“It was light in his hand, and even as ignorant as he was as to how such weapons should feel he could tell how well balanced it was. The strange, quasi-bone handles seemed to nestle perfectly into his palm, almost warm to the touch, and to his surprise he realized that the weapon appealed to him on an emotional level. As alien as it was to him, it was built in a fashion that he believed a Nasatian craftsman might have used, and he could imagine such a thing on the hip of a Nasai. Strangely, handling it almost helped him understand humans, and to know that Reed Cooper appreciated such things gave him a sudden and very deep sense of kinship with the Terran. It was a strange and disconcerting experience. Cautiously, he put the pistol back down.” – Into The Expanse, J. R. Winton
When I was a very young boy I remember walking (toddling, really) into a gathering of hardened, salty men; lounging in chairs and on the couch; all talking raucously – “speaking of cabbages and kings” as my grandfather liked to put it – about a wide ranging array of topics. It was my grandparents’ house in the summertime, and my grandfather was enjoying a rare weekend afternoon of relaxation; he had invited several of his oldest and closest friends to visit, and they were sharing fellowship and reminiscing about past adventures and “solving the world’s problems”.
Their ages varied widely. Some were compatriots of my grandfather, some younger and still actively serving, while others were older men; mentors and teachers my grandfather held in high regard and was fortunate enough after forty years of experience to have been judged worthy of acceptance and friendship by those of the Old Guard.
I would learn that such gatherings were commonplace, and the discussions were not always simple fraternization. The younger men would often bring up new philosophies and ideas in training and equipment they were being introduced to, and they would talk with the older men to get their reactions and opinions on them. The older men would digest and dissect every detail with pointed questions, filtering their reactions and responses through the lenses of their own experiences. Concepts and theories were debated, considered, and judged as meritorious or foolish (sometimes with boisterous if good-natured differences of opinion expressed) by the members of the group.
The details of many of these gatherings were lost on me; I was too young to really comprehend a great deal of what was being discussed, but I loved being in the presence of these men. For one thing, most were not only fathers but grandfathers, and I was often hefted into the air or set onto laps of men who were as tough and iron-hard as any Western novel hero but who took great pleasure in my wide-eyed presence. One moment they could be speaking of deadly encounters they’d been involved in; the next they would be laughing and tousling my hair and asking me what I thought about some detail or other of the world around me. I still can remember the child’s wonder I felt being included, and the amazement of looking into the grizzled faces of men who seemed ancient and indomitable but who were smiling at me with genuine affection and delight.
I remember once having been hoisted into the lap of a man who had been a constable in the small town of Cimarron, NM; a town once renowned for its violent and lawless reputation, but ultimately tamed by him and men like him. I found myself staring at the shine of the revolver at his waist, and he laughed at my reaction. One of the subjects that was often bandied about in the group was the subject of weapons; which were the best in a given situation and what kind were the best to depend upon in a crisis.
Every one of the individuals who frequented the meetings at my grandfather’s house habitually carried a gun; a dizzying menagerie of pistols and revolvers were inevitably visible on their hips, sporting every finish from utilitarian blued steel to fancy engraving and nickel finishes. Their custom grips, usually cut to fit the hand of the owner, were made of everything from exhibition-grade wood to buffalo horn or even ivory; sometimes scrimshawed with a man’s initials, or his family ranch’s cattle brand, or sometimes Masonic symbols if one was a member.
Debate on the merits of their personal armaments included fundamental discussions of whether single action or double action revolvers were superior; or whether revolvers or semi-automatic pistols were the best choice for reliability or accuracy. Each type of weapon had its own idiosyncrasies and manual of arms, such as the classic Colt Single Action Army “Peacemaker” made famous in Western movies, that could carry six shots but which experienced men knew to carry with only “five beans in the wheel” – five rounds loaded and the hammer down on that unloaded sixth chamber to prevent the gun from firing unintentionally if it was dropped for any reason.
The constable holding me proceeded to pull out his own revolver and carefully unload it, slipping the cartridges into the pocket of his vest, before giving me an opportunity to touch and admire the details of what he was carrying. It was intricately engraved and silverplated, with grips he told me were carved and polished from the horn of an elk he had taken when on his first hunt with his grandfather. When I wrote the passage I opened this blog with I was very much remembering that moment. It was somehow transformational to be holding something like that in my hands; especially as an impressionable boy. I believe it opened my mind, even as young as I was, to some very adult concepts; such as self-responsibility, self-reliance, pride, and even integrity.
I came to realize something in that moment, even if only viscerally: these men had spent their lives carrying the power of life and death on their persons for the purpose of protecting the innocent and law-abiding. They had seen tragedy, death, and the very worst aspects of humanity; but they had also stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the bravest, most honorable people anyone could ever hope to know and felt victory and satisfaction in pushing back the agents of lawlessness that always lurk behind the thin veil of civilization most convince themselves is far more substantive than it truly is.
When a law enforcement officer pins on his or her badge, that is not simply a piece of shaped metal on their chest. It represents something more fundamental and profound: some agencies call it a shield, because that is what it is. Just as the knights of old hefted a shield on their left side marked with the image of who they were or what they represented, so too do modern law enforcement. The shield on their left… and the sword on the right.
There was a time when the primary weapon of a protector of society was as much a statement of the individual as it was armament. It was a tool not of violence, but of protection. Wielded by righteous warriors, it was how they fended off the predators seeking to brutalize the innocent and helpless. We see throughout history how a warrior can develop a strong affection for a tool that has saved his life, and great warriors have wielded many great weapons. Swords like Balmung, Durandal, and Excalibur all carved out legends of their own; almost seen as gifts from the gods in and of themselves.
So too do the modern knights feel a kinship and affection for the weapons that have helped preserve their lives in times of trial. A weapon that has proven itself to its wielder becomes very much a talisman against future danger; sometimes tuned to the taste of its owner to illustrate its effectiveness and to be a reminder of trials faced and victories earned.
To men and women who have faced the crucible of life and death crises such tools often become their most prized possessions; imbued with a sense of something profound and fundamental and elemental. To those who have not faced life and death confrontations such concepts might seem somehow alien or even bizarre, but as someone who not only grew up around such heirs to the legacy of knights and warriors but who has himself walked the path of a societal protector – however briefly – I understand and comprehend such things on a deeply emotional and even spiritual level.
As I wrote about an alien knight handling the weapon of a warrior from another planet, I thought he would sense the same weight of meaning in that weapon, and feel the same visceral reaction that I did as a young and impressionable boy sitting in the lap of a hardened, tempered – yet kind-hearted – protector of society.