A safety critique of Steampunk umbrella fencing/dueling (or, “It’s all fun until someone loses an eye”)
Umbrella fencing, also known as umbrella dueling, is a sport or game that has been played at some Steampunk gatherings in the UK and USA. The purpose of this article is to encourage umbrella fencers to enjoy this activity safely, in the light of many years of experience in martial arts, fencing and related areas.
A little history
The concept of umbrella fencing as a sport was first proposed in 1897 by satirist J.F. Sullivan, in his tongue-in-cheek article The Umbrella: A Misunderstood Weapon. The actual teaching of umbrella fencing as self-defence, however, has a pedigree extending back to the earliest years of the Victorian era, reaching a pinnacle in the first decade of the 20th century.
Ominously, 19th and 20th century newspaper archives contain numerous reports of serious injuries and even deaths reported as the result of umbrella thrusts, delivered both accidentally and deliberately.
Parasol dueling: no contact, no problem
For the sake of clarity, it’s necessary to distinguish umbrella fencing/dueling from parasol dueling. The latter, which also features at steampunk gatherings, is a strictly non-contact game, similar to “rock, paper, scissors”, in which players compete by performing various poses and flourishes with their parasols. Because it’s played without contact, parasol dueling is essentially safe.
In umbrella fencing/dueling, on the other hand, players attempt to score points by making contact with their opponents. As such, it’s directly comparable to foil fencing, Bartitsu stick fighting and similar combat sports. Unfortunately, the fact that umbrella fencing is played in the fun, friendly context of a steampunk gathering doesn’t lessen the potential danger of thrusting a rigid, pointed object at another person.
There are currently two distinct steampunk umbrella fencing styles or rule-sets, alternately described as “umbrella fencing” and “umbrella dueling”.
It’s OK, I have a sieve
In the first variant, players must stand at a prescribed distance from each other, as delineated by markings on the floor or ground. They are equipped with small umbrellas and with sieves, which are held up in front of the players’ faces in the manner of fencing masks. Two small balls are balanced on the sieves, attached with short cords, and the object is for each player to attempt to knock the balls off his/her opponent’s sieve, while avoiding their attempts to do the same thing. Contact is made with the opponent’s umbrella, the sieve, or the balls themselves.
Even though deliberate contact with the opponent’s face and head is not allowed, accidental contact could still be extremely dangerous. It is too easy for a stray or redirected thrust to bypass the sieve, or for an inexperienced player to inadvertently lower his/her sieve at exactly the wrong moment, as happens at 0.31 in the video above. Essentially, as fun, silly and ironic as it is, a hand-held sieve is not adequate protection for a game that involves thrusting and striking towards someone else’s head and face with a rigid, pointed object. Whereas a light downward blow to the crown of the head would probably be harmless, a thrust accidentally entering the eye socket could cause horrific injuries.
The best way to keep the spirit of this game intact while ensuring safety will be to have the players wear fencing masks and reposition the balls so that they are balanced on the mask. A similar game is played at Renaissance Faires and is safe enough for young children to take part:
Even a sieve is better than nothing
The second variant (most commonly referred to as “umbrella dueling”) is played with full-size umbrellas. It involves no prescribed fighting distance and may include no protection at all, apart from a rule that any contact with the opponent’s head or face will be grounds for disqualification. Some players also wear steampunk goggles, whose actual protective value against umbrella thrusts is questionable. In any case, the object is to score a thrust with the tip of the umbrella against the opponent’s body.
This variant is essentially limited-target thrust fencing using umbrellas – which are actually heavier and more rigid than fencing foils, and are just as apt to cause serious and even life-threatening injuries if accidentally thrust into an opponent’s eyes, ears, nose, mouth or throat. The hands, unprotected by either padded gloves or guards on the umbrellas, are also extremely vulnerable.
Again, accepting that players genuinely don’t intend to risk their opponent’s safety, this is still a very dangerous game. It’s extremely difficult for a novice fencer to accurately judge their own speed, power or aim. It’s also far too easy for a thrust aimed at the opponent’s body to be accidentally redirected into their face by his/her own parry or bind (a defensive action in which one weapon pushes or presses the other).
A hidden danger
The type(s) of umbrellas used should also be considered from the safety point of view. Umbrellas with hollow steel, wooden, bamboo or hollow fiberglass shafts can all crack unexpectedly, leaving a jagged, dagger-like splinter projecting from the handle.
The same thing can (and does) happen even with actual fencing foils, which is why fencers wear jackets made of puncture-resistant fabric. The most dangerous scenario in this vein is when a weapon breaks on contact with the opponent’s weapon or body and then continues thrusting forward, allowing no time for anyone involved to realise the sudden danger, as in the tragic death of fencer Vladimir Smirnov in 1982.
According to this article, umbrella duelists at the Steampunk Symposium event in Cincinnati, Ohio used Unbreakable Umbrellas in their duels. Designed and manufactured for real self-defence, the Unbreakable Umbrella features a solid fiberglass shaft. It will not break, but its weight and rigidity are far greater than those of ordinary umbrellas, presenting an additional set of safety concerns. On the bright side, the article notes that future umbrella fencing competitors at this event will be required to wear protective vests and proper fencing masks.
Despite the signing of waivers and the issuing of safety warnings, it’s irresponsible for event organisers to allow umbrella fencing matches without proper protection. It’s too easy to be lulled by the playful, anarchic steampunk ethos into ignoring or laughing off serious safety concerns. Aside from the immediate physical dangers, a successful lawsuit could easily bring about the permanent end of an otherwise successful and enjoyable conference.
With a very small investment into basic safety equipment, however, umbrella fencing has the potential to continue as an enjoyably silly steampunk sport.