(All Photos by Ben LaFond)
The word “swordsmith” likely brings to mind all sorts of images: bellows, sawdust floors, shooting flames, livestock, anvils, etc. In reality, Arms & Armor‘s Northeast Minneapolis work space more closely resembles my dad’s dream workshop. Band saws sit next to tool benches scattered with all the hammers known to man, vices and grinders are side-by-side push brooms leaning in the corner, and the walls are decorated with certificates, faded cartoons, and floor-to-ceiling storage shelves. Light streams in from the old factory windows, flooding the space with light. So everything is pretty normal for a modern metalworking shop…
Other than, you know, random swords and blades laying everywhere. And that suit in the corner.
“That? I’ve got it partially disassembled, but that’s from 1580. We had two original 1580 armors. The other one’s come and gone. So this is, you know, 440 years old. And, uh, there’s two chests full of Indo-Persian swords and weapons,” says Chris Poor, founder and owner of Arms & Armor, as he gestures to some shelves by the door.
“All that’s from a local person. He’s getting old; his wife wants to sell it. So they called somebody in London, one of the museums, who then gave him my name, and it turns out that they literally… You can see their house from my house. We live across the street from each other. Twenty-one years and we’d never met. So now I’ve got all this stuff and I’m just brokering it.”
The collecting aspect of this business came naturally to Chris. “I grew up in a house full of 12th- to 16th-century art all over the walls. Mostly Oriental, but, when you’re a little kid and playing with middle-kingdom Egyptian tomb faience figures as toys, or you get a set of 18th-century Japanese armor for your sixth birthday, you get used to handling the objects.”
In college he studied History and Archeology, but grading blue books forever didn’t sound appealing. “[My father] was also a museum curator, so I was used to being in museums. I know how to go into museums and talk to people and that kind of thing. [Now] I just get to do it on my own terms instead of somebody else’s.”
His professional turning point came one summer before graduating from college when, as he put it, “a buddy of mine had some horses and I had this suit of armor I’d cobbled together. We went out to the Renaissance fair and kooked around out there… and… uh… there was this troop of belly dancers and one of them wowed me.”
For the sake of decency, we’ll fast forward a bit. Six weeks and a caravan ride later, the guy in armor and the belly dancer began living happily ever after. “We’re still married,” Chris informs me, grinning.
With both spiritual and fiscal support from his wife, everything fell into place pretty quickly. London started calling and it hasn’t really stopped. Since opening in this spot in 1988, Arms & Armor–and Chris in particular–has gained a world-wide reputation for excellence when it comes to creating new, historically correct Medieval and Renaissance weaponry, or consulting on existing pieces.
“We’re sort of a local secret. Maybe the Renaissance fairs know about us, but we get a lot more international business. And we do well for business that it’s such a niche market. There just aren’t that many people in Minneapolis.”
When it comes to weaponry, Arms & Armor is the provider of choice for productions at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, have contracted in the past for the Victoria and Albert, and regularly supply Hollywood with their props while continually working for many other establishments on an international scale.
By far the most unique professional relationship Chris has cultivated over the years has to be with the Wallace Collection.
“I got to be friends with this curator and then he worked a deal where we did some stuff with the gift shop. Then they thought they’d pull a fast one on us and get me on some kind of a contract. We flipped it around because I just worded it as ‘exclusive reproductive rights in every medium’ so they can’t technically sell a postcard or a t-shirt of a Rembrandt in this museum. I don’t enforce it because, you know… But the point is that I can go in and pull anything off display and take it to my workshop.”
Put simply, he’s able to walk into this museum and replicate or study anything in it as he pleases. Legally, they cannot stop him.
“It’s like, what do I want in my yard? Like that 1720s Georgian fountain spout hanging on the wall. The grimacing lion. That’s pretty cool. The Cavalli’s very cool. It’s probably Demeter. But it’s basically a life-size three-quarter portrait bust that under the fiber glass is the latex. They were cleaning it so [...] I just took a mold from it.”
Lest my depiction of this crazy hidden treasure chest tap into one’s repressed pillaging tendencies, remember that you’re dealing with a man who not only builds weapons, but also knows how to wield them… And I haven’t even mentioned the catapult yet. Or the cannon.
“This is the size of a very small ship’s cannon from about 1750. It shoots four-pound iron balls about a mile. I live in south Minneapolis, so I shoot this off on the Fourth of July.”
After having dealt equally in preservation and death for so many years, Arms & Armor was bound to be some…incidents…prominently featuring their weapons. The best story Chris told me took place in a small town in Alaska. ”We aren’t sure if the Chief of Police killed the Fire Chief or [the other way around] in a fight over a woman… but it was with one of these,” he said, a morning star dangling from his hand. “Brings new meaning to the term ‘to flail about.’”
All in all, Chris Poor and the Arms & Armor crew make fabulous friends. They dressed me up in armor and let me run around the neighborhood wearing it. They told me so many over-the-top stories that they won’t fit in just one article, and I was shown some of the coolest shit in the world without leaving their workshop. Personally, I’m going to keep them on my good side.
They just know so many ways to kill a man.