A friend of mine called me on something I wrote the other day, and I think it’s worth going over so that my position is clear; In my previous post I made a comment about “sport fighters” in the SCA — heavy combat enthusiasts who care less about historical accuracy and more about working the rules for the greatest possible advantage, and implying that fighters using plastic instead of metal or leather in their armour fall into that category.
My friend had expressed his concern that I was tarring all plastic-kit fighters with the same brush, and I assured him that’s not my intention… especially since I know for a fact there’s a lot of SCA fighters out there who use plastic kits since they can’t afford to spend the money or the time developing a kit using more historically-accurate materials. There’s plenty of fighters in the SCA who put together a kit out of cut-up plastic barrels, or even just modified lacrosse gear under a tunic, because they’re in school and on a budget, or have a family and are on a budget, or have a crappy job and are on a budget (or any combination of the above.) Maybe they’re not on that tight a budget but they’re new and they don’t want to commit to a specific time period or style of armour until they have a better idea of what they want. Plastic armour and re-purposed sporting equipment is cheap, easy to build or come by, and gets a guy into the field… and I have no problem with plastic armour under those circumstances; I’ve also seen plastic armour used by fighters who are older or have physical concerns (or both) as a way of participating with a minimum of physical strain, and I don’t have a problem with that either: as I said to my friend, you put together the best kit you can under the circumstances you have.
Sport fighters, on the other hand, are guys who can put together an historically-accurate kit and choose not to as a way of gaining an advantage on the field. And I do have a bit of a problem with that, because it’s almost always indicative of a larger attitude: the 21st century attitude that winning is everything. Such an attitude tends to reveal itself in a myriad of small ways on the field and some of those ways tend not to be in sync with the High Medieval ideals of courtesy and chivalry that I personally want to see. So yeah, I’m pretty down on sport-fighters in the SCA — and I’ll admit I’m influenced by a bad experience I had early on when a notorious local sport-fighter publicly mocked me for stupidly trying to fight in a maille hauberk that I’d spent six months putting together.
There’s lots of ways to play this game, of course, but I think the common denominator ought to be trying not to ruin the medieval atmosphere for other players. I appreciate the little touches, like covering up modern sports logos on your armour (which is now a requirement, following a change to the rules last year) or hanging medieval-style lanterns around camp, or turning off your cellphone during court and yes, putting together a fighting kit that isn’t glaringly modern as soon as you can afford to do so. It frustrates me when I see fighters — even belted fighters — wearing modern sport equipment solely because it’s easier to fight in than steel or leather, and advising newcomers to do the same.
I’ve spent the time, the effort, and the money to put together a kit that looks as close to historically-accurate as possible, and I’m able to fight in it… and the fact that I’m not the best fighter out there has nothing to do with my historically-accurate fighting kit (it does have rather a lot to do with skipping practices and pellwork.) If I wanted to play lacrosse or football, I’d play lacrosse or football; what I want is to be a medieval fighting man. Yes, the SCA’s combat system assumes we’re all wearing the same universal standard of armour, regardless of our actual fighting kit, but sometimes I feel like I’m being penalized for my commitment to accuracy when I go up against someone who would be bleeding out rather quickly if the swords were real.
Admittedly, I do have a couple of a-historical items in my armour: my modern boots, which have been mentioned before, give me better traction than the smooth-soled medieval equivalent; I have a stiff kidney belt protecting my midsection as per SCA safety rules; and most egregiously my gambeson has a velcro closure instead of several buttons. The boots are a compromise based on my need for good footing owing to my reconstructed left knee; the kidney belt is completely hidden under my gambeson; and the velcro is invisible when fastened up and a lot easier than dicking around with buttons when I’m dripping sweat. (Of all three, the last is the only one I’m mildly embarrassed about, but I’m not embarrassed enough to change.)
Most importantly, I’ve spent the time and the effort making sure that my modern compromises are largely invisible. I’ve even changed modern boots to a pair which aren’t quite as glaringly obvious an anachronism as my old Canadian Armed Forces combat boots. I’m as historically accurate as someone in the SCA can be… although in complete fairness, I do have to point out that I sank most of a year’s tax return into my kit. That was very much a “single guy” privilege: I totally get it that folks with kids simply can’t justify doing that (in my defence I made sure to clear it with The Fiancée™ first) and I respect the choices they have had to make.
Plastic armour happens. My first coat-of-plates, which is still in service on a long-term loan with a friend, was built of plastic plates riveted onto a leather backing. My Big Green Brigantine is plastic with a velveteen cover as opposed to velvet-covered steel. Kydex gauntlets are a popular item because they’re cheap but effective. There’s actually a company that makes an SCA-combat-ready all plastic kit (just add cup & helmet!) to get eager fighters with a modestly disposable income out on the field ASAP.
And I’m not saying that consciously making an a-historical choice is necessarily a bad thing: My shields are made of aircraft aluminium, as a good example. A lot of fighters choose to do that because aircraft aluminium has similar weight as quarter-inch linden plywood… but doesn’t need to be replaced every two or three battles (by the time you make plywood sturdy enough to stand up to long-term punishment, it’s almost an inch thick and way too heavy to use.) I didn’t want to spend the rest of my SCA career constantly building and rebuilding plywood shields, so I compromised and went aluminium… which promptly got covered in canvas and painted. I know guys who bought plastic shield bosses or basket hilts to cut down on weight — not because they wanted an edge, but because they rely on other people’s cars to get to and from events. And so on.
Wearing plastic armour because that’s what you can afford? I respect that. Building a plastic coat of plates because you have to take public transit to practice and don’t want to lug around a 40-pound hockey bag? I respect that. Bought plastic knees or elbows so that you could fight this year and buy your kid a new coat for winter? You’d better believe I respect that. Plastic armour is a feature of SCA fighting. It’s not going to change anytime soon — nor should it. One of the best reasons for wearing plastic armour, above the convenience and even above the cost, is that a new fighter can get their kit together in a hurry and fight… and when they know what they want to do in the long run, they can spend the time and effort on their ideal of historical armour.
But the guys who use plastic armour as a way of gaming the rules, of meeting the bare minimum armour standards and no more just so that they can get that extra tiny little edge against an opponent? I regard them as sport-fighters. What we’re doing on the field isn’t a sport, or at least isn’t just a sport, and our attitudes towards historical recreation should reflect that. If you’re wearing plastic just so you can cut a few pounds off the equivalent in steel or leather and have “a better chance at Crown” then I see you as a sport fighter and it’s going to be a lot harder to earn my respect. I’m not saying it won’t happen, but I will be far less inclined to give a sport-fighter the benefit of the doubt.