“If it cuts, stabs or makes nasty bruises, it’s in here,” Xan Martin said, with an expansive sweep of an arm taking in the contents of one of his home’s two bedrooms. One presumes it’s not the bedroom he sleeps in, since it is indeed packed with sharp, pointy objects, along with a few blunt ones that also could make for an unpleasant lullaby.
Take his reproduction Austrian war hammer: “It’s basically a can opener,” he said. “They had to open armor with these things, and this hammer had no other design than to crush through armor or smash it flat. If it didn’t exactly get through to the skull, the metal would push in on the skull, which would make it a bitch of a job to get off.”
That hammer keeps company with maces, swords, fencing foils, crossbows and other mayhem-makers on his European wall, squaring off against other sections he has representing the world cultures’ differing means of killing each other. There are American Indian war clubs, Tibetan temple knives, a “CIA Letter Opener” (the name given an X-ray evading resin fiber knife), a nine-inch pygmy bow and a traditional Japanese katana blade, which he describes as “a three-foot razor blade,” not to mention the good old-fashioned quarterstaff and other items.
One of his curiosities is an oddly shaped African throwing knife that looks entirely unwieldy, like a letter from some harsh alphabet.
“Actually, in the upper Congo region these are thrown like boomerangs and used to bring down water buffalo, and a good hunter is said to be able to hit an animal butt-first with these, so the hide won’t be punctured. When they used them in warfare, they’d commonly lob them at your legs. They’d bring you to the ground first and then casually walk over and beat the hell out of you with whatever they felt like,” Martin said.
He tends to reel off such grisly information with relish, in the jovial yet professional tones one often hears employed by the guides on Disneyland’s jungle boat ride. Though he looks a proper cretin when wearing a battle helmet, it really doesn’t do him justice. Martin’s somewhat more at home in a powdered wig portraying Ben Franklin, a job he held for two years representing an Orange County printing outfit at trade shows and classroom exhibitions.
Martin, 34, holds a drama degree from UC Irvine and is a professional actor, which means most of the time he’s looking for work. When not hanging out at Renaissance fairs dressed as Friar Tuck with his quarterstaff, one of his sidelines is renting out his weapons for stage use. Quite often they land better roles than he does.
“If you’re doing ‘The Lion in Winter’ and you need four swords and three daggers, where do you get them? If you’re doing ‘West Side Story,’ how do you come up with six switchblades? You call me. Most of this collection has either been used in theater or has been purchased with theater in mind, and they always wind up with better stage placement and lighting than I ever get,” he said.
As for his own acting credits, Martin said, “I was a riot victim on ‘Doogie Howser’ the last season, and a radiation-burn victim in ‘Maniac Cop 3.’ I didn’t even know there had been a ‘Maniac Cop 1' and ‘2 . ' I most recently have been the voice of the Orange County Tourism Hotline, with lines like, “Coming from the 91 freeway east, take the exit. . .”
Martin’s interest in things pointy began with his parents, who taught their children to hunt and cook, both of which involved cutlery.
Holding up a pocket knife with a 1 1/4-inch blade, he said, “This is the first knife I ever got, which my father gave me when I was 5 years old, to teach me, ‘This is a real knife.’ To my 5-year-old fingers, this was a machete. He inscribed my first and last name on it, and wouldn’t you know, now I go by my middle name.” (Martin’s first name is Brian, but he prefers his Greek-origin middle name Xan, pronounced Zan .)
His father had a small collection of knives, and Martin’s interest in them was whetted by a fascination with swashbuckling films and by the stage combat lessons and fencing training he had in acting classes. He is proficient with many of his weapons and holds a karate brown belt.
Martin, who has been collecting for 20 years, estimates his pile to be worth $15,000 to $20,000--a pittance compared with some high-roller collections in which a single knife might trade for $6 , 000. If Martin had the capital, he has no doubt he could fill a warehouse, but as it is, he has to make his purchases carefully. Sometimes he lucks out at garage or estate sales, and his African river bow, valued at $400, was found at a Salvation Army shop for $15.
There’s at least one he got for free. He recalled, “I was a summer camp counselor one year. This bizarre, demented little child showed up with a belt buckle/dagger knife, and obligation said ‘you will confiscate that.’ ”
With his budgetary constraints, many of his weapons are necessarily reproductions, which doesn’t mean they don’t have a past. Some of his pieces were made for “El Cid” and other Hollywood opuses. Most of his newer tribal artifacts were handmade in a manner that has been unchanged for centuries, making them hard to accurately date.
Among his older pieces are a pair of 140-year-old fencing foils from the French Royal Academy. Martin said, “I wrote to inquire about them, and they wrote, ‘Yes, they’re ours. We want them back.’ And I wrote, ‘Not on your life.’ Then I got the snooty reply, ‘If you ever bring them to France, don’t think that you’re leaving with them.’ Right, like I’m going to be taking a national treasure back.”
The French notwithstanding, Martin says his study of weapons has given him insight and respect for the cultures they come from. To him, a World War II Japanese saber might say as much about its creators’ love of economy of motion as a Zen painting.
“The Europeans would wear something like this blade down, where they’d have to draw it and then turn it over to make a cutting strike. The Japanese, brilliant people that they are, would have the blade up , and the draw was also the strike, a very fluid and economical movement. Someone put a lot of skull-sweat into it.
“Then, look at this Egyptian arm dagger. On the back of it is a sewing needle, so when they go out hunting and kill an animal, you don’t drag the whole animal back, you skin it, flense the meat, tie the meat up in the skin, sew it shut, and take the meat home in its own knapsack. You use the gut from the animal, so all you need is the needle. Everything else the animal will provide. Terribly practical. To learn that is to learn a little about the culture. Every piece here has a story, and I’ll bore my friends to tears with them,” he said.
Along with whatever cultural import they may carry, most of the things in his collection were designed with the intent of putting unwanted extra holes in persons. He doesn’t doubt that some of his weapons have “a history,” as he quaintly terms their fatal potential.
“Unfortunately, most of these pieces were designed with the ‘You’re dead, I’m alive, and that’s the way I wanted it’ attitude, and they’re horridly effective to that end,” he said. He seems mixed as to what conclusions to draw from them. Aside from occasionally hunting with a crossbow--an act for which he will make no apologies to anyone who doesn’t wear leather or eat hamburger--he doesn’t maintain any illusions about his weapons making his daily life any easier, noting, “The only place I could see anyone using these is in some Armageddon ‘Road Warrior’ scenario.”
But, on the other hand, he says, “There’s an old saying that goes, ‘An armed society is a polite society.’ And there is a part of me longing to go back to the days when chivalry wasn’t dead. You notice there’s not one ballistic anything in this room. Guns to me are kind of a coward’s way out. Any fool can pick up a gun and blow someone else away. To use a sword as a sword is meant to be used, you have to be close enough to look a person in the eye. If you can touch them with a sword, they can touch you with a sword. With that being the great equalizer, do you really want to insult each other?
“I personally would like to see virtually everyone be able to wear a sword in public, because it (would) be a deciding factor in the crime rate and in clothing styles. If it were fashionable to wear a sword, boy would the fashions change.”
Sometimes, though, his collection bums him out just a bit.
“I wish we could be as creative about saving mankind as we are about destroying it. When I look around this world I am alternately amazed and appalled at how much thought went into the destruction of our race. The human race just doesn’t have that much time to spend this much time on warfare. You want to say, ‘Look, you fools, at where we have come. Unless we evolve more we’re going to have to go back to using these.’ ”