When it comes to head protection, most of us use fencing masks, whether we're fighting with rapiers, knives, longswords, or anything else. Anyone who's done this for a while, however, will be well acquainted with the idea of mask failure. All masks have a limited lifespan: over time, and with repeated blows, the mesh loses its integrity, and dents can start to appear. If you're using a regular fencing mask for heavy concussive weapons such as longsword, sidesword, or quarterstaff, those dents can start showing up sooner.
Any time you get a dent in your mask, you should use a mask tester to make sure that the mesh is still holding together. We've got one in the school maintenance kit, and any of the lead instructors should be able to show you how to use it. One of the big problems with dents is that each one increases the likelihood of another dent, so once you start seeing them it's time to start prepping for a new mask.
If you're doing a lot of heavier-weapons work, you should probably consider picking up a proper helmet. Steel helmets have a lot of things going for them: they hold up to the abuse of being knocked about by heavier weapons, the added mass of the steel itself can help to absorb some of the weight of the blow, and a good helmet should also be well padded, which means that you feel even less of the impact. The only issues attached to a helmet are that they are heavier, they can be louder than a mask, and they're certainly more expensive than a fencing mask. That said, a famous saying in the helmet-using community goes, "Use a hundred dollar helmet to protect a hundred dollar head."
When buying a helmet, there are a lot of things to consider. How thick should the helmet be? Too thick, and the weight becomes unmanageable, but too thin and you'll be losing out on either protection or durability. Generally something of either 14 or 16 gauge steel is recommended. Another important concern is visibility: If you're just wearing a helmet for protection, and not to simulate medieval/renaissance armour, you'll want to have as much visibility as possible. And as we heard about back in March, a good, period-style helmet doesn't necessarily mean that your eyes are safe: even a blunt plastic sword can slip through an eyeslit if it's not reinforced with bars, mesh, or perforated steel.
As usual, if you don't have a lot of experience with equipment, make sure that you talk to someone who does before you make a final decision.
Of course, there's got to be a plug! In the next week or so, the Academie Duello Store will be getting its first shipment of Windrose Armoury Fiore Sparring Helmets.
Designed specifically with Western Martial Arts in mind, the Fiore sparring helmet is constructed of 16 gauge mild steel throughout. The perforated steel face plate offers outstanding vision, breathing and protection, while the short back plate offers protection without impeding mobility. The center pivot visor is attached using a threaded hinge that can readily allow the wearer to change face plates for differing conditions.
The helmets are available with a pierced visor (the silver one, in the picture, with the black bib) or with a perf-plate visor (that's the black visor, red bib), which allows for a bit more visibility. There are also different bib colours: Red, black, green, and blue for the X small and small sizes, and (currently) just black for the medium and large sizes.
X-Small: 21 1/2" to 22" (not in first shipment, but coming soon!)