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The Gurkhas: Khukuri – The Warrior’s Weapon

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Weapons-based martial arts – being vital to a warrior’s survival on the battlefield – were once more widely-practiced than empty hand skills. Today, the Japanese katana, Roman gladius, Scottish claymore, Viking ulfberht, and English long swords have long disappeared from the battlefield. Knives remain, of course, but as tools and as weapons of stealth and last resort.

Only ONE iconic, ancient battle weapon lives on in the current military arsenal and continues to see combat on the world’s battlefields. That weapon is the Khukuri, the traditional weapon of the legendary Gurkha warriors of Nepal.

The khukuri is truly ancient. It is possible that it came to the Indian subcontinent with the invading armies of Alexander the Great. It is equally possible that the Alexander’s armies encountered it there, on the battlefield, realized its advantages and adopted it for themselves.

By comparison, the first distinct examples of curved Japanese swords did not emerge until about 700 A.D.: Alexander’s India campaign began in 326 B.C. In other words, when the first katana was brand new, the khukuri was already at least a thousand years old.

Many who have never seen a khukuri before find its design somewhat baffling. Westerners may pick one up to test its heft… with the blade facing backward… before they realize (to the quiet amusement of Nepalese observers) that the cutting edge is actually on the inside of the curve.

The khukuri’s handle can be just as enigmatic. Western purchasers often seek to “improve upon” its 2,000-year-old design with custom handles featuring finger grooves, birds-head pommels, sub-hilts, etc., without first becoming familiar with it. Once understood, its extremely sophisticated, battle-proven design is hard to beat. It evolved to support the movement of its reverse-curved, guardless blade. The same cannot be said of “conventional” Western handles that evolved to facilitate the use of STRAIGHT-bladed knives.

Closest to the blade, the handle features a larger “reverse taper,” while the last two fingers of the hand retain the blade securely at a narrower, lower section of the handle, separated by a raised “ring” (harhari) – all of which helps keep the hand away from the cutting edge. The base of the handle is abruptly flared so that momentum is increased as the fingers tighten for a cut and momentum presses the flared section comfortably into the base of the fist, aiding weapon retention and minimizing hand fatigue.

Traditional khukuri typically have no guard. The Nepalese prefer to depend upon the handle’s sophisticated design – and their martial skill – to keep their fingers safe. Antique khukuris sometimes feature circular guards, tulwar hilts, or even elaborate D-guards. A small guard that’s just big enough to keep fingers safer yet small enough to avoid tangling in clothing or gear appears to have been re-introduced by the British or Americans during the China/Burma/India campaign of WWII.

Legend holds that no khukuri weapon has ever broken on the battlefield. There’s truth to that: Blades typically are extremely heavy, about 3/8” (about a centimeter) thick. Antique “stick-tang” khukuris tend to be battered by more than a century of war and storage, but still serviceable. The Indian rosewood handles of authentic British WWII-issue “full-tang” khukuris are typically darkened and dinged with more than half-a-century of hard use, but still ready for action.

The “typical” Khukuri is 15 to 19 inches overall, although individual specimens can be larger or smaller. It features an unusual, angled blade with a wicked, reverse-curved edge. To the uneducated, it may appear awkward – in skilled hands, it is anything but.

Photograph 6
Photos by Carlo Molina

Blades of traditional khukuri still feature the characteristic “notch” with a post in the center, called a “cho” or “kaudi.” Practically, the cho effectively serves as a drain so that the handle will not become slippery with blood, sap, or water. The cho’s primary function in combat, though, is as a formidably effective disarming tool with which a skilled user can bend a wrist, lock a blade, and strip the knife from an opponent’s hand in a dazzlingly quick series of movements – often after the opponent has been wounded.

More deeply, the kukri is also a spiritual talisman, and the cho embodies a number of symbolic meanings sacred to the Nepalese people, including a stylized “Om” – the core mantra of all mantras (the “sound the universe makes”) – imbedded indelibly in the steel. Like the katana for the Japanese, the khukuri is a unique expression of cultural meaning, somehow embodying the essence of what it means to be Nepalese.

Nevertheless, Khukuri technique varies quite a bit. Stylized military drills resemble an unlikely combination of hard-style karate-with-a-knife, Highlander broadsword drill, and glimpses of something perhaps “older”: more fluid, circular techniques of ancient descent.

Many believe that a khukuri is strictly a cutting weapon. Not true. Thrusts are not only possible, but they can be delivered with lightning speed and great power in knowledgeable hands by utilizing a “punching” movement delivered from above the shoulder. The blade snaps downward from the elbow and wrist, much like throwing a rock. The blade is propelled by momentum rather than “pushed” at its target like a fencer’s foil (which might endanger the fingers). Once comprehended, the concept can be adapted to any angle of attack.

As with the American Bowie knife, the khukuri blade length declined as rifles gained firepower.  Early blades were about 14 inches or more, and one can only marvel at the forearm strength demanded of the warriors who wielded them. The World War I varieties averaged about a foot. Current issue khukuris, backed up by a modern assault rifle, typically have a blade length of about 10 ½ inches, but this can vary somewhat according to personal preference. Military khukuris are all still hand-crafted.

But a word of caution to martial artists who wish to explore the mysteries of the khukuri: The thick edges of the “tourist khukuris” can cause the blade to “skate” dangerously when chopping wood. Similarly, cheap mass-produced knockoffs may hide short tangs that can fail abruptly, causing the sharp blade to snap off and spin dangerously awayThe quality models feature strong tangs and higher, narrower, edge bevels that bite aggressively into tough hardwood – an activity knowledgeable swordsmen would find heartbreaking to see attempted with a fine katana.

Photograph 5
Photo by Carlo Molina

Like katana, khukuris are carbon steel, and will rust if not cared for properly: After use, they should be cleaned attentively, wiping them down with a light coat of WD-40 or other lubricant. Unlike katana, though, khukuris are very “maintenance-friendly”: Light rust can be removed with steel wool that would absolutely RUIN the finish of a fine katana.

Martial artists used to non-sharp swords may find solo training with a real, razor-sharp khukuri a daunting-but-eye-opening new experience: Movements may not be quite as carefree when a single moment of inattention – or ego – can sever a hand or leg. Patience, unwavering awareness, extreme caution, and slow careful internalization of movements is demanded when using a sharp sword. A martial artists cannot lose focus for even an instant – a formidable test of any swordsman’s “Zen.”

In WWI, when khukuri were in short supply, the Gurkhas of the 2/10th Gurkha Regiment actually made their own. During WWII, when increased demands made khukuris scarce, factories were set up in Dehradun to supply the needs of troops. The art of crafting traditional khukuris is kept alive today in Nepal by a handful of dedicated manufacturers, the largest and most famous of which is the Ex-Gurkha Khukuri House (www.nepalkhukurihouse.com) – perhaps the world’s foremost source of authentic Nepal khukuris. They have supplied the British military khukuris as well as fabricated the khukuri featured in this article.

These blades are still crafted one-at-a-time from rugged 5160 high carbon steel used in car leaf springs, by a hereditary clan of master smiths, called “kami.” Each khukuri takes several people a full day to be forged and finished by hand, making it one of the best buys in the handmade knife world. Each one is truly a handmade knife.

Kami painstakingly heat-treat blades using a technique called “differential heat-treating,” which gives the thick blade a harder edge and a softer body and spine. The result is a near-indestructible blade.

The process may seem similar to that of Japanese katana, but the khukuri concept unfolds with a fundamental difference: Not the delicate razor-sharp perfection of a katana, but tough and brutally functional. Thus the kukri’s potential for cutting power still remains largely untapped: A khukuri built with a somewhat lighter thinner blade, a higher narrower bevel to its cutting edge, a very careful heat treat, and a true razor edge would almost certainly out-cut much larger katana. Why? Simple: Its odd blade geometry simply cuts better. As the cut is drawn toward the user, anything in its path finds itself sliding relentlessly into an increasingly abrupt incline, and bound by inertia against the cutting-edge.

For this reason, the future holds some remarkable surprises as knifemakers begin to explore the full potential of the khukuri’s unusual, angular blade. But the traditional kukri’s concept is perhaps not so much a slicing weapon as a smashing weapon, almost like a cross between a Bowie knife and a Native American tomahawk.

For this reason, authentic Nepal khukuris are typically not built with the shaving-sharp edges of American custom knives or Japanese katana. The katana is strictly a weapon, never a tool; whereas the khukuri is deliberately designed to be versatile, compact, and tough. The khukuri is meant to “do it all”: battle blade, camp knife, hammer, hatchet, machete … you name it.

Doubtless, that’s the reason it has endured on the world’s battlefields for more than two thousand years.

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