10 Questions with Benjamin Bowles
What got you interested in swords and fencing?
I’ve been interested in swords and weapons since childhood. It was fascinating to me to see swords, which are clearly implements of harm, sit only a room away from fine art in museums. I couldn’t have told you back then but my fascination with weapons is because they represent the half of the emotions we wrestle with and suppress. They represented the physical aggression, conflict, and violence my upbringing was fortunate to be without, but emotions I was familiar with. That made them foreign yet familiar, and always stirred my interest.
I began fencing in college on a whim. I looked for a physical education class to fill some credits and saw “beginning fencing”. Having played with toy swords growing up, I thought I should try learning how to use them. I developed a lifelong passion since.
What were your main obstacles in building Benjamin Arms?
Manufacturing 19th century weapons in the 21st century was more difficult than I imagined. Mainly, the industrial processes common then are now rare, artisanal, and expensive (i.e. forging, casting, leather working, etc). Many of the processes have been lost to time, too: The steel recipes and heat treating techniques for blades were closely-guarded guild secrets in Solingen and never published; The species selection, curing technique, and drying process for fish leather is a mystery.
Through arduous research I’ve been able to finding the artisans, manufacturers, engineers, and materials for my weaponry, though it sometimes takes years.
What part of your business do you enjoy the most and why?
Resurrecting weapons! For instance, I’ve spend the last 2 years studying Italian epee design, construction, function, and materials and just finished a few weeks ago. After so much work sourcing materials & prototyping I got to resurrect a weapon detailed by a fencing master from over 100 years ago. I had his book on my desk and my reproduction in hand. The work gives me pride, and gives honor to the masters of the past. www.BenjaminArms.com
What part of the artistry do you enjoy the most and why?
I enjoy working with Italian weapons the most because they require more skill to build. I feel Italian foils and epees are really demonstrative of my expertise and unparalleled craftsmanship in classical weapons.
Your niche requires you to know a lot about fencing history. What resources and travels have helped you the most?
I could not have built this business without my apprenticeship under Maestro Ramon Martinez and Maestro Jeannette Acosta Martinez. They provided the constant stream of weapon specifications and construction techniques I needed to make sound weaponry. More than that, though, they taught (and continue to teach me) how to fence. Fencing systems will explain the purpose for each weapon’s design, and I could not make them without knowing how to fence.
Secondly, to continue improving I’ve been researching traditional construction techniques since the beginning. Sword construction is not a widely written about topic, and most highly specific questions remain unanswered: what are the period techniques for ornately etching sword blades? How were 19th century fencing blades heat treated? How do you produce sharkskin leather for grips? This led me to amass a library of reference books and articles, but also to travel to some of the major knife and swordmaking capitols of Europe. I traveled to Solingen, Klingenthal, and Thiers last year to collect and document as much information as I can. You can read more about the visits to those cities and my research on my website.
How have you been able to model your business from others?
You’ll find parallels of my business in many niche markets, though I’ve modeled my business from fencing equipment suppliers of the past. Castello Fencing Equipment Co., Joseph Vince, Souzy Paris, and Serafino Gnutti all sold a variety of fencing swords and accouterments. Its always been my intention to provide the same diversity and quality as these past manufacturers.
Why do fencing blades have a cant, and when was that implemented into the weapon? (part 2) Many sport blades are also angled inward, is this too, a modern invention and why?
It depends on the system of fencing, as French weapons are canted and Italian are not. The answer lies in the purpose of these “weapons.” Foils (in the French school) were not designed as exact, yet blunted replicas of the sword but rather tools to teach the principles, dexterity, and movements required to use the sword. For example, French figure 8 guards teach the student to sufficiently turn their weapon and place the guard against their opponent’s blade when defending or attacking (in accordance with French fencing theory). The fencer must learn to manipulate the figure 8 guard to be successful fencing with it (that is to say they learn the system by using the correct weapon). That learned manipulation is the goal of a foil’s construction.
The cant on a French foil serves the same goal. When given a straight canted foil, a beginner will not be inclined to widen the lateral positions of sixte and quarte. They will instead fence with their hand towards the center because a straight cant encourages that. A straight-canted foil also won’t point toward their adversary when properly executing French hand positions; they will fight against the foil to do the technique properly! If a student develops the ability to use a canted figure 8-guarded foil, then they’ve learned the principles of offense and defense needed to use a French dueling sword or French smallsword properly. It’s been this way for a long, long time.
In short, French weapons are canted because French fencing technique requires it. Learning any system of fencing requires the tool designed for the task.
You’ve recently switched from selling complete weapons and parts, to just complete weapons. Why the change?
On the business side It was quite expensive to stock the parts and materials to make such highly customizable weapons. For each single sword I had to stock all the possible guards, leather colors, blades from various producers and at various lengths, pommels, and much more.
Concurrently, I noticed disturbing market trends which reminded me how quickly, without vigilance, classical fencing can turn into sport fencing, and customization may have been helping. Customization in part allowed for individual interpretation of (and deviation away from) 19th and early 20th century fencing technique. Because the tool and the application are dependent on each other, I determined it best to no longer customize as the survival of historically accurate technique depends on historically accurate weapons.
We know that fencing plays a big role in your life and businesses. How do you incorporate your personal training in such a busy life?
The work-life balance is always difficult for business owners. Assembling the swords takes no time compared to web-design, product design, client communication, part re-orders, bill pay, business licenses, sales taxes, etc. I’m very lucky, though, that I also run a fencing school in San Francisco called the Golden Gate School of Arms. This means I still get to fence regularly and know exactly where I need to improve.
What does your typical day look like?
It starts with lots of coffee. My coffee maker is the most important tool I have. Sometimes morning coffee is the only reason I’m excited to go to sleep. The day proceeds with clerical work before heading to my workshop in the afternoon. There I saw wood, polish metal, and advance my order log forward. On the best evenings I button up the shop and head to my class, where I teach a great batch of students with weapons I built and put in their hand.
Bonus Question –
As someone who makes (and likely collects swords), what are 3 of your personal favorites in your possession and why? (these can be swords you’ve made yourself or bought/acquired)
I actually only have seven swords! Three of which are mementos or gifts from retiring fencers. Of the four I use, my favorite is the Meriginac foil I teach with – a little heavy on the point, but handles just the way I want it to. My truly prized possessions are in my library: a copy of “La Manufacture d’Armes Blanches du Klingenthal” which I had to go to Klingenthal to buy, and a signed copy of “The Code Duello”, by A. W. Paterson which was surprisingly and very generously given to me as a gift.
For more information on Benjamin Bowles and his company Benjamin Arms visit the following links: