Discovery's 'Master of Arms' judges speak of new competition series that recreates groundbreaking weapons in history
In each episode, blade, ballistic and bow weapons will be rigorously tested as well as judged on their design, historical accuracy and abilities
Skilled weapons craftsmen have played an instrumental role in shaping the direction of mankind over the course of history. Now, inspired by age-old traditions and in celebration of the most iconic weaponry known to man, Discovery Channel is gathering the best builders in a head-to-head competition to re-create the armaments that have made a historical impact.
Modern weapons smiths will put their technical knowledge and ingenuity to the test, giving insight into age-old building techniques and the traditions, methods and craftsmanship that define them. Each tool will be heavily researched, crafted pieces of art, and only one outstanding contender will be crowned the undisputable 'Master of Arms.'
These weapons will be tested by four extraordinary experts in the field: Reputed firearms historian Ashley Hlebinsky, ex-Special Ops Sergeant Nicholas Irving, certified firearms specialist Zeke Stout, and veteran professional blacksmith Trenton Tye. That said, Meaww was fortunate enough to speak with them and gain interesting insight into what we're in for.
What can we expect from the first season of Master of Arms as it premieres on November 2? What are you looking for in the contenders?
Stout: What we're really excited about, considering our different viewpoints, is that it's almost like we're creating a new sport, but with people that are amazing craftsmen. We've got some of the best craftsmen in the world. As with any professional sport, on any given day, the mediocre low-end guy can beat the top guy, and we saw that in the show.
We saw some of the top guys in the field come in and they did great, but in many cases, the underdogs rose to the top and beat them. It's fun to see that kind of competition, craftsmanship, and the various weapons they put out.
Firearms are more or less projected with negative connotations in today's times. Tell us why we should change our perspectives and look at the science and ingenuity behind them?
Hlebinsky: You know, there are so many different sides to weaponry history, firearms history, blade history. You have to look at the construction of firearms as a functional art in Europe, especially during the 16th and 18th century, with the different weapons and firearms that were being made and the process that a craftsman would go through from apprentice to master, what they ended up producing, what went into the battlefield, what was purchased, as well as keeping in mind the traditional art of the time.
So I think it's interesting to look at all of the different time periods and to be able to trace the lineage of how these technologies developed, the ways that they worked and didn't and how that affected the soldier.
Is the art of making weapons a lost one? What is its importance in modern-day culture?
Tye: So, the short answer is: No. It's not lost because we have these incredible craftsmen who are completely hands-on. The fact is there's a lot of romanticism about the fact that old craftsmen were somehow superhuman. Well, they probably were in their day, but a Japanese smith would kill for the quality of steel found in our car springs today because we have better techniques and we have talented craftsmen using them.
Of course, these techniques are based upon these old world "how to's", but, at the end of the day, building anything requires that you start with your own hands no matter what technology level you're working at. I'm 40 now, so I come from an age before the Internet and what's kind of happened is that, earlier, museums used to have this lock on the weird and unusual and so everybody would go to the museum because you couldn't see the artifacts anywhere else.
Now, because of the internet, you can see anything that you want to. That said, people don't want to just see it now, they want to 'do' it. They want to put their hands on it. There was a craft resurgence in the 1970s when a lot of these crafts were "reborn", and now you're seeing that again; you're seeing young people who want to do something with their hands. I mean, they want to do several things, like make their own beer, have their own apiary in the backyard, etc.
Similarly, the art of making weapons is not dead and it will never be dead because at the end of the day, as people, we always interact with the world using our hands. Plus, with the advent of the internet, you are able to witness this incredible resurgence 'cause people can freely share information with each other with ease.
What is your stance: Pro-gun laws or anti-gun laws, especially after the increased number of mass shootings in recent times?
Tye: I'm more than happy to wade into this one. More than happy to wade in and spray [laughs]. I come from a very rural area in Georgia, where guns are such an integral part of the culture that they are considered tools more than anything else. When you talk about mass shootings, I would like to say that the world is as the world is. Being able to live your life on your own terms requires tools and what an incredible country we have that we are so safe.
I always chuckle when people talk about mass shootings here in the US, because when you consider several other places, it's an everyday thing, and we have it awfully good here. I'm not saying that we shouldn't strive to make things safer or we shouldn't have some sense about how we go about our business, but we need to take it in context of how the rest of the world is. America was founded on a pioneering spirit, and sometimes being a pioneer means you have to be tough. You have to make hard decisions. And I think what people call the "gun culture" is a part of that. Moreover, it's a tool like anything else, it gives you an option that sometimes you wouldn't have otherwise. As the old saying goes, "God created all men, but Samuel Colt made them equal."
What are the most important aspects you look at while judging the make of a weapon?
Hlebinsky: Well, I think it's different for all of us. At the end of the day, it is a competition for money. There are a set of requirements that the craftsmen are expected to adhere to. That said, the main thing about all of us is that we have very different areas of expertise. So, I'm a historian and thereby the historical weapons judge. Depending on the challenge, I'm looking for the history behind what they're making, the make of that time period, while also checking if the weapons are conforming to aspect X, Y, and Z in order for it to be historically accurate.
Now, for some of the challenges, we give them the leeway to break out of history because if something was made a certain way years ago, doesn't mean that it was the best way. However, I mostly look at it from a historical perspective, the aesthetics, and whether or not they are staying true to whatever the time period they're recreating, and in that, creating their own version of history.
Stout: I tend to look at it from the everyday end-user perspective of it. There was one time, I can't remember what the build was, but I can give you an example; We had one build wherein it wasn't a heated deliberation, but we had a long deliberation, because we just couldn't decide who was going to go home. My perspective was that it just didn't feel right when I tested it. At the time, Trent had a good point saying the craftsmanship in that weapon was amazing.
The guy that built it had done an amazing, impeccable job. But then again, Ashley's perspective was that it just wasn't historically accurate. So, there were three perspectives that added in and helped shape the whole judging process. The viewers will get to see that at home when we deliberate at the end of each challenge.
Trenton Tye, how did you discover your love for weaponry and the craft behind it?
I don't think that there's a child in Georgia that plays out in the woods who doesn't pick up a stick and thinks it's a sword. I have a pretty cool story: Where my family and I grew up, we had a lot of fields, and one of the things that we did is we collected native American artifacts, especially stone projectile points. In fact, my birth was paid for in arrowheads. The doctor that delivered me was a collector. He saw some of our collection and actually swapped out to have me delivered.
I learned how to actually make those stone arrowheads when I was seven or eight years old in Chehaw Park in Albany, Georgia, from a guy named Big Kirkland. And I think that was when I started understanding the practicality of it and got a real understanding of the craftsmanship. So, I got started from sticks to rocks and then later on to forging iron.
Zeke Stout, how do you gauge the design of a weapon in terms of ability when it comes to blade weaponry?
With what my role is? The hands-on part of it. You want to make sure it maintains an edge when I'm chopping something or cutting something. If I do stab into something, you want to make sure that the tip doesn't break off. Then, the way the blade feels in your hand when you swing it, chop with it, or stab with it, it must have a certain feel.
For example, if you have the ergonomics wrong and you go to stab with the weapon, it's either gonna slide off the wrong way or it won't be effective. Funnily enough, it was a learning curve for me as well, as most guys didn't really see how big my hands were, and so I had to give them a pass. [laughs]
Ashley Hlebinsky, what is the importance of learning the history of weaponry in today's day and age?
The history is so important because it reinforces the present and it is also part of what we, as historians, do in the museum to make sure people enjoy the experience. It's our job to tell you what types of technologies were available. How they were used: good, bad or indifferent of the way that cultures and societies changed. It's our job to kind of lay that foundation and provide people with the information to make their own informed decisions.
A historian's job is not to tell you what to think, it's to give you enough tools so that you can think for yourself. And so, for our show, aside from looking at the old ways and historic weaponry, I think it's really important for people to not only assess this as a piece of technology, but also gauge the actual practical execution of events. The history gives an insight into the ways that the advancement of weapons technology altered battlefield tactics from hand to hand combat, to distance weapons, bows, combination guns when you're in a very close quarter combat situation, etc. Also, how different technologies over time would help or hinder a soldier's ability to save themselves on the battlefield is really important to know. So, it is just really providing that overall context for people to see a bigger picture and pique their interest.
Trenton Tye, what is your message to aspiring gunsmiths and weapons craftsmen considering your vast experience in the field?
There is no saying what one man can do and what another can't. I think the biggest barrier to anything can be broken by simply getting out there and trying. The technology that we're seeing these guys recreate is hundreds if not thousands of years old. Many people just don't want to try it because they think that, "Man, I can't possibly do that." Well, they can. You have got to put your feet on the ground and walk forward. The resources, as well as instructors, are all out there. I mean, if you're willing to get your feet wet, you don't have an excuse.
With platforms such as YouTube, literally anything you want to know is out there on the internet to get you started. I did a video a while back where I took a leaf blower, a yard fire, and a rock and made a knife. If somebody can do that, you have no excuse to get out there and make something incredible.
'Master of Arms' premieres Friday, November 2, on Discovery.