Japanese kendo, and haedong kumdo sword sparring in our class. The class rapidly found the equipment and techniques applicable to stick fighting, long staff/bo/bong, and pole arm (spear or halberd) sparring, as well. For what it's worth, here are some notes on the pros and cons of different weapons sparring equipment actually tried in our class: 1. Pool Noodles: Yes, I mean those long, thin, foam floatation toys. Each one is about 6 feet long, three to four inches across, with a one-inch diameter hole running all the way down the middle. For our first medium-contact sparring bouts, we cut each pool noodle in half, making two three-foot long sections, then cut each section half-way through lengthwise, up to but not through the hollow center. We then stuck one bamboo training sword (Japanese shinai, or Korean chukdo) into each section, left about two inches of foam sticking out the end, and masking-taped the foam in three places (middle and both ends) to hold it around the bamboo sword. The protection was adequate for medium to full contact daehan kumdo or kendo sparring, when using nothing else but standard Tae Kwon Do padding (foam helmets, chest protector, cloth forearm guards). PROS: Cheap (pool noodles available for $1 US at the local Dollar Store), easy; other padding (headgear, forearm protection) readily available in the gym. Pool noodle padding does not interfere with standard kendo or daehan kumdo strikes and motions. Allows for one-hand sparring. Does not impede footwork. CONS: insufficient face and throat protection; control still required. We had to eliminate thrusts for safety reasons. Occasional strikes to top of hand/thumb, lower arm still stung. ADDITIONAL NOTES: We were also able to put the foam pool noodles on long staffs (bos/bongs) and practice some sword-against-staff and sword-against spear/halberd techniques and disarms. 2. Lacrosse and Hockey Gear: This was the next improvement we tried. I was able to find some decent gear cheap on eBay. The biggest improvement was in the gloves and hand protection. a. Lacrosse Helmets: The lacrosse helmet provided a lot better protection than the hockey helmets I tried. It fit more snugly, and provided better whole-head protection, including ears, sides, back, top. The biggest drawback was in the spacing of the metal bars in the cage. These tended to be larger than for hockey helmets--either of which seemed too large in my opinion. Sticks could get caught in the mask and/or easily pass through to hit head/face/eyes. b. Hockey Helmets: The hockey helmets provided decent head protection, but the lower-end ones did not provide nearly as much protection as the lacrosse helmets. The advantage in the hockey helmets came from the availability of clear-shield face protectors: instead of a metal cage, face guards are available made of high-impact-resistant polycarbonate material, with no holes in the cage that could trap a stick/sword. These types of helmets allow for full field of view (better than standard kendo gear), and good protection. Brands to look for are Itech, Itech II, and 1Excel. The hockey helmets themselves did not offer sufficient throat protection, IMO, although throat guards are available. Throat guards that attach directly to helmets run $20 to $30 new; velcro-attachable neckguards with a throat bib are also available for slightly less. I was not able to try either type of throat guard in a class sparring situation. c. Hockey Gloves: The hockey gloves that I tried had excellent protective features, but were inadequate for kumdo, kendo, or stick-fighting use in our class. The thumb was a large single piece with no joint--it allowed for no controlled motion whatsoever. The grip was medium to poor. Protection for the wrist and back of hand was excellent. d. Lacrosse Gloves: THIS was an exceptional find!! I tried three different types of lacrosse gloves (low, medium, and high end), and all worked much better than any of the hockey gloves. I was also able to find many more sets of Lacrosse gloves cheaply on eBay. All of the lacrosse gloves offered better grip and better thumb mobility than the hockey gloves. The lowest end lacrosse gloves (an ancient Brine model) had a stiff leather palm that interfered with a good grip. I sprayed the palm with (don't laugh) olive oil from a salad oil mister I had, and worked the oil into the palm. It brought the old gloves back to life, and made the palm very supple and manageable. The medium-end lacrosse gloves (newer Brine L-35's) had articulated fingers and thumbs (thumb and finger regions of the glove were broken into padded sections, allowing a full hand-flex motion, and better grip). This glove also offered a floating cuff--the wrist protection was tied on so it could move, allowing full mobility of the wrist for one-hand cuts and strikes at a variety of angles. The wrist cuff offered better protection for the lower arm as well. The high-end lacrosse gloves (STX EXO Ignitors) were the absolute best. The fingers were articulated into three sections (instead of two), and the thumb padding had multiple joints. The palm was a mesh material, instead of leather, so I felt like I was really holding the bamboo sword, and not a leather pad. The gloves were vented for airflow and comfort. The padding was exceptional, especially where previously it was lacking (wrist, top of thumb). The longer floating cuff provided better lower arm protection, without sacrificing mobility. In Summary, for hockey and Lacrosse gear: Lacrosse helmets offer inadequate face protection for sword/stick/staff sparring. Hockey helmets with clear face guards are much better. Invest in throat protection. ALWAYS look for gloves with articulated fingers and thumbs (preferably articulated into three sections, and with a light or mesh palm). PROS: Easily available through many vendors (many of our Canadian MAP members probably already have a lot of hockey gear, eh?); cheap (eBay prices for what I purchased: Low end Lacrosse gloves $3, medium lacrosse gloves and helmet $6, high end lacrosse gloves $26, Itech II hockey Helmets used from $20 to $40). Additional pads (torso, arms, shin, elbow, knees) are also readily available, if desired. CONS: Still recommend throat guards before any extensive sparring is done, or before any thrusting is considered. ADDITIONAL NOTES: I had several short-stick fighters in our school try the same gear. They found the wrist mobility excellent in all the Lacrosse gloves, and the palms to be adequate for good stick control, even in the really cheap gloves. The wrist protection impeded a backwards stick roll only, with no other impact or hindrance to good motion noted. The wrist sections for some of the gloves were too short to offer good protection over a large enough area of the lower arm, IMO. 3. WEKAF Armor: 'WEKAF' stands for the World Eskrima/Kali/Arnis Federation, the world governing body for a series of Filipino martial arts, including stick fighting. The stick fighting styles employ grips, footwork, and targets similar to haedong kumdo, daehan kumdo, and Japanese kendo, as well as other stick-fighting methods, and as such, have similar padding needs for their full-contact sparring competitions. The WEKAF has approved a specific set of sparring gear for use in all its competitions. WEKAF armor looks like kendo armor made of modern synthetic materials, available for about half the price. The WEKAF armor includes headgear ($85 retail), full body armor coat ($85 retail), and gloves ($30 retail per pair). I was able to purchase the complete set new for $175 plus shipping from The Filipino Martial Arts Academy, Doce Pares International, in Sacramento, CA. (Contact the Academy at http://www.docepares.net, or email Mr. Michael McKenzie at 12pares @ gmail . com. Pictures of the equipment are available at http://www.docepares.net/equipment_supplies.html. Pictures of Mr. McKenzie kicking butt in armor in the 2004 WEKAF World Championships may be viewed at http://maxpallen.com/photoposts/worldpost/pages/P6260014_JPG.htm ) a. WEKAF Helmet: The head protection was exceptional. The field of view was very good. The metal bars across the face region are spaced closely enough that there is no potential for a stick/sword getting stuck in the face masking, or hitting an eye. Throat protection and full side/neck protection is included, fully attached and integrated into the helmet. At first, the WEKAF helmet was uncomfortable: the bottom lip of the face shield would stick uncomfortably into the throat. It took a while to figure out just how the chin was supposed to fit into the chin guard; then there was no problem. The helmets are pretty much one-size-fits-all, although different sizes are available. Unlike kendo gear, the helmets come on/off very easily, with the padding for the back attached and tightened with leather and Velcro straps. Out of all the headgear tested (including foam padding, hockey helmet, lacrosse gear), the WEKAF helmet was the only item that provided the level of protection for throat and neck that I would require for use in my school - it satisfied the 'Mom' in me that my students could practice safely. Short of someone giving me a hockey goalie helmet with chest/throat protector and Itech Clearguardâ face shield (cost about $300 to $500) for FREE, this is the only head gear that I would recommend. b. WEKAF Body Armor: The WEKAF body coat was also very good. The arm padding is opened by slits to allow for good arm mobility without sacrificing protection. The attached skirting is jointed at the waist, to allow full range of motion in the hips for fast footwork. Because the average Filipino stickfighter is somewhat shorter than the average westerner, most of the students had to use the XL size. One class member (5' 6") and I (5' 4") ended up using the Large size. Depending on the relative length of the students' arms, forearm guards may or may not be needed (students with longer arms may find it beneficial, if the sleeves on the coat do not extend all the way to the top of the gloves). The body coat padding is adequate to support full-contact kendo-style sparring with bamboo sword, without the use of any padding on the weapon. I still would not recommend thrusting techniques (they are not allowed in current WEKAF-rules sparring), although with practice and control, some advanced thrust techniques can be incorporated. c. Optional Arm Padding: After several sparring bouts with the WEKAF body armor, I did acquire some nice bruises on the upper arms. This would not be a problem in sport kendo, where the upper arm is not an allowed target. For haedong kumdo, bo/bong sparring, or other more free-style sparring with a wooden weapon or bamboo sword, I would recommend the use of forearm protectors and/or elbow pads, in addition to the WEKAF body armor. d. WEKAF Gloves: The WEKAF glove design was surprisingly simple. From the outside, the glove appeared more like a mitten, with very thick, firm protection over the outside of the thumb (as would be needed for stick or sword sparring). The glove offered extremely good control and mobility, though, with full control over flexion of the hand, and excellent control of the grip. The inside palm had no material whatsoever to interfere with the grip: the wearer’s fingers stuck through two elastic straps to control the top of the glove, and the thumb stuck through one elastic strap to hold/control the bottom. The palm of the hand and the bulk of the surface of all fingers remained in full contact with the stick/sword while wearing the gloves, with no interfering padding, leather, or even mesh between the swordsman and the sword. Wrist mobility was very good. Wrist protection was very limited (cuff does not extend up the lower arm). All of the WEKAF equipment was tried in several sparring matches and training drills by several different haedong kumdo students, as well as a few Tae Kwon Do Ssang Bong (double stick) fighters. All liked the weight and feel of the armor, and were very comfortable moving in it and controlling their weapons. The stick fighters were split over whether they liked the WEKAF gloves or the high-end lacrosse gloves for hand/wrist protection more. In Summary, PRO: The WEKAF armor offers a direct competitor to and possible substitute for daehan kumdo armor or kendo bogu, at about half the price for a full set of new equipment. The head protection (including throat and neck) is excellent, and well-suited for daehan kumdo, kendo, haedong kumdo, or stick fighting use. The gloves offer good protection, especially in those areas not usually covered adequately by other substitutes (top of thumb, back of hand, lower wrist), and at $30 brand new, are extremely affordable. The body coat offers good protection for all but firm thrusts. CON: As is, the body coat doesn't offer the degree of flexibility required for highly acrobatic maneuvers. Depending on your need for this, you might consider an alternative, or possibly just add another strap at the bottom to keep the skirt area tucked closer to the body. Students with larger-than-average sized hands/fists found it very difficult to fit into the WEKAF sparring gloves, and preferred the lacrosse gloves for that reason. I personally liked the feel and fit of the lacrosse gloves better. ADDITIONAL NOTES: Depending on the decision of the world governing federations (whether they adopt and mandate their own official armor or not), this armor might not be allowed in any kumdo/kendo competitions, other than individual, local school events. Still, until such a time as any other equipment is approved, mandated, and readily available, the WEKAF armor offers an affordable, appropriate option. 4. RSW Swords: The Hong Kong-based company, “Realistic Sparring Weapons”, manufactures sparring swords that are sized, weighted, and balanced to provide the heft and feel of authentic period swords. Sparring weapons have discernable edge and flat sides, and mimic the effects of real swords in blocking, parrying, and binding. A visit to their website ( http://www.rsw.com.hk/ ) shows sparring weapons for Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and European sword styles, as well as suggested rules for sword free-sparring, video footage of sparring engagements, and recommendations on protective gear. a. Pro Line: The top line of RSW weapons are affordable (Japanese katana and Korean Do are about $75 US each plus shipping), and provide the best mix of realism and safety that I have found. Unlike traditional padded swords, the RSW weapons do not bend on impact, so users can employ them in blocking, parrying, voiding, and counterstriking as they would with real swords. Additionally, the RSW weapons have the same weight and approximate balance of an actual sword, unlike the bamboo swords used in sport kendo fencing. This means that realistic strikes, cuts, motions, and techniques can be used in sparring, and unrealistic motions/techniques (slapping styles) effectively cannot. b. Beginner Line: RSW has added a second line of sparring weapons, to increase availability and affordability. Their Beginner’s line of sparring weapons offer the same look, feel, protection, and durability, at about one third of the cost of the Pro line. The Beginner’s line does not, however, provide the same weight and balance as actual swords. I will probably invest in some of these less-expensive RSW cousins for my youngest beginning students. c. Use in Sparring: Thanks to an investment by two students, our haedong kumdo class now has access to two RSW Proline katanas. The weight and balance are very good, approximating that of an actual cutting katana well enough that we had to change many of our sparring techniques. The RSW weapons forced us to eliminate techniques that would score in sport kendo but would be ineffective with a cutting implement. The RSW swords also allowed us to experiment with new techniques to see what mixtures of footwork, kicks, blocks, and cuts could be effective, and in which situations. The swords offered sufficient protection to the users without sacrificing easy discernment of when clean cuts/kills had been made. After a half hour solid of sparring (it is addictive!), and a near-continual barrage of attacks to my right upper arm, I emerged with only one small bruise above my right elbow. The use of the RSW weapons has revolutionized our sword sparring, and now I wouldn’t think of having a sword sparring program without them. In summary: PRO: The RSW Pro line offered the most realistic sparring options of any method we tried, with a weight, balance, feel, and grip similar to actual swords. The equipment was affordable and durable (swords are rated to over 100 sparring matches, as opposed to bamboo shinai, which can break/splinter much more readily, and still cost about $30 - $35 each). The RSW swords allow the use of realistic sword methods, and do not require bulky, hindering armor. Swords respond (heft, binding, blocking, etc) similarly to actual weapons. Instead of reinforcing bad sword techniques to achieve a ‘win’ in sparring, the RSW swords allow my students to use the same techniques they learn in class for cutting and apply them in a sparring situation. CON: The biggest negative I have found is the long lead-time needed for ordering these weapons. Due to the surge of popularity they’ve experienced among my fellow haedong kumdo practitioners, as well as shipping from Hong Kong, you may have to wait several months to receive your order. Additionally, you will still need head/face protection with these weapons, and hand protection is recommended. ADDITIONAL NOTES: I have found the RSW sparring so beneficial that our class now practices two completely separate forms of sword sparring: limited-rules haedong kumdo sparring with the RSW weapons (because of its realism), and strict sport kendo/daehan kumdo rules sparring with WEKAF armor and bamboo shinai (because of the availability of competitions across schools/styles). Final recommendations: 1. To begin weapons sparring in the quickest, cheapest, most easily accessible manner, use pool noodles over sparring weapons and supplement with available gear/padding to protect the head, rules to eliminate thrusts, and control to limit face contact. As soon as possible, add equipment for full throat and face protection. 2. For Filipino Stick Fighting, use the WEKAF gear. It is safe, available, affordable, and designed specifically for this purpose. It also has the benefit of being approved by a world governing body for tournament use. For beginning students who may lack control and experience, consider using the pool noodle sections for added padding, while first learning. 3. For other stick-fighting arts, use the WEKAF gear. Consider pool noodles for beginning students or those lacking good control over their weapons. In either case, use Lacrosse gloves for those with larger hands/fists. Depending on individual needs and preferences, consider adding forearm pads/guards. 4. For kendo or daehan kumdo sparring, I recommend the WEKAF helmet and body armor, forearm pads, and lacrosse gloves with floating cuff and fingers/thumbs articulated in at least two places. 5. For haedong kumdo or other sword arts incorporating more realistic free-sparring, I recommend the RSW weapons with the WEKAF helmet and lacrosse gloves. This allows an excellent combination of safety, range of motion, speed, realism in techniques employed, and affordability.