Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.
Filipinos have an almost unique bond with their blades. The Philippines has a strong blade culture, with swords being part of both its history and tradition. The warrior class carried their blades into battle, as the rest carried theirs to work in the fields.
During the fight for independence, the bolo was used side by side with firearms by the revolutionaries of the Katipunan. And the history of the bolo would continue into the Filipino-American War and against the Japanese in World War II—all the way up to now in modern times. Historically, blades helped build a nation.
Perhaps equally amazing are the blades themselves. The precolonial Philippines had an assortment of bladed weapons, but we will discuss two examples here, the kampilan and the kalis. Both are recognizable precolonial swords, with known figures like Lapu Lapu wielding them. For some, they are just swords. Regardless, the blades have stories to share.
Lapu Lapu was always associated with the kampilan, and people often credited this large, bladed weapon with the death of Magellan.
Description of the Blade
Personally, I describe the kampilan as a lovechild of the European arming sword and a cutlass. And judging by the overall structure, it’s a Southeast Asian backsword. The word kampilan itself simply means “sword” in the Tagalog, Ilocano, and Visayan languages.
Physically, the sword is an imposing weapon. It could reach the length of 40 inches, the size of a Japanese katana, and wielded by either one or two hands. But like many swords this size, the Kampilan is a double-handed weapon. Some of its unique features include its blade profile and the tip. Like a bolo, its blade is narrowest near the hilt, but widens near the tip. This shape allows for extra cutting power, while the tip features a small spike.
The scabbard is nothing special, just cheap wood bound by fiber lashing. The disposable scabbard allows for quick emergency deployment, where the user can simply strike with the covered sword, with the blade cutting through the scabbard.
The hardwood hilt of the kampilan is long and meant to counterbalance the sword. Like western weapons, it uses a crossguard (decorated with carved geometry) to protect the hands. Its distinctive pommel ranges from simple curved shapes, as in the case of the Lumads, to depictions of animals or mythological creatures like the water dragon Bakunawa. It sometimes features a tassel of human hair.
Historically, the kampilan was mentioned in various Filipino literatures. Biag ni Lam Ang is a good example. Antonio Pigafetta described the kampilan as a large cutlass, larger than a similar weapon, the scimitar. A detailed account of its usage came from Fr. Francisco Combes, in his History of the Islands of Mindanao, Sulu and their Adjacent Islands (1667):
"The Mindanaos use a weapon quite distinct from that of the Ternatans. It is a campilan or cutlass of one edge, and heavier than the pointless Turkish weapon. It is a very bloody weapon, but, being so heavy, it is a danger for him who handles it, if he is not adroit with it. It has only two forms of use, namely, to wield it by one edge, and to raise it by the other, in order to deal another stroke, its weight allowing time for the spears of the opponents to enter. They do not gird it on, as that would be too much trouble, but carry it on the shoulders, in the fashion of the camarlengos who carry the rapiers on their shoulders in public ceremonies in front of their princes. Besides that weapon the Mindanao uses lance, kris, and shield, as do the other nations. Both these and those have begun to use firearms too much, having acquired that from intercourse with our enemies. They manage all sorts of artillery excellently, and in their fleets all their craft carry their own pieces, with ladle, culverins, esmerils, and other small weapons."
Another well-known weapon of the Filipino warriors is the wavy-bladed kalis.
Description of the Blade
Superficially, it bears a resemblance to another iconic Southeast Asian weapon known as a kris, which came from Indonesia. Unlike the kris or keris, the kalis is larger. The keris only has a 50-centimeter blade, while the kalis features a 66-centimeter blade. Though not as large as the kampilan, the kalis is comparable to various short swords in terms of size, like the Roman gladius and the Japanese wakizashi. The kalis also has two edges—something a kris is missing—and the wavy pattern of the blade helps facilitate quick slashing.
In antique kalis swords, the guard or gangya is made from a separate piece, though modern reproduction has gangyas incorporated in the blade. The wooden hilt is either straight or slightly curved, and pommels ranged from non-ornate to exotic. Swords of the precolonial upper classes had pommels made from precious materials like ivory or metals.
With the brief histories and descriptions already noted, the blade characteristics of these precolonial weapon deserve a closer look as well. Even before the arrival of Spain, the knowledge of metallurgy of precolonial Philippines wasn’t tribal nor primitive. In fact, it was already sophisticated. Because if it was not, Panday Pira would not have come to be. And the blades of these swords are a testament to the expertise of these early Filipinos.
The whole blade surfaces of the swords are covered with swirly or wavy lines. This is evident in earlier or antique swords and even visible on another Filipino bladed weapons like the moro barong. To the untrained eye, it might resemble some form of metallic stain, the result of aging, or even corrosion. But to blade experts, the swirly pattern is a result of a forging process known as lamination.
The Lamination Process
When a sword or a knife uses laminated steel for blades, it means that It never uses a single alloy, but layers of different metals being forged together. Back in the early days, steel being produced by early smelting processes had inconsistent properties. To even out these inconsistencies, different steels were piled and hammered together into one blade piece.
Now, laminating a blade can’t be learned overnight. Lamination involved piling metals and restricting the needed carbon to areas needed the most, like the edge. It took special skills to obtain the right level of carbon, as too much will cause the blade to be brittle, while too little will leave the metal soft. If everything went right, the resulting blade is both strong and durable.
On the surface, the lamination process leaves swirly lines as evident of steels being piled together. Laminated swords were the signature weapon of the Vikings and the samurai, and precolonial Filipinos had access to these fine blades too.
One might wonder how the precolonial Filipinos got the forging process that made the Viking sword and the nihonto (Japanese swords) famous. Now, lamination is not exclusive to the Vikings and the samurai, as the Indonesian kris also possesses this patterned blade.
But it was a proven knowledge that the ancient Filipinos established trades and relationships to neighboring kingdoms, and it wouldn’t take much of an imagination to know that there were transfers of technologies between these nations, especially to the closer Indonesia. In fact, Malays played a significant role in the history of precolonial Philippines, with the traces of their culture still evident in the modern-day Filipinos. And obviously, we will also get the same Malayan metallurgy that produced the fine kris.
Reflections of the Strong Blade Culture of Filipinos
To some Filipinos, the kalis and kampilan were nothing more than crude blades being wielded by pirates and natives. But there is nothing primitive about how these blades were produced, with forging processes more complex than perhaps imagined.
These swords displayed cutting powers comparable to their many contemporaries, according to accounts of the time. In the end, these swords reflect the strong blade culture of the Filipinos and the sophisticated knowledge of our ancestors.
How I Got Interested in Antique Filipino Swords
I love to collect cool stuff and what started as simple toy collection later evolved into blade collections. It all started when I began getting into weapons training, Filipino martial arts in particular.
I was already hooked on combat sports during my high school days, but I was only exposed to armed fighting methods just recently. And learning to handle bladed implements in self-defense scenarios awakened my hidden desire to collect knives. I was already carrying small paring knives back in my high school days, but when adulting kicked in and I had the funds to purchase a folding knife, I knew instantly that the first one I bought wouldn't be my last. And did I mention that I recently purchased a sword?
For some, my love affair with bladed weapons is a sign of brewing psychosis. But as a friend explained, it’s ingrained in my blood.
- Cato, Robert. (1996). Moro Swords. Singapore: Graham Brash.
- "The Kampilan." History. Retrieved 2020-01-29.
- Verhoeven, John D. (2002). Materials Technology.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on December 20, 2020:
Wonderful article on swords. Great reading.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on December 20, 2020:
Very interesting. Amazing.