Man At Arms: Art Of War – Gene Ching and His Love of Swords

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Gene Ching with a Baltimore Knife & Sword Katana on Man At Arms: Art Of WarDanny Trejo with a Tizona Spanish SwordWhen I was young, I loved swords. I started down the arguably obsolete swordsman path in middle school by studying fencing and Kung Fu – I was attracted to Kung Fu specifically for the monumental Chinese arsenal of weapons. When I went to college, I went to San Jose State University because they had a champion NCAA fencing team, and found an excellent Kendo Dojo there too. I earned a scholarship to a PhD program at University of California, Santa Cruz, based on my research on the difference between fencing masters and novices. However, I thought my sword studies would end in the academies, or at least be delegated to a hobby instead of a primary focus. I couldn’t conceive of a career as a professional swordsman in modern times. But after grad school, I found myself making swords for a living. And later, I was teaching Kung Fu and writing for martial arts magazines. I never dreamed that following this path would put me in the publisher’s chair for Kung Fu Tai Chi. More so, I never imagined it would make me a reality TV star.

On June 8, 2017, I’m appearing in a new original series, MAN AT ARMS: ART OF WAR, on the EL REY Network. The first season runs eight episodes and I serve as a weapons expert in five of them. The show is a television version of a very popular web show, MAN AT ARMS: REFORGED, available through DEFY Media’s AWE me YouTube channel. The web show centers on weapons builds by Baltimore Knife & Sword, the leading makers of stage combat and custom weaponry in America. Most of the weapons featured in the webisodes are from fiction – movies, comics, TV shows and videogames – weapons like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon‘s Green Destiny, Elecktra‘s Sai, and the Sword of Altair from Assassin’s Creed. EL REY Network’s MAN AT ARMS: ART OF WAR expands on the web series with hour-long episodes featuring builds of historic weapons from different cultures.

Danny Trejo, Kerry Stagmer, Gene Ching, Marko Zaror
Danny Trejo, Kerry Stagmer, Gene Ching, Marko Zaror

MAN AT ARMS: ART OF WAR is hosted by veteran actor Danny Trejo. Alongside Danny are Marko Zaror, a spectacular martial arts action star from Chile who I’ve been telling our readers about for a decade now, and Crystal Santos, a pupil of Fall 1993 cover master, Eric Lee. Da’Mon Stith and I take turns being the Weapons Experts, plus we’re assisted by a few special guests for certain episodes. But the real stars are the master weapons makers from Baltimore Knife & Sword, brothers Kerry and Matthew Stagmer, and Ilya Alekseyev. If it wasn’t for their exceptional creations, we’d have nothing to showcase in MAN AT ARMS: ART OF WAR.

Now, as I said earlier, I made swords for a living too. That was back in the late eighties and it was my full-time job, along with teaching Kung Fu. I worked for The Armoury, a division of American Fencers Supply Company. You’ll still find my original sword diagram drawings of some the replica weapons on that website. AFS was the leading West Coast supplier of fencing equipment back then. The Armoury made replica weapons primarily for Shakespearean Theater, as well as Renaissance Faires and some odd collectors. Some of the forges that made modern fencing blades also made military swords and could still produce relatively inexpensive blades for long swords and arming swords. AFS adapted the assembly process for modern fencing to produce replicas for The Armoury. So my job was cleaning, shaping and fitting hilts on these blades. It was a lot of grinding, filing, Dremel® tool work and wood rasping. But I never forged steel. That romantic image of a smith pounding a red-hot piece of metal in a forge? That wasn’t me at all. That’s what the guys from Baltimore Knife & Sword do. I’ll still claim being a swordsmaker because it was a full-time job of mine for a half dozen years or so and, honestly, how many people can put that on their resume? But when it comes to swordmaking, what Baltimore Knife & Sword does is way out of my league.

Fortunately, Kerry was a former fencer too and knew AFS quite well. While he couldn’t resist chiding me for The Armoury’s manganese bronze cast guards, we hit it off alright. As it turned out, he started making swords full time around the same time that I did. Between takes of MAN AT ARMS: ART OF WAR, he shared his story. “I originated my shop primarily reselling weapons from Spain in the early eighties. And then by the mid-eighties I was making swords full time. They were pretty terrible. [laughs] We learned like everybody else does. I was doing the Renaissance Festival circuit, primarily down into Florida and, of course, Maryland, for many years. I was at Maryland for twenty years at the Renaissance Festival.” Kerry said that the weapons from Baltimore Knife & Sword came to dominate the Renaissance Festival market until nearly every stage fight was done with their weapons because of their durability.

Ilya Alekseyev, Kerry Stagmer, Gene Ching, Matthew Stagmer
Ilya Alekseyev, Kerry Stagmer, Gene Ching, Matthew Stagmer

Matthew joined Baltimore Knife & Sword a little later. “I needed a job when I was fifteen,” recalls Matt. “My brother Kerry had already been doing it for quite a while and had the business pretty well established doing stage combat weaponry. And I had a background – just about any art class, any tech head class, anything I could possibly take making things, working with my hands and designing… So for me, it started out as a necessity, just to have a job as a teenager, and it quickly progressed to a passion that I can’t let go of.”

Over the years, Baltimore Knife & Sword built a reputation for excellent craftsmanship and that was a stepping stone to – of all things – the virulent internet. Kerry recounts how they transitioned from weapons makers to web stars. “We had been doing this type of work when we met Tony Swatton, who was a maker here in Hollywood, doing a fair number of films, and he had begun working with DEFY Media on the MAN AT ARMS project. They had gotten up to about a million subscribers at that point in time. When Tony decided that it didn’t really work for him anymore and he didn’t want to do the show, my brother Matt had been on several episodes with Tony because he was commuting back and forth from Baltimore to the West Coast to see his girlfriend, and so they began to talk to Matt and several other makers to decide where MAN AT ARMS could go next. They ultimately ended up all the way on the East Coast with our company. And since then, we’ve done about seventy additional episodes ourselves and continue to work through, and now the new TV show with EL REY.”

“We filmed – I don’t even know how many seasons now – about a hundred episodes,” says Matt about the web series. “And then we got the phone call that EL REY Network had picked up the show, and that it was going to be based on historical weapons. That was kind of a sigh of relief for us a little bit. Yes, the fantasy weapons are great. We love bringing people’s dreams, things you’ve only seen in cartoons, anime or pages of a comic book. But our passion really is historical weapons. It’s what we do best. So that’s a big jump for us, going from that to historical. The challenges of those are that we couldn’t just make those out of modern materials for the most part. We needed to work with what they would’ve worked with from those cultures. So suddenly we’re back into doing more complicated builds. Those historical builds were easier for us but now we have to do it out of bloom steel, or smelt our own steel, or do them out of iron. Those kind of logistics were hard to do at first, but I think we did pretty good. Also, this show, the TV version, is a lot more focused on us as makers, and not just the product, so there’s a lot more talking, a lot more interaction between the smiths. We’re usually singled out on the YouTube where it’s just one person doing the process. That had its headaches but it was fun. It gives the viewers the opportunity to get to know us as makers and not just what we’re doing.”

Gene Ching with a Baltimore Knife & Sword Katana
Gene Ching with a Baltimore Knife & Sword Katana

Today, Baltimore Knife & Sword turns out a staggering amount of weapons at an astounding rate, sometimes up to seventy pieces a week. That requires a dedicated staff of extremely talented people with a remarkably unique set of skills. The third representative of Baltimore Knife & Sword on MAN AT ARMS: ART OF WAR is Ilya Alekseyev. In a few episodes, Ilya appears as a pinch swordsman (like a pinch hitter, but with swords) because he’s a top-notch cutter, and was also one of the weapons handlers on set. Keep in mind, all of the weapons on MAN AT ARMS: ART OF WAR were live – meaning keen sharp edges – and anyone who has ever handled a real live weapon knows that they are extremely dangerous in the hands of a novice. In fact, blood gets drawn in the show – human blood – during a small mishap. It just goes to show how lethal live weapons can be.

Ilya was a first-place winner on another weapon show, Forged in Fire (Season 2, Episode 4). He brings his studied expertise to MAN AT ARMS: ART OF WAR. “Most of my training comes from Russia,” divulges Ilya. “I’m trained Russian orthodox icon painting: ink painting, watercolor painting and oil painting. Those skills transfer very well into the work I do in metal, which is engraving, chasing and repousse, and uchidashi, which is similar to chasing and repoussebut a Japanese technique. Art background is extremely helpful in thinking in my head through my smithing techniques, knowing cross sections, how the material moves, the old world designs of the piece. In terms of blade smithing, I have good experience with modern Damascus steel, also known as pattern-welded steel. I have also experience in traditional materials like bloom steel and Japanese tamahagane, some crucible steel experience, also known as wootz. I’m very good at blade smithing and blade geometry. In fact, I instruct people in it whenever I have a chance. My favorite thing is to instruct people who were taught wrong by other people.

Danny Trejo & Gene Ching
Danny Trejo & Gene Ching

“However I first started out as an armorer, making armor. My specific passion here is art of Islam, and consequently arms and armor of Islam, as well as out of European stuff. Eastern Europe is another passion, and German armor of the 15th–16th centuries. The arms and armor of Islam stand out to me because that’s what I studied in college – art of Islam and art of Asia. And they bring a different aesthetic compared to what you see as classic European knight. In terms of European arms and armor, when you look at perfectly made German suit of armor, it’s like looking at a $100,000 Mercedes. All the lines, everything, are extremely refined, and yet there’s nothing extra to it. Almost everything serves a function of some sort. The detailed piercing that looked like crochet on the sides of armor, they’re not only there for the aesthetic purpose but also to remove the weight. Knowing the art history background – I have a degree in that – you start realizing that the aesthetic properties of arms and armor are as necessary as their quote-unquote function because armor was made for people with a lot of money who need to demonstrate their wealth and erudition to other people. That’s why armor, a lot of times, has references to literature and mythology in its presentation, in its décor. Consequently the wearer presents their knowledge, how erudite they are, to other people. To put it in pop culture terms, it’s like Mean Girls, but who knows Plato? Who knows Aristotle the best? In a world where only ten percent of the population is literate, showing off that you know Aristotle, even in the Arab world, is a bit thing. It’s a big deal. So that’s why I love all that stuff. Because armor has more surface area than a sword or a saber, so you can paint an entire painting, you can write a book, on this surface. And only the people who know that stuff can read it. People who can’t read it get extremely embarrassed in front of wealthy and powerful individuals.”

For the Love of Swords

I still love swords. Being part of MAN AT ARMS: ART OF WAR was a rare privilege. Not only did I get to work with the legendary Danny Trejo, martial arts action stars Marko Zaror and Crystal Santos, and fellow martial researcher Da’Mon Stith, I got to hang out with Kerry, Matt and Ilya, to wield their awesome creations, and discuss swords and other cold arms with experts as passionate as me about them. It was a wonderful experience and I hope you’ll tune in. I ride with El Rey.

Until next time, stay sharp!

MAN AT ARMS: ART OF WAR premieres on June 8, 2017, at 8 PM on EL REY Network. EL REY Network is available thru DirecTV, Time Warner, Comcast, Dish, Cox, Charter, Verizon Fios, SlingTV, Suddenlink and Google Fiber.

Written by Gene Ching for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM

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