First piece of advice: BUY NOTHING till you’ve done a great deal of homework.
Second piece of advice: Consult those around you with more experience — preferably your teammates.
OK, so you’ve begun your research, found a group to practice with, and now you’re looking into getting some real armor of your own to fight with, right? No? If not, then please read this post first. If yes, then let us begin.
For reference, here is my first steel fighting armor. I fought in this at the All-vs-All fights at the IMCF World Championships in Scone, Scotland in 2018. I ended up ditching the sabatons and adding a USA tabard.
Your absolute base layers will likely take the form of modern sports clothes, but may be historical. Most fighters wear tights and/or gym shorts and a t-shirt, perhaps a high tech cooling or compression base layer. I go back and forth between this and a historical approach. The historical idea is linen underwear: a shirt and braies. Perhaps linen hosen. Each method has its own advantages. Linen wicks sweat better than anything I’ve tried. Those modern cooling fabrics with lycra stretch and slide, making your movement just a little easier. I alternate between 14th century braies (white linen baggy boxer shorts) and tights with a working codpiece from Seamlyne Reproductions for a 15th century “joined hose” look. For the top half, I like roughly medieval white linen shirts or common t-shirts. The linen works better than anything high tech I’ve tried. T-shirts are just convenient.
One piece that is often over looked is the arming cap. These were very popular, historically, both in and out of armor. They keep your hair in place, protect your ears from folding as you put on your helmet, and help wick away sweat. Trust me — that last part is important and the arming cap does it well. It also keeps the helmet lining clean longer. You can make your own or get one off any of the numerous places on Etsy that sell them. White is traditional and was used for centuries by both men and women.
You’re also going to need groin protection appropriate to your plumbing. I am not familiar with the best protection for people sporting vaginas (Someone please let me know and I’ll add your suggestion here), but for those with a penis I highly recommend the “Nutty Buddy” brand. Their new Flex cup is actually pretty comfortable.
Your first armor bits to get are going to be the padded under layers. You’ll need these in order to measure correctly for what goes over them. We are talking about a gambeson and padded legs. The gambeson is a heavy, padded jacket to which you will be attaching short strings called “points” to tie on armor parts. You can certainly make your own gambeson and padded legs, or if you want, I would recommend contacting Quilted Armour for top quality or Nadler Metal Crafts for speedy delivery on a budget but with limited color selection. There are cheaper options or you can even make your own, too. If you go for quality, you’ll learn that this takes both money and also time, but you’ll have something uniquely made for you that will be more comfortable and last longer. When you order custom, tell them you’re doing “bohurt” and that you are new. They’ve been doing this a while and know what works well. A standard gambeson is hip length and ties down the front. The padded legs can be separate, called “chausses” (the term can mean both the padded and steel armor for the legs) or padded trousers. While the trousers sound more convenient, the separate legs are less hot.
While you’re waiting for your gambeson and chausses, let’s talk about footwear. In almost all armored fighting systems, you will need proper footwear. The SCA requires foot wear, “that provides adequate protection and support for the terrain and activity of combat.” Most of the bohurt rules require non-lug soles and leather uppers. HEMA looks to historically accurate footwear. So what should you get? For those looking to fight but who don’t care about historical accuracy, the folks over at Medieval Extreme have a special on matched boots and titanium sabatons that will do well on the field. For those looking to buy shoes separately, the budget answer is Boots By Bohemond with their Ankle Buckle Turnshoes or their Reimerswaal Turn Shoes. These will run you about $100 with shipping. Nadler also has budget shoes but these are less historical. For hard core history folks, you’ll be spending a bit more cash but getting superb craftsmanship from places like here, here, or here.
If you’ll be going to events where you are expected to be dressed historically off the lists, I recommend also getting a pair of patens. Bohemond sells them at a reasonable price. That’s where I got mine and I love them. They help your soles to last much longer if you have to walk in mud or on concrete.
OK, time for the real deal. I suggest you begin your steel armor with a helmet. It is at this point that you might want to do a little historical research. Most new steel fighters get armor from the late 14th century because it provides a good balance of low price and excellent protection. If you’re planning to fight in an organization that requires historical accuracy, you’ll need to do some homework. This will save you a lot of frustration when the authenticity police tell you one part is from over a century away from another part and that you won’t be fighting till that gets fixed. So before you decide, take a gander at Manuscript Miniatures and their partner site, Effigies and Brasses. Use their search function to find a time and place for the style of armor you want to use. I generally suggest roughly 1350-1400 for the best bang for the buck. Much earlier and you get less protection and much later and things get significantly more expensive.
One choice a lot of fighters make for a first helmet is a nasal bascinet. This has modern bars under the chain mail aventail to protect the face and neck. The mail around the face makes for excellent breathability. The larger eye openings make for good vision. The ease of making these keep the price in the affordable range.
Several fighters have discovered the added vision and breathing of the “wolf rib” style. Some don’t recommend these for new fighters because the visibility is too good and you’ll be likely to flinch at incoming blows. Personally, I don’t like them because of scant historical examples. If you’re in this for the sport and don’t care about the history, go for it.
A helmet seen frequently in historical examples and excellent for our sport is the klappvisor style bascinet, like the one I wore to Scotland, pictured above. This has a single pivot at the forehead from which a face plate hangs. Vision and breathing vary in these but are generally pretty good. The visor is held in place by a strap that runs around the back of the head. This is a “historically plausible” modern addition for safety.
Another good one with a visor is the “griffin” helmet, or, as the academics call it, the visored bascinet. This has a larger, sometimes shovel shaped, face plate visor that pivots on the sides. There are historical and non-historical variations on this. Be wary and do some research before you settle on one design. Some lock in position with a spring lock. Some strap like the klappvisor, around the back. In any case, you should have a strap. These helmets have the advantage of being extremely protective. They have the disadvantage of often having poor visibility and breathing.
There are other styles, but these are the most common ones for new fighters. Of course, if you have the cash, you can look at later 15th century right through 16th century masterpieces to reproduce. You won’t see too many sallet and bevoir combinations, for safety reasons. Modern safety additions and modifications to these usually spoil the medieval aesthetic and in some cases the mobility the originals afforded.
Many reputable armorers will include some padding and even straps. You should not rely on these being good, or even sufficient. Presume you’ll need to re-pad and re-strap your helm. You might not need to. But you should be prepared. Talk to your team mates and other fighters about how to pad and strap a helmet.
You will also likely want an aventail. Chain mail is the only thing I recommend stainless steel for. It is difficult to keep free of rust otherwise. Never use butted mail. If your armorer has the option available, I suggest you let them integrate the aventail with the helm. You can also get scale aventails. They work well, too.
Expect to pay between $600 and $1200 for a decent helmet before shipping. Nadler has been working with a manufacturer to get incredibly inexpensive helmets that are still safe, but they will be limited in design and at the moment are limited in availability. And of course the prices can go higher… way higher.
Hands, like your head are important. Many of us need our hands to make a living. Hands are notoriously difficult to fix when badly broken. This is not a place to cut corners.
Most organizations who do historical armored fighting have banned or all but banned finger gauntlets. Finger gauntlets look cool and provide excellent dexterity, and are even more common in most historical periods…. but they offer dangerously poor protection of the fingers. The smaller plates and smaller clearance between fingers necessitates weak spots that one axe blow will cut clean through. For this reason I advise you steel far away from them for fighting.
So you’ll be looking at mitten gauntlets. An armorer in the SCA, Grettir the Slow, produces some of the finest mittens that are designed from the beginning to look like finger gauntlets, but protect like mittens. He has been making them for years and some of the top fighters in the world use them. The down sides are that he has long wait times and the price is not cheap. They are worth it if you have the time and money.
You can also find affordable and safe mittens from Nadler Metal Craft (when they are in stock)
If you want high end, you’ll need to commission the likes of Kyle Harris, Arma Moskovia, and Jeff Wasson.
As with all aspects of this sport, make sure you discuss your options with your teammates and other experienced fighters BEFORE you spend any money. Armor is an important safety gear and also rather on the expensive side. You’ll want to make sure you are buying something that will fit YOUR needs. There are many disreputable “armorers” out there and you should know what you’re looking for. Especially when new, shop with a more experienced buddy.
Now that you have some idea of where to start, I’ll give you some time to shop around, and when you’ve acquired these items, we can move on to the next step: customizing the helmet to fit and protect you. After that we can get into the rest of your kit.