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 insures 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 blades 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 countries 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 Katmandu, 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.  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 I hope 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 20th century.  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 condition 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 anyway, 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.

Getting to Know the Nepalese Military Kukri.

I bought my first examples of Nepalese military kukri from AC shortly after the cache was made public.  I loved these knives and they fueled my imagination.  However it wasn’t until I discovered the International Kukri Research and Historical Society (IKRHS) and the Kukri Forum at Sword Forum International (SFI) that I began to appreciate the depth of the subject.  Both are wonderful places to educate yourself and ask questions.  The archives of both forums are extensive and worth reading in detail.

A few years ago I found myself in Atlanta Georgia.  After making contact with the folks over at Atlanta Cutlery I got permission to drive out to their warehouse and take a look at the kukri collection.  I was blown away by what I saw and made it a point to return four more times with a friend and fellow enthusiast over the course of the next few years.  We examined literally thousands of kukris and took photos and measurements of hundreds more.  My repeated visits to the cache over a two year period and the numerous interviews I was able to conduct with individuals involved with the original IMA/AC find provided me with the basic background that was necessary to write this short outline of the Nepalese military kukri.

The Earliest Military Kukris

At what point do we start to see the kukri used as a general purpose military weapon in Nepal?  This is actually a tricky question to answer.  If you go to some of the various military museums in Nepal you might see examples of kukris with reliable provenances that date back into the 1600s.  Nevertheless, I don’t think you are likely to find anything in the IMA/AC cache that dates back that far.  Why?  Because most people in Nepal did not start to recognize the kukri as a ubiquitous national symbol (or even a common tool) until the early 19th century.

A drawing from Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour by Lord Egerton (1896). The kukris portrayed in this collection are truly ancient and show some subtle stylistic differences from the more modern weapons discussed here.  Note for instance the lake of a Kaudi on some of these examples, or the differences in blade geometry.

While kukri-like weapons have been carved in temple reliefs and are occasionally seen in ancient art throughout northern India, it is critical to remember that modern Nepal is a very ethnically and linguistically diverse place.  Most of these groups did not use the kukri as a tool or weapon prior to the end of the 18th century.  The first group that widely adopted the kukri as a weapon was the Gorkha kingdom centered in western Nepal.  Prithvi Narayan Shah, leader of Gorkhas, conquered Kathmandu in 1768 and laid the foundations for the modern state of Nepal.  His troops are reputed to have carried kukris (as well as other curved blades) and to have used them effectively in combat.

The widespread adoption of a new military technology takes time.  We can safely assert that none of the “standard issue” knives in the Royal Arsenal predate this 1768 terminus, and even the earliest examples are unlikely to show up for another generation or so after the new political order is established.  These are simply my own rough guesses of course, but I think their basic logic is sound.  Despite many claims to the contrary, the mass adoption of the military kukri is a comparatively recent phenomenon.  One is unlikely to ever encounter a weapon that predates the 19th century, except perhaps in a museum.

A relatively small amount of material in the Royal Nepalese Armory does date to the early 19th century.  I have yet to see a kukri from the cache that could be definitively linked to this period, though it’s a possibility.  Kukris are hard to date at the best of times, and lacking some sort of inscription that indicates otherwise it is better to error on the side of caution.  I suspect that in general western collectors overestimate the age of their knives.

One artifact that does appear in the IMA/AC cache from this early period is the highly valued Chupri Bayonet.  While not a “true kukri,” these cutting implements (when attached to the end of a Brown Bess musket) would have made a devastating glave.  Inscriptions on some of these bayonets indicate a date of manufacture around 1810.  And because obsolete arms tended to have a very long half-life in Nepal some may have stayed in service until the early 20th century.  This extended service life, along with the steady progression of military technology, probably accounts for their relative rarity.

Chupri bayonet found in the Royal Arsenal, Katmandu.
Members of the Nepalese Royal Army during a public procession in 1901. Note that some of these troops are still carrying muskets topped with chupri bayonets. (Hat Tip to Berkley at IKRHS for locating this image).

These are among the rarest kukri related artifacts to emerge from the Royal Arsenal, and because they are of great interest to bayonet collectors they tend to command high prices.  Some well-preserved examples have an inscription on the “handle” that references “Lord Gorkanath,” the patron saint of the Gorkha kingdom.  The mark of Gorkanath (two foot prints) also appear on some musket barrels dating from this early period.  However, as time progressed references to this figure disappeared out of the catalog of inscriptions encountered on Nepalese weapons.  I suspect that these bayonets point to a transitional moment in the construction of the modern Nepalese identity.

Nepalese Military Sirupate: The earliest of the issue kukri.

One of the issues that needs to be tackled in the discussion and classification of Nepalese military kukris is terminology.  To be totally honest, we don’t know all that much about how the kukri was discussed or classified in18th or 19th century Nepal.  There is a large body of terms that have become common among western collectors, yet there are persistent questions as to whether these are being “correctly applied” and what (if anything) they correspond to in Nepalese.  Many of these seem to be commercial terms that were invented for advertising purposes (such as ‘long leaf’).

In the following article I propose a number of labels, sometimes using traditional terms, to refer to different types of kukris that sometimes appear in the IMA/AC cache.  I would like to make it clear that I am using this terminology in the absence of anything better, and I am not particularly wedded to these labels.  One shouldn’t read too much into them as other collectors might use the same terms slightly differently and we quite frankly have no idea how these knives were discussed at the time of their creation.

The oldest group of knives that I identified in the AC/IMA cache as having a definite “type” were the “Military Sirupates.”  The terms “Sirupate” is a reference to a blade of grass.  The label is often applied to knives that are relatively long and lean.  Occasionally these knives also have a somewhat straighter profile, however examples are also seen with more pronounced curves.

A selection of “military sirupates” photographed on the floor of the AC warehouse in Georgia, 2009.  Note the shallow and elongated kaudi on these specimens.  Photo credit: Benjamin Judkins.

Kukris of this general shape are more often seen in some areas of Nepal than others.  However, they never appear to have been all that common in military service.  My research strongly suggests that they were a rarity in the Nepalese Royal Armory.  At most 300-400 blades of this type were found in the AC/IMA cache, and that number may be an overestimation.

I personally saw about 100 pieces during my visit to the AC warehouse in Georgia and was informed that this was all they had found.  These knives have been sold at gunshows and in the AC showroom, but they have not yet been advertised to the general public.  Collectors are most likely to encounter them on the secondary market or in an online auction.  If you ever end up with one be sure to keep your sales receipt.  That document will be the only thing linking your knife back to the Royal Armory in Katmandu.

Many of these blades exhibited fine craftsmanship.  On average blades weighted between 400-600 grams (depending on length) and were exceptionally well balanced for fighting.  Here is a group of representative measurements that I collected from a sample set.

A group of “military sirupates” from the author’s personal collection labled (top to bottom) A-D. Note that the top two knives are mounted in replacement sword hilts and the third knife has a steel butt-cap. This was the only example of such a butt-cap that I encountered in the cache.
  • Sirupate A
  • Total Length: 43 cm
  • Length of Blade: 33 cm
  • Length of Handle: 9 cm
  • Blade at Widest: 4.2 cm
  • Blade at Narrowest: 2.9 cm
  • Drop: 8.1 cm
  • Point of Balance: 5.8 cm from Bolster
  • Width of Spine at Base: 8 mm
  • Weight: 614 grams
  • Sirupate B
  • Total Length: 45.5 cm
  • Length of Blade: 33 cm
  • Length of Handle: 12 cm
  • Blade at Widest: 4.3 cm
  • Blade at Narrowest: 2.9 cm
  • Drop: 7.0 cm
  • Point of Balance: 5.9 cm from Bolster
  • Width of Spine at Base: 8 mm
  • Weight: 571 grams
  • Sirupate C
  • Total Length: 40 cm
  • Length of Blade: 29.8 cm
  • Length of Handle: 10 cm
  • Blade at Widest: 3.9 cm
  • Blade at Narrowest: 2.5 cm
  • Drop: 8.5 cm
  • Point of Balance: 9 cm from Bolster
  • Width of Spine at Base: 7 mm
  • Weight: 400 grams
  • Sirupate D
  • Total Length: 45.5 cm
  • Length of Blade: 35 cm
  • Length of Handle: 10.5 cm
  • Blade at Widest: 5.1 cm
  • Blade at Narrowest: 3.5 cm
  • Drop: 9.5 cm
  • Point of Balance: 12.5 cm from Bolster
  • Width of Spine at Base: 7 mm
  • Weight: 482 grams

As you can see from the measurements and photographs above, there is a fair amount of variability in this group.  This is a general trend.  There seems to be less standardization among the older kukris throughout the cache.  The age of these knives was also attested by the fact that in a large number of cases the original handle was either missing or replaced.  In some of these cases the handle was replaced with a sword hilt, indicating that the repair was being done at a time when there were still swords laying around the armory.  Other handles were very rough (which is odd as Nepal is rightly renown for its traditional wood carving) and may have been waiting for the finishing touches that were never applied.

A number of factors, including visual inspection and deterioration, lead me to conclude that this is the oldest “group” of knives seen in the Royal Nepalese Armory (not, I hasten to add, the oldest individual specimens).  Dating them is more of a problem.  I would place them in the second half of the 19th century.  Not earlier than 1850, and probably in the 1860-1880 range.  This is admittedly a very rough estimate and may be subject to revision.  However, the rarity of these knives is not in question.  They should be considered highly collectible.

Military Budhume: A masterpiece of craftsmanship.

The term “Budhume” is applied to kukris that are particularly broad, having an exceptionally wide blade when measured from spine to edge.  Like the much more svelte “Sirupates,” these are only rarely encountered when exploring the holdings of the Royal Nepalese Armory.

The specimens documented below were evidently all made by a single highly skilled smith or workshop in a single run.  They are among the most impressive and best constructed kukris in the entire collection and should be considered to be highly collectible.  In my various visits to study the cache I counted and measured about 100 examples (all had been previously separated out from the rest of the shipment when they were first found in Nepal).  Conversations with individuals who had been with the project since the initial excavation of the collection in 2003 led me to conclude that only 200-300 examples of this type were found in the entire cache.

The first thing that strikes you when holding one of these knives is their sheer size.  This is a truly impressive weapon.  Here is a list of measurements that I took from a representative sample.

Military Budhume from the author’s personal collection, labeled A-B (top-bottom).
  • Example A
  • Total Length: 50 cm
  • Length of Blade: 38.5 cm
  • Length of Handle: 10.5 cm
  • Drop: 11 cm
  • Point of Balance: 14 cm from bolster.
  • Spine: 1 cm
  • Weight: 907 grams
  • Example B
  • Total Length: 49 cm
  • Length of Blade: 39.5 cm
  • Length of Handle: 9.5 cm
  • Drop: 10.5 cm
  • Point of Balance: 14 cm from bolster.
  • Spine: 1 cm
  • Weight: 855 grams
  • Example C
  • Total Length: 48.5 cm
  • Length of Blade: 38.5 cm
  • Length of Handle: 10 cm
  • Drop: 10 cm
  • Point of Balance: 14 cm from bolster.
  • Spine: .9 cm
  • Weight: 759 grams
  • Example D
  • Total Length: 49 cm
  • Length of Blade: 38.7 cm
  • Length of Handle: 9.5 cm
  • Drop: 11.5 cm
  • Point of Balance: 14 cm from bolster.
  • Spine: 1.1 cm
  • Weight: 896 grams

The level of craftsmanship on these knives far exceeded what was necessary or seen on any other specimens in the IMA/AC cache.  The blades are elegantly shaped considering their large size and the carving of the kaudi (or notch at the base of the blade) tends to be more ornamental and detailed.  All of these knives were originally fitted with a steel butt-plate (held in place with two screws) to protect the base of the handle from chipping.  I examined a number of these screws and each one of them was handmade with hand-cut threading.  In cases where the metal plate was torn away or missing the base of the handle was often reshaped to eliminate chips and keep the knife looking presentable (see example “C” in the previous photograph).  In all honestly I have never seen that level of maintenance on any other standard issue Nepalese military kukri.

Butt-plate of a military Budhume (“B” in the previous photo). Note the hand carved screws.

These knives also occasionally bear interesting inscriptions.  Every one of them is marked with a stamp that looks like the letter “papu” (sort of an inverted “B”).  There has been a fair amount of speculation about what this mark means, but to the best of my knowledge no definitive interpretation has yet been advanced.  If you get a hold of one of these examples you should also check the spine.  In some cases the spine is totally smooth and unmarked.  In others there is complex inscription that looks like a short sentence.  And then finally there are examples where this inscription has been partially “erased” and a simpler set of identification numbers placed at the base of the blade.

The “papu” mark on a “Military Budhume.” This mark was present on every example in the Katmandu cache. Its exact meaning is still unknown.

We will talk about the exact method of interpreting these inscriptions later, but their presence is important because it provides us with some valuable information about how we can date these knives.  These sorts of inscriptions were added to both kukris and rifles in the Royal Nepalese armory by order of Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana who ruled Nepal from 1901-1929.  We know that some older material was also inscribed, but probably only if it was in service (none of the Brown Bess muskets go the “Chandra” treatment for instance).  The fact that a number of non-inscribed examples still exist suggests that these knives were made prior to the start of that program.  In fact, I have in my possession a kukri whose blade has been inscribed with the year “1894.”  Its size, shape and geometry is very similar to the ones above, but it lacks other features such as the papu stamp.

I suspect that most of these knives were made in the closing years of the 19th century and into the opening years of then 20th (circa 1890-1910).  Examples that were still in circulation were inscribed, and at least some of them survived long enough after Chandra reign that his mark was removed when his political opponents were able to come to power.  The variety of markings on these blades is a powerful testament to the long working life of a knife like this.  This particular batch of kukris might have been in active circulation for 30 years or more.

Classic Gurkha Army Kukri: Appreciating the ‘Long-leaf.’

This is a kukri that should receive a lot more attention and admiration from collectors than it normally gets.  I suspect that this particular model is often misunderstood by those who first encounter it.  It is that lack of sophistication on our part that often leads collectors to pass over the Classic Gurkha Army kukri (CGAK) in favor of the better understood, Indian made, “mark pattern” knives.

An old display from Nepal that appears to be constructed from CGAK kukris. Note that at least some of these kukris appear to have a “sun face” stamped on the side. The same motif is repeated on the figure in the middle of the wheel.  Sun and Moon faces were important political symbols in Nepal in the 19th and 20th century.

Marketed by both IMA and AC as “Long Leafs” (a commercial term with no correspondence to Nepalese speech as far as I can tell) these blades are among the most commonly encountered in the Royal Nepalese Armory cache.  According to a conversation I had with Christian Cranmer, the owner of IMA and the individual who arranged for the sale of the Nepalese hoard, approximately 30% of the total 14,000-15,000 kukris found fall into this category. That means that there are likely 4,500 to 5,000 of these historic knives in Georgia, Pennsylvania and the hands of private collectors across the country.

These knives were the workhorses of the Nepalese military throughout the volatile first half of the 20th century.  While IMA advertises these knives as having been “retired in the 1890s” those dates are probably in error.  Most of these knives were made in the years prior to WWI and served through the interwar period.  This is confirmed by the fact that the vast majority of them bear Prime Minister Chandra’s stamp on the spine.  Further, there are photographs that seem to show Nepalese soldiers continuing to carry and use these knives into WWII and even the post-war period.  These were rugged knives and they had a long service life.

While not quite as massive as the Budhume’s, they are also fairly large.  Many of them feel like a small ax or hatchet in the hand.  This is probably not a coincidence as these were not made as special purpose weapons. Rather they were an all-purpose survival tool, and one that was going to spend a lot of time chopping wood to make fires or to reinforce machine gun positions.  This more utilitarian feel leads some people to dismiss the CGAK as a “clumsy” or “poorly balanced” weapon.  I think this misunderstand the actual life and needs of an early 20th century infantryman.  The CGAK stayed in service for as long as it did precisely because it met those needs admirably.

Six examples chosen as a representative example of the CGAK from the author’s personal collection. Labeled A-E (Left-Right, Top-Bottom).  Note the variability in blade shape and size.
  • Example A (Left hand, Top)
  • Overall Length: 46.5 cm
  • Blade Length: 36.6 cm
  • Maximum Depth of Blade: 6.7 cm
  • Handle Length: 9.5 cm
  • Drop: 9 cm
  • Weight: 892 grams
  • Point of Balance: 16 cm from Bolster
  • Thickness of Spine at Base: 1.3 cm
  • Example B (Left Middle)
  • Overall Length: 47.5 cm
  • Blade Length: 36.9 cm
  • Maximum Depth of Blade: 5.9 cm
  • Handle Length: 10 cm
  • Drop: 8.6 cm
  • Weight: 722 grams
  • Point of Balance: 15 cm from the Bolster
  • Thickness of Spine at Base: 1.1 cm
  • Example C (Left Bottom)
  • Overall Length: 45.2 cm
  • Blade Length: 34 cm
  • Maximum Depth of Blade: 5 cm
  • Handle Length: 10.5 cm
  • Drop: 8.5 cm
  • Weight: 579 grams
  • Point of Balance: 13 cm from the Bolster
  • Thickness of Spine at Base: .9 cm
  • Example D (Right Top)
  • Overall Length: 48 cm
  • Blade Length: 37 cm
  • Maximum Depth of Blade: 7.2 cm
  • Handle Length: 10 cm
  • Drop: 10 cm
  • Weight: 816 grams
  • Point of Balance: 17 cm from Bolster.
  • Thickness of Spine at Base: 1.1 cm
  • Example E (Right Middle)
  • Overall Length: 47.5 cm
  • Blade Length: 37 cm
  • Maximum Depth of Blade: 7 cm
  • Handle Length: 10.5 cm
  • Drop: 9.9 cm
  • Weight: 865 grams
  • Point of Balance: 15 cm from the Bolster
  • Thickness of Spine at Base: 1.2 cm
  • Example F (Right Bottom)
  • Overall Length: 45.6 cm
  • Blade Length: 36 cm
  • Maximum Depth of Blade: 6.9 cm
  • Handle Length: 9 cm
  • Drop: 10.5 cm
  • Weight: 733 grams
  • Point of Balance: 14.5 cm from the Bolster
  • Thickness of Spine at Base: 1.1 cm

While every CGAK that I have encountered has been handmade, it is important to realize that these were produced on an entirely different scale than the previous “Sirupates” and “Budhumes.”  While they were still made in traditional workshops, it would not be an overstatement to say that these blades were “mass produced.”  I strongly suspect that the 4,000-5,000 of these knives that ended up in the US are a small fraction of the total number actually produced.  Many of these knives appear to have walked home with their owners at the end of their term of military service.

Production on this scale means that there is real variability in the quality, size and handling characteristics of the knives that you will encounter.  Many CGAK’s are utilitarian and uninspired.  However, every once in a while you run across one that was made by a master.  These blades just look different and they feel different.  Their roughness aside, they have a real beauty to them, and they are some of my favorite kukris.  Learning to appreciate the subtle differences, and finding the right CGAK to add to your collection, is what makes the hobby worthwhile.

CGAK’s are also interesting as they are probably the most highly inscribed group of kukris that the average collector will encounter.  These inscriptions are important because they help to date and establish the history of a particular weapon.  Needless to say this elevates the appreciation of these kukris to a whole new level.

Inscriptions on the spines of D, E and F. Author’s personal collection.

For years the exact meaning of these inscriptions eluded collectors and perplexed linguists who were repeatedly asked to translate them.  Only in the last few years have we gotten a good idea of what they actually say.  The first part of the riddle to be cracked was the introductory prefix.  Collectors figured out that this prefix never changed and a rough translation of it came out to be “Thrice Honored Chandra” or “Three Shrii Chandra,” a reference to Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana who ruled Nepal from 1901-1929.  It was also clear that all of the inscriptions ended with a series of numbers, but their interpretation was unknown.

The real problem lay between the honorifics and the numbers.  A set of two or three different letters (that made little or no sense when strung together as a word) was usually placed between the other elements.  Eventually I was able to shed some light on this particular mystery.  I am also interested in antique military rifles and I discovered something quite helpful while reviewing a book by John Walter on the rifles found in the Royal Nepalese Armory (Guns of the Gurkhas: The lost arsenal: pistols, rifles and machine- guns of the Royal Nepalese Army, 1816-1945. Tharston Press, 2005).

Many of the rifles photographed for this book featured inscriptions that were structurally similar to those seen on the kukris.  The inscribed elements on these rifles were generally “vertically stacked” rather than horizontally written, but when you broke it down the basic components were exactly the same in both cases.  Walter identified the two letter combinations as an abbreviation (rather than a word) that denoted a specific unit in the Royal Nepalese Army.  The numbers that followed corresponded to sub-units.  Walter was also kind enough to include a list of common abbreviations in an appendix.  His list can identify about 70% of the CGAK inscriptions I have encountered.  Even though the abbreviations for many other units are not listed, if you sit down with a list of known Nepalese battalions it is usually possible to figure out which unit a knife served with.

If you are interested in learning more about these inscriptions, this is a good resource to be familiar with.  If by any chance you get stuck when trying to translate an inscription there are also knowledgeable individuals at IKRHS or SFI who are happy to help.

Many of these Nepalese battalions have had very interesting histories and one can often guess something of a knife’s service record if you can figure out what unit it was attached to.  The limitation that students in the west are facing now is that we just don’t have a lot of detailed military history on the Royal Nepalese Army available to us (as opposed to the British and Indian Gurkha Corps, which are much better documented).  As this information is translated and becomes more readily available I suspect that it may have an important impact on the field of Nepalese arms collecting.

Short Gurkha Army Kukri: Bringing the combat Kukri into the modern era.

The “Short Gurkha Army Kukri” (SGAK) is something of a mystery.  These knives were marketed as “Bhojpures” by AC and IMA.  This is a reference to a region of Nepal that is known for making knives of somewhat similar shape, but it is unclear if there is actually any sort of direct connection between the region and the standard issue military kukri.  Like the Classic Gurkha Army Kukri above, the SGAK is relatively common.  It is actually the single most abundant type of kukri in the AC/IMA cache.  My guess would be that something between 50% and 60% of all the military kukris brought out of Nepal fall into this pattern.

Of course establishing a “pattern” with a group of knives this diverse is something of a challenge.  Stylistically these knives are very similar to the CGAK, except that they are a bit shorter and lighter.  It is entirely possible that there are some older and more interesting examples that occasionally end up in this category simply because of their size and weight.

Here are some sample measurements:

A selection of SGAK kukris from the author’s personal collection. Note that while all of these examples came out of the IMA/AC cache “D” (the bottom most example) appears to be a custom produced weapon. It has a hollow ground blade, a satin finish and a finely carved handle.
  • A:
  • Total Length: 42 cm
  • Length of Blade: 32 cm
  • Length of Handle: 9.8 cm
  • Blade at its widest part: 6.5 cm Narrowest: 4 cm
  • Spine at widest: 12 mm
  • Drop: 9.5 cm
  • Point of Balance: 12 cm forward of bolster
  • Weight: 650 grams
  • B:
  • Total Length: 42 cm
  • Length of Blade: 32 cm
  • Length of Handle: 9.7 cm
  • Blade at its widest part: 5.7 cm Narrowest: 3.3 cm
  • Spine at widest: 9 mm
  • Drop: 9 cm
  • Point of Balance: 12.5 cm forward of bolster
  • Weight: 630 grams
  • C:
  • Total Length: 41 cm
  • Length of Blade: 31.5 cm
  • Length of Handle: 9 cm
  • Blade at its widest part: 5.5 cm Narrowest: 3.3 cm
  • Spine at widest: 9 mm
  • Drop: 9 cm
  • Point of Balance: 12 cm forward of bolster
  • Weight: 495 grams
  • D:
  • Total Length: 42.5 cm
  • Length of Blade: 32 cm
  • Length of Handle: 10 cm
  • Blade at its widest part: 6 cm Narrowest: 3.9 cm
  • Spine at widest: 9 mm
  • Drop: 9.3 cm
  • Point of Balance: 11.5 cm forward of bolster
  • Weight: 550 grams
  • E: (not pictured above)
  • Total Length: 42.3 cm
  • Length of Blade: 31.5 cm (rounded from sharpening or damage).
  • Handle Length: 10.5 cm (Replacement)
  • Thickest Part of Blade: 6.5 cm Narrowest: 4 cm
  • Drop: 9.3 cm
  • Thickness at Base of Spine: 10 mm
  • Point of Balance: 5 mm forward from the break of the shoulder.
  • Weight: 630 grams

While it is probably not proper to group these knives solely on the basis of their length and weight, there are also other characteristics that do seem to be generally shared.  To begin with, the pattern of inscriptions changes dramatically when you examine any number of SGAKs.  Most knives have no inscriptions at all.  The “3 Shri Chandra” formula, omnipresent on the CGAKs, is never seen on these knives.  This leads me to suspect that they were manufactured and issued after the end of his reign (in 1929).  Or possibly the marking of equipment simply lapsed as the years went on in the 1920s.  I have seen a few examples with other Nepalese inscriptions but these all appear to be one-offs and do not to follow an official pattern.  I have also seen a few with carved patterns on the blade or handle that might be a form of “trench art.”

Another commonality is that many of these knives are marked with an unidentified Nepalese figure on the bottom of the handle.  I have never seen a CGAK marked with the same mark, though they often carry a numeral “1” (in fact I have seen the numbers 1-3 stamped into CGAK handles.  The exact meaning of this system remains unclear.)

Unknown mark commonly encountered on the base of SGAKs. Author’s personal collection.

It is also not particularly rare to find an SGAK that is marked with English numerals (usually four) and occasionally a two letter abbreviation.  While going through the collection at AC I once ran across a dozen knives that were all marked SS XXXX.  The exact meaning of these marks, and who made them, remains a mystery.

English language stamps are actually seen from time to time on all of the preceding types of kukris that we have reviewed.  In my collection I have Sirupates, Budhumes, CGAKs and SGAKs that all have English language stamps.  To further complicate matters it does not appear that all of these stamps were applied at the same time or following the same pattern.  Sometimes three numbers appear, sometimes its four.  Sometimes there is a two letter abbreviation, sometimes it is three.  Sometimes only the letters appear and there are no numbers at all.  Usually the stamps are found on the spine of the blade, but rarely they are located on the handle instead.

English language inscription on the spine of SGAK “C.” Authors personal collection.
English language stamps on the spines of three CGAKs, “A” (top) “B” (middle) and “C” (bottom). Note that A and B follow a different pattern. The “KBD” stamp is fairly common in English language inscriptions and has been encountered by the author about a dozen times. Its meaning and origin is currently unknown. C is unusual for a CGAK as it has no markings at all.

Many Nepalese units served with British troops on various expeditions and it is certainly plausible that some sort of English language stamps were applied at that time.  Solving the mystery of these stamps is the next big hurdle for the Nepalese kukri collecting community.  I suspect that unraveling these inscriptions may be just as important as our previous translation of the “Chandra” sequence.  It is also interesting to note that while these inscriptions are seen everywhere they do seem to be more common on knives made during the SGAK era.

Because of the lack of dated references it is hard to know exactly when the SGAK were produced.  I suspect that these knives were a product of the interwar period, possibly the late 1920s and 1930s.  They are as tough as nails and could have remained in service within Nepal for decades.  They are also a bit lighter and easier to use than the CGAK making them a very practical survival tool.

Late Gurkha Army Kukri: Classic designs meet modern production methods.

If the SGAKs are something of a mystery, the “Late Gurkha Army Kukris” are positively opaque.  This category corresponds somewhat to a group of knives that IMA and AC marketed as “WWI Vintage Kukris.”  This description is erroneous.  When first sorting through their find they relied on an important early kukri collector to identify and describe their material.  “Circa WWI” was what he came up with based on the general shape and size of the blade.  Today our understanding of Nepalese kukris is much improved (due in no small part to the large number of study examples supplied by IMA and AC) and that identification no longer seems as plausible.

The initial sorting of these knives was again done by size and weight and a few stylistic markers.  Here is a representative sample of what you might have gotten if you ordered one.

A sample of late, short Gurkha Army Kukris sold as “WWI vintage” examples by AC and IMA. A-D (top-bottom). Author’s personal collection.
  • Blade A:
  • Overall Length: 46.5 cm
  • Blade Length: 33.5 cm
  • Handle Length: 12.5 cm
  • Weight: 671 grams
  • Spine thickness at base: 9mm
  • Point of Balance: 5 mm forward the shoulder
  • Drop: 11 cm
  • Blade B:
  • Overall Length: 45 cm
  • Blade Length: 33.5 cm
  • Handle Length: 11.5 cm
  • Weight: 623 grams
  • Spine thickness at base: 9mm
  • Point of balance: 9 mm behind the shoulder
  • Drop: 9.75 cm
  • Blade C:
  • Overall Length: 44.5 cm
  • Blade Length: 34 cm
  • Handle Length: 10 cm
  • Weight: 547 grams
  • Spine thickness at base: 7mm
  • Point of Balance: Almost directly over the shoulder.
  • Drop: 10.2 cm
  • Blade D:
  • Overall Length: 42.5 cm
  • Blade Length: 32.1 cm
  • Handle length: 10 cm
  • Weight: 571 grams
  • Spine thickness at base: 9mm
  • Point of Balance: 11 mm behind the shoulder
  • Drop: 9.3 cm
  • Blade E (a later purchase not pictured above):
  • Blade Length: 32.2 cm
  • Handle Length: 9.2 cm
  • Weight: 598 grams
  • Drop: 9.1 cm
  • Thickness of the Spine at the Base: 9 mm
  • Point of Balance: Directly over the shoulder

I have to admit that I am not quite sure how to handle this group of knives.  I am starting to suspect that they represent a late production run of SGAKs as Nepal was restarting its weapons production during WWII.  Many of these knives use totally traditional construction methods and come close to overlapping with the SGAKs in terms of size and weight.

At the same time, there do seem to be a few blade shapes in the batch that are generally not seen in the earlier examples.  One of my most beautiful knives (second from the bottom in the previous picture) has an elegant blade and a finely carved kaudi that is distinct from any SGAK that I have seen.  I have since run across a couple more blades produced on that same pattern, but none were in such good condition as the one I already had.

It is also interesting to note that many of these blades are carved with three fullers by the spine.  Often these are finer and very shallow (though not always).  With the exception of the very early Sirupate and Budhume models (which had only one very deep fuller) almost everything in the IMA/AC cache featured a two fuller design.  In that sense the “WWI vintage” knives were certainly a stylistic departure from what had come before.

There is another, more important, factor that led me to continue to classify these as a separate pattern.  A number of examples show some evidence of mechanization in their production.  Usually these knives appear to have had their fullers carved with an electric grinder.  Many also look like they were mechanically buffed.  A greater availability of sophisticated tooling might also explain why many of these knives have three fullers rather than the more common two, and generally more complex and finely carved kaudi.

A detailed closeup of LGAK “E.” Note the small striations in shallow fullers. Both the depth of the fuller and the regular pattern of the striations suggests the use of a mechanical grinder. Author’s personal collection.

Some of these later knives are very nice high quality pieces.  Their blades are often thinner and a bit more uniform than the SGAKs, making for a knife that feels great in the hand.  Further, the differential hardening of the edges of these knives is more pronounced, allowing them to be sharpened to a much greater degree.  This is particularly noticeable when compared with the CGAK.  These late examples offer a lot to like.

They also represent the end of an era.  What made the Nepalese military kukri distinct from the more commonly studied British and Indian examples was the fact that it was a handmade product.  Kukris were produced by skilled craftsman whose services were necessary precisely because of the British and Indian government’s economic strategies deprived Nepal of easy access to machine tools.  By the time you get to WWII that social and political system has started to change, and so had the nature of kukri manufacturing.  The industrialization of this process was just getting underway, but its effects on the blades that were produced in this later period is unmistakable.

Today it is still possible to buy a traditionally made “villager” kukri in Nepal.  Finding a craftsman who can produce anything like a CGAK is more of a challenge.  While the modern armies of Nepal, India and the UK buy large numbers of kukris every year, these are mass produced items churned out by factories.  While they all meet a uniform set of quality guidelines, you will never run across examples as outstanding as some of those made by the old master.

In my view to qualify as a LGAK a knife needs to show either the use of a modern steel or mechanical pounding and grinding in its production.  After reexamining the examples above I conclude that “A” and “B” probably do not fit in this category (though they share a very similar blade shape) because they were made using only traditional methods.  Knives like “D” and “E” epitomize the changes that were just getting under way.  “C” probably also belongs in this category because it appears to be made from a more modern steel.  These knives may be a product of the late 1930s or 1940s.  It is even possible that their production continued into the post-WWII era.  Again, this is a rough guess based only on an examination of the knives themselves.

The British Issue Military Kukri in Nepal: Military Aid in the Cold War.

One of the more interesting things to emerge out to the armory in Katmandu was a number of British pattern, Indian produced, MKII and MKIII kukris.  One would not necessarily expect to see these knives as they were never issued to the Nepalese army.  Instead they were produced for the Gurkha Battalions serving in Europe and Asia during WWI and WWII.  In fact, MK II kukris from both world wars were in the shipment recovered from Nepal (the WWI knives sold out in a matter of months).

A group of four nearly identical MKII kukris all produced by Pioneer in Calcutta in 1943. Note that these knives are in very good shape for their age. They have never been issued or used in the field. So why would India send Nepal crates of unused kukris?  Author’s personal collection.
A smaller group of MKIII knives all dating from WWII. The top blade was produced by CMW in 1944, the middle example is from HW in 1944 and the last piece carries the iconic K-45 stamp (which was once mistaken for a model designation, instead it refers to the year of manufacture.) These knives are in almost untouched condition. Clearly they were never issued, even though the MKIII design has remained in continuous use in some parts of the Indian army up through the present era. Author’s personal collection.

Most of the WWII dated MKII and MKIII kukris exhibited very little wear.  In fact many of them were basically new.  Given that condition is an important consideration for knife and bayonet collectors, this was great.  It is also interesting to note that many of these knives bear post-WWII Indian army inspection marks.  But how exactly did Nepal end up with crates of practically new fighting knives produced for the Indian army?

I have never been able to find any written testimony on the origins of these knives, but one of the Indian nationals who worked as a project manager for Windlass Steelcraft (the parent company of AC) related a suggestive story.  He believed that these knives had been shipped to Nepal during the Cold War by the Indian government.  India was contractually obligated to help Nepal by sending so many tons of equipment as “military aid.”  They filled their end of the deal by sending crates of obsolete weapons and equipment from WWII that was of no use to the Nepalese government.  They in turn just tossed the stuff in the Royal Armory (which by that point had become the “junk room” of the Nepalese military) and forgot about it.

I have no idea whether this account is true, but it might be worth looking into.  I do like it as a bit of folklore.  It illustrates the tensions between the Indian and Nepalese governments quite nicely.  These tensions helped to shape Nepal’s economic and military development in the 20th century.

I do not intend to discuss these knives in great detail as other, more knowledgeable, collectors have already explored this area.  Still, it is interesting to hold both a MKII and a SGAK in your hands and compare them.  To me the handmade Nepalese models always feel a lot more appealing, and I say that as someone who quite likes the MKII design.

Conclusion: Final thoughts on Collecting the Nepalese Military Kukri.

The preceding article is far from exhaustive.  I have not attempted to catalog every variant or reissue of all the kukris found in the Katmandu cache.  Doing so would require a book, and that in turn would mandate a research budget and couple of trips to Nepal.  Unfortunately I don’t have the time or resources to undertake that project (though it does sound like quite a bit of fun).

Instead my goal has been to provide some basic guidance that will help readers to identify the different types of Nepalese military kukris and to offer some suggestions on how to better appreciate their intrinsic historical value and aesthetic beauty.  I have also attempted to make an argument about why collectors and historians should take Nepalese made kukris just as seriously as their mass produced Indian and British cousins.  The immense variability of these objects makes their study a pleasure, and every once in a while you run into something that takes your breath away.

Antique kukri, hand picked from a crate of grease covered knives in the AC warehouse. Probably mid 19th century.  Author’s personal collection.

If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: “Mythology of the Kukri: Sign and Symbol.”