Some time back, I wrote a story about Boffers: (Boffing Article!) Designed by fencer/coach Jack Nottingham, they were the Rolls-Royce of polyethylene toy swords. They could be found for sale via mail order from the Whole Earth Catalog, the 1960s version of Google, but for hippies. The publisher of said catalog, Stewart Brand, once made an appearance on the Dick Cavett show and showed off the proper form and use of boffers. And lo! The interwebs comes through once more. Unless you really like old Dick Cavett shows, you can skip to a little way past the 26 minute mark to see the introduction of boffers followed closely with boffers being put to use in a matchup of Stewart Brand and actor Woody Strode. You can decide who comes out ahead if you want to. But really, in a match of boffers can anyone really be considered a loser? (Dick Cavett gets boff’d. Be aware, this clip starts with some naughty language. Fair warning.)
The original Boffer, complete with hand guard.
The boffers were a polyethylene “sword” with a wooden handle mounted into the “your hand goes here” end. The length was about that of a sabre blade and the shape tapered toward the leading edge, giving it the form of a cutting more than thrusting toy. In short, you’d whack people with it. I’ve handled a couple of these before. The Archive has had a pair for awhile, but they are pretty beat up – one is missing about half its original length – and the donation included just the boffers alone. The full set came not only with a pair of boffers, but foam hand guards and two sets of goggles on an elastic band that also included on the same band a pair of ear-protecting foam circles. Protection and space man costume combined. Win! And yes, you ordered them in pairs.
I don’t know if this would protect you from the coronavirus to any extent, but you’d look good anyway.
Michael D’Asaro Sr. (left) and Charlie Selberg model the boffer ear and eye protective gear. This photo and many others were taken at a beach in Santa Cruz, the idea being the photos would be used to advertise the proper use of the boffer. I’ve never seen an ad that actually used any of the photos for that purpose, but the pictures are fun.
As luck would have it, my one-and-a-half boffers were not the last of the breed. To the rescue of history comes Archive contributor and showrunner for the Pacific Fencing Club, Harold Hayes. Harold had a box stashed away in a corner that contained four boffers in excellent condition, considering their age. Also included was one of the hand guards and two of the masks. You could start a war! However, I think these are going to have to be kept somewhere safe. I don’t know what the half-life is for polyethylene of this vintage might be, but I can’t imagine these would hold up to much whackin’ & bashin’.
Harold’s donation included these four boffers and they are in pretty good shape. One appears to have been repaired at some point and there is only one remaining hand guard.
John McDougall mentioned to me that he remembers seeing Jack Nottingham working on these in San Francisco. They were hand-shaped like a surfboard. No idea what tools would be needed or which flavor of polyethylene you would use to recreate this work. It’s a tempting idea. Performance-wise, these are so much more satisfying than the shabby kids-toy imitations on the market these days.
A close-up of the gripping end. Stability comes from a stick that’s jammed to an unknown depth into the wide end and glued in place. The handle is formed around the end of the stick, presumably made in a mold, and is some sort of poured resin. I don’t have any experience with resin molding, so I don’t know if that’s an easy or hard process. The handles are consistent, one to another, so there was some way to contain the material in the desired shape to create the expected outcome.
I can’t help but wonder if these could be brought back into today’s marketplace. There are certainly foam swords out there. Many a club keeps them handy for birthday parties or other functions with playtime for wee ones who might otherwise put an eye out if handed an actual foil or sabre. But the design of the original is actually really great. They have a nice whippy end for delivering a good, though not painful, whack, the middle part is fairly solid, and the thickest part where the handle attaches gives them a strong forte to make them easy to wield without immediately bending all crazy. You can actually deliver a hit and have it go where you intend to whack. Add the hand guard and the eye and ear protection and you’ve got a world of play without much likelihood of causing permanent damage. The design really is well conceived and the construction is great.
This article from 1974 gives a clue to the fate of boffer production.
In searching through Newspapers.com, a very handy tool for this type of research, I came across the above article that gave me a piece of information that I didn’t expect. First, that Jack had developed the boffer while teaching fencing at Reed College in Portland, Oregon (my wife’s alma mater, by the way). Second, significantly, that he had patented his design and sold the patent before leaving Portland for San Francisco. So if he was still making them in San Francisco, and I have to believe he was, he must have had an arrangement with the patent holders. Or something.
Who knows if the patent is still valid, or if you could create something similar today that would hold up as well – or better – than these originals. Based on Michael & Charlie’s use of them, they certainly look like they’d be a good time at the beach, especially if you didn’t have to be too concerned about replacing them if they took a beating. Anyone looking for an entrepreneurial adventure? Maybe there’s a market out there.