The Passing of Hank Reinhardt

Sword expert, longtime advocate of historical armed combat, co-founder of Museum Replica’s Limited / Atlanta Cutlery, consultant to the sword industry, former ARMA Senior Adviser, the creator of the original HACA, and my one-time mentor, Henry “Hank” Reinhart, passed away on October 30th from complications following heart surgery.

Hank was in his 70s and had been in declining heath for several years but continued to try to stay active and involved in his life long love of swords and weapons. There are few aficionados of historical arms and armor in North America today who cannot say that his life’s interest did not, even if indirectly, touch theirs in some way. I know I would not be where I am today without his guidance. Knowing him changed the course of my life. I am not sure many individuals could make such a claim. His “mentoring” through phone and correspondence during the early to mid 1990s guided me toward a focus on accurate steel weapons and test-cutting as crucial elements of pursuing historical fencing (however, I was never his "student" and have have never claimed such). His inspired founding of the original HACA in 1992, though fated to suffer from neglect, was eventually to lead directly to the establishing of the ARMA.

To follow that old adage about remembering the good in people and how they improved your life, while letting everything else rest, I'll try as best I can to do that now in eulogizing Hank Reinhardt.

Hank was without question a pioneer in the study of historical arms and armor and their methods of use, even if he was not a devoted student of the source literature of the historical Masters. A longtime critic of sword-fights in cinema and television, Hank was an expert at cutting, achieving results that long-time practitioners and Asian sword masters very often could not match.  He was also an impressive expert with any knife as he demonstrated on many occasions. Hank was a consummate teller of the amusing anecdote and a keen observer of historical violence.  He could captivate a room with gruff tales of street-fights and did not suffer fools lightly. It was hard not to be fascinated by a man who could begin conversations with lines such as, "The first time I ever saw a man killed..." His controversial outspokenness and admirable in-your-face no-nonsense / no BS attitude was moderated by his “simple country-boy” charm.  Though over the past two decades he had published only a small handful of original articles on swords and combat, and produced two moderatley well-received video-tapes, Hank had given many influential lectures, demonstrations, and interviews on historical combat. There are few who can match his accomplishments at popularizing of historical swords and armor.

I will always cherish my first visit in person with him in 1998, as well as recall with fondness the many gems of insight he offered about swords and swordplay. The few times he and I ever crossed weapons proved that while he did not know the historical methods, he was a tenacious and naturally gifted fighter, even if unable with his failing health to any longer best younger better conditioned fighters.  Because no fighting man or warrior likes growing old or seeing his health fail, that reality never set well with him in the time I knew him. In good humor he was fond of quipping, "If you beat me you can only say you beat an old man; but if I beat you, I get to say an old man beat you!"

It is appropriate at times such as these to speak only well of those who have passed, but I feel to be forthright pays them as much homage if not more. I like to imagine Hank would have respected the attempt. After all, you can learn much of a man’s character when you have crossed weapons with him in earnest play.

Hank and I had not talked at all for the last three years. While we had many things in common, we came to disagree over a number of issues, such as the ethics of promoting products to the historical fencing community, the substandard quality of certain manufactured weapons, and more importantly, over the significance and importance of focusing the ARMA’s study specifically on the authentic historical source works as the primary authority for our subject. He had grown increasingly unsympathetic to ARMA’s efforts to promote the historical masters as the only true authority...which I suspect made him feel somehow disconnected. Even before this, friction arose with our decision to act as consumer advocates and not promote any commercial vendors but only recommend historically accurate training weapons and reproductions. This regretably came into conflict with some of his connections within the sword manufacturing community.

The last few times we chatted or got together we never even talked of swords or swordfighting any more. It had grown impossible for me to have conversations with him on those topics without having to politely address evidence for disagrements in soem of our views and conceptions. Despite his years of interest, I had all the same books and major sources as he did, but in contrast he did not have all of the ARMA's. There was an increasing amount of major research and new material being discovered that corrected and amended the classic references which so many people like he and I had followed in our lifelong love of historical combat. The old answers were novel and wise a generation ago, but many have now proven worn and outdated in the light of modern scholarship. Meeting with Hank became for me like trying to talk to your grandfather about modern pop music, which for me meant as eagerly as I wished to, I could never really bring up anything new that might challenge him. Sadly, there was no longer much common point of reference between us. Any cross-training had also long since become out of the question, though I had long since come to hardly mind. Instead, we happily would talk only about mutual interests in politics and sci-fi, as the distance on matters of fencing and historical arms grew increasingly irreconcilable. It became increasingly difficult to share exciting advancements in our field with him without his reflexively dismissing them...perhaps, or so it seemd to me, not without some obvious bitterness at having to witness them so late in life, I imagine. It’s a sad truth in the realm of martial arts that sometimes fighters start to resent things they feel are going where they can’t or won’t follow.

Over the past few years Hank had become increasingly marginalized in the emerging historical fencing community (and in the improving commercial sword-industry) at the very time it was finally achieving the concrete results and recognition it needed, and for which he (and I too) had once envisioned. Though in ARMA we paid him respect for his past accomplishments and the inspiration he provided, his personal goals increasingly distanced him from our advancement of a non-profit educational society dedicated to study and practice of the actual methods of the Renaissance masters. Regretfully, he seemed to have grown bitter toward what ARMA was doing, I believe, because he was being left behind in a movement that he was responsible for helping start in the first place. I was personally saddened that in recent years he chose to go in very different directions than he might have. 

There came a time that the ARMA just couldn’t continue to endorse Hank as an expert resource when so much of what we were discovering and advancing was proving a more valuable alternative (or even a direct contrary) to some of what he was still preaching.  By 2001, his advisory role had shrunk from moral support to figurehead to entirely non-existent by 2003. While we never had any official break, things just became increasingly distant until there was no communication or interaction, just the kind of second-hand third-party gossip that makes friendship and reconciliation harder. And if by not mutually promoting someone they perhaps come to see your efforts at education as an obstruction, that’s unfortunate, and perhaps says more about their goals than it does yours. It just happens sometimes that you drift apart from someone, like with a ex-girlfriend, for instance, or in falling out with a friend, neither of which may have one thing you can pinpoint from your perspective as being the singular cause. All you can eventually know is that your values and interests grew apart…then perhaps lament how that had to be the way of things.

In private, Hank always showed me nothing but respect, even as he was quick to offer critical even fatherly advice. He once cautioned me that when it came to historical fencing, I just could not “go around telling people they had an ugly baby.” I laughed and understood his meaning at the time. But later I came to believe that while what he said was true, one however did have a responsibility to tell people when they had a “sick baby.”  The distinction perhaps in a way defined our differences toward this craft.

My personal feelings toward Hank's knowledge and skill therefore grew to become more the way one might fondly recall a favorite high-school teacher who had significantly influenced your youth to make you teh person you are today, but, having since earned your PhD, you now look back on them with perspective. You never lose fondness for them even as you may come to see them in a larger context. I would have wished Hank and I would have remained colleagues, as well as been closer friends. No one can be blamed for wanting to go their own way and do their own thing as a martial artist or try to seek their own validation as a fighter. But, in the quest to improve the credibility and legitimacy of Medieval and Renaissance fighting arts and accurately reconstruct them from authentic historical sources, I believe for the greater good one has to put the integrity of the craft and the need for sincere scholarship above personal interests. Our Western martial heritage deserves no less.

The true loss to our community, in my opinion, came not with his final inevitable mortality that we will all share one day, but rather occurred some time ago. It occurred when Hank chose not so much take a different path, but stay in the same spot on the path he was already on. When I think of all the countless projects and books and articles and proposals he envisioned for our subject over the years and, sadly, how very few if any of them ever came anywhere close to fruition, I feel that is the greater loss — both for him and for all of us.  I regret that he was unable to share in, contribute more to, and benefit from the enormous advances which the study of historical European martial arts have made in recent years. But, from whatever motivation, the choice to not participate the way he might have was his own. I like to believe that the legacy of his influence will in time outwiegh my regrets.

Though never making claim to be a “master” of any historical European weaponry (and rightly ridiculing those who did), Hank was a masterful fighter with blades, following his own intuitive insights and long experience. Many of us would not be where we are in this subject today if not in some way for following in his footsteps. We could do worse than to try to follow his lead.

For myself, and for many others I’m sure, Hank was an unprecedented inspiration of what to be. Then, over time, in some ways he became for me a warning of what to not allow myself to become. I cannot but count myself fortunate to have known Hank Reinhardt, to have for a time benefited from his knowledge, his immense humor, and his friendship. I will value that and let the rest pass with him.

On behalf of all of the ARMA, I offer my condolences to his surviving family and friends.

John Clements
ARMA Director
October 31, 2007

 

See Also:
ARMA Interview with Hank Reinhardt, August, 2001
An Interview with Noted Sword and Weapons Expert Hank Reinhardt, 1999
A Visit and Study with Hank Reinhardt - '98 Atlanta Excursion
Profile: Hank Reinhardt - HACA Mentor 1997

 

 
 

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