The main purpose of this article is to address the current and rather dangerous trend which assumes that: “Any kukri found with either brass or steel rings around the grip is a WW2 Indian Army Issue Kukri.”
The majority of serious collectors already regard the above statement as a fallacy, but there is one ardent “enthusiast” who is the main proponent of the case for such kukri being described as genuine issue items.
I will examine the main arguments as to why these kukri are so hotly contested, and try to show that the “evidence” so far presented in favour of the above, cannot, in fact, be substantiated.
I believe the danger is mainly to new and inexperienced collectors who may read such posts and actually believe they're getting a genuine Second World War issue kukri when buying a ring handle piece, when the probability is infact extremely remote.
Many unscrupulous sellers already bank on such remarks, in order to try and artificially inflate the prices of these otherwise common kukri. Whilst there can be no debate that such kukris were available to purchase privately by individual officers and men, the dispute here is whether or not they were issued by the Indian Army to Gurkha forces.
Wartime produced examples are found more commonly with steel rings around the hilt, and a steel pommel cap. The most obvious distinguishing feature from the post war “tourist” style pieces are the lack of a chromed blade. Most post war examples either have brass or a thin white metal rings to the hilt. They have been accurately compared to the post war lionshead tourist kukri, which are almost exclusively poor quality.
From the start, I wish it to be known that whilst I have no particular stake in the argument, either for or against. I am in favour of truth, and factual historical evidence, as opposed to false and altered statements, distorted photographs, and in some cases, outright lies. My aim is to further our knowledge through informed study.
Now, it must be remembered that I am only interested in what can be proven, with a reasonable amount of certainty, by either first hand historical accounts of the men
involved, period photographs, and/or documents and paperwork from the period detailing such items (eg. Design plans, Stores chits, purchases orders, etc)
So, modern interviews are to be treated with a healthy amount of scepticism, not only because of the conduit used to bring us the information, which has proved itself “faulty” in the past, but also due to the natural passing of time bringing on a certain amount of distortion.
The crux of the argument for these ring gripped kukris having been issued seems to focus on two images, and some post war testimony of a gurkha officer, which was transcribed from a letter.
There is also, allegedly, some footage of a gurkha using a ring grip kukri during Operation Thursday, which was a Chindit operation. Despite several requests as to where this footage was seen, where it is kept, and how I can view/obtain it, information is yet to materialise. It is hard to pin down evidence for examination when details are not forthcoming, but I for one would love to see it, should it exist.
The person in question also has a tendency to name drop lots of authoritative people, and ascribe butchered quotes from them to support his point of view. This seems to be done in an effort to impress and bamboozle the reader. However, reading between the lines, and looking a little more closely the majority of such quotes have little to no bearing on the item under scrutiny.
I will deal with the photographs first, as they are the easiest to dismiss, being “visual” evidence.
This is the first photograph from the “for” case. A photograph entitled “Gurkhas of 4th Indian Division keep watch on enemy positions in Alpi di Catenaia from high ground on Monte Castiglione, 29 July 1944.” This rather distorted image does seem to show a kukri with rings on the grip being carried in a theatre of war.
However, the undistorted image (which can be found and viewed here: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205204677
) at the Imperial War Museum, tells a rather different story.
So that is pretty clear cut. No rings, just a standard regimental or battalion purchase kukri of the type commonly associated with the period.
We won’t enter into whether the image was deliberately distorted or not, although I will say that I have only ever seen the distorted image being pedalled by the author of the theory “for” these kukri having been issued.
The second image is a little more mystical, in that for years we have been told of it’s existence, and that it quite clearly shows a kurki with rings on the grip, but it has never actually been posted in support of the “For” argument. Until recently however, when it was shown in two images. One was too far away to be seen clearly, and the other was a close up, but which, for some inexplicable reason, had a rather immaculately coiffered man’s finger held over the exact spot where a hilt may have been discerned.
The image in question depicts of Rifleman Pun, 1/4th Gurkha Rifles, taken in Burma in 1944.
Luckily, and unlike the previous images published by the author in question, I have been given official access to the image in question by the Gurkha Museum, Winchester, in order to examine it more closely.
I informed them, on my latest visit, of the online debate which their image had caused. They were more than a little perplexed when I explained that they had been quoted as confirming the kukri had rings, and rather infuriated that their images had been published online without their express permission.
I wish to thank the Gurkha Museum for allowing me to take clear, and unobscured photographs of this image, and to further express my gratitude to them for granting me express permission to publish those images in this article*.
(*I would kindly request that these images not be copied and used elsewhere, as the image belongs to, and is the sole copyright of, the Gurkha Museum, Winchester, Hampshire.)
Below are the images in question, and as can quite clearly be seen, the hilt of the kukri, where these rings are to be found, this “lynchpin of evidence” cannot actually be seen in the photograph. It is obscured behind the shadow cast by Rifleman Pun’s right elbow.
So, the two main photographic sources have to be discounted. One by the absence of rings, the other by the absence of a visible hilt to examine.
Another image, of lesser importance, is a photograph which sometimes is attributed as being a Mess Orderly in WW2. I have never found a solid date attribution for the image, although in one very old thread it is described as being taken in 1948. Whilst this may be a Mess orderly, it could equally be a soldier in leave attire. Mess orderlies wear kukris privately purchased by the regiment, specifically for the task, and are usually highly decorated kothimora style examples. I am yet to see an image of a Mess orderly attire equipped with his issue or fighting kukri.
If he is in leave attire, then it is unlikely that he would be taking his issue kukri home with him! Much more likely that it is a bazaar bought example, taken home as a gift or souvenir. Who knows, it may even be a staged image for a book or magazine? Without a firm attribution, it is impossible to verify with any certainty.
There is one other photograph, which shows a Captain Holmes of the Royal Engineers, proudly wearing a ring grip kukri on his hip. This photograph dates to 1945, and goes some way to prove that whilst these kukri were in existence by late WW2, it is likely that they were available only as private purchase. This image also helps go some way to explaining why so many which are passed off as WW2 bring backs acquire that label. After all, the kukri is an iconic knife, and it would seem most servicemen wanted one to bring home as a souvenir, or as a gift.
Such kukris were readily available, being produced in Derha Dun, India from mid to late 1944 onwards, and were inexpensive, especially once hostilities were concluded. Remember that there is no dispute that such kukri were available and carried unofficially by some during the War, but rather that they were issued to Gurkha forces by the Indian Government.
I also have a copy of a letter, addressed to a lady in Derbyshire, a Mrs Stone, who ordered two ring grip kukris sets from a company in Dehra Dun. This letter is dated to 1955, so still popular souvenirs ten years after the end of the war.
Some ring grip kukri may be found with “Military Supply Syndicate” stamped at the ricasso. No details of this company have yet been uncovered, but their name doesn’t appear on any known Issue kukris, and it is likely this mark was applied as a marketing tool, when being sold after the war.
This brings us neatly onto the last major piece of evidence, cited by the Ring Grip Kukri Appreciation Society. A letter, often quoted but never actually seen, from one Major General Michael Callan. A former Gurkha officer, who served in WW2 from late 1944 with the 1st Gurkha Rifles. He was approached and asked about his kukri, which he later forwarded with a packaging note to the author in question.
There are several themes to consider here:
1) The correspondence took place 65 years after the end of the war. After such a lapse of time, how much trust can we have that this eminent, yet elderly gentleman has his facts straight?
2) In my experience, a Gurkha officer almost always has more than one kukri. Was the kukri sent the one he carried during the war?
3) Can we trust that the kukri pictured is indeed the one which was sent by Major General Callan?
4) Can we assume that officers were issued kukri, as the rank and file were, or is it reasonable to assume that kukri were made and purchased privately, just as the rest of an officers kit would have been?
5) If they were issued kukri, were they of the same type as the enlisted men? Most gurkha regiments seem to have a distinctive style of kukri carried by officers.
Such evidence, which raises more questions, rather than providing answers, can at best only be described as “anecdotal” and cannot be deemed proof positive of ring gripped kukri being issued during WW2, or indeed, ever.
Some further points to consider, for those who may be interested.
Some officer’s kukri, notably the 4th and 10th Gurkha Rifles, especially from the period 1890-1940 can be seen to have silver rings on the grips, as a form of decoration. The rings on the kukri in question are not fixed in such a way as to serve as anything other than decoration.
Most enlisted mens kit is not decorated, especially with brass, which would still have been a restricted material at this point, being used for cartridge cases amongst other things. Also, why would you advertise your presence, by adding a highly reflective metal such as brass or steel to the hilt of your sidearm?
Another point, much overlooked, is that 95% of the ring gripped kukri I have ever handled are awful, useless mass produced rubbish. One or two good swings, especially if one made contact with, say, a branch, and the thing would have a split handle, or worse, the blade would be flying off through the air.
By the time these ring gripped examples can be proved to exist, i.e. late 1944 at the earliest, the tide was turning, and the war was being won. Would we really be equipping our famed gurkha regiments with kukris not fit for purpose?
The quality of bayonets and machetes remained good, so why would the production quality of kukris take a nosedive?
There is also the absence of markings to be considered. No makers markings, no issue markings, and no inspection markings. Sure, not all battalion and regimental issue kukri are marked, but lots are. Many carry a serial or soldiers (usually partial) service number to the spine or ricasso. Others have markings of one type or another carved to the hilt or scabbard.
I must have handled hundreds of these kukri, and never once have I seen, or been told about, an example which was marked up. One or two with spurious broad arrows certainly, just like many other kukri, but none with genuine period markings.
As I said at the start, I have no stake in this argument. If anything, it would be extremely beneficial to have these kukri vindicated as being issued during WW2, I would be sitting on a small fortune.
Were these kukri Indian Army Issue? At this moment in time, there is simply no primary sources to substantiate such a theory.
Were these kukri issued at a battalion or regimental level to new officers? Possibly, but seemingly unlikely, given the quality involved, and the lack of provenanced examples.
Were these kukri bought privately by officers and men? Certainly, from late 1944 onwards, there is evidence to show these kukris being carried. Although the vast majority are post war, and purchased as souvenirs and trophys.
Unfortunately, until some hard, academically acceptable historical evidence comes along to prove that they were issued, (and I think we will be waiting a very, very long time) then these kukri can only ever be considered as private purchase at best. And at the very most, I think only a fraction of a percent can be considered to be even that.
Buyer beware, do not accept any story revolving around ring gripped kukri at face value. If all the stories are to be believed, dying Gurkha’s bequeathed armfuls of these things! Avoid paying large sums for such pieces, they are plentiful, and can be found easily for less than the price of a crate of beer. Are they good quality? With some exceptions, most likely those produced earlier, NO! If you want a decent one, shop around. Handle a few, to get the feel of them, just as you would with any kukri. If you are one of those people who just wants one for display, there is nothing wrong with that, it looks fine on the wall as a representative example. Avoid the crudely chromed examples, find one with a plain steel blade.
I hope this has been of some use, and if you have questions, ask them here before buying, I will try to help you if I can.