There are very few companies that can say they have gone on for one hundred years, but Leon Paul is one of them. When the company was founded by Barry Paul’s grandfather, Leon Paul, no one could have foreseen the changes that would come in the world of fencing. Yet here we are, ten decades later, looking towards the evolving future of fencing with the now iconic innovation of this company. The legacy of this fencing equipment manufacturer is now in the hands of Barry’s sons, Alex and Ben, but he continues to be a thought leader with pertinent opinions about the sport.
The details of making something as simple as a mask or a fencing bag are far more complex than most of us think about every day when we pick up these objects in a fencing club. Every piece requires refining and effort to make it function in our daily fencing lives. Barry Paul’s understanding of and insight into how these processes work now and have changed over the decades is fascinating for any fencer.
Interview with Barry Paul
Igor: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It’s truly a privilege.
Barry Paul: Thank you for having me.
The generational history of Leon Paul
IG: One of the very interesting things about your family is the history. You are the only family I happen to know with a multi-generational business that’s been going for a hundred years.
BP: Just about, yeah a hundred years. We incorporated in 1920, but we were actually running before that by my grandfather Leon Paul. He came over as a teacher from France in 1908, then he went back to France where he got drafted as a translator and a teacher of fencing in the First World War. Then in the Second World War he was in England teaching fencing, while my father was in the Army and he landed on D-Day on the beach in an amphibious assault jeep.
As a fencer I was a world-class fencer, being classified at one point in the top 10. My best individual result was fifth in the Rommel, (which was a foil event in Paris equivalent to today’s A Grade). For two seasons I reached the quarter-final of the world championships (four poules of 6) being combined or refereed out of reaching the semi-finals. I went to a couple of Olympics. In the Olympic foil team in Montreal, we beat Romania in the poules, in the last 8 we lost to France, eventually being placed 6 after beating America and losing to Poland.
IG: That is fantastic. You have kept this fencing in your family going year over year at a high level, for four generations. How do you pass the knowledge and the passion and keep your kids interested?
BP: Most family companies struggle to keep the business going for three generations, let alone four. I think in our case a continuation to the fourth generation was a mixture of circumstance and the sport itself. In the early part of the century successful firms with ownership by several heads of families ended up with a large spread of share ownership. The firms can grow with family members not involved in the day to day running happy to get their dividend payments. When times are hard, dividends dry up and family members start to fall out. The firms become open to takeovers and collapse.
My grandfather started the business, my father Rene and his sister helped working in their spare time throughout the war years. After the end of the war my uncle Raymond joined it and eventually they took over joint ownership and running of the firm. My Father and Uncle were both world class fencers. My uncle Raymond was a great fencer, and when I say that, there’s a difference between someone being well trained and someone being a great fencer. He could create hits using tactics, skill, and analyzing his opponents. My brother and I were both international world class fencers. In my brother’s case he was almost as successful at epee and was one of the last fencers on the international stage fencing at two weapons.
I decided during my last years at school that I wanted to join the firm and a degree in engineering would be useful. Choosing Mechanical Engineering at the Queen Mary College London engineering not least because most other courses demanded a foreign language and English O level, which due to undiagnosed dyslexia I had not managed to achieve. Spending too much time fencing I failed my second year exams and had to retake the second year exams a year later.
My brother wasn’t interested in joining the firm. He did a PhD at the Imperial College and then taught engineering, later on he came in and helped when we had technical problems. It was with his help that we first set up internet sales.
In the late 1990s the firm had been passed to Raymond’s son Steven (a world class epee fencer and fencing coach ) and myself. Times were hard and after some difficulties I purchased Steven’s shares and took over the company with my wife Joan.
By hard work including working 24 weekends a year at competitions, Joan and I brought the company back into a more sustainable financial position, strengthening our position in the home market and abroad. The internet was becoming more important allowing us to move away from bulk sales of components at low prices to companies such as Santelli to individual more profitable sales.
Both our sons Alex and Ben joined the company in the early 2000s and took over the sales, marketing, internet and some product development.
Now my wife and I are still co-directors and we do have some shares, but our sons run the firm completely, they are doing a great job.
IG: You are most like the wise consultant that gives them advice.
BP: Advice, which they don’t listen to. (laughing) Yes, they do listen to us. It’s fun. But in general, there’s nothing that certain in the last couple of years that we felt strongly about, that we saw that something must be done or whatever. They’ve got completely a free hand and they run the firm.
IG: How does their dynamic work?
BP: Alex did a degree in biology and approaches things from a sort of scientific point of view. He tends to run the technical parts of the business – the forging, the engineering, the electronics in particular. He spent a lot of time on the wireless project that we’ve been running. He understands computers, computer programming, and the software we use on our various platforms. I feel that Ben’s strengths are creativity, image-making, and people skills. His background is in the arts as well as computer science. A brilliant presenter, at Alex’s wedding Ben’s best man’s speech was so funny I was asked if his day job was as a stand up comedian.
IG: Who calls the shots in the company?
BP: It’s a team. They discuss things until they come to an agreement. We have not yet been called in to arbitrate. They work at the same office, the same room, and they discuss things, and so far so good.
IG: Apparently, Leon Paul does very well. Some of the products, in my opinion, are totally the best. I think they’re different. An innovative company. There’s always something new and interesting to watch for. The mask with the bib is an interesting concept.
BP: The mask was my idea along with the foldable epee blades. If you go to a school or give those epee blades to kids or children, they last forever and they’re very popular in the educational field. If you’ve grown up on them they’re fine. I understand if you’re world class, the slightly different inertial effects of the tip means you want something stiffer. In terms of the number we’ve sold, it’s done well.
IG: There are two aspects – the feeling and the business, and they don’t necessarily have to agree on everything. But if the business is going, that’s good. I love the mask. I think it’s a fantastic invention and it’s definitely different. I’m kind of surprised why nobody else copied the concept.
BP: It’s covered by some patents, but the basic concept looks easy but mass producing safely is challenging. There’s less and less top manufacturers out there making enough money to make it worthwhile. There’s quite a lot of inertia in the fencing manufacturing world. It’s easier and more profitable to do what you know you can do. There’s also a high cost. That material is expensive, so you’ve got to buy in bulk so you’ll be able to stock up on all sizes, so it can be quite prohibitive. We have managed to get to a size where we could afford to put the necessary investment into whatever new technology we were looking at. Clothing, mask making, blade development, wireless fencing etc Going on about masks, one of my prophecies about the future is that there will be visor masks so good that the fencers will want to wear them.
IG: So you like the visor mask concept.
BP: I think it’s inevitable. Go to anyone and say, “Do you think you’ll be looking through this wire mesh gauze in ten years’ time, or do you think you’ll be looking through something like this visor.” The answer to me is patently obvious. There is no unsolvable technical problem whatsoever about making a safe visor mask, but it will be hugely expensive and complex.
IG: I have never fenced myself in a visor mask, so I have no idea how the feeling will be. I understand that I will be seeing things clearly. I don’t know how it will affect my breathing.
BP: It doesn’t affect breathing. We actually went and did testing in the laboratory using our masks, our competitor’s masks, and ordinary masks. If you put one of our masks on, it was fine. It was no worse than the best standard mask. We had the facts, and we understood the physics and the science involved behind it.
There are some examples when technical and testing details weren’t fully understood by people making decisions. Here’s one example.
I was involved right in the beginning in the EU testing PPE, so that there was a working party working on the PPE regulations for fencing equipment. I eventually became the chairman of the working group right before I retired. I know how to test stuff, what we should be doing, what we should be looking at.
One of the things that we did with this kind of testing was when we had these horrendous accidents in saber. We had these flickover hits that weren’t really hits. So they introduced regulations saying that the blades must be stiffer. What no one realized was that the blades were now stiffer than epee blades. You had a small tip now, so that now the individual force per unit area that it exerts is high. Because they wanted to get rid of double hits, they made the cutoff time shorter between one hit and the riposte. The double time is much reduced. What happens there is that fencers realize they can’t do the parry riposte. As they go into riposte, the opponent redoubles, hits him, and the riposte is out of time, it’s locked out. So, you’re now changing fencing completely, which I don’t think they understood. Now what you do is a point attack and immediately remise on the straight arm. You don’t want to wait for their parry. Even if they parry, you immediately remise. You’ve got a straight arm, very stiff blade, it’s going to hit the hand and go into the hand.
We had horrendous hits going to the glove here up the arm and into the arm.
The problem they said at first is the gloves are wet. From my experience, I know that if you wet fencing equipment and then test it, in general it’s slightly stronger. There are technical reasons for that. They insisted on all saber fencers having dry gloves. I then did some testing on wet leather, dry leather, whatever cloth, and it turns out I’m right.
IG: When you say the glove is wet, is it because of sweat? How can you prevent the glove from being wet?
BP: Well, you can change it all the time.
IG: Like after a few hits?
BP: For the finals at the World Championships, they’d go and check and see if their glove was wet and they’d have to change it. That’s a safety thing. Eventually it turns out that what you need is a glove that’s stronger, eight hundred newtons. Particularly, going into the fingers in the filet, which is what you have in modern gloves, eight hundred in the back. Now we’ve got a lot less in the way of accidents with that. They’ve almost stopped completely.
IG: The assumption was that because the glove is wet from the sweat, it gives up.
BP: It’s exactly the same strength though. Their theory was that a wet glove is a dangerous glove, but the reality is that the wet glove makes no difference at all to its strength. What you needed was a stronger glove, and that solves it.
IG: Now it’s eight hundred newtons, what was the strength before?
BP: Two hundred maybe.
IG: Oh, that’s a significant change.
BP: Enough to stop the penetrations.
IG: What in your opinion could or should be done to increase the popularity of fencing? What is missing?
BP: That is a difficult question. However, I certainly think that back in 1975 to 1980, I was concerned about what was happening in England in coaching and fencing. It was being run by professionals, who tightly controlled the issuing of coaching awards, etc. I introduced a club leaders award where you didn’t need a highly paid national coach to teach a six year old how to hold a foil. You just needed someone that you had trained to do a club leader’s course. Eventually, I persuaded the professionals in England that this was a good move, and not only that but they got paid for running the courses to teach the club leaders that they could then take out to schools. We developed Mini Fence and Mini Fence 2, using foam swords and plastic masks quite successfully. We then got children’s fencing very popular using the Leon Paul’s Junior Series. What you need to get kids interested is going to competitions, everyone getting something, whatever it takes at a young age to get them interested and involved. We ran very successfully the Leon Paul Junior Series, which is still running successfully in England. That has been a big motivator in England to get participation up in fencing. In America, similar schemes are run, and I think that is very important for fencing.
On the other end of the scale, I see a long term opportunity as we retire earlier and live longer, for veteran fencing. It’s a perfect sport to keep on going till you drop down dead.
There are more and more scientific reports of the importance of keeping muscle mass and keeping moving and keeping up overall level of fitness. Fencing is the perfect sport for this. At least half of the UK veteran team are made up of fencers who only started having taken their children to Kids fencing events and then taking up fencing in their 40’s.
IG: In the USA, the huge drive for popularity is university. How does that look in the UK? Do they have sports teams?
BP: Well, nothing like they do in America. So you don’t get into any university because you’re a good fencer or rugby player. You used to be able to get into Oxford or Cambridge because you were a good rower or a top footballer, but no longer. This doesn’t drive fencing in England at all and I don’t think in any other country other than America. It’s completely different.
In France, they seem to have hit a ceiling with the number of people that fence. Lots of money goes to local sports centers where they run fencing, but judo is still more popular than fencing.
IG: It’s still probably the country where fencing is the most popular among all other countries, right?
BP: Yes, I think so. Although it has for whatever reason it has gone into a slight decline over the last few years. The results have helped counter this, I think. France’s Olympic results have got better. They have won some medals and that has seen an increase in fencing in France. It’s going to be interesting to see as COVID unwinds, and that’s going to take longer than people think. Fencing is going to get back to some kind of normality by the end of summer and then we’re going to see what happens. Whether the Olympics will go ahead in Tokyo.
IG: I hope they will keep it, and we will see it.
Presentation matters, absolutely
BP: How to get it popular in the world at the international level, certainly presentation has been very important. I’ve always believed in presenting fencing, certainly finals, on a raised piste, with proper lighting and see through masks. For example, lighting the mask from inside, which Ben has been doing some work on with FIE, so that when you get a hit not only does it light up, but it lights up the face so you can see it. You can see surprisingly a lot of the face through the mesh as long as the light is coming out. When the light is going in you don’t get enough illumination. There are issues with that, obviously if you’re blinding the fencer if suddenly a light comes on. Visor masks make this an easy possibility. When you see all the athlete’s emotions on display, it’s fantastic for the observers because that’s what we love in sports – the drama, expressed on the fencer’s face. Visor masks are only one part of the presentation.
I thought the raised pistes we designed and manufactured for the Atlanta olympics were very good. I’ve always believed that you should be fencing on a raised, sprung piste because it makes the fencing more exciting. It’s easier to move quickly. You can bounce along it, getting faster. I’m a great believer in that sort of thing. A bit like a gymnast. When I was fifth in the Rommel, there was a raised sprung piste, by the time I got to the final, I couldn’t step up onto the piste. My leg muscles were so tired. I virtually had to lift one leg onto the piste and then the other. Once you got going and you relaxed, it meant I was able to move quite well.
One of the things that we did and I’m most proud of is the piste lighting and arrangement at the Olympics in London. I think that it showed fencing at its very very best.
Each element of the presentation was designed to complement an overall look. The coloured aluminium sectional pistes first invented by us and first used at the Atlanta Olympics. The low profile floor mounted lights and main piste underlighting created a futuristic field of play. I thought that it looked fantastic. We made a prototype and said, “This is what fencing and the FIE need.” We set it up in an empty factory next to us to try it out. It cost us quite a bit of money in the end, and although we were well paid for it, there was a lot of development costs. A hundred thousand LEDs were in it. To make sure all the connections were good, we got all the contacts gold plated. It meant that there was no loss in resistivity in the whole thing. The feedback that we got from it was really positive.
IG: Presentation matters, right?
BP: Presentation matters absolutely.
IG: In terms of impact, the presentation of the London Olympics obviously was beautiful and for Leon Paul it probably was an extremely important marketing event as well. How do you estimate the effects of the Olympics?
BP: Certainly, every time there’s an Olympics that comes around, sales increase worldwide. I think without it, fencing would really struggle. Introducing the team relay was great – some of the most exciting fencing exists because of team relay. It’s just phenomenal to watch.
IG: It is the most enjoyable event, yes. It definitely changed the format of team events and it became very, very watchable.
BP: I mean, just wonderful. Even second rate teams with one really strong fencer can nearly win a gold medal on his own or lose it. It just produces some fantastic fencing. I remember watching a match for a Gold medal, the last fencer comes on and he loses nine hits and loses the team gold medal. I never saw him again and he was crushed. Poor man. But it was exciting.
IG: Do you know a few of the details about how this team relay was conceived and introduced?
BP: From what I understand, it was mainly a concept by the then FIE President Rene Roch, that was a bit like tag racing or even tag wrestling. It just works. It’s just a fantastic idea. I think a lot of people were probably against it, that it can’t work and this and that, but it does work. I think we will see probably some multi-sex events, three weapons.
IG: It’s the drama. What were some of your experiences as a fencer?
BP: In my day, when I was fencing, I was a very aggressive fencer. Fast attacking fencer. Classical foil. What I think people don’t realize is that certain types of fencing you need to be aroused to really go for an attack. My classic move would be to move my opponent back towards the rear line, take their blade and then go for them. With a step lunge or fleche, with direct or disengaged or double. That’s a bit old fashioned, but I could do it quite well. That was arousal. Then I would go down the piste and I would slap myself, or the spool, or the foot, just to keep my arousal on the pitch. I would always be told, “Ah, no, you’ve lost it. You’re losing it.” I’d say that I’d got this at a perfect pitch. You don’t want to be too aroused and you don’t want to be too unaroused. That is one of the skills in fencing.
If you want to understand fencing, read “Understanding Fencing” by Zbigniew Czajkowski. Reading through the chapters I saw me. How I was performing, overtraining, undertraining, overexcited, under excited, and how it affected me. I wish I had read that in the beginning of my career. I got into a competition in Poland, got into the final, I was doing well till my last fight. Ugh. I’m four and one down. Ugh. There’s a one-minute break. I come off the piste and I’m wiping myself down, and Czajkowski was there and I said, “What do I do?” He used to smoke a pipe all the time. He puffed away at his pipe and said “Barry, try fencing.” Oh, that’s a novel approach. Ok, calm down, and try fencing. I win the fight five-four, because I then went back to fencing instead of rushing or getting over excited. That’s my top tip for foilists. Read the book.
The next big thing in fencing
IG: That is an incredible story and a great recommendation. As a leader of the innovation arm of Leon Paul, what do you think is next?
BP: We have recently invested a lot in blade manufacture, basically revamping the forging plant I built 35 years ago, Alex has retooled to make better foil blades and a new maraging sabre blade which will be compulsory in the next season. Ben has a project which I don’t know much about using gaming and headset technology. He introduced at the World Championships in Leipzig 2017 a sample of a sprung raised piste with a surface of transparent glass with the ability to display piste markings, names and special effects . I hope if not introduced in Tokyo maybe in Paris.
We were talking about what’s going to make fencing better and greater. I think that going forward I mentioned veterans, which is one driver. Wireless fencing is going to be the next big thing. We’ve spent probably a million pounds on developing it. When we started, we decided rather than starting from the top, we’d start from the bottom and get it introduced at the club level. The market’s a lot bigger at the club level. Running world class events is not a huge market for equipment sales, and neither is running Olympics every four years. It’s not where the emphasis should be. The wireless system we’ve got now is one that will work for clubs. Especially here in England where we don’t have many fixed facilities. You’ve got a club coming in and setting up in a gym or hall or badminton club, running their fencing for three hours and then putting it all away. If you’ve got eight piste to put out, that’s a lot of kit to look after, bring all the cables in, look after the batteries and the box or whatever. With club fencing, it’s also so much better for development. The kids adapt to it. When there’s an odd hit that registers because the fencer is sweaty or whatever, they don’t have a hissy fit, they just say “Oh that was on me, let’s fence on.”
It’s the way forward for the long term. That’s gonna appeal to a lot of fencers. It will make it more enjoyable and easier to fence anywhere. In the park, outside. Certainly some of this virus worries made people go and fence outside. It turns out that it’s not so difficult to fence outside, and it’s quite enjoyable. That’s going to catch on. With wireless fencing, I think we’re probably at some point going to see a spin off, which kind of exists at the moment, with Star Wars type fencing. I think there’ll be a minor branch of that. Who knows, maybe the Olympics will find it so compelling as they did in skateboarding or other things, they’ll have a Star Wars type competition. Interesting to see. It’d look good.
Maybe it’s that the technology hasn’t gotten there. Because if it was a real lightsaber, if you really hit someone, you’d cut their arm off. Maybe a spin off of this wireless will be doable Star Wars type competition in fencing. We shall see.
IG: Change is slow in fencing, even in the last quarter century.
BP: Walking around our factory the other day, it’s amazing to see the speed of innovation in terms of tooling, machining, forging equipment, the 3D printing. It’s only going to get better. There will be a day when a fencer will step into a booth and it will take a biometric image of everything – his hands, his arms, his body – and he’ll have it on a disc or on our records. Then he’ll order a glove exactly to his size, and then he’ll have it made, probably in England or a suit exactly fitting him. A lot of stuff to come.
IG: Wow, that’s amazing. I’ve always looked at Leon Paul as a fencing equipment innovator. The Leon Paul bag is a life saver for me. I have four kids that are fencing and I use two Leon Paul bags to carry them to all the competitions.
Then I rediscovered our Leon Paul wireless kits and we started to use them in the pandemic. I had two wireless kits and we had to rotate them. It was at least some thrill of electric fencing in our parking lot, which was fantastic.
BP: Thank you for that. Going back to this tooling in relation to the bags. I was at work a couple of days ago. They were doing some work on a new wheely bag. The question of getting a working bag end piece with wheels designs so it can stand upright. They are producing a prototype on a 3D printing machine two foot by two foot by about six inches high. It makes it perfectly suitable for doing R&D and testing. These are just amazing pieces of technology. Once you’ve got the sample, you can go and make them in quantity by having a plastic injection mold made, but for fencing with production runs in the thousands not millions it will not be long before 3D printing is a cheaper option.
We are already making a production part for wireless fencing by 3D printing.
IG: Thank you Barry for such an interesting discussion. It’s been a pleasure to meet you.
BP: Interesting, definitely. We’ll see you around at some point and thank you very much.
This interview has been edited down for time and readability after our wide ranging interview with Barry Paul. It is published with his approval on this blog.
Thank you so much to the remarkable and knowledgeable innovator of fencing equipment, Barry Paul, who gave us the kind of in depth access to his thought processes that took our understanding of this sport to another level. AFM is truly honored to be able to take advantage of your wisdom, and we thank you for your incredible dedication to fencing!