This article originally was published in 2015, and is republished here for preservation purposes.
As modern practitioners of an ancient deadly art, we are constantly confronted with a paradox; how do we perform armorless combat as it was meant to, while not wearing armor? How do we keep us and our partners safe, while still executing techniques with the proper sense of vigor?
Out of all the gear that a historical fencer uses, nothing has fallen short as much as our gloves. This is tragic, as hand dexterity is one of the most critical aspects of being able to properly perform the graceful techniques that the masters ask of us.There are, of course, hundreds of attempts to address this issue. Some work better than others, some are still pipe dreams, and more still just fall short.
But ever since a couple of U.S. fencers began wearing a certain gauntlet with modern aesthetics, fencers have been clamoring for a pair of comfort fencing gloves. The thumb dexterity! The wrist maneuverability! The protection! The $200 USD price tag! Could these gloves be what we were looking for?
Short answer – no. Longer answer – did you even read the short answer? It was no.
To conduct a thorough review, comfort fencing was unaware that we were looking to test the gloves. This avoided any “review” products or special treatment. The gloves were used for 3 months in heavy sparring and one tournament.
The gloves were designed with a leather under glove (the sort used for gardening) with batting glued to the fingers. The under glove was used as a chassis, having the actual “armor” literally strapped to the under glove.
Finger plates are attached to woven straps, which are then attached to the back of the hand protector. In a stroke of genius, the back of the hand is hinged, along it to cover most of the first section of the fingers while maintaining dexterity when closing the hand.
The wrist is equally as clever – the back of the hand is concave, with the wrist being convex. While this is hardly perfect, it offers great protection, while still allowing the fencer to bend and twist his wrist freely.
All is not perfect, however.
While the back of the hand wraps around the sides to offer protection, the pinky and index fingers are naked on the sides.
The finger scales are intended to protect the tips by extending slightly over the end, but it’s hardly protective. In order to feel comfortable wearing the gloves, I had to install SPES finger tip protectors on the pinky and index.
The finger scales protruding outward rather than inward is borderline dangerous, and confers no real safety or dexterity benefits. In fact, if struck at just the right angle, they act as a chisel; once I had a finger plate on my pinky struck, and a full chunk of meat removed from my finger (yes, even through the protective batting and leather under glove). This would not have happened if the scales were reversed ( plenty of gauntlets from older days have the scales in this fashion, truth be told).
Additionally, the way that the protection is attached to the under glove is curious at best, lazy at worst. Straps are used on the fingers to keep them in place, but they are extremely loose (apparently CF recommends sewing the straps tighter, but this bit of information was never communicated to me). The straps are constantly getting tangled in the plates, and if you’re not careful you can find yourself sparring with an extra loose finger because the strap unwrapped from the finger.
To add insult to injury, the back of the hand is held in place by two non-adjustable woven straps with velcro. One of these straps is directly across the first knuckle on the palm…right where you hold a longsword. It adds unnecessary bulk, is uncomfortable, and comes loose often.
(Dear equipment makers: can we stop using velcro?)
It was hard to produce a list of pros and cons for the construction, given that the construction is so positively awful. One might attempt to argue that I simply got a bad set of gloves, but upon speaking to a number of people who received gloves at the same time as me, it seems to be simply a case of lazy construction.
Multiple people have had finger scales simply fall off (one person actually had two scales fall off the very first time he sparred in the gloves). The scales are attached via rivets, but they easily slip through the woven strap. I myself had had the thumb plate slip out from its strap, and only with major surgery can I repair it.
The tips of the fingers are attached to the under glove with cheap, red thread, the sort that you might attach a button to a shirt with. You are almost assured that this will fall apart, and it comes nowhere close to handling the rigors of sparring.
The under glove is cheap, the sort of $2 pair you might buy at home depot. They’re so flimsy they make taking the glove on and off incredibly difficult. In places where the protection was attached, I noticed some tearing. It became such a concern that I had to replace the entire under glove on my right hand with something new. Even the $5 pair I purchased was leagues better than what was used.
The underglove and padding needed to be completely replaced on the right hand.
Admittedly, their quality control simply seems nonexistant, as there are high quality gloves out in the wild. Anecdotally they appear to be owned by people with higher visibility in the community, but I do know of a number of people who have had no problems with their gloves.
As with almost all five-fingered gloves, being able to hold your sword in a proper grip is difficult to let go once you have it. Clamshells tend to make a hammer grip more comfortable, whereas the comfort fencers have no such problem.
While the gauntlets are noticeably heavier than the SPES or sparringgloves.com protection, they don’t seem to impede hand speed much.
Finger dexterity is excellent, and the ability to change to a thumb grip without making it obvious to your opponent is addicting.
The wrist’s design also makes short edge cuts and high guards much easier to use compared to sparring gloves, and they don’t add unnecessary bulk that can make crossed arm actions difficult to execute.
Sadly, the customer experience is so poor, that no amount of quality control or fencing performance can overcome it.
Comfort Fencing has a long history of hilariously long delays (some people have told me they were waiting a year or more), empty promises, and wrong deliveries. The internet is riddled with these stories.
Supposedly the gloves are custom made for each owner, but it appears that they may simply be made in bulk – despite myself and other people having different sized hands, we all could not tell the difference between our gloves when they were delivered.
I confronted the owner before purchasing about his delays, and he assured me on multiple occasions that all of his problems were solved. They would surely arrive on time, he said. He’s far more transparent about delays, he reiterated.
My gloves arrived two months late, after repeated delays. They also arrived 1 month earlier than a pair purchased someone I knew who ordered them seven months before I did.
Multiple times I was told they were shipped, and when I questioned where the tracking # was, I was simply told they were shipping the next week. Never once was it acknowledged that his previous declarations bore out to be untrue.
On top of all of this, the feder I purchased alongside the gloves, and was told would ship with them, arrived one month later. Despite ordering it custom, I simply got a stock feder, and was told by the owner the important point was that someone else got the feder I ordered.
…I never heard back from him.
Dreams and wishful thinking can be powerful agents on your brain.
Two more experienced people told me to avoid the gloves, and I did not listen. People thinking of purchasing them today say they heard the same declarations of improvements by the owner, and had the same high hopes things had changed.
Personally, I do not want my gear to protect me from every bruise and scrape. I am willing to sacrifice small levels of safety from the edge cases of sparring, in order to practice my art as best as I can.
But gear has to be reliable. What we do is a serious, violent endeavor, and it has to take repeated abuse. It cannot fail at the worse time. Almost as important, gear cannot protect you if it’s sitting on a bench in Poland not being made.
There is hope on the horizon. Pro gauntlet is supposedly a still a thing that will one day be made, and the new St Mark Koning gauntlets not only seem incredible, but made by people with actual reputations at stake.
But today? HEMA deserves better.