Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Sword in the Hand is Worth...

ell my friends, it's my hundredth post. Quite a milestone I'm told.

I guess we've shared a few laughs, I hope everyone has learned a thing or two, and I know I've made a few friends along the way.

I hope that the next hundred are even more entertaining, certainly more informative, and definitely better crafted..

He is my first stretch, interviews I did at the Shot Show. Both Tinker and Juan gave me a lot of help putting it together, so in reality, most of the credit should go to them.

I would like to thank all of you that have pushed, prodded, helped, and taught me over the last year.

Special thanks to:

  • Holly Heyser "NorCalCazadora" - Thanks for the great advice and selfless help... And the occasional kick in the rear.
  • Kristine Shreve "Outdoor Bloggers Summit" - Thanks for the occasional reminder that I was appreciated.
  • Sten "The Suburban Bushwacker" - He never takes no for an answer- at least not from me.
  • Phillip Loughlin "The Hog Blog" - Brother, thanks for everything.
  • Michael Riddle at Native Hunt - Your generosity is unparalleled.

Albert A Rasch holding a Blaser S2, Custom Imperial
"Costs more than what I make in a good year!
Do you see my Media Pass?!

© 2009 Albert A Rasch

I’m a bit of an edged weapon fan. I’ve a couple dozen different knives, a spear or two, and there’s an Imperial Japanese Army sword in the gun case. I really do prefer quality over style, you won’t see me waving around a cheap knife. I saw plenty of those at the Shot Show. I also saw some exquisitely crafted pieces. Some so beautiful that I would be afraid to pick up, much less use.

While there I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and talk to Michael “Tinker” Pearce, professional swordmith , and Juan Ortiz, martial arts equipment supplier and bladesmith. It's not every day that you get to meet guys that can actually create practical works of art from a billet of steel, but here I had two, and in the flesh!

I’ve known of Michael Tinker Pearce for over ten years, having occasionally discussed western martial arts and sword use over the Internet with him. Tinker has been involved in the customization, forging, and manufacturing of real swords since the late eighties. When I say real I mean: slice your arm off, lop some heads and make them roll, hack and slay real. Tinker strives to:

"...make swords that, excepting their take-down construction, would be unremarkable in weight, balance and form if they were somehow magically transported to their intended period."

Tinker started in the early eighties remodeling stage combat swords, and progressed to custom swordsmithing. His works are primarily in the style of the Viking Era and European Middle Ages though he has designed and forged in many other styles. His knowledge is vast and his understanding of the physical and metaphysical aspects of swordmaking are unparalleled. Currently he is a consultant/collaborator to CAS/Hanwei.

The Tinker 9th Century Viking SH2408
Photo Courtesy of CAS Hanwei

Juan Ortiz is an American of Puerto Rican decent. He is a thin fellow that looks a whole lot younger than he is. But when you listen to him speak, you are left with the impression that somehow, he managed to cram a millennia’s worth of knowledge into his mind.

He started as a martial arts equipment supplier, and then branched out into repair and modification of the weapons he sold. Dissatisfied with the quality of swords in the marketplace, he flew to Toledo, Spain and studied forging and sword making with the Hermanos Manzano, whose small forge was kept operating by an American historical arms dealer. These brothers, who at this time (the mid 90s) were in their late 40’s and 50’s, were making good quality blades for their client. After studying with them that summer, Juan came back home to build his business, J Squared Hilted Arms.

Juan Ortiz at work.

Our conversation started with my innocent question, “What is the attraction of these archaic, medieval edged weapons?”

A broad smile split Tinker’s face. “Curiosity and Romance, Albert. What draws you to a sword? What makes you pick one up?” I gave it some thought. “Knights in a desperate last stand, slaying a mythical beast, besting another in single combat” These are romantic images that my mind conjured up. He went on, “Somewhere back there (in your mind) you want to face your greatest fears with nothing more than a sword in your hand.”

"And my 1911..." I thought to myself.

In his book , The Medieval Sword in the Modern World, Tinker says:

"The sword represents something far beyond being merely an obsolete weapon. It is a symbol of romance and of the chivalric ideal. It is a physical connection to history whether it was made last week or a thousand years ago. When you hold a fine sword in your hand you feel… empowered; as if you can feel your inner hero lurking just below the surface.”

“It‘s a connection to the past, a past that the western world had left behind.”

“Why would the West leave such an important aspect of society behind?” I asked even though I already knew the answer.

He continued, “When ‘Morons with Muskets’ first appeared,” Tinker’s description of the first regiments of matchlock gunners, “armor and swords were abandoned. Can you imagine the surprise on the face of a nobleman when musketballs cut through his compatriots? It takes years to train a good fighting man; years of painful and painstaking work to learn how to use a lance or sword. But in six weeks you can train a thousand morons to use a musket just well enough. Well enough to stop heavy cavalry, well enough to stop foot soldiers, well enough to destroy an opposing force. Swords and armor weren't entirely abandoned for centuries, but the appearance of the first disciplined regiments of musketeers sounded the death-knell of the armored knight and foot soldier.

He paused a moment to allow me to digest that bit of information.

“I suppose a hail of lead balls kills noble and peasant alike, to say nothing of a valuable warhorse.” I added.

Juan cut in. “In terms of cost and time, equipping and training peasants was minimal compared to the years of training necessary for a knight. A good warhorses, properly fit armor, even a well made sword where almost priceless.”

Tinker and James Williams - Skewerings are optional!
Mr Williams is the President of Bugei Trading Co.
PS: Watch the video there.

Tinker nodded his head in agreement and went on. “It changed the face of European civilization in a matter of decades. You no longer needed, or for that matter wanted, the noblemen to lead the charge; a peasant army could stop them dead in their tracks.”

“So the swords and armor eventually became collectible family heirlooms of a bygone era, some went on to be re-forged into farm implements, or just rusted into oblivion; and with it went many of the martial traditions, much to our loss.”

Juan picked up the conversation. “Fast forward to WWII.” He said

“The GI’s came home from the Pacific front with tales of mad Japanese hewing their way through soldiers with long, thin, curved swords. At first, captured swords came back to the United States. Then the order by McArthur to disarm the Japanese of any blades over a certain length, which eventually was written into law, put more swords in the hands of the Allied forces. Many of them where heirlooms that had generations of provenance, and these ended up in the hands of the returning conquerors. “

Juan Ortiz Tanto - Cable weld blade, full custom.

“But that isn’t what caught the public imagination. The occupation forces were exposed to a Japanese martial tradition. Burly sailors lost their month’s wages to elderly men well versed in ancient forms of unarmed combat. A thousand years of continuous development had refined the Japanese martial art to an elegant and effective means of offense and defense. Though many of the battlefield tactics weren’t taught any more, modern military equipment having trumped large scale feudal Japanese military tactics and traditions, the core methods survived, the martial art.”

“In comparison to the unsophisticated pugilism of the west, the Japanese forms were dominant. This was, more or less, the door opener for the rest of the world into eastern martial traditions.”

“Little by little it crept into the western consciousness. Soldiers studied in Japan and brought these arts home with them. The same thing occurred just a few years later during the Korean War, and as Japanese and Korean people immigrated to the US they brought their martial arts with them and found a ready market in America."

"Many celebrities became involved- for example Elvis was black-belt in Karate- and this raised the profile even further so that the audience was well-primed for what was coming. But it was Bruce Lee, and the movie Enter the Dragon, that opened the doors of the Asian traditions to America at large. The year was 1972 and for the first time, vast numbers of westerners saw the flowing, seemingly effortless, martial art of Kung Fu. It was a small step for all the other martial arts to sweep in on its coattails.”

Discussing the finer points...

Tinker went on, “At the same time though, some guys out in California decided to recreate the European feudal court, along with the tourneys. This was also the time that the heroic fantasy stories, like Robert Howard's “Conan,” were being reprinted. Tolkein’s "The Lord of the Rings" was published, along with Fritz Leiber's “Fafhred and the Grey Mouser" stories and Michael Moorecock's "Elric of the Melnibone." All of this paved the way for a renaissance of swords, armor and all manner of medieval weapons. The Renaissance Pleasure Faire started in the bay area and within a decade there were 'ren faires' spread across the country. By 1980 the Society for Creative Anachronism was an international phenomenon.”

“The SCA had a big hand in resurrecting an interest in the medieval Western martial arts. At about this time manuscripts were being rediscovered, describing late medieval and early renaissance weapons training. It was a small start, but from this nascent movement there has grown a large group of re-enactors, smiths, armorers, bladesmiths, martial artists, and collectors. You only have to look as far as the History Channel to see the great interest there is in not only medieval swords and tactics, but also late bronze and early iron age too.”

Tinker is the founder and principal instructor at the Academy of European Medieval Defensive Arts. “Fior dei Battaglia” is the name for the art, taken from the 1409 manuscript, ”Flos Duellatorum.” The AEMDA website states that, “The Academy of European Medieval Defensive Arts is founded with the intention of practicing and teaching the martial arts of medieval Europe for the purposes of education, interpretation and preservation of these arts.” How cool is that?

What Tinker has found, is that Fior dei Battaglia has the same structure that the Asian martial arts do. That is, there are the basics, the foundation if you will, that the rest of the art is built upon. Fior dei Battaglia starts with wrestling and everything that it entails, from falls and recovery, to hand and footwork. Then the student goes on to the study of the dagger. After the dagger is mastered, the sword is introduced.

I asked Tinker, “But what is it about the sword that just grabs you?” I went over to a display and grasped a Roman Gladius, its design is one I like. “What is it that makes me think ‘I can hew my way through anything with this!’ when I don’t know the first thing about sword fighting?”

I must have waved it around like a numbskull because both Juan and Tinker chuckled mirthfully. If they weren’t so well mannered they might have laughed out loud. I really don’t know anything about sword fighting. Juan carefully and gently disarmed me; he twirled the sword effortlessly in one hand, the sword cutting small figure eights in the air between us. Appropriately chagrined and not a little bit embarrassed I sat my rear end down. I’m better off using something I know how to use… like a steak knife and horseradish mustard.

“Listen Albert,” I’m almost positive Tinker was wiping tears from his eyes, “It’s not hard to understand why people named swords and still do. A good sword feels alive in your hand. It feels like magic. Intellectually we understand why a sword feels that way. We can explain that with physics and mechanical data in terms of weight, balance, mass distribution and polar moment. Yet at some deeper more primitive level we know that it’s more than that, no matter what our intellect tells us. "

Let me quote from Tinker’s book once again:

“The Medieval sword is at once beautiful and elegant in its simplicity and focus, yet brutal in its efficiency and purpose. Even as you admire its beauty, its potential for destruction is always at the back of your awareness. It’s not some modern appliance where the desire for safety has rendered it tame and simple. It’s like a force of nature—it’s primal. It demands respect and if you fail to give it, it will exact a price in blood. It demands responsibility too. You can’t leave it carelessly lying around. For all its obsolescence the sword is no less deadly today than it has ever been. If you fail to maintain a sword it will rust—you can’t take it for granted. Owning a sword is a high-maintenance relationship. We know this instinctively at some deep level and it promotes a sense of connection. In a sense the sword needs you.”

You know… I knew that; somewhere in the dark recesses of my brain, I felt that.

A wall full of fun!

I shook hands with Tinker and Juan. I sat there for a few moment surrounded by swords, daggers, axes, and spears, just thinking.

At about this time, Chris Fields, stopped by the booth. It turns out that Chris is a local swordsmith from the Tampa Bay Area. Chris specializes in stage combat arms; these are unsharpened swords and made to take edge to edge strikes repeatedly. He and Tinker stepped away to discuss the kind of stuff sword makers talk about: distal tapers, harmonic balance, and differential tempering.

I was left to contemplate which dragons to slay first.

Juan, Chris, and Tinker

You can find Michael Tinker Pearce at Tinker Pearce – Sword Maker
You can find Juan Ortiz at J Squared Hilted Arms.
You can find Chris Fields at Sterling Armory


The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Happy 100th albert

Bob said...

Congratulations on your 100th post!


Native said...

Congats' on your 100th Albert!

The Broadsword has always been my favorite.
If you can't cut em' with it the by CROM! Pummel em' to death with the darn' unwieldy thing!

NorCal Cazadora said...

Belatedly, Albert, you're welcome, and congratulations on your 100th!

Anonymous said...

What a terrific 100th post. It really shows how far you've come and how much you've matured as a writer.

If I was able to provide any help and encouragement, I'm happy to have done it. You're an asset to the outdoor blogging community and I look forward to seeing what your next 100 posts will bring.

Marian Love Phillips said...

Belated, congratulations on your 100 post Albert. You really have a nice and informative blog. Happy Blogging! :)