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Sword & Shield

 October 9, 2023    Asian Arms

The lastest sword I have acquired is an impressive example from Isaan in modern Thailand which was likely paired with a shield. I have recently started to be fascinated by examples obviously made to be used in this manner. Many dha have deceptively long handles often leading to western collectors to misidentify them as 'two-handers' when in fact they are nothing of the kind and almost all dha are intended for single handed use. The reason for handle lengths is due to fighting styles and balance and given the lack of a substantial pommel or weight on most dha handles the long handle is essential. However, there are always exceptions to the rule and this pair is also from Isaan or Laos and are almost certainly made for shield use. It was collected in southern Laos but likely the same form is to be found across the modern day border into Isaan, a region of Thailand that is ethnically similar and saw widespread Lao migration in the 17th through 19th centuries. While ethnically Lao, Isaan is distinct both from modern day Lao but also central Thailand with its own history, culture and linguistics.

(A map of Siam in 1900 showing the central Isaan region bordering Laos and Vietnam. Source:

Typically patterns with such uniformity in their cast handles point to military swords, most likely commissioned in batches. These two are remarkably similar, although there are slight differences in the fit and size of the handles as well as the blade profile. I do not think they are a 'matched pair' in the sense of being made for dual wielding but also they are a pair in that they almost certainly originate in the same place if not made as part of the same military order or commission.

The first has a slightly curving blade with a V-spine, not an unusual blade to find in an Isaan or Laos sword, while the second is a far more unusual nearly straight chopper. The handles consist of bulbous pommel, perhaps a reference to the common lotus bud type but lacking any of the usual repousse decoration to evoke the flower shape. The handles are wood cored, secured by nails to the bronze and fitted with small guard plates. Some decoration is applied at the ferrules but is minimal and these swords are relatively undecorated compared to most cast handles encountered.

The fitting of the handles using nails is not unknown, but not the most common method encountered. However, it has some advantages such as very easy field repairs without needing to use resin for a quick fix. One sword uses nails both in the guard plate and handle while the other uses them only on the guard plate and likely utilises resin inside the wood core as well.

The size of these swords is in fact keeping with many dha except for the short handles, however the thickness of the pommels seems to be substantial, meaning that in fact the overall weight of these swords is in keeping with other examples. 

Shields from Isaan and Laos are not particularly common but it is likely these would be used with a round shield, which were often made of rattan, or wood. This is an example from the Quai Branly museum in Paris, and while it was collected in Vietnam it is representative of the type of shield that was used across the region. 

(image source:

The hilts also retain traces of red lacquer, a common colour scheme with gold/bronze for royal functions, hinting once more at a military attribution for these swords.

The raised bands between the ferrule and pommel of the handles almost certainly held organic material, most likely rattan, to assist with grip. The lacquer would have been part of securing the rattan to the handle. 

While dating dha is difficult with any certainty, I am positive these examples date to a time when Laos still fielded armies with troops fulfilling particular roles and requiring specialist equipment, such as these swords in conjunction with specific shield types. Surviving Thai military guides list particular troop elements in a similar manner and likely the same applied across the entire region. I have not encountered other examples with the same form of hilt, making it more likely than not that these two have significant age and predate many of the swords commonly seen.