I have a fondness for sharp, pointy objects. I’m not entirely sure where this fondness comes from – one would assume, given my early history with Star Trek: The Next Generation, I would be more interested in things that go whizz-bang than with things that go whizz-thunk. I suppose this love of knives and daggers and swords is more rooted in my enjoyment of The Three Musketeers and other such swashbuckling adventures, where the use of the sword was related to an honorable fight. History proves this otherwise, of course – there is nothing romantic about war, when one studies it from a historical perspective (a proper one, of course, as there are many historians who attempt to romanticize war) – but the appeal of weapons – especially old ones – has remained with me well into adulthood.
This certainly explains the appeal of A History of Weapons: Crossbows, Caltrops, Catapults & Lots of Other Things That Can Seriously Mess You Up by John O’Bryan. Anything that claims it will look at the history of weapons, so after the disappointment and curious minimal amount of bloodshed in Andrzej Sapkowski’s Blood of Elves, I decided it was a good time to pick up O’Bryan’s work and see how he handled the history of ways and means by which humanity has attempted to murder each other.
O’Bryan has taken a historic approach, going from the very beginnings of humanity to the American Civil War, though the other chapters range across history depending on what he thinks is relevant to the weapon or war tactic being discussed. From the humble rock to Maxim Gun, O’Bryan discusses each weapon in the context of its history, advantages, disadvantages, and ease of use. In between tackling various kinds of swords, O’Bryan also discusses how those weapons were used in war, in the form of military tactics, as well as by including some of the gigantic machines of war that were used by various civilizations through the centuries. It helps, too, that O’Bryan tackles weapons not just from Western civilizations, but weapons from Africa, Asia, and Polynesia, as well. He has two chapters dedicated to the weapons of the Chinese (one exclusively for the incredible array of weapons developed by Shaolin monks), as well as an entire chapter for Japanese weaponry.
The first thing the reader will note, from the Introduction alone, is O’Bryan’s writing style. Some readers might assume that, because of the cover and not-entirely-serious title, this book is suitable for children. They would be wrong: O’Bryan makes liberal use of swear words, which means this book is more appropriate for someone who is a teenager or older, excepting those of a particular temperament who do not appreciate swearing in anything they read.
Another thing the reader will find notable about O’Bryan’s style is his humor – except this notability might not necessarily be a positive thing. While there are times when his humor has elicited a chuckle (or a few moments laughing to myself), there are also quite a few times when his humor might be considered questionable because of the way it makes use of women and homosexuality. It does not happen often in the course of the book (a bulk of it occurs in the chapter about the Greeks and their fighting strategies), but they are there, and they can take a reader out of the moment if said reader is sensitive to such things.
I find this aspect to be something of a pity, because for the most part, O’Bryan is capable of creating humor without having to resort to such a crude aspect of it. Take, for instance, this quote, which is about the Crusades:
“On paper, it was a solid plan. In actuality, the Christians were about to embark on the suckiest vacation in history.”
I personally found that one funny, because I am fully aware of the history of the Crusades and what a fiasco they turned out to be for the Christian invaders. “Suckiest vacation in history” is a mild way of describing the Crusades, although remarkably apropos, as well.
I appreciate good snark in anything I read (and in the video games I play, and occasionally in the people I meet, when they are not doing it to be rude), and O’Bryan is quite capable of that as well. Consider this quote, describing the infamous lantern shield:
“The Renaissance may have resulted in some important cultural achievements, but it also resulted in some of the dumbest ideas to ever leak out of the human skull. One of the most absurd weapons to be forged during this period was the lantern shield–a horribly convoluted clusterfuck of a weapon.”
I have mentioned several times before that I love reading about the Renaissance, but not so blindly that I cannot find humor in O’Bryan’s statement about the inventions from the period. After all, not all inventors of the time had Leonardo da Vinci’s genius, and indeed, it might be argued that Leonardo had some very bad ideas of his own – it’s just that they are overshadowed by the many singularly good ideas that he’s managed to come up with.
The format for discussing each of these weapons is interesting, as well. In all of the entries, he tackles the weapon’s history, describing how it came into being and how it was used by the civilization that created it (or borrowed, as is often the case). He also uses a five-star “ease of use key” by which he ranks how easy or difficult a particular weapon would be to use, often including an explanation as to why he gave said weapon a particular ranking. He then proceeds to give a list of advantages, disadvantages, famous victims (which are not always human, as is the case with the siege engines), famous wielders, and humorous “user reviews”. This is an interesting method of discussing weapons, and allows O’Bryan opportunities to exercise his humor to great effect.
The downside of this technique, though, is that his format does not permit for a very organized approach to the subject matter. His chapters, too, feel particularly scattered. The chronological approach O’Bryan takes certainly helps, but it’s a loose structure at best. Of course, this lack of organization probably hardly matters, given the semi-encyclopedic, fragmentary nature of the entree themselves.
Overall, A History of Weapons is a fun, light read, quite obviously written for the average frat boy than the serious weapons scholar or enthusiast, but it nevertheless possesses its own charms – and its own perils. Though O’Bryan’s humor can be questionable, and his frequent use of swearwords will not endear his writing to certain groups of people, his writing is informative (albeit significantly stripped-down), and his humor effective to a certain degree where it does not feel offensive. It depends on what one is looking for, really, and how one approaches the book. As long as one does not take it too seriously, then one will likely have fun reading it.