Buying any type of gear for the first time can be a bit overwhelming. Makes, models, function, purpose, style, durability, price, and many other factors can make it difficult to know if your purchase is right for you. Everyone has different expectations for their gear. Today I would like to discuss characteristics of bucklers I observed to hopefully make your first purchase easier. This is less of a recommendation for THE buckler for everyone and more of a list of observations I have on types of bucklers.
To simplify the variation a bit, I am only going to discuss round bucklers today.
14 gauge steel bucklers are arguably the most durable bucklers on the market due to the sheer thickness of the metal. The lower the gauge, the thicker the steel. Unfortunately, a 14 gauge steel buckler can feel a little slow and heavy in the hand due to the thickness and weight. One advantage to the weight and thickness is that when the buckler is struck with a sword, the buckler does not move nearly as much in the hand. This gives the fencer one less thing to think about while sparring because the fencer does not have to think about re-gripping the buckler after a strike. For me, it feels like my opponent’s sword bounces off the buckler after impact instead of the other way around.
16 gauge steel bucklers are a lighter and fairly durable option for a first buckler. While they are not as thick as their 14 gauge counterparts, the 16 gauge buckler does offer a light and quick feel for a buckler. While these bucklers likely will not last forever, they still will carry fencers through plenty of fights. Because the metal is thinner, it is not difficult to hammer and reshape the buckler to get a few more fights out of them too. 16 gauge bucklers seem to be the most popular in HEMA and have the most variety for purchase at this time.
Polypropylene bucklers offer an incredibly durable and near zero maintenance option for your first buckler. To counter steel swords biting into the buckler and taking chunks out, these bucklers come thick so they can take a beating. Polypropylene bucklers are also fantastic options for fencers that are largely using plastic sparring swords since steel bucklers can damage plastic swords. Unfortunately, there are not many options for polypropylene bucklers on the market right now so if there are other features of these bucklers that are less ideal for you then you may have to pass on this option.
Leather or wooden bucklers add an interesting dynamic to the sword and buckler fight. They do not take direct impact as well as steel bucklers which forces the fencer to perform more parrying motions with the buckler. Unfortunately, because of the cost of wooden or leather bucklers, I cannot recommend them to a first time buckler buyer. While they add variety to the sword and buckler fight, they just are not as durable as the buckler material types mentioned above. For a first buckler, I recommend a buckler that is more durable to give you time to warm up to the feeling of the buckler in your hands.
U shaped Grips are probably the most common grip types for bucklers. The U shaped grip allows for room between the handle and the boss for bigger hands and heavier fencing gloves. In some situations, these grips can be raised too high leading to the buckler rotating in the hand on impact. However, I have not experienced this problem with any of the bucklers I have purchased. Just be aware of how high the grip seems raised when you compare your potential purchase to other bucklers.
Bar Grips are the less common presently but more historically common buckler grip options. Bar grips can be surprisingly effective since the grip is closer to the true center of balance of the buckler, reducing the chance of the buckler rotating in the hand. However, bar grips can be restrictive for people with bigger hands or while wearing fencing gloves. Another word of caution is that some bar grips are so thick that the buckler feels less secure in the hand resulting in difficulty gripping during defensive actions. Some people also do not like thinner bar gripped bucklers because they feel they need to hold the bar too tightly to keep it secure. This issue can be mitigated by adding some grip tape or twine rope to increase the thickness for a more comfortable grip.
Single point fasteners use one fastener on each side of the grip to secure it to the buckler. Single point fasteners for U shaped grips seem to quickly lead to rattling and loose handles. To get the most out of this fastener type, I recommend securing the grip to the buckler with some epoxy. I have not experienced rattling grips with my bucklers that have an excess amount of epoxy applied to them. For flat bar grip bucklers, single point fasteners seem to get the job done and keep the grip nice and secure without assistance of an adhesive.
Horizontal two point fasteners have the two fasteners running perpendicular to the direction of the grip. This has proven to be a resilient configuration for the fasteners that has kept the grips on my bucklers secure. I have yet to need to epoxy the grip on these bucklers. For U shaped grips, I highly recommend this type of fastened grip on your buckler.
Vertical two point fasteners bucklers have the grip secured with fasteners that are parallel to the grip. I honestly have never tried using a buckler with this design due to the fact that I think they will lead to the same loose handle issue that a single point fastener would have. When I hold a buckler, the grip faces perpendicular to the ground leading to many strikes coming from the sides. This makes me think vertical two point fastener grips will just become loose on the buckler like a single point fastener. If anyone has first-hand experience with these types of bucklers, I would love to hear your thoughts!
For the buckler sizes, these are generally observations of the 3 most common buckler sizes. Generally, I have found that these observations apply for every buckler size in between if you pick the closest size below.
9 inch bucklers are fun and awesome bucklers that help hammer in the principles of good sword and buckler combat. HOWEVER, they are small and can be frustrating to learn with as a first buckler. If you want a challenge while fencing, the 9 inch buckler is awesome! If you want a buckler that will be easier to use for competition, training, and sparring, you may want to look at getting a bigger buckler. If you are an instructor, I highly recommend having a pair of 9 inch bucklers to bust out for your students to up the difficulty level. Nothing shows a fencer that they are relying on the buckler instead of the sword for their primary defense quite like a 9 inch buckler.
12 inch bucklers are great bucklers and generally considered the standard for HEMA. They offer a buckler that is large enough to cover most hands with gloves on, while also being small enough that most if not all sword and buckler techniques from all systems can be performed. 12 inch bucklers are always tournament legal and are very easy to find wherever you are shopping for bucklers.
15 inch bucklers are the largest (mostly) tournament legal bucklers out there. They are great defensive measures and really can make buckler defense easy. Unfortunately, a fair number of tournaments ban bucklers over 14 inches. Another drawback for 15 inch bucklers is their weight. I have also observed that for I.33 sword and buckler techniques, 15 inch bucklers seem to get in the way of quick strikes from the wrist during a bind. That being said, for larger fencers, 15 inch bucklers may be just fine for them. For basket hilted sword and buckler combat, I always try to compete with a 15 inch buckler.
For me, I prefer a 14 gauge, U shape gripped, horizontal two fastened, 12 inch buckler. For others, they may prefer 16 gauge because of its light agile feel. The choice is up to you and is different for every person. At the end of the day, your first buckler will likely not be the perfect buckler for you. As you learn and grow as a fencer, your likes and dislikes with types of gear will change. My hope is that my observations above can help you make a first buckler purchase that you can be happy with.