A question I am frequently asked by outsiders: Why are you into antique arms?
Let me elaborate.
Antiques in general, most people will understand. There is craftsmanship, aesthetics, sometimes historical importance. With weapons, reactions vary considerably from "wow" to "what... why?". I think most reactions, positive and negative, are fueled by the common (mis)representation of traditional weapons in movies: The sometimes mythical sword with which a hero cuts through hundreds of villains. Or two armies rushing into each other on the battlefield, blood splattering everywhere. It is not everybody's cup of tea.
Jet Li & Donny Yen fight it out in Hero
It was mine, though. It were these movies that drew me into studying the sword in the first place. The bravery, the romance. I wanted to be a hero like that. Being a short little guy with dark curly hair in a country of predominantly taller people, a sword in my hand gave me a little bit of power. Call it a Napoleon syndrome, I don't care. It is not that I ever intended to actually use a sword, but twirling a reproduction sword around in martial arts training halls made people notice me. It became part of my identity. Naturally, the desire was to eventually own an antique sword. Let's say we can scrap that one off my bucket list by now!
Yours truly doing some morning reading at the office.
From fiction to reality
I wasn't going to be a sword hero. Wrong place, wrong time, and probably not the courage anyway.
But I did stick to the sword, an adventure it became. Through an online forum, I met Philip Tom who stood out far above the other contributors in the quality and comprehensiveness of his posts and replies. You can get a taste of the quality of his work from Some Notable Sabers of the Qing dynasty in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We became good friends, and he has been a great influence and mentor ever since. It was through him that my sword studies took a turn into antiques connoisseurship combined with the historical research that eventually became my day job.
While it was the bloody movies that got me into swords, eventually they became hard to watch. I started to cringe over all the details they got wrong. The ugliness of the predominantly fantasy weapons, the unrealistic methods of using them. Or simply over the stupidity of two armies rushing into each other on an open field, something commanders tended to avoid. Also, the more I read about the reality of warfare, the less I could associate it with romance or heroism. The reality was brutal, a warrior, not something anyone should aspire to be. Frankly, many warriors of earlier times really did not enjoy being warriors. They were often just put in that position one way or another, by being born in a warrior caste or being forced into the army by a powerful lord. It was often a life of extreme hardship and imminent premature death.
"The former banner commandant, deputy commander of the garrison of
Chahar, Kundur baturu Baningga.
Every time he saw the rebels he became furious. Then he wanted to
eliminate them as you would pull out thorns. During the battle of Buraci arrows
were shot, stones were thrown and lances were crossed. He threw himself
into the battle, full of energy, until he fell amidst the rebels. After the
rebel leaders were dismembered, they were sacrificed to honour his loyalty."
Antique arms in historical context
I often hear, "good thing we don't wage war like that anymore". And indeed, it must have been terrifying to face the enemy, sword or spear in hand, wondering whether you will be cut up or live to see another day by inflicting this on others. But in the grand scheme of things, is it, really, less civilized than being shot up by random gunfire? Or bombed from a safe distance?
When reading through old accounts, swordsmen often felt compelled to finish their opponent swiftly where they could, and minimize the suffering of those severely wounded by a quick fatal blow. A privilege that is often not extended to people in conflict zones today who are hit by more random gunfire or bomb shrapnel. Modern warfare seems really only an improvement for the modernized side who can now inflict more damage at less personal risk.
So without getting into more gruesome details, let's agree that the very nature of war is bloody and best avoided at all costs. These old antiques with scars from past battles remind us of times when battle was up-close and personal. I can respect the people who took up these arms for whatever they believed was right, but by now have studied war enough not to glorify or aspire it.
A Chinese tuánliàn jiàn or "militia sword" with simple iron mounts. Edges full of damage.
Swords of this type were used by commoners to defend their towns from rebels.
As symbols of strength and cultivation
Weapons, over the ages, were not merely used to wage bloody wars. In fact, a lot of the antique arms in collections and on the market probably never saw active service. It sounds ironic, but it were armed men with fine weapons and a willingness to fight that have enabled mankind to create safe places were ideas of pacifism can even be discussed.
Think of it, there has not been a place in time yet where high culture, arts, and science thrived without the protection of powerful armies. Often, the threat of war was, and is, enough to prevent one. Sure, in an ideal world the threat of war should not be necessary at all, but unfortunately, this is the world as it is now, and as it always has been. Humans learn, mankind does not.
Furthermore, antique arms are much more than mere implements of war. In many cases, they were a man's (or in some cultures also a woman's) pride. Weapons like European smallswords or Indian katar were frequently worn like jewels, emphasizing one's status in society and exhibiting one's personal tastes and wealth. Bravery and skill was shown by using specific weapons to beat an animal at its own game, like fighting a tiger with a dagger, instead of from a safe distance with bow or gun. While on the subject of hunting, keep in mind that in the old days, nature was still threatening our existence, not the other way around. Tigers plagued the countryside in much of Asia, frequently killing cattle and villagers and so tiger hunting squads were sent out not just for sport, but for survival.
The sword was also a symbol of wisdom, cutting through the veil of ignorance. It was the great equalizer: In fencing traditions of many cultures, one doesn't rely on strength, but rather on technique. One effectively moves the fight from raw physical strength which is in part embued by nature, to technique, which is entirely cultivated. The duel was a test of a man's level of cultivation, his discipline, his bravery. A test of the very essence of his person.
A fine Dutch smallsword with chiseled iron hilt.
Personal vendettas among the elites of the 17th century were fought out with such swords.
Sold in 2020. Listed here.
Same subject, different reasons
Throughout this all, antique arms have always remained my passion but now for different reasons.
Apart from its symbolic value, an antique weapon can tell one more about a culture than perhaps any other antique artifact can. Like today, old military technology often exhibited the best technology that a culture came up with or had access to. We see, for the time, advanced steel compositions and construction techniques in swords and gun barrels. Various approaches to armor from thick steel plate to layers of silk or even paper that could stop early firearm bullets. See my article Chinese paper armor on the latter. Through studying historical archery I learned a lot about early projectile technology and the incredible sophistication of Asian composite bows and their arrows.
Form follows function: You see clever geometry to suit the intended purpose. Curved swords for draw cuts in cultures where the fighting distance is very close, often in societies with a herding background, while straighter swords are generally more common in cultures that predominantly work fields with tools and also in war prefer a slightly further fighting distance. There are also clever ways in which sword and dagger hilts work to suit certain fighting styles.
The Indian bichuwa dagger
It remains on the hand when you open the palm,
so you don't need to drop it in grappling.
Antique arms bring together all forms of craftsmanship: woodwork, iron smithing, fine metalwork, fine textiles and embroidery, inlays, overlays, lacquer work, the delicate carving of various materials, sometimes even gem-setting. No other field of antiques brings together the best of all those arts, sometimes combined into a single object or matched set of objects.
Stone carving and fine metalwork combined in a Chinese jade hilted imperial dagger.
Sold in 2017.
Craftsmanship in horn, bone, gold, textile, steel, wood, silver, and mother-of-pearl.
All combined on a Romanian boyliya paragun.
Soon to be listed...
One will also find decorative motifs and overall aesthetics that reflect prevalent styles in art and architecture of the time. You will find cross-cultural pieces that speak of interest in other cultures and trade relations. Some items will be covered with religious symbolism or general auspicious symbology. Humble, yet substantial and expertly crafted pieces will tell you something about the practical mindset of its intended owner.
A fine Ottoman barrel of the 18th century, famous for their quality.
Mounted as a British sporting rifle in the early 19th century.
Architectural elements in the design of south Indian katar dagger hilts.
The ten avatars of Vishnu, chiseled in the hilt of a south Indian katar.
Such imagery was not merely for show, and was done as meticulously on the inside as the outside.
It was believed to infuse the weapon with divine power.
Sold in 2017. Listed here.
In an ever more globalized world, all cultures are slowly losing their uniqueness in favor of a more shared global culture. This is most apparent in clothing, music, and other artistic expressions but also in new technology that is shared rapidly across the globe.
Excellence in art and design gave way to mass production, so now more people have access to items that were previously considered a luxury. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it is just the direction the world is going.
In studying material culture, it is the antique arms of each culture where science, art, and craftsmanship were effectively combined. They remind us of the ingenuity and diversity of the cultures who produced them, which in most cases have lost the high-level craftsmanship and especially the taste displayed by these items.
This is above all else why I do my part to study and preserve them.