Identifying and Collecting the Nepalese Military Kukri.
Dr. Benjamin Judkins.
Part 1 of 8 -
INTRODUCTION: THE TRADITIONAL MILITARY KUKRI
WHY ONLY NEPALESE MILITARY KUKRI?
The Illustrated London News from Saturday, February 22, 1908. This image, more than any other, cemented the reputation of the kukri as a fearsome weapon in the imagination of the western reading public.
Introduction: The Traditional Military Kukri.
New projects are always a learning experience, and one of the things that I have found most surprising here at Kung Fu Tea has been the persistent popularity of the one post which I wrote on the Nepalese kukri as a modern combat knife. Perhaps I should have expected this. Kukris are one of the most iconic knives. Their easily recognizable form, extensive mythology and unique history ensures that they appeal to number of different market segments. Military collectors appreciate the role that they played in the hands of British and Indian Gurkhas during WWI and WWII. Students of ethnic weapons appreciate their beautiful aesthetic and sheer variety. Martial artists are drawn to the blade´s sturdy construction and practical nature. Home gardeners love what they can do when clearing land.
If you live in North America this is also a great time to buy a vintage military kukri. Collectors in England have long had access to some very nice knives due to that country’s long running military alliance with Nepal. Pickings were slimmer on this side of the pond. Most of what was seen here were either British pattern military knives brought back by US servicemen at the end of WWII or items made for secondary markets and the tourist trade. All of that changed in 2003 when International Military Antiques (IMA) partnered with Windlass Steelcraft (better known in the west by the name of their American subsidiary, Atlanta Cutlery (AC)) to buy the Royal Nepalese Arsenal, which was located at the palace of Lagan Silekhana in Kathmandu, Nepal.
I hope to discuss the details and ramifications of this event in a future post. This deal deserves careful consideration as it is probably the most important “find” to hit the collecting and military history community in decades. However, for the purposes of the present post what is important to note is that along with literally dozens of container shipments full of Victorian muskets and early military rifles, IMA and AC purchased between 14,000 and 15,000 antique and vintage military kukris. The items in this shipment covered the heyday of the kukri’s use as a secondary weapon from the mid 19th century up through the post-WWII period. In short, the IMA/AC kukri cache represented an unprecedented collection of combat knives, and was the most complete collection of military kukris ever assembled anywhere in the world at that point in time.
Most of this material lay untouched and forgotten for decades. In fact, one of my regrets about the IMA deal was that the Lagan Silekhana palace was not treated as an archeological site. Simply the physical arrangement of the materials themselves could probably have revealed quite a bit about the social history of the Royal Nepalese Military. As news of this massive sale spread it has generated some backlash within Nepal, though not all voices agree that it was wrong. I plan on addressing some of the ethical implications of the sale of vast quantities of Asian antiquities in an upcoming post.
Much of this material has subsequently been sold to collectors in the USA and Europe. IMA/AC kukris show up at online auctions and gunshows fairly frequently, often at reasonable prices ($100 or less). Large numbers of kukris also remain at the AC warehouse in Georgia and the IMA facility in Pennsylvania as of the time of writing this essay.
The general availability of this material makes it popular with collectors, but prices have been slow to rise. I suspect that this is partially because the kukri collecting community still lacks sophistication and many individuals are not yet able to identify the knives they have, reliably date them and assess their actual rarity. If you are new to the world of Kukri collecting and are thinking of buying an antique military piece, I hope this post will help you to do all three of these things. If you already have an extensive collection of military kukris, the photos and discussion below will give you a greater sense of appreciation and satisfaction in what you have found.
Why Only Nepalese Military Kukri?
I should point out that this article will not help you to identify every kukri that you might come across. We can think of all kukris as falling into five different groups. First there are traditional Nepalese military kukris (the subject of this post). Secondly you have the knives carried and used by Nepalese civilians in daily life (these are often called “villagers” in the collecting community.) Next you have kukris that were made for the Gurkhas serving with the British or Indian armies. These employ a traditional blade shape but use non-traditional construction methods, such as slab handles and full tangs. They are also machine made. Fourth, you have models that were made for export or the tourist trade. These can vary tremendously in appearance and quality, though they do tend to skew toward the low end of the scale. Lastly there are current production blades made using advanced synthetic materials and industrial production methods. Cold Steel has produced a modern kukri that is very popular in the camping/wilderness survival community. It is an exceedingly well made knife but no one would ever mistake it for a traditional blade.
Without a doubt the most collectable and valuable of the traditionally produced kukris are custom made civilian knives with fine silver (or even gold) filigree work on the scabbards. These knives are simply works of art and their value is self-evident. While they were often carried by high ranking members of the military or members of the prime minister’s household, it should go without saying that these were never “standard issue” military blades.
For the average collector the most frequently sought after military knives are the British pattern kukris issued to the Gurkhas during WWI and WWII. The incredible valor of these troops has bequeathed a certain mystique upon their weapons. The different patterns and their dates are easily distinguished by their standardized markings and basic shapes. A lot of very good stuff has been written on these knives already. In fact, one of the reasons that these knives command a higher price is not because they are particularly rare, but because they are well understood. The average collector has a good sense of what is desirable when evaluating a British mark pattern knife and that helps it to maintain its value.
Print depicting the use of kukris during the Lushai Expedition of 1888-1889. Hat Tip: Berkley at SFI.
Nepalese military kukris are a different story. To begin with, these blades were never produced in big factories or on an industrial scale. They are plentiful in the west right now because of the IMA/AC sale, but in reality I suspect that many of their sub-varieties are actually very rare. Until just a few years ago even most kukri collectors had a hard time identifying their different types or reading the markings that occasionally appear on these blades. It was this sense of mystery that attracted me to the Nepalese knives in the first place. I felt like the British knives were already understood, and I wanted to make a contribution to the kukri community. The relatively fuzzy world of Nepalese military knives seemed like a good place to start.
There is one other aspect of the Nepalese military kukris that I really like. Compared to the more standardized and industrialized British pattern blades, there is a lot of variability in what you come across. Most (there are a few exceptions) Nepalese military kukris were made entirely by hand using traditional methods in a workshop situation. They were the product of skilled craftsmen. Yet this also raises some very interesting questions.
As we will see later in this article, the vast majority of these kukris were actually produced in the first half of the 20thcentury. By the middle of the last half of the 19th century the Nepalese military had established official armories and were making a variety of breach loading military rifles (copies of the British Snider and various Martini designs including the famed Gehendra) with modern manufacturing machinery. These facilities were toured and described in detail by British observers who provided a mixed picture of Nepal’s ability to domestically produce its own arms.
Of course a major goal of British diplomatic strategy in the region was to thwart the Nepalese arms industry and make them wholly dependent upon the Empire for modern weaponry, and thus easier to control. To do this they tightly restricted the importation of machinery and even machine parts through India. Given that the Nepalese were unlikely to find advanced machine tooling in Tibet, they were forced to rely on their own ingenuity when upgrading the arms industry.
Nepal continued to produce kukris by hand well into the modern era not because they were “backwards,” but because it was important to husband their resources and save factory time and space for the development of modern military rifles. The nation’s kukris were made by a large number of skilled craftsmen in various times and places. Of course we must also remember that labor was a much cheaper resource than machinery for most of Nepal’s modern history.
Given this dispersed pattern of production, it is actually remarkable that so many identifiable “patterns” have emerged within the IMA/AC cache. It seems that weapon smiths were given a sample blade to work from and that they worked in small batches. While far from exact this did guarantee some level of uniformity in terms of size and weight.
The carbon content of a traditional kukri is low by modern standards. While the blade was differentially heat-treated to harden the edge it must be remembered that Nepalese troops did not have access to industrial grinders. If it became necessary to repair or sharpen a blade, this would happen in the field using a locally collected river stone. Under these conditions the extremely hard blades preferred by many modern enthusiasts would be an absolute liability.
Likewise the Nepalese military kukri was always made with a partial tang. This construction method is heartily disliked by many western knife collectors. Still, it is important to realize that there was a very practical reason behind this choice. After all, Nepalese weapon smiths had been making copies of other Indian and British arms for long enough to be exposed to all sorts of other construction methods.
The partial tang handle, held in place with domestically produced glue, allowed the handle to flex slightly when chopping wood or doing other hard tasks. This provided a natural degree of shock absorption that protected hands and joints in an era without disability insurance. In fact, farmers in Nepal still prefer partial tang knives for the same reason today.
Western knife users often object that this form of attachment is prone to failure, but that was not a big deal in Nepal. The handles were meant to come off. And if you broke one all you had to do was to carve a new handle and glue it back on. Western style knives that are designed to “never break” still fail, it just takes a little longer. Once they do break, they are impossible to repair in the field, which was a liability no Gurkha could afford. The traditional kukri is a very clever tool and there are very specific reasons why its basic design hasn’t changed all that much in the last 150 years or so.
There is one other thing that I personally really appreciate as a collector. Because each piece is handmade they are all different. Often the differences are small and the average kukri, in all honesty, is a pretty utilitarian instrument. However, every once in a while, you come across one that is just brilliant. It might be something about the shape of the bade, or its weight in the hand. The differences are subtle, but they are also unmistakable. Kukris exhibit the same sort of aesthetic appeal that Japanese swords do, and I think they should be judged and appreciated in the same way. Both in terms of their history but also for their intrinsic beauty and the skill of the smiths that produced them.
“Text & photos copyright, Benjamin Judkins, 2012.”
Based on the original post found on the academic blog “Kung Fu Tea”; https://chinesemartialstudies.com/2012/11/05/identifying-and-collecting-the-nepalese-military-kukri/ (5 Nov, 2012), here on Heritage Knives / Kilatools.com divided into shorter articles.