This weekend I went to a historical reenactors’ market with Laura and her aunt. While the ladies were perusing hats and finding bargain fabric for costumes, I instead took the opportunity for some ad hoc writing research. Among the interesting things I saw and discovered were…

Take two weapons into the fight? Not me, I just shoot and hack with this handy axe pistol!

Take two weapons into the fight? Not me, I just shoot and hack with this handy axe pistol!

Sometimes real weapons are even crazier than those in steampunk and fantasy. Take this combination axe/pistol from Radbourn Designs. It was used in boarding actions by 17th century Italian sailors, so that they could shoot someone out of the way as they swung onto the enemy boat and then immediately start hacking people up. It’s like the Swiss Army Knife of high seas brutality, and the next pirate I write is having one.

The blunderbuss, designed for your shooting convenience

The blunderbuss, designed for your shooting convenience

According to the chap running Derbyshire Arms, blunderbusses have those wide mouths to make it easier to load them on a moving ship or carriage. It’s those sort of practical details most of us don’t know, and that can make a story more convincing.

And these are meant to make you feel better...

And these are meant to make you feel better…

This horrifying looking surgeons’ kit includes hooks, second from right, which may have been intended to hold the wound open, allowing the surgeon to finish their work as quickly as possible in the days before anaesthetics and blood transfusions, when speed was of the essence. Though to my modern eye it looks more like a torture device.

I was shown this by Mark Annable, UK Team Captain for Battle of the Nations, the sport where people engage in full-on full-armoured combat. I can’t find the fantastic trailer he showed me, but this should give you an idea of what’s involved:


That is so not for me with my terrible fear of pain, but Mark and his friends clearly love it.

Viking knives!

Viking knives!

These knives were made by Andy Colley of Aarg Armouries, a third generation blacksmith whose grandfather started the business after serving as a farrier in World War One. Apparently these knife designs are mostly found in coastal areas, and those strangely shaped metal handles are probably designed to make it easier to keep your grip if the knife gets wet. Andy’s theory about the chunky blades is that this was a fashion that arose because metal was expensive, and so having lots of it in your knife, sword or whatever was a way of showing off your wealth.

I also got some great insights into metal working from Steve of Reddog Forge and on the technology and culture of bow production from Nick Winter of Arbalist Armoury.

I learnt so many fascinating details from the day, and have several pages of notes that I’ll be using later. But the main thing that I learnt was how willing people were to talk about their craft. I’ve come away from the day with business cards for half a dozen passionate, excited experts in their fields, people who said that they’d be happy to help me with research questions further down the line. A nice day out with family proved to be a really useful one for me as a writer, and a fascinating one for me as a history geek. So writers, get out there, go to events related to your genre, pick people’s brains – odds are you’ll get some great results.

This weekend is Stockport Viking Market – more research here I come!

  1. everwalker says:

    I had no idea I needed an axepistol so much until I read this post. I’ve added it to my Christmas list.

  2. Jack says:

    Reblogged this on Wyrdwend and commented:
    And there ya go. I’ve always said the Real World is the Real Monster of all Possibilities.

  3. The axepistol reminds me of the WWI vintage Pritchard bayonet for the Webley revolver:

    • That moment when he stabs the melon and then makes it explode is an inspired touch.

      The Pritchard may even have harked back to previous British military tech – apparently other fleets were using more pointy shooting-and-stabbing instruments around the time the Italians had this axe-pistol.

  4. glenatron says:

    I’m going to make a guess that the axe pistol is probably not that great of an axe or a pistol, but it is certainly a kick-ass gadget for the fancypants pirate.

    Interesting metal-as-fashion point- that is almost certainly why most horses are shod these days. Horses don’t really need shoeing unless they are doing a huge amount of travelling, certainly way more than most modern horses do and the expense of metal meant that only the rich could afford to shoe their horses. As time went by it became a “keeping up with the joneses” fashion statement among the aspirational middle classes until in the early twentieth century it was just “the way things are done” and so it has remained until the last few years when people have started questioning it. Shoeing horses all year round is very much a recent fad and most people in the time when horses were a major means of transport would have though it a very bad idea. Shoes do protect a hoof from wear but at the cost of removing much of it’s shock-absorbing ability, losing a lot of grip and reducing blood supply to the foot, so there is certainly a trade-off involved. A recent innovation has been “boots” for horses with sore or weak feet so they can walk more comfortably – recent in this case being over the last ten years or so and also in roman times.

    • That’s crazy. I always assumed that if you were going to the effort as hammering a bunch of nails into another creature’s foot you’d at least have good reasons.

      • glenatron says:

        Well, there is a lot of accepted wisdom around horses- the equestrian life is very tradition-bound – but often it transpires that a) the accepted wisdom has no empirical basis and b) things that are “just the way it is done” don’t necessarily go back as far as you might expect. Sometimes you also have a fishknife tradition, where there was a point to it, but it really doesn’t apply any more.

        I certainly wouldn’t say shoes are unnecessary for all horses at all times, but for most horses most of the time there is no practical need for them.

  5. […] actually learnt more about longbows since writing this story, thanks to the folks I met at a historical reenactment fair. It turns out that, while the best longbows are crafted to the right height and draw length for a […]

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