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Heavenly Horse Dao: Experiments and explorations

Until recently, for martial artists and history buffs, many of the weapons used in the Han Dynasty were out of reach. The oceans of time between their use in the military and society and today, the ravages of age and complete lack of surviving training manuals or any written material documenting their use or training made historical replicas, well, less than historical in many cases. 

However, sword maker LK Chen and his workshop are recreating many of these weapons from extant historical specimens in museums and private collections. This allows us modern practitioners of martial arts to experience these weapons in much the same form as they were when first created. This allows us to move from mere speculation, to experimentation. Knowing the real feel of the weapon, its weight and balance, and being able to move it with these criteria in our hand. 

In the last post about the War of the Heavenly Horses and the invention of this particular dao, it was mentioned that the unique design of a long recurved blade and hollow ground cross section was used to great effect through the Han Dynasty, but rapidly went out of style in favor of shorter straight dao with thick spines and more wedged cross sections. As far as I am aware, there is no detailed historical or archeological hypothesis on to the exact reason why that was. That presents some questions that we can try to answer, in part, by using a historically accurate reproduction. We can try to replicate certain situations and scenarios and note how the weapon performs. We can also more accurately know the parameters of the weapons capability.

The weapon that I used was a version 2 Heavenly Horse Calvary Dao. I will post a full comparison between the versions, but the main differences are that the V2 is a little thicker and has a greater recurve in the profile.

Testing a Calvary Saber on Foot

For my part, I must relegate myself to commenting on the basic feel and properties of the weapon in the hand. I am not an equestrian and am limited to testing on foot. That being said, even without the benefit of a mount or the momentum of a gallop, the V2 sword is a pretty devastating weapon. The targets I used for the cutting tests were water bottles (Kirkland so very soft and easy to cut) and high density foam rollers that I got form my family business. These targets offer more resistance than regular pool noodles and are a fair amount more difficult to cut. The larger diameter provides good feed back on the cuts as well. Showing the angle or curvature of the cut as it passed through. 

An interesting thing that was identified by Ben Judkins as we were discussing the sword (albeit that he was commenting on the first version. He found that cutting things directly in front of you as is the custom for cutting, the sword did not perform very well. Cuts become a bit difficult to pull off and through the larger targets, the cut often stops halfway through. The remedy was to assume a horse stance with the hips facing 90 degrees from the target. Once this change was made, both of us immediately had improved performance. 

The sword is fairly robust in nature. Although it looks very slender and elegant, holding it reveals a chopping a slicing machine. The recurve adds some heft to the front part of the blade but in a way where it feels as though the sword is trying to cut by its self. The spine is thick and has a gradual taper. The hollow grind down the length of the blade gives it an “I beam” structure, excellent for strength and flexibility of the blade. It cuts through bottles without any resistance. Even on bad cuts where the edge is off or the blade turns in the hand, the combination of the sharpness and the cross section seem to be able to make short work of anything a bottle can offer. The larger targets were a bit more difficult, but once I found the correct angles, the sword passed through with not much more than a satisfying “pop”. 

It is single handed, and that makes it extremely easy to get going, but considerably harder to stop. On foot I used long follow throughs as not to fight the momentum too much. I can imagine if on a horse, these follow throughs would be unnecessary as you would have the power of your horse behind the strike. And if you were fighting another rider, that gives you a hot moment to recover without them out flanking you. The more I use this weapon the more and more it seems tailored made for calvary use. 

It makes a modicum of sense that the original design was taken from a agricultural or utility knife. The recurve is very common on such knives and cutting implements. Sickles, scythes, skinning knives, all commonly have received blades. This increases their cutting and slicing utility. However, in swords,  the recurve may not be as useful or at least not as obviously superior to a regular curve as in later weapons. The sharpness of edge, blade geometry, and action of the person wielding it are often far more important to a weapons ability to cut. 


Han era Halberd

Mentioned in the last piece detailing the history of this weapon, is that the recurve disappeared from the Chinese arms very quickly. While in the Han Dynasty, recurved weapons were quite common. The Ge or dagger axe is a pronounced recurve, and many long weapon still have recurve elements today. But the dao form arrived at and became the standard design was the straight dao. This design took advantage of blade cross section to affect it’s performance. It was not until after the Song that curved sabers really took a major hold over Chinese weaponry. 

There is no real evidence for why this happened. So, in an effort to gain a little experience and comparison, I decided to try out the three types of blade shape on a layered target. This was to see if there is any major advantage or disadvantage to the blade shapes. For this experiment, all be it subjective, I compared three swords from LK Chen representing the different blade geometries over time. These are: the Heavenly Horse form the Han, the Dragon Sparrow from the Sui, but representative of blade shapes through the Tang Dynasty, and the Wodao representing the curved saber shape familiar to us now. 

The target was one of the foam rollers with layers of different material. This was not to simulate armor, but rather to make the target harder to cut as to see any difference in performance better. The layers were, two layers of thick stiff boot/belt leather, two layers of thiner garment leather, and a t-shirt folded to create 8 layers of cotton fabric. This was loosely affixed to the target and the target its self was free standing. In retro spec, it might have been a little too difficult to cut through, but it did offer some interesting if subjective findings. 

Subjective results

I emphasize that these are simply my impressions and thoughts. It is all subjective and I eagerly await others thoughts on the weapon. That being said, some things did stand out. 

The method was simple, I struck the target with each sword with a percussive hit, a slash with a follow through, and a chop. The only swords that made it through the first layer, were the Dragon Sparrow on the chop, and the Wodao on the Slash. Otherwise, each the swords performed identically as far as effectiveness goes. All were about the same sharpness and I tried to keep things consistent. 

I didn’t notice a huge difference in feel during the performance of each in the tests. All cut well through soft targets and each did about the same amount of damage on the layered target. I did not notice any benefit to the recurved blade as opposed to the straight or the curved. More exact tests would need to be devised to figure out if the recurve has a physical advantage that is not obvious, but if there is a difference, it was not in any of the types of strikes that I tried. Against the resisting target, the sword tended to turn in my hand. This could be a function the recurve, the handle shape relative to my hand, or simply a mistake of edge alignment. However, I did not have the same issue with the other swords, nor did it do this while I was cutting bottles etc. 

One thing that was amazing and impressive about the Heavenly Horse Dao was the amazing flexibility the blade has. Even though it has a thick spine and a hollow ground blade, the flexibility of it was impressive. Against the resting target, it easily flexed with the impact and returned to true. It never took a set and never lost it’s sharpness. Very impressive to my mind.

Conclusions (previsionary)

The opportunity to experiment with such an ancient weapon is pretty exciting. Although these test were done rather impromptu and subjectively, the exercise has given me some idea for future testing that can be more objective. Also, the limitations to how it is used (on foot versus horseback) leave some nagging questions. I had hoped to get the opportunity to meet with some equestrians with calvary/jousting experience, but the Michigan weather had other plans. Ihope to have them again in the spring and be able to do further tests.

The Han swords that I have been examining are now on their way to their next stop and reviewer. Keith Seeley, who runs the YouTube channel “The Scholar General” will have his turn at them next. This type of exchange is very exciting for me. I am hoping that there are many us out there who will take a look at this weapon and give their opinions and ideas. We are dealing with a dearth of information from the historical record and the more data points that we can generate by live experimentation and real life use, the clearer the picture may become. We will at least have a larger picture of what the weapon can and cannot do. That is an important step. 

So, keep an eye for this sword to pop up in videos all over. Check out “Scholar General” on YouTube, and of course subscribe to our Youtube channel, Sword Lab as well, for more videos on historical Chinese weapons and combat. Look forward to more in the New Year! 

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