Review of the THOKK ArmorPads

I’ve recently acquired a set of THOKK armour pads for use within my Gajardoni Challenge Jacket‎. As I proceeded to more or less immediately take them to a tournament, I suspect I am the first – if not the only – person to have fully put them through their paces at this stage, so I thought a brief review might be of interest.

What are they?

The THOKK armour pads recently came out as a modular system for adding additional protection to your HEMA gear, targeted to specific places that need it, without seriously impacting mobility. They are made of a viscoelastic foam, which means they are light and flexible yet still protective. You can use them to augment existing jackets/trousers and other protection by adding them to specific areas you are concerned about. The pads come in 4 styles: ghost, tournament, joint and chakram. Hovering over the images below will show you which is which.

The pads are not currently on general sale at time of writing. THOKK released a small batch of pads for people who pre-ordered them. The pads will come on general sale when his shop is fully up and running, in the near future. For the latest information and more details about the product head on over to THOKK’s Website.

Review

I took the pads through a trial by fire. They arrived on Wednesday, I put them in my jacket Thursday before flying, tested the‎m in free sparring on Friday and entered a tournament on Saturday. The tournament in question (and the sparring) was Swordfish – not exactly a light tournament. By this point, I’ve used the ArmorPads in about 4 hours of light sparring, 10 hours of intense sparring and 5 tournament fights.

For transparency, I’ll add that Dario – the owner of THOKK – is a friend of mine, but I am not affiliated with THOKK in any way.

Configuration

My main interest in these is for arm protection. For many people, the combination of equipment we wear makes it difficult or impossible to hold guards like ochs or fenestra on the right. This is much worse if you study Vadi, as there are two guards (Vera Fenestra and Sagitaria) that have this issue, both of which are key parts of the system. Finding suitable protection that doesn’t restrict movement is a key challenge for me and I have literally spent hundreds of pounds with various iterations of equipment to try and solve this. Previously I was using Neyman arm guards, Koning gloves and a Gajardoni jacket. My goal was to replace the Neyman’s with ArmourPads for the arm guards, as well as replaceing some of the stiff padding that comes with the Gajardoni jacket.

After trying several configurations, I ended up settling on using two ghost pads side by side for the forearms, the joint pad on the elbows and a tournament pad for the upper arm. The image on the right shows  how the ghost pads were laid out‎  – the joint pad is also just visible. The image on the left shows the tournament pad for the upper arms. The joint pad doesn’t cover fully around the elbow and so I used my old SPES elbow cups on top of this for additional protection.

I should state that this was against Dario’s advice, who thought it better to use a tournament pad for the forearms. However, I could not fit my arm into the jacket with a tournament pad and a ghost pad. I felt that the coverage of a tournament pad alone was insufficient, as it would only protect about ½ the arm. Two ghost pads – whilst lighter than a tournament pad – leaves only a very small gap on the inside of the forearm that is virtually impossible to hit, and smaller than some people experience with Neyman arm guards in any case.

Protection

Given Dario’s advice, and the fact that forearms tend to get hit more than the upper arm, I was most concerned about the ghost pads going into the tournament. I needn’t have been – the pads thoroughly did their job. I was far more aware of arm hits than normal due to being interested in testing them and, I can confirm, despite being hit on the arm at least a dozen times in the tournament and/or sparring, I didn’t get a single bruise.  The level of protection of the ghost pads is at least as good as the Neyman arm guards, which is a little worse than the SPES guards I had before that. Keep in mind that the ghost pad is less protective than the tournament pad or joint pads are due to the shape

In general, I did not take a single bruise or injury through any place where the ArmourPads covered, despite definitely being hit on them.

Mobility

As stated, protection is at least as good as the Neyman arm guards I had previously. However, mobility is a vast improvement. I took the video below to demonstrate.

As you can see I’m moving pretty freely in all directions. Not only can I get to high-right guards with crossed arms, I can do it at speed. Actually, maneuverability is even better than this video implies. As the pads warm up, they shape to your body better and get a bit looser, so after a few minutes wearing the jacket you hardly notice them. If fitted correctly, once they are warm they are no more restrictive than the jacket itself. This video was taken whilst the pads were still cold.

They are also – as promised – virtually invisible. The image shows me just after my first fight. If you squint you might be able to see he pads in the forearms – if you are looking for them. If you follow THOKK’s Facebook Page you might have seen him post a competition offering a reward for anyone who spotted them. No one ended up collecting it.

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Fitting

Fitting the pads for the first time and understanding how to place them takes time. The Gajardoni jacket I recently got is perfect for working with the ArmourPads. It is made in such a way that any point of the inside can have Velcro stuck to it, which is pretty cool. When the ArmourPads arrived they had Velcro already attached to them. However, the hooks that come with the pads aren’t particularly strong. This is both good and bad. It makes it easy to make minor adjustments to the positioning, especially after you have already put it on, ‎but harder to take off and put on the jacket without knocking things out of place.

I tried adding additional Velcro but the self adhesive tape I used didn’t really stick to the pads and has all come off – I’m not sure if this is an issue with the tape or the pads (I used the Velcro branded tape so definitely avoid this one if you try the same). I’m now using them without any additional Velcro and it’s mostly fine, although I usually need to make minor adjustments before putting on the jacket, this only takes a few minutes. Once you’re wearing it, the Velcro combined with your body keeps them in place well.

If you don’t have a challenge jacket, the pads will be a bit trickier to fit. You’ll need to sew or glue Velcro in place or find some other way of fitting them. THOKK has guides for this to help on his website. Definitely it will require some minor hacks to your equipment to make it so the pads can fit, though.

The fiddly nature of fitting these is, I think, unavoidable. Ultimately this is a tool for customising your kit and tailoring your protection to suit your needs, so you should expect to need to do some work to get it there. Even with the challenge, factor in a couple hours to play about with position and configuration until you are happy with it.

Once you know where it goes, you will still need to spend a few minutes extra tweaking things when you first put the jacket on or after washing things. This isn’t a significant draw back  – indeed it used to take me longer to put on the SPES arm guards by myself.

Conclusion

‎The short version of the review: THOKK ArmourPads are an excellent balance of protection and maneuverability, providing extra protection with virtually no restriction on movement. Fitting them requires a little work, patience and care – but no real special skills. They make it a little harder to get your kit on without knocking things out of place, but in general this is a price worth paying. I am completely satisfied with this for my arm protection, and highly recommend the ArmourPads to anyone wanting to augment the protection of their jacket.

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The Crown and the Lady

Earlier in the week, I made a pair of posts to HEMA International Discussion, each with an image of a guard, and asking people to say which side they thought the guard was on. As many realised, these were images of Vadi’s guards, corona and posta di donna. I’d like to thank everyone that responded – it was a fascinating mini experiment and brings some valuable lessons for interpretation in general and my interpretation of Vadi in particular. In this post I’ll explain some of the rationale behind why I did this and share some of the results.

What did I ask?

These images show the guards that I posted about. On the left we have Post di Donna (Guard of the Lady), and on the right Corona (The Crown). The guards are quite similar at least in appearance. The question I asked in both cases was: “which side of the body is the sword on, left or right?”

Judging by the general lack of consensus, neither image was particular clear. Given the importance of guards – particularly in Vadi’s system (as I have argued previously) – the difference is significant, as the guards give us the framework that defines every action of the system.

The images below show how I’ve been using these guards for the last two years.

I’ve shown these guards on the right, as the images from the original are. If you’ve read some of my previous posts (or you’re my student) you’ll know that I believe these guards can be held on either side – the crucial bit is that they’re held over the lead leg (so if it’s on the left, your left leg would be forward.

Under this interpretation, the major difference between the two is the height of the guard.

Why did I think this?

Like most people who study Vadi, I had prior experience with the earlier Italian fencing master, Fiore de’i Liberi. One of his guards is known as Posta Frontale ditta Corona* – The “frontal” guard called Crown. The images below show how they are depicted in the Pissani Dossi (left) and Getty (right) manuscripts. Note that they are over different legs but the sword is over the front leg in both cases.

I – and many others – saw in this a clear link to Corona in Vadi, and upon seeing a similar position and name assumed it was the same guard.  Posta di Donna, despite sharing a name with a Fiore guard, was obviously not a parallel, but the image seemed clearly over the front leg as well. It was fascinating to me to see several responses to the Facebook post using exactly the same reasoning for Corona.

The text – as with all of Vadi’s guards – didn’t give much hint to say anything otherwise, as for each guard he provides only two lines – one naming the guard and another (very) briefly describing a use for that guard.

What’s the problem?

As I said above, I’ve been using this interpretation for the last two years. I’ve become unhappy with it for several reasons.

The first is that it results in two very similar guards. I generally interpret guards dynamically, in the sense that I consider minor differences as irrelevant. This is because of their use not just as rest positions but as the start, middle and end positions for every action. If I’m using, say, posta lunga to defend, obviously it’s more important that the sword is at the correct height to block an incoming attack than it is to look identical to the book. The height difference between donna and corona is one that I would usually overlook as a minor variant in the guard, rather than an entirely new guard.

But the real revelation came through using these guards defensively, in two scenarios. Vadi gives us the following advice on parrying:

“When you parry the roverso, keep in front,
The right foot, and parry as I have said.
Parrying the mandritto,
Keep in front your left foot.”

(12r,  De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

There is some debate as to when this advice applies; I believe (for a range of reasons I won’t detail here) this is relevant for your initial parry from an attack from distance. Adding this to two further principles from Vadi – that actions should transition between guards, and that they should use the shortest movement possible – causes significant tension.

I’ll illustrate with an example. If I parry a reverso fendente (my attacker makes a downward cut from her left side), then following the above advice I will end up my old interpretation of posta corona or posta di donna, depending on the height of the cut. If she then follows up with an attack to my other side (a mandritto fendente) my options for parrying with the above principle of following a guard are either keep my feet stationary and move to posta frontal or swap feet and move to corona/donna on the left.

Both of these options violate Vadi’s principle of minimal movement – one by stepping when I don’t need to, one by drawing the hands back and leaving me less protected for a large movement. Neither, essentially, are ideal. The image below shows the move to frontal.

The second scenario assumes I have attacked someone with a mandritto fendente (downard cut from my right) and my opponent has defended and is now inside my sword. In the example below she takes the opportunity to counter with a thrust to the face.

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What would Vadi do in this circumstance? Following the principles above: go to a guard. I have the same options as in the previous example, with the same criticisms as above. The further piece of evidence that something’s not quite right here is that Vadi does tell us which guard to use in this case – and that guard is corona.

“I am the crown and I am made master
Of binds I am found to be adept.”

(17r, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

Going to corona here – under the old interpretation – does very little to defend me and will in fact likely just result in her stabbing me slightly higher up in my face. I do not consider this to be a good option.

The simplest action with the least movement to keep me safe is, in both of cases, just to move my sword ~6 inches to the left. All of this lead me to feel like there was a “missing” guard – but before I concluded that it was time to kick in Vadi’s request to correct his book when required, I thought I’d look again at my interpretation of corona, and pay closer attention to the image. This made me realise that the sword position wasn’t nearly as clear cut as I’d first thought, and to question whether indeed the image showed the guard on the left or the right of the body,

 

The New Crown

A more detailed look at the image led me to believe that corona should actually be on the same side as the back – not the front – foot. Both guards should hold the sword in front of the use, but the key difference between them is not height but side of the body.

The biggest clue here is actually the elbow, which is at near right angles. This position is only reached if the sword is on the left. If the sword is pushed to the right of the body then the elbow and shoulder need to move across, and the elbow needs to slightly unbend. The image below demonstrates the different – on the left, the sword is on my left (back leg) and on the right image over my right. Compare it to the guard image and you can see the difference.

Left vs Right Crown.png

I think it’s important to note that even the photographs aren’t super clear about the side of the body the sword is on. In both cases, it is just inside my shoulder (i.e. the minimum position to defend me against a fendente). Interpreting from an image in the period where perspective was only just being formalised is tricky, but nothing in the text directly states one way or the other. However the elbow positioned combined with the issues I mentioned above have resulted in a change to my understanding of these guards: posta di donna is held in front of the body on the side of your lead leg, and posta corona is held in front on the side of the back leg.

In case you’re curious, the image below shows posta di donna over the lead leg, matching near exactly to the image.

pdd

Survey Results

I did a quick count of the responses on HEMA International Discussion. A reminder, that in both cases all I did was show an image of the guard and ask which side of the body they thought it was on.

Many people said neither and that it was in the centre. If those people also went on to say a side of the body as well I counted them for that side, as I don’t believe there are any centre guards in Vadi (see my post on the Principles of Vadi’s Guards for an explanation of why). The table below shows the results.

Side Corona Donna
Centre 9  0
Left 14 2
Right 18 11

Whilst donna was pretty solidly viewed as on the right, corona was heavily split across all options (I think if I had counted centre differently it would have won). Whilst I wasn’t attempting  to decide on the correct position for the guard by internet poll, I was curious whether other people were as unclear about the image as me – and this seemed to have proved true. While not changing my decision, this made me feel better about the mistake. The image is simply not clear at all. It was fascinating that people both fell into the same trap that I did – comparing to Fiore’s corona  – and used the same visual queues to come to my new conclusion.

Implications for interpretation

Personally, I find it quite ironic that I (who strenuously argue that Vadi is a distinct system from Fiore) fell into this particular trap. Whilst this difference is, I think, pretty significant for all 7 Vadi scholars around the world, I think there are also some lessons learnt here about interpretation in general.

We all come to the HEMA with preconceived notions – whether from previous martial arts, other historical masters or just general life. It’s best to closely examine these assumptions and make them as explicit as you possibly can, because that helps you to identify where your conclusions (and errors!) are caused by the assumptions instead of the text itself.

One of the best ways to combat this is to bring in alternative view points, whether that is other students looking at the text or other practitioners globally. In general, I feel that more and better peer review of each other’s interpretations would benefit us as a community greatly – something that is quite difficult if we only ever take a handle of classes from other instructors across the globe. I strongly believe getting better at sharing and commenting on interpretations will help us develop as a community.

The “Rotare” in tournament

A couple weeks ago I did something fairly crazy: I had two HEMA events in the same weekend. Shortly after I signed up to compete in the Reading chapter of the Wessex League, I was asked to teach at The Exiles 25th birthday event – The Cutting Edge. As they clashed, I decided I could compete on Saturday and then head straight to Sheffield to teach and compete on Sunday. Both events were incredibly fun and I’m glad I did it, but it was exhausting.

However, by sheer coincidence, during the Saturday tournament I successfully performed (almost) perfectly the technique that I was going to teach on Sunday, which of course gave me an incredible sense of satisfaction. Thankfully one of my club mates happened to capture that moment on his phone and, after posting to Facebook, I’ve been asked by a few people to explain what happened in more detail, so this post will do just that.

The Clip

The gif below is the image I posted to Facebook. I am the fighter in the red/yellow mask.

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There’s actually three elements of this that I covered in the class. Specifically:

  1. The approach
  2. The thrust
  3. The “Rotare”

I’ll break them down individually.

The Approach

During the approach I close rapidly with my opponent without ever leaving guard. The basic idea is to be able to move quickly whilst staying in a ready position at all times, in case you’ve misjudged the distance. Fundamentally this is achieved – like everything in Vadi – by moving between several guards at speed.

There are 4 low guards:

Left to right these are:

  1. posta di cingiaro di fora (left leg forward, sword on left)
  2. posta de denti cinghiare (right leg forward, sword on left)
  3. porta di fero piana terrena (left leg forward, sword on right)
  4. mezana porta di ferro forte (right leg forward, sword on right)

Note that to transition between these guards the hand position stays roughly the same as you swap the lead leg. This enables rapid movement without needed to worry about moving the hands – and hence can be used for rapid approach.

This feature is not described in the book as Vadi actually says relatively little about the guards apart from the need to stay in them at all time, and comes instead from experience.

The Thrust

Vadi has a love/hate relationship with the thrust. In brief, he tells us that the thrust is deadly, but we need to be cautious to ensure that we don’t get hit back when we use it.

“I am he that quarrels with
All the other blows, and I am called the thrust.
I carry venom like the scorpion.
I feel so strong, bold and quick,
Often I make the guards plough again
When I am thrown at others and confront them

By my harmful touch, when I join them.”

(9v, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

“If the thrust enters but does not swiftly exit,
It lets the companion strike back hard.”

(10r, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

He does not detail thrusting mechanic precisely anywhere in his book, sadly. However two principles he gives us are:

“And if you wish to appear great in the art,
You should go from guard to guard,
With a slow and serene hand,
With steps that are not out of the ordinary.”

(11r, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

And later:

“It is necessary that the sword should be
A great shield that covers all”

(14r, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

In summary: every action should be a transition from one guard to another, and the sword should be used to keep us defended at all times. Combined with his concern about being hit back, and we can deduce that we should thrust to one of three guards in a way that keeps us covered from the opponent’s sword.

From left to right these are:

  1. posta breve di spada longeza
  2. posta sagitaria
  3. posta lunga con la spada curta (destreza)
  4. posta lunga con la spada curta (sinestra)

These are shown as a rest position but turning any into a thrust involves simply extending the hands more.

Note that none of these guards are in the center. By being on one side, they allow us to follow Vadi’s prescription to stay behind the “great shield” of the sword. When thrusting, we opt to use whichever will keep us defended by best interfering with the opponent’s sword. The image below (from the same tournament) shows what I mean, using a higher posta lunga to defend against a fendente as I thrust.

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The “Principio Rotare”

Plan A was to stab my opponent in the face, but sadly he had other ideas and parried. The last bit of the play is after the parry I use the “Principio Rotare” or turning principle as plan B. So what is this principle? Thankfully Vadi tell us!

“So that you will understand and use
The system well, I wish to first make clear
The turning principle of the sword.
And with arms extended
Bring the edge to the middle of the companion.”

(10v, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

And there you have it: the Rotare. Nice and clear right? Er… maybe not. Thankfully, there are some other clues to help us work it out.

First, the section is titled “Ragione di meza spada” – roughly “the system of the half sword”. Half sword, in the context of Vadi and many other Italian sources, refers not to grabbing the blade but instead the portion of the fight when swords are crossed. Secondly, the section is littered with specific plays that he describes. I, and others, believe each of these is a specific application of the general principle of rotare.

The particular one used both here and in my class is this:

“Place yourself in the guard of the boar,
When you enter with the thrust at the face
Do not leave your point in the face,
Turn quickly a roverso fendente.”

(11v, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

The “turn quickly a roverso fendete” is the part where we execute the rotare. We are in the mezza spada because our thrust has been parried. Using the force of his parry allows us to cut effectively to the other side quickly without retracting our arms (“with arms extended”). This is, in it’s essence, the rotare.

Put this together with the above. Why are we in the guard of the boar? Because we approached rapidly in a low guard. How do we thrust to the face? If his sword is on his right – with posta breve keeping the sword between his sword and our head. At the point of being parried, our arms are extended, so we must execute “rotare” and bring our sword to the middle of the companion. Doing this with force requires us to use the strength of his parry to charge the blow – this, ultimately, is the rotare, or at least one version of it.

What’s different?

Here’s the play again so you can look at it in a new light without scrolling up.

videotogif_2017.10.28_18.00.41

There are two differences here to the canonical version described and that I taught. Instead of striking from the cingiare di fora I start in posta di donna (note: not the same as Fiore’s guard of the same name). This shares some features and is a perfectly fine guard to start from. In fact, you can do the same thing from almost any guard by varying whether you do a passing step or a lunge. Ultimately, the structure of Vadi’s system is best thought of as a number of principles and some example applications of the principles – this bit of the play follows all the principles perfectly and is just a slightly different application of them.

The one mistake I make that isn’t perfectly valid at the end is my final step. Vadi tells us in the same chapter:

“Making the roverso you will be helped,
Passing out of the way with the left foot,
Following with the right foot too,
Keeping an eye out for a good parry.”

(11r, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, Windsor Translation)

This should result in my right foot coming behind to allow me to retreat or attack again if the strike failed. In this case it didn’t cause issues, but this footwork would have been better (as I’d end in a better position) and more in keeping with the text.

Conclusion

I hope this has been an interesting breakdown of the action and my interpretation of vadi. One other thing to take away: this 4 second action took months of study, practice and drawing together of separate bits across the text. People often say “why don’t tournaments look like the text?” – which always irritates me. Most people would have seen this play and blinked and missed it. Almost no one apart from me would have spotted the bit I did wrong. Sometimes it’s the subtlest of details performed at high speed that make the differences between a successful play and a colossal cock up – so keep practicing and pay attention to the little details, and it will pay off in your fencing.