Craft Culture: Arms & Armor

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Story & Photos by Gregory Fitz & Michael Dawson

According to the physics of swordfights in movies and the illustrations of every D&D manual ever published, it looked as if Craig Johnson was holding his practice sword all wonky and with no power. But sure enough, after we delivered a Hollywood-style, chopping-wood attack, his blade was finessed around to eye level and mine was pointed down at my shoes. Back in the day, that would have meant a dead homebrewer. Remember this, citizens: the movies lied to you about medieval combat.

“What makes a good swordfight doesn’t make a good movie,” Craig told us, launching into an explanation of the minute details that set apart the painstaking historical work of Arms & Armor from simplistic, mass-produced replicas. We’re standing in front of a wall rack full of swords, axes, javelins, polearms, and daggers he uses to illustrate: the grip shape of a short double-edged Swiss infantryman’s blade recruits the core muscles, not just the arm, for a powerful backhand; the ornate pommel on a 15th-century German bastard sword isn’t decoration so much as a place for the non-dominant hand to help crank the four ft weapon in an enormous arc. Attention to this kind of detail has to come from obsessive primary research, access to a wealth of artifacts, and a whole lot of passion for the subject.

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We began our visit to Arms & Armor in the office of founder Chris Poor, where original 16th-century Turkish helmets share shelf space with books on medieval cultures and combat. Chris, whose experience with metalwork and medieval weaponry goes back to age six, started what grew into Arms & Armor in 1980 during a stint working at Renaissance Festivals.

The story starts, as so many others do, with a rookie jouster piecing together his own equipment and knocking other guys off horses. A belly dancer is involved. Folks keep asking “Where did you get that sword?” An avocation becomes a job, and 34 years later Poor and his team of master craftsmen are creating high quality and highly authentic historical weaponry for a global audience of collectors, re-enactors, competitors, theater and film companies, and museums.

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