“Better to die than to be a coward.” Such is the official motto of the Royal Gurkha Rifles. Renowned for their bravery for well over 200 years, Gurkha soldiers are recruited by nations across the globe. While famous for their fighting prowess, they are also iconic because of the unique knife that they carry called a “kukri.” Understanding the history of the men who have made the blade globally known, coupled with a look at its effective design, are keys to understanding why the kukri has become legendary worldwide to knife and sword enthusiasts.
The history of Nepal, and the use of the kukri, gives a picture into why it has become as popular as it has. The first major conflict between Western Civilization and Nepal took place in 1814 between the British and native Gurkhas. During this two year conflict the Gurkhas developed a well earned reputation as being fearless fighters—a reputation that they have maintained all the way until the present day. To this fact can be attributed the renown that the kukri—which they carried into battle against the British—has attained to. Although the British did not manage to gain control of Nepal through this conflict, they were so impressed by the Gurkha’s fighting ability that they recruited them into the East India Company. Gurkhas played roles in many wars that took place during the 19th century in that part of the world. Since then they have continued to serve in the British armed forces, even being deployed to Afghanistan—all the while continuing to carry their iconic kukri.
While the exploits of warriors have made the kukri famous, it is the effective design that keeps people coming back to use it as a weapon, camping tool, etc. To most people, the forward “bent” blade is what stands out most about the knife. This is actually part of the design that makes the kukri an incredibly powerful cutting tool. Hank Reinhardt comments, “The forward angled blade gave it [the kukri] great cutting power”(188). This forward angled design is not unique to the kukri, but can also be found in other weapons such as the Greek Kopis and Iberian Celtic Falcata, although both of these are much bigger than a kukri since they are swords. The unique aspect of the kukri’s design is that essentially the entire blade is the knife’s “sweet spot.” On any edged tool there are portions of the blade that provide the greatest amount of force with minimal vibration (192). For the kukri, this optimal striking point (sweet spot) exists for virtually the entire length of the blade, making it an incredibly efficient cutting instrument. Because of the knife’s single edged design, it is also possible for the user to choke up on the blade by holding it on the spine, permitting for quite detailed work to be done and making the knife incredibly capable in a general utility/camp role. Another aspect of the design, although not related to the practical function of the knife, is the notch at the base of the blade: “[…]the Gurkhas don’t know for sure its exact meaning. The notch is of two cut out semicircles side by side, leaving a small projection. It has been described as intended to catch the opponent’s blade (a sure way to lose a hand should it be attempted), […] and a representation of a cow’s udder (Gorkha—old spelling—means “Protector of Cows”), or the Trident of Shiva”(192). While not always contributing to the practical use of the knife, the nuances of design placed in an object by a culture are always interesting to study and try and understand.
The kukri is a design made famous by the proud and warlike culture that has carried it into battle. By understanding the people and the history surrounding the knife, along with the very real design and engineering excellence present in the execution of the blade, one can appreciate the kukri as a functional and well-storied design. The kukri will keep outdoorsmen, soldiers, and knife lovers generally enthralled and dependent on it for years to come.
Reinhardt, Hank. The Book of Swords. Riverdale, NY: Baen Pub. Enterprises, 2009. Print.