It is said that every time a Gurkha draws his kukri he is required to draw blood before re-sheathing it.
There is also the idea that the forward bend of a kukri’s blade means it can be used as a kind of deadly boomerang, and flung into the air where it will spin and come back to the thrower.
Then there is the story of a Gurkha who came across an enemy soldier and who made the first strike with his kukri, a blow to decapitate his enemy.
“Yah missed!” said the enemy. “Try shaking your head”, said the Gurkha.
These are of course all myths. What follows instead are the facts, or if you will, all the gen, on the kukri, the famous Nepalese machete carried by Britain’s Gurkha troops.
What Exactly Is A Kukri?
A kukri is a kind of machete with a distinctive forward curve in its blade.
It is known for its association with Nepal and its Gurkha soldiers, who serve in the British Army as well as in some other military and police organisations outside of Nepal.
Although it is a fearsome weapon, combat is not its only function. Gurkhas and Nepalese people also use the kukri like any other machete, to clear undergrowth, as well as for any number of other purposes, such as chopping wood, in hunting and fishing activities and even to open cans.
How Far Back In History Does It Go?
The oldest surviving example of a kukri is held in the Arsenal Museum in Kathmandu and it dates to 1627. It belonged to the Gurkha King Raja Drabya Shah.
However, its ultimate origins almost certainly go back much further than that, though its exact origin point is not known.
It may have been developed from a bladed weapon called a makhaira, which was a kind of cavalry sword possibly carried by Alexander the Great’s men in the 4th Century BC during their invasion of north west India. Or it may have come from the Greek kopis, a curved sword.
There is also a copy of a sculpture from the 3rd Century BC that shows a Scythian prisoner of war laying down his weapon, a weapon that looks to be a kukri.
Then again, it may also be a Hindu weapon, or it might have originated with the Malla kings who united Nepal in the 14th Century.
Or Nepalese peasants may have developed the weapon themselves at some point.
How Did The Kukri And Its Use Develop Over Time?
The kukri likely became the national weapon for Nepalese troops in the 18th Century.
This is when the monarch of the Gurkha kingdom, Prithwi Narayan Shah, conquered Kathmandu, made it his new capital city, and became the first King of Nepal. His forces used the kukri, and Nepalese soldiers later encountered by the British during the Anglo-Nepalese War carried kukris. The use of them then spread to the British Army since Gurkhas who joined the British Army after the war brought the knives with them.
It has also been used in other places where the Gurkhas have and do serve. Some examples include Gurkhas serving in the Indian Army and in the Singapore Police, and it was also used by Gurkhas n the Burma Military Police. In fact, British troops serving in Burma during World War 2 sometimes used kukris themselves, rather than regular machetes.
In terms of their production, the trend from the 18th Century has been for kukris made in Bhojpur and the east of Nepal to have longer, thinner blades. These are referred to as seerpate (or sirupate) kukris. Meanwhile, those made in Piuthan and the west of Nepal have tended to have shorter blades that are more rounded. These are referred to as bjogpure (or bhojpure) kukris.
This also demonstrates that while there is a standard service length for kukris (a 12 to 13-in blade), kukris in general vary quite a lot in size and shape.
There is even a special type called a Kothimora kukri that is given away as a gift, either to individuals or groups, and it features a nicely decorated scabbard and handle made with high-quality materials.
There are also kukris made with special konra blades, which have to be about twice as heavy as the blade on a standard kukri and feature a two-hand grip. The reason for this is that these kukris might be used in ceremonies that involve cutting through the neck of a water buffalo.
The festival of Dashain is the most important Gurkha festival in the Army and it lasts for 15 days during late September and early October. This has been likened to the equivalent of Christmas for the Gurkhas and it is based around the Hindu Goddess of Power, Durga.
Traditionally the festival has involved a number of ceremonies in which animal sacrifices feature, thus the need for special-purpose kukris geared to these occasions.
Who Makes Kukris, And How Are They Made?
Traditionally, a village smith would have produced kutris for those living locally, and in fact individual craftsmen in Nepal still make them today, even though they are also mass produced.
The quality of both kinds of kukri can vary. In World War 2, for instance, Gurkhas given standard-issue, that is mass-produced, kukris preferred to use their own personal ones from home, since they were of higher quality.
It also seems reasonable to speculate that some of what explained these Gurkhas’ preferences for their own weapons was the familiarity they already had with them. A good kukri is said to have the right weight, balance and blade quality. Perhaps some level of variance in these ‘ideal’ characteristics, particularly the first two, allowed individual Gurkhas to get used to the weight and feel of their own individual kukris, and they did not like the feel of new ones.
What seems more clear cut, to use a pun, is the quality of the materials used to make a kukri. Those made with poor-quality steel are obviously least ideal. Apparently, a good step-up from this, weirdly enough, is a kukri made from railway track and old motor-vehicle springs, while the best option is one made of good steel.
The metal is not the only component though: wood and leather are required for the scabbard, and the hilt and handle are commonly made of metal, wood and possibly bone, and traditionally also ivory.
The standard service kukri has a 12 to 13-inch blade which is fashioned through smithing. The handles are attached either via rivets through a two-piece hilt or through a tang that sits inside the grip.
What Makes Kukris So Lethal, And How Are They Used To Deadly Effect By Gurkhas?
Despite the focus here on the materials, the most important factor in the quality of a kukri is its user.
In the case of the Gurkhas, they have a head start on the rest of us. Nepalese boys traditionally get their first kukris at around age five, when they begin using it for various tasks.
It is this continuous practice at chopping wood, hunting and, possibly, opening cans, that helps them learn to use it so adeptly. Many of the skills they develop with the kukri then end up being transferrable to a military context.
This may be why it is said to be almost impossible to parry a swipe made with kukri by a Gurkha, so don’t forget to try shaking your head if he uses one in your presence!
Thanks to the Gurkha Museum for assistance with this article.
Cover image: MoD