SAHIBABAD, India – On the outskirts of New Delhi, in a cramped concrete workshop where the air shimmers with the light of welding torches, an Indian businessman has become a master craftsman of Napoleonic swords. And medieval chain mail armor. And World War II hand grenades and helmets.
From Hollywood war movies to Japanese Samurai films to battle re-enactments across Europe, Ashok Rai, 31, is one of the world’s go-to men for historic weapons and battle attire.
Rai’s workshop reverberates with the sounds of metal being hammered and beaten into chain mail, swords, axes, muskets, sabers, spears and helmets.
Rai, a trapshooting enthusiast, says he has been a history buff since childhood.
I would watch every war movie that came to town. All my life, I’ve been reading up on all the major battles in history. Now when we make medieval battle gear it’s easy for me to explain to my craftsmen exactly what’s to be done.
He dove into the business at age 17, when he heard a French champagne-maker needed 1,000 swords to give away as souvenirs.
Rai, whose father had a small factory making tourist handicrafts, traveled to the northern city of Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikh religion, to find sword-makers to make the replicas.
It took some doing to get the order ready on time. But it got me thinking, Rai said. Here was a niche worth exploring.
Soon, he dropped out of college, transforming his father’s company to specialize in battle attire and weapons stretching from the 10th century to World War II.
Shortly afterward, he said he had a surprise visit from filmmakers preparing for the Tom Cruise movie The Last Samurai.
That led to dozens of orders for all kinds of props for historical movies and documentary films. From Napoleon-era swords, to American Revolutionary muskets and sabers, to World War II helmets and uniforms.
Rai was in business.
Other Hollywood blockbusters followed. He says he has made footwear for the Russell Crowe movie Robin Hood and chain mail for Kingdom of Heaven, the Orlando Bloom film set during the 12th-century Crusades.
We created 1,500 chain mail suit of armor, for Kingdom of Heaven, using aluminum to keep the costumes light.
Around 500 workers, mostly women, riveted the links to form the armor. Chain mail is very labor-intensive. Each link has to be riveted to the next, he said.
These days, though, Rai is shifting from Hollywood to battle re-enactments. It’s a big business, particularly in Europe, and unlike Hollywood – where weapons are made just to look good, and often are made from lightweight metal or plastic – he likes making weapons that have the heft of the originals.
Rai has set up his own company in Germany to market battle gear to re-enactors and medieval fairs and tied up with a Spanish company to rent uniforms and equipment to documentary filmmakers.
On a recent Saturday, scores of metal workers were creating hundreds of Norman helmets for a reenactment of the Battle of Hastings in Rai’s factory in Sahibabad. A worker fed sheets of metal into a huge, slow-moving metal press. The press came down with a loud bang, spitting out a rough spherical shape.
Elsewhere in the warren of rooms, metalworkers used hammers to beat the spheres into helmets. Others welded brass trimmings to the helmets, which were then polished to join row upon row of shining orbs on the ceiling-to-floor shelves at one end of the workshop.
They have to look authentic, said Rai, fingering the steel head gear with its long noseguard.
He takes special care to ensure that the weapons are historically accurate. Over the years, he has spent a lot of time doing research on medieval costumes and on getting weaponry right to the last detail.
He recently traveled to the Kaiserburg Museum in Nuremberg, Germany, to study the kind of metalwork detail that went into making suits of armor. For a recent order of World War II helmets, he ensured the leather liners were stamped with numbers used by the original manufacturers.
That kind of effort, he says, helps protect his business from competition.
This is painstaking, labor-intensive work. There’s a lot of research that has gone into our inventory, and that’s not easy to replicate, he said.
During a recent visit, Rai’s workers were gearing up for all sorts of combat: re-enactments of the Battle of Waterloo and the American Revolution and a documentary film about Germany between the two World Wars.
The pink, two-story workshop was a hive of activity, despite outside temperatures of 113 degrees that kept things hotter inside. The clank and thud of the metal-stamping machines, the metallic whine of grinders and the unceasing hammering raised decibel levels to unnerving levels.
The upper floor is a maze of rooms for the tailors. Some were cutting thick worsted khaki fabric, while others used industrial sewing machines to stitch fabric into military overcoats for a World War II re-enactment.
In another room, groups of women sat on the floor stitching buttons, military ribbons and insignia onto great coats that could have served soldiers in Napoleon’s army. Nearby, a set of men were fashioning padded coats with leather fasteners to be worn under the chain mail.
Rai said his biggest challenge is keeping the factory going during the frequent power outages that dog Indian industries, some lasting as long as 10 hours.
But despite those outages, and the global economic crisis that has hammered much of the world since 2008, business is bustling.
Last year, turnover was $3 million.
More than a decade after starting his business, Rai has no regrets about missing out on college.
I’d probably be working in an office, or a bank ... pushing a pen, he said. Instead, I feel I’ve become weaponmaker to the world.