Monday, 3 October 2016

Mostly about swords.

It's been a busy week, so apologies if this rambles. If you get to the end, there will be another photograph of a ferret, as the feedback on last week's blog post definitely showed this to be the highlight.

On the writing front, the latest book - another James Burke adventure, this time set in the Peninsular War - is making good progress and the end is in sight. It's got more military history in it than most of the others, so if there's anyone wants to check if I've got the Battle of Talavera right, let me know. 

It's odd writing about that particular battle. Back when I did my GCSE (O levels back then), Talavera was one of the things we had to learn. I had to be able to write the date and mark the right place on a map of Spain. Why the British were in Spain or what the importance of Talavera was was never considered to be something we should know. I can honestly say that if you were to read all the James Burke books you would know much more about this period of history than if you had sat in class with me paying attention to every word. (And I can guarantee you would have more fun learning it. There were no sexy female guerrilla fighters in the stories I was taught at school.)

On Friday I had to put the book aside while I went to a conference at the Wallace Collection. I've mentioned the Wallace in passing before. It's probably my favourite London museum.

The Wallace Collection - what's not to love?

I particularly like the Wallace because of its substantial collection of Oriental weaponry, in particular their kris.

Kris were the main edged weapon of the Malay community in Sarawak when James Brooke arrived there, so they feature quite a lot in The White Rajah. There is even a picture of one on the cover.

I've blogged about them in the past and I'm afraid you're going to hear more (a lot more) about them in the near future, as soon as I've digested all that I learned in two days of talks on "Recent Research into Museum Collections of Ottoman, Middle Eastern and Asian Arms and Armour". [The first instalment is now available HERE.] Unfortunately (as far as I was concerned) the conference was rather dominated by Indian material, but I learned a lot about the metallurgy of manufacturing pattern welded blades, which includes most kris. It was also nice to come across some Indian weapons I really didn't know much about. For example, here is something that I bought very cheaply at an auction where it was vaguely described as "Russian".

And here is what I was told was a Pesh-kabz by one of the people demonstrating the use of various Indian weapons in battle.

Originally from Iran, this type of blade became common throughout Indian. In battle it's used as a stabbing weapon, designed to penetrate armour, especially chain mail. (The demonstration of how to repair chain mail, given by one of the Wallace's conservators, was an interesting complement to this.)

The demonstration of fighting styles, which concluded the two days of lectures, was a definitely a highlight and made a bit of a change from the long discussions of the styles of flower pattern decorating various hilts.

Not your regular fine arts lecture

I learned the use of a tulwar as an infantry weapon. This particularly interested me as I've had correspondence with another writer about the period arguing whether or not you could duel with a tulwar. I have one of these "Indian sabres" and it seemed to me too heavy for fighting on foot. It's heavy with the weight clearly designed to carry the blade in a killing swing downward from a horse. 

Now I know better. Although it is a cavalry weapon, it can also be used by infantry. The blade can be supported by the left arm and it is swung horizontally. Its weight makes it ideal for hacking through the enemy line at speed. Each target would be struck once before the attacker moves on, leaving others to break through the gaps in the line and finish off the enemy. The weight and balance of the sword makes it unsuitable for duelling but ideal for separate fast blows. The spike on the hilt does provide a useful additional striking element, which can be used to punch an enemy as the sword returns from the strike.

Stone's classic Glossary .... of arms and armour includes shamshir in the same class as the tulwar, although the presentation on Saturday showed them as very different. The shamshir is lighter and the balance makes it very easy to move as an extension of the arm. It is a very useful sword for an infantry fighter.


Nidar Singh Nihang's presentation concentrated as much on the way that the fighters moved as on the nature of their weapons, which was as it should be. Modern collectors and academics can too easily fetishise the weaponry independently of the context in which it is used and seeing the way that Nidar Singh Nihang fought (and also the contemporary illustrations of the weapons in use) gave a much greater understanding of how they worked and the social context in which they were deployed. I was particularly interested in seeing how the katar is used. I've never understood the logic behind the hilt of this punch dagger, but all became clear when it was demonstrated in use with the small round shields shown in the photo above. The dagger can be held in the hand that holds the shield (through a double strap) and thedesign means that the blade projects beyond the shield edge. The shield arm can therefore double as a second sword arm, just as the projections on the shield face mean that it can be used as a punching weapon as well as a means of defence.

Katar, National Museum, New Delhi
All in all, then, a fascinating couple of days. A few people said it must be fun researching books like this but, truth to tell, I have no immediate plans for another book set in the Far East, so this was purely to gratify my own curiosity. It does mean that the next time I give a talk on these weapons (please contact me if you'd like me to), it will have that much more background, and there will be a new version of my post on kris up here soon. As for researching my books, that's more a matter of immersing myself in 19th century accounts of the Battle of Talavera.

Thanks for reading. If you've got this far, you definitely deserve another picture of a ferret.


Many thanks to the Wallace Collection for two fascinating days.

Shamshir from NY Metropolitan Museum. For full catalogue entry see

Katar photo by Saad Akhtar (Saad) from New Delhi, India - Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

There are some fantastic photos on the Wallace Collection website ( Sadly, their copyright limitations are so complicated, it seemed safer not to use them: a particular shame as the presentation by their photographer, Cassandra Parsons, was one of the highlights of the conference.

Stone's somewhat outdated Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armour remains a useful starting point for weapons enthusiasts. It was republished by Dover Publications in 2000.


Oriental weapons feature prominently in the first two books about John Williamson. The White Rajah
is set in Borneo and inevitably features kris. Cawnpore, set during the Indian Mutiny doesn't dwell on the edged weaponry of the day, but there is the odd sword there in the background. They're both exciting reads and if you enjoy my blogs I would really appreciate it if you could buy the books. You might even get around to reading them eventually.



  1. Ever wonder why warriors wore armor at the time?

  2. Swords had been a symbol of chivalry since centuries and these days we hardly see anyone carrying a sword. I really don't know why people lost interest in swords.