Event Report: Baltimore Antique Arms Show, 2007
An article by Bill Grandy
As a historical arms and armour enthusiast, I've caught myself many times wandering through museums thinking to myself, "What I wouldn't give to examine these pieces up close..." I am certain that I am hardly alone among other enthusiasts. So imagine my surprise when I discovered an event that was filled with antique arms and armour where I was allowed to not only view but even pick up and handle individual pieces.
My personal interest is in swords, and I knew beforehand that I would see more antique firearms than anything else. The entrance fee was only $5, though, and I went to this show hoping to see some American swords, and hopefully something as old as a 19th century smallsword or two. I certainly did not expect that before the day was over I would have handled well over two dozen swords that were pre-17th century, several renaissance polearms, countless 18th century weapons, and even many pieces of 16th and 17th century armour.
The show was held at the Maryland State Fairgrounds, and there was plenty of room for rows upon rows of vendors. I started on one end, and zigzagging my way through the rows, I made it through many hours later. Along the way I got a chance to chat with a number of friendly (and some not-so-friendly) vendors from various backgrounds. One of the first things that struck me was how international the event was: I met vendors from Russia, the Czech Republic, Germany, England, as well as vendors from all over the United States who sold consignment items for various antique dealers across the world.
While I was not at all surprised by the nearly overwhelming numbers of antique firearms, I was still surprised at how many of the firearms were from before the 18th century. This is an area where I am sorely lacking in knowledge, but several of the people I met that day were quite helpful in showing me the inner workings of these fascinating pieces. I have a completely new respect for the amazing ingenuity of firearms.
I was also surprised at the number of vendors selling antique polearms that dated from as late as the American Revolutionary war to as old as the English Civil War. At least one vendor had the head of a 15th century poleaxe. One table that particularly stuck out to me was the Antique Weapon Store booth. This table had a huge rack filled with antique polearms and as well as swords of various types. The gentleman running the booth was incredibly helpful, and despite knowing that I could not afford it, was kind enough to pull out an original 15th century German longsword for me to handle. This was possibly the highlight of the day for me, as being able to handle such a beautiful medieval specimen is incredibly rare. The sword was a remarkable weapon: amazingly light, yet with a fierce forward balance. The blade was hollow ground with an inlaid running wolf of Passau, and the s-curved guard was gracefully proportioned. Had I the $12,000 USD to purchase this, rest assured it would have been mine.
I was also shocked by the sheer number of 16th and 17th century swords there. I began to feel silly, as I had lost count of the amount of times I blurted out "Wow!" that day. Most of the pieces were in remarkable condition (and were priced accordingly). These swords ranged from Spanish cup hilts to Italian swept hilts, English Mortuaries, Scottish basket-hilts, and at least a dozen incredible "transitional" rapiers. In most cases I was able to pick these pieces up and closely examine the fine tunings that affect the balance and feel, the carefully designed edge geometry, and the detailed decorations. There was one particular rapier that had such incredible pierce work done to it that I thought my eyes would go blind from trying to stare at it too hard.
Along with the rapiers there were a number of Renaissance "off-hand" daggers present. These were often just as decorated, if not more so, then the swords. I saw one incredibly unique piece where the blade was ground with an alternating "stepped" geometry, which I had never seen done before. I even got to handle a working "trident" dagger, with spring loaded blades that opened to be used for parrying another sword, although the owner had a rubber band over the blade and asked that people did not attempt to press the switch (with good reason). One thing that struck me was just how heavy most of these daggers were. They had a rather substantial feel to them, which made them feel very safe for parrying against even large swords.
I had no idea I would get the wonderful opportunity to examine various pieces of Renaissance armour up close that day, and yet there were quite a number of vendors who had on their tables helmets, breastplates, various parts of the arm and leg defenses, and even one vendor who had a 16th century plate cod piece. Looking at the various parts, particularly the helmets, I was surprised when I began to examine the thickness of various areas. I had already known about how historical armour was not of uniform thickness and shaped to be thicker at certain key areas, but I had not realized just how incredibly thin other areas were.
In my search for armour I ran across the table of Allen Antiques. What immediately caught my attention at this table were the two, diminutive, modern made suits of armour at the table. The owner, Wade Allen, is both a collector of antique armour as well as a modern armourer himself, and constructed these incredibly well-made harnesses for his son (as well as a number of other harnesses throughout his son's growth). Both he and his wife were very charming people and very nice. Their table had some of the nicest armour pieces I'd seen that day, and they even had a small section of historical mail on display.
While European arms and armour is my particular interest, I could not help but stand in awe at the vast amounts of wonderful Asian and other ethnographic pieces. These were far more prominent than the European arms and armour. From the Kris styled Filipino blades to Indian katar, I saw both classic and exotic examples of pieces from just about every culture that used bladed weapons. Topping this list were the Japanese arms and armour vendors. The Japanese artifacts probably dominated over all of the other non-firearm items at the show.
I saw many forms of katana and tachi, from 16th century pieces all the way up to World War II pieces. While some of these swords were in poor condition, most were in excellent condition, looking as if they were just polished yesterday. Various fittings of these swords were often sold individually, and commanded high prices. It was nice to see so many swords with preserved saya (scabbards), as the European equivalents rarely survive in good condition.
I was even pleasantly surprised to see a few complete suits of Japanese armour at the show. This was an especially nice treat. While I loved getting the chance to examine individual armour pieces up close, there is still something to be said about beholding the entire suit as one whole.
I thought to myself that one of the nice things about going to an antique arms show like this was that even if I were tempted to buy something I didn't need, I had no chance of possibly affording anything anyway. Still, while the actual arms and armour were out of my price range, I did not leave empty handed. A number of the vendors sold books, a few of which I brought home, and I also was given a beautiful color copy of the Bonhams April 2007 auction catalog, which is worth owning purely for the photos.
I was quite glad that I discovered this show. Although I am not much of a collector of antique arms (yet), it was still a fantastic experience. The 2008 show is scheduled for March 15-16. This is definitely a date I will be listing on my calendar. For anyone who is in the area for this event, the mere five dollar cover charge is far more than worth the chance to absorb so much history.
About the Author
Bill Grandy is an instructor of Historical European Swordsmanship and sport fencing at the Virginia Academy of Fencing. He has held a strong passion (obsession?) for swords and swordsmanship for as long as he can remember. He admits that this passion comes from a youth spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, but he'll only admit that if there are no girls around.