This is the second article in my series documenting the building and testing of a Titanium Kukri. Please see the first article here.
This article will be followed by the third and last installment of the series which will document the final comparative tests between the Ti Kukri and the steel Kukri.
History of the Kukri
I felt I should give some more background to the Kukri and detail some of my thoughts on the design. The Kukri or Khukuri is a forward-curving banana-shaped knife synonymous with the Gurkhas. The Gurkhas are Nepalese soldiers recruited by a number of military forces around the world, most notably the British Army and the Indian Army. The Gurkhas have a long-standing reputation for their fearless military prowess. The Kukri was used to great and terrible effect by the Gurkhas in various military actions.
One notable action in North Africa was followed by the unit’s situation report which read: “Enemy losses: ten killed, ours nil. Ammunition expenditure nil.”
For more information on the Gurkhas and the Kukri, see the Wikipedia articles (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gurkh..., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kukri) as reasonable starting points for further research. I’m not going to regurgitate the information that is freely available on the Kukri. Instead, I am going to launch into my own thoughts on its development and use.
There is still some debate about the origin of the unique design of the Kukri since it closely resembles several weapons of antiquity including the Greek Kopis and the Egyptian Khopesh (shown below). It may have been influenced or inspired by these earlier designs at some point in the distant past. It is also quite possible that the design of the Kukri, the Kopis and the Khopesh is an example of convergent evolution of weapons.
I cannot say which theory of the design’s origin is true but I will say that in the three examples mentioned above, the forward-curved sickle shaped blade is very similar to the far more ancient leaf-bladed bronze sword typically employed by ancient bronze-age warriors (shown below). Typical bronze-age swords were surprisingly effective at cutting and stabbing. Their simple leaf-shaped design having evolved over a substantial period of time (at least a couple of thousand years) to make the best use of the material they were made out of. The widest part of the blade was generally at the optimal cutting point which concentrated mass and force at that point while still allowing a very sharp, tapering point for stabbing.
In addition, when analysed in more depth, the blade can be seen to form a pair of arches which could carry force from the hand grip to the optimal cutting point more effectively than a straight blade.
Bronze represented a technological revolution in terms of its hardness, work-ability and durability, but it was still relatively soft when compared with modern steel. Bronze weapons would occasionally bend with use. This was not a major concern because they could easily be bent back into shape and re-worked if necessary. I would like to suggest that based on the behaviour of bronze weapons, it is not impossible to imagine a scenario in which a typical bronze sword was bent forward in the rigors of battle with the wielder unable to straighten it due to the pressure of combat and thus being forced to wield a forward-bent sickle-shaped blade. This ‘happy’ accident might have convinced the wielder of the merits of a forward-curved blade in terms of cutting ability. This could have happened in multiple locations and times and could have been the ‘seed’ of the convergent evolution of the forward-curved sickle-shaped sword.
Weapon Shape, Bridging and Traditional WuShu
I believe that the Kukri design is an optimised cutting design because of the arch structure which can communicate force effectively to the optimal cutting point from the hand. This arch structure is usually combined with an unusually thick spine in a typical traditional Kukri design (for the overall size of the blade). I believe that the arch shape combined with the thickness of the spine prevents the blade from excessive warping when a cut is made.
If you look at slow-motion video of a sword cut (see example below), you’ll notice that swords generally warp and vibrate along the flat of the blade. This represents energy that has not been effectively transmitted into the target. Hence energy wastage. I believe that the Kukri design represents a much-improved design for cutting because the blade is less likely to warp along the flat due to the thick spine and arch shape.
The arch shape is of some use when the weapon is swung like a club, using the weight of the weapon and the velocity of the strike to do work. However, it is of far more use when the weapon is united with the body of the wielder as in the advanced ‘bridging’ that is developed in traditional Chinese martial arts. As a student progresses in traditional Chinese martial arts, they will become aware of the profound impact that structure plays on their ability to produce and to manipulate force. One concept that stands out is the idea of the ‘hollowed-out’ Han-Shen structure produced in the body.
The focal point of the concave, arched structure is the ‘centre’ or Lower Dantian which is roughly a fist-width below the navel and internal to the body. By controlling and manipulating force from the Dantian, the concave Han-Shen structure of the martial practitioner’s body itself acts a little like a parabolic reflector or an arched bridge, effectively transmitting and concentrating force on specific locations and in specific ways. This hollow arch-like Han-Shen shape is dynamically and recursively created throughout the body all the way to the point of contact and beyond. Very much like a recursive shape forms a fractal pattern. Even the hand which transmits force from the body can be seen to adopt a similar slightly-hollowed Han-Shen shape to optimise force delivery.
This ‘bridging’ and adoption of the Han-Shen structure through the body allows the practitioner’s joints to remain ‘open’ to the action of the Dantian. This optimised force-delivery system continues into a wielded weapon, allowing a practitioner to strike with much more force than would be available to someone who was merely swinging the weight of the weapon around.
My interest in the Kukri includes my admiration of its structure. It can be interpreted as forming part of the recursive Han-Shen structure of a Kung Fu practitioner due to the similarity in shape. This, combined with effective bridging and control of Dantian in the practitioner’s body can allow the practitioner to cut with great force regardless of the weight of the weapon. This explains part of my interest in building a lighter Titanium version of the traditional steel weapon and testing it to prove my theory.
It’s been an arduous process to complete this build. I think due mostly to my lack of experience in knife-making. I am pleased with the final product though. I included most of the traditional features of a Kukri even though some of them are dubious in terms of functionality.
I included the Kukri notch (traditionally called the Cho) which no one is certain about in terms of functionality. It is likely a religious or cultural feature which has lost its significance over the centuries. Instead of the traditional Kukri notch, I chose to make mine in the form of a pair of stylised letter ‘P’s to represent the Kukri’s name. Prayer.
I incorporated the fuller (the groove along the spine) even though this is more superficial than useful. Very little material is removed from the blade to form a typical Kukri fuller.
I also incorporated the traditional Kukri grip ring, which aids in transferring force into the palm and reducing the chances of hand slippage when stabbing. You will notice that this grip ring is absent in many modern Kukri designs along with the banana curve continuing into the handle. I believe that this is because many modern makers do not understand that the Kukri was historically used as a stabbing weapon as well as a cutting weapon. The more modern straight-handled Kukris that lack the grip ring cannot easily be employed for stabbing because force is not easily transferred into a stabbing movement due to the awkward orientation of the hand in relation to the grip.
The bolsters and butt cap have been made out of aluminium to reduce weight and the handle scales are of roughly-smoothed seasoned ironbark. In fact, the ironbark used in this build was originally covered in chicken droppings in the old chicken-coop on my property. The wood seemed very aged and was obviously recycled from something prior to its use in the chicken-coop. It was filled with rusty nail stubs. It could be anywhere from 50 to 100 years old.
In addition to the traditional Kukri features, I incorporated a few additions of my own to suit my tastes and fighting style. I incorporated a small guard prong on the inside curve of the knife at the hilt. This will allow for more ease in terms of parrying and controlling other weapons when the Kukri is used in this way. I also incorporated a lanyard hole at the pommel. I generally don’t like to use lanyards on weapons but it’s good to have the option of their use if needed.
Another departure from the traditional Kukri design is my incorporation of a 2mm thick Titanium sheet into the sheath construction along with some modifications that will allow it to be used in the off-hand as a small shield or buckler. The traditional Kukri sheath, being rigid, lends itself well to this feature.
By SiFu Lester Walters, head of the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia
© Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia 2017. ABN 12 792 347 015