Care & Feeding of Weapons, Electrical : Part 1
by Michael Mergens
“This is your rifle, it is your best friend. Take care of it and it’ll take care of you”
Sounds pretty trite, or John Wayne-ish, but if you’ve been in the middle of a tournament and all of a sudden every weapon you had craps out on you, it suddenly comes home to roost. While not entirely reliable, most electric fencing weapons will last one or two tournaments with out causing you much trouble. The tricky part is figuring out when those one or two tournaments are! But all is not lost. Like anything mechanical/electrical, basic maintenance is essential to keeping things running smoothly.
Before every tournament (and preferably not the night before) you should take out all your weapons and check them over. Thoroughly. Don’t just gloss over the fact that there may be a little rust on the blade or guard. Or that, yeah it works, but that little flutter in the light doesn’t mean anything. Know the aspects of each weapon you fence and what will get you in trouble either on strip or at the weapons check-in.
Start with the basic function. First make sure you have a working body cord. Then plug the weapon into the test box. You should get a light (red or green, depending on how your box is wired). Now depress the tip. The light should go off. So far, so good. Now place the guard on the edge of a table, point up, and test it with your 500g weight. Push the weight down. The spring should lift it back up. Now place a nickel or quarter on the weight. The spring should still hold up the weight and the coin. If not, the spring could go soft on you during a bout and cause it to fail the next time you fence. Also, even though the rules state the weights should be 2g of the nominal weight, many are not, so this will give you some added insurance. NOTE: After EVERY bout, check your weights.
Now (with the weapon still plugged in) check the wire that goes to the connector. The spaghetti cord should go all the way to the connector (no exposed wire, insulated or not). Gently wiggle the wire. The light should stay lit. Also, if the connection is going to break, this should make it fail. Better now while you can fix it without the angst of trying to do it during the tournament.
Now check the barrel. Is it tight? If not tighten it (but not more than ¾ of a turn; if it is that loose, you run the risk of breaking the wire). Is your handle tight? Now, shake the weapon. The light should not flicker. Beat the weapon against your foot. The light, again, shouldn’t flicker.
Check the wire in the blade for the entire length of the blade. Has it popped out of the groove? Are there any places where it looks like the insulation has worn away? In both cases, re-glue the wire.
Check your tip tape. Is it in good shape? If not, replace it. Why? Because if the tip AND the blade make contact with your opponent’s lame`, the hit won’t register. Remember, you want it to be 15cm down the blade. There is no tolerance on this, but don’t go overboard. If your opponent hits your blade and you have tape almost half way down it, it will register as an off target.
Which brings us to removing corrosion from both your blade and bell guard. Corrosion is non-conductive; therefore any contact with it will result in an off-target (not supposed to happen). Use the scotchbrite pad to remove the corrosion and then wipe off the blade with a paper towel. It is a good idea to give the blade a good rubbing down even if you don’t have corrosion to remove any burrs from the edges of you weapon.
Lay your weapon with the bell guard off the edge of the table, blade bend up (the weapon should be resting on the tip and the point where the blade goes through the guard). A 2cm high block should not be able to pass any point under the blade. If it does, take some of the bend out until it will not pass under the blade.
Lastly, with the weapon connected to the test box (or if you are lucky enough to have one handy, a scoring machine) take the blade and bend it back and forth. Watch the light for any flickering that may indicate a fault that you didn’t catch during the visual inspection. (For epee, hold down the tip while you do this)
You should now have a bright shinny, working weapon. If any of the foregoing results in a fault, go to Basic Repairs.
The procedure is essentially the same as for foil. Start with the functional body cord and plug in the weapon. But, this time there should NOT be a light. Depress the tip. The light should go on. Release the tip and it should go off. Take the 1.5mm shim and place it between the tip and the barrel. It should slide in. Now take the 0.5mm shim and place it between the tip and barrel and depress the tip. The light should NOT go off. Check to make sure that you have both screws in the tip. Tighten them (why should I do that? they’re already tight. Guess again!). Check with spring with the 750g weight. Again, put a nickel or quarter on it to make sure you have enough extra strength so that it won’t be a problem.
Check out the two wires at the connector. Do the same test as for foil. Again, check for corrosion. This is especially important for epee because if the light goes off after you’ve tested bell guards at the start of the bout, you loose, unless you can replicate the fault. The 1cm block should not be able to slide under the blade with the weapon resting as described for foil.
Again, you should now have a bright shinny, working weapon. If any of the foregoing results in a fault, go to Basic Repairs.
Checking out body cords involves a basic continuity check of the wires and making sure the connections are tight. You can do this with the test box or the ohmmeter.
For the foil body cord, plug it in to the test box. Short across the two pins and the red light should come on. Then take the alligator clip and connect it to the thin prong. The green light should come on. Check to make sure the screw on the alligator clip is soldered on and that the wire is at least 16” (40cm) long.
For the epee body cord, plug it in and short across the center prong and the one closest to it and the red light should come on. Short across the center prong and the one farthest away from it, and the green light should come on.
If you are checking with the ohmmeter, check either end. Resistance should be less than 1 ohm.
Some pins occasionally need a slight leaf-expansion as part their regular maintenance routine. With a jewelers’ screwdriver or the blade of a small penknife, slightly separate the leaves from the pins to ensure a tight fit into the sockets
In order to check if the connections are tight (usually indicated by a high resistance), start by disassembling the housing around the pins. Check to see that the setscrews are tight and that the wires are firmly seated in the ends of the pins. When checking for tightness, you might want to loosen the screw ¼-turn before re-tightening. Reassemble (easier said than done!).
Two things about lame`s: continuity and cleanliness. In order to check continuity, set the ohmmeter for 1-20 ohms, and keep one probe in one spot. Take the other probe and put slight pressure on it (it’s supposed to be 500g, but unless you want to get a special weight, finger pressure will do) and run it all over the lame`. Resistance should not exceed 5 ohms. Be sure to check the back, too, especially if you have your name stenciled on.
If you have a spot that is over 5 ohms, try taking a scotchbrite pad and rubbing it gently to see if that gets rid of the resistance.
As for cleanliness, soak the lame` in cold water, a tablespoon of Woolite and a tablespoon of ammonia. Rinse and air dry. Check again to make sure nothing has gone south in the meantime.
Lamés should not be folded. Hang them on a hanger when storing them. Folding could cause multiple broken wires in the conductive materials over time. If you are traveling with your lame`, lay it out flat on a towel and roll it length-wise. This keeps from putting any folds into it.
A visual check of you mask is always a good thing. Make sure the bib is in good repair. Check the mesh of the mask. Are there any really deep dents? If so, take a rubber mallet and gently beat them out. Are there any obvious broken wires? If so, the mask is unsafe and shouldn’t be used. Also look for wires pushed out of position. Sometimes you can merely push them back and they’ll be OK. If you have a mask punch, test it yourself.
Inspect the bib attachment to the mask. If there are any areas where a blade might penetrate this area, use a hot-glue gun to re-attach the bib to the mesh.
Also check the insulation on the mesh. Are there large bare or rusty spots? If there are, and your bib gets soaked with sweat, you can get a connection between your lame` and mask, making your mask target! Thoroughly clean the rust off and touch them or any bare spots, up with glossy black Rustoleum paint (mask off what you don’t want painted with masking tape and newspaper). Then check the location later with your punch to ensure that the rust did not degrade the mask beyond it’s ability to withstand the 12k punch test.
If you have had your mask for a while and have been really working out with it AND your spouse wonders how you manage to stick your face in it with out getting sick, you might want to consider washing it. You can do this either by using the technique for the lame` or just stick it in the dishwasher with regular soap (no jet-dri) and take it out before the drying cycle and let it air dry.