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Exclusive: Master of Arms’ experts tell us everything ahead of new series on Discovery

Historical weapons will be recreated in a series of challenges as contestants try for $10,000 in a cash prize. Pic credit: Discovery
Historical weapons will be recreated in a series of challenges as contestants try for $10,000 in a cash prize. Pic credit: Discovery

Master of Arms is an exciting new series that pits hobbyists to full-on skilled craftsmen against each other in challenges designed to show their mastery of forging metal, wood, and design to create masterpieces that can withstand a brutal testing in the field.

Iconic weaponry is resurrected, in age-old traditional manufacturing methods as Discovery Channel pits the best of the best to battle it out in a head-to-head competition to re-create the armaments throughout history.

The craft of making swords, knives, and guns is an enduring human endeavor, as weapon craftsmen were and still are relied upon to craft battle ready tools.

Modern weapons smiths have passed down this information to each other through the ages and combined with newer technical knowledge, they keep this form of design and function alive and growing in popularity and interest.

How it works

On each episode, three builders will face-off in two historical challenges to create an era-specific weapon. Think early firearms of the frontier to the hefty blades of the Chinese warriors or the seafaring Vikings.

Every tool tasked to the competitors is a heavily researched and crafted work of art. It must also function perfectly.

Who judges the contestants?

From left to right: Trenton, Zeke and Ashley will judge the weapons. Pic credit: Discovery
From left to right: Trenton, Zeke, and Ashley will judge the weapons. Pic credit: Discovery

The weaponry will be put through a gauntlet of slicing, dicing and stabbing challenges and will be tested by a decorated military marksman, Nicholas Irving.

Nick is a former Sergeant within the Special Operations unit, 75th Ranger Regiment 3rd Ranger battalion, who served as an assaulter, machine gunner, designated marksman, and sniper.

He is also The New York Times bestselling author of The Reaper, Way of the Reaper and Reaper: Ghost Target.

Nicholas Irving puts the weapons through a battery of field tests. Pic credit: Discovery
Nicholas Irving puts the weapons through a battery of field tests. Pic credit: Discovery

The judges include Ashley Hlebinsky, a leading firearms historian who has dedicated her life and career to the study of weaponry. She is also the Chief Curator of one of the largest firearms collections in the country, the Cody Firearms Museum, in Wyoming.

Zeke Stout is a certified firearms specialist. He works for one of the largest firearms, technology, and gunsmithing schools in the country. Zeke was certified as a higher education professional in leadership, an Armorer in several platforms, including the 1911 and Penn arms grenade launcher.

Trenton Tye is the hat wearing professional blacksmith who owns Purgatory Ironworks. He brings over 20 years’ experience as a master at casting, gunsmithing, knife making, and is knowledgeable in ancient arms and armor.

What happens and is there a prize?

Yes, $10,000 goes to the winner of the Main Challenge. In each episode, blade, ballistic and bow weapons are tasked to the contestants. Nick will rigorously test them in the field as the judges will mark on their design, historical accuracy, and abilities.

With an elimination after the first challenge leaving two contestants to battle in the Main Challenge, only one smith will remain as he or she will scoop up the grand prize of $10,000 and be crowned the Master of Arms.

We spoke to the cast this week about the new series coming in November:

Monsters and Critics: Ashley, how did you get interested in firearms? How does one become a firearm historian?

Ashley Hlebinsky: It’s a rather circuitous route. There’s no real program that you can go into in school…I actually didn’t grow up around firearms. I wanted to be a doctor. I was always interested in the history of medicine, and battlefield medicine specifically.

When I was in college, I started off going into the field of medicine then I went on a Civil War medicine tour of Gettysburg National Park, which I’m from Pennsylvania. They talked about how the advancements of weapons technology altered medical technology on the battlefield.

That was the first time I really thought two things: one, people work at historic sites and two, that the connection to this idea of technology on the battlefield, the soldiers’ experience and really the tactics that come about with that.

So I decided to major in history and I had to get kind of creative. I basically did every internship I could where I could learn about the study of firearms.

My first real internship I had to identify over 200 different types of firearms throughout military history and I’d never held a gun before in my life. So I got a very quick crash course in that experience.

Then after that when I decided to study arms, other tech weapons as well as firearms, I just basically did everything I could to both get hands-on experience because they’re so technically oriented that when you try to describe how a flintlock fires, it’s really difficult. People usually just stare at you. So it makes a lot more sense if you actually see it happen.

So I did balancing between practical experience and education. I have a Masters in History where I focused in arms history. Spent three years researching in the Smithsonian National firearms collection and I’ve been with my current museum, The Cody Firearms Museum, for seven years.

So a lot of practical and a lot of book learning and then a little bit of getting a chance to actually fire the different types of firearms throughout history.

M&C: With your intensive knowledge, which weapon, period weapon, pre-1900, would have done the most damage to the human body and one you would have feared the most if you were in battle?

Ashley: Well, pre-1900 a lot is made. So if you’re looking at all kinds of early weaponry, I’m going to answer the question but there are so many parts to it.

A lot of warfare was fought shoulder to shoulder. So you had kind of a standard bore musket instead of something that was rifled. It was a lot more accurate when you fire it, so that was used more for early examples of kind of sniper fire, but the heavy caliber of these early muskets, I mean .75 caliber, .69 caliber, that’s for the dimension of the inside of the barrel.

Just anything like that would have just been really very, very damaging in a battlefield situation, coupled with the fact that you didn’t have modern medicine.

But by the American Civil War, you’ve got a lot of different types of weapons that are being developed on the battlefield. Although it didn’t see an extensive amount of battlefield use, even though the movies pretend like it did, the Gatling gun, which was kind of a repeating rifle battery was an artillery piece that fires 300 to 500 rounds a minute.

That was something that was developed in 1861, patented in ’62 by a guy named Richard Gatling. That would have been something that would have been pretty intimidating on the battlefield for that period of time. Really the technology in that 19th Century increased so rapidly because of different advance in modern technology, that there was a whole host of things you probably wouldn’t want to run up against on the battlefield.

M&C: Zeke, how does one become a Certified Firearms Specialist, is that through the military or through law enforcement?

Zeke Stout: No. Ashley, what was the word you used, circuitous? Actually, my Firearms Specialist certification is through the International Firearms Specialist Academy.

It was founded by a retired ATF agent that trains a lot of the law enforcement, ATF, FBI, worked at FLETC (the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center) with Dan O’Kelly.  I took his course for awhile learning firearms functioning types, ballistics, import laws, things of that nature.

I went through his course to do that but prior to that, I did grow up around firearms. I was born in Texas and raised in Tennessee, so go figure.

I started a firearms podcast around 7 years ago and within a year we were one of the largest firearms podcast in the world, and that took off.

The job I had was an executive job in Nashville and I loved the people I worked with. I just had no passion for it. So I started putting my resume out to our sponsors and a large gunsmithing college contacted me and wanted me to come on and help them grow the school. I became an executive vice president of that college.

While I was there, part of what I had to deal with was the curriculum on the actual gunsmithing. I had to beef it up, make it better, make it more legitimate for our industry. I had to start taking armorers courses on numerous different platforms. Everything from an old revolver and a 1911 to a pin arms grenade launcher. I got a lot of knowledge base there and then I went on to do the Firearms Specialist certification after that.

M&C: Who makes the better gun, Germans or Americans?

Zeke: Ooh! Them’s fighting words. Oh! I’m gonna make so many people mad with this statement.

My carry weapon and one of my favorite firearms is an HK, which is a German company.  They make anything from semi-automatic rifles to pistols and carry weapons. They’re well known for their quality and their reliability, but we do have a lot of American companies. I mean Glock is a perfect example, they started as an Austrian company but they make a lot of their firearms in America now. They’re making amazing things.

Now, innovation-wise, I will go back to Americans because you have Colt, you have Smith & Wesson, you have Ruger. Some of the most innovative companies in the firearms world out there are here in America. I think innovation, America wins hands down. My favorite just happens to be German.

M&C: Trenton. How does one become a professional blacksmith? Is there a college course for that or is there a special technical school for that or trade school? How did you do that?

Trenton Tye: You have a chance encounter with a drunken blacksmith master at 7 years old and see him do things with metal you never thought possible.

I took a school field trip to a place called Andersonville Georgia which was a Civil War prison camp. The blacksmith that was there gave a demonstration and I saw him turn metal so bright it hurt your eyes and then he bent an iron bar in half like it was a twig. That would be my official start.

I later went to college, 6 years. Dual degree — Psych and Bio and realized that this gentleman was not far from me in Andersonville. I caught up with him again and started working with him. Though I had meandered along the path over the years as far as what I’ve done to make sure and put food on the table, the blacksmithing has always been a central portion.

About 10 years ago I reestablished my shop and have been full time ever since. I have traveled with it as a demonstrator and got to make a lot of cool things.

M&C: You specialize also in ancient arms. Which culture, which country blew you away with a particular ax or sword or knife, a cutting instrument that was part of their army or their warriors’ repertoire of weapons. What do you have an incredible amount of respect, admiration for?

Trenton: You know it is so difficult to pin to anyone because you have these technological jumps and these leaps occur in all the cultures that are out there. You have as far as just absolute innovation, the Chinese are hard to beat. Even 2000 years ago, the advances they were making were staggering. I mean just absolutely.

But then you have to look to medieval Europe in advances in their siege weapons. When they start getting into the clockwork of making things like trebuchets or the scorpions.

It’s hard to pick, but if there’s any one thing that you could point to, I would have to say it was the Roman short sword, the Gladius.

If there was any weapon that came onto the scene and changed the face of the earth, it is that short sword because of the material it’s made out of and the method that was used to construct it. It was so far beyond everything else and the tactics they put with it changed everything.

M&C. These contestants make this beautiful thing and then Nicholas gets a hold of it…

Ashley: Oh, yeah. Nick is an amazing person. We really lucked out having him part of the cast. He gets intense. It’s one of those things where the first time we saw him get in that mode to use these weapons…

You can see on the show we’re all kinda laid back and jokesters a little bit and Nick is too. Then we put those weapons in his hands and he starts his method, and we all took two or three steps back cause we’re like, ‘okay something big is about to happen.’

You saw what he did. It was intense, but it has to be. We had to put it through the rigors of what it would see on the battlefield. Nick was the perfect person to do that with.

M&C: The contestants seem to be a cross of amateurs, apprentices, hobbyists. Is that how you would describe them?

Zeke: Yeah, absolutely. We have everything ranging from someone who’s been doing it for a couple of years and they’re pretty good at it to the top of the line in their field.

There was a few times where we walked out onto the set and either Trent knew a guy or Ashley knew a guy or I knew a guy. We were like, ‘oh gosh, these other two guys don’t have a good chance.’

You don’t say it out loud, of course, but it was just like, wow. What was amazing is some of these guys rose to the challenge and they took them on head to head and did amazing stuff.

Even if you see somebody that you recognize in the craftsman field, don’t assume from the get-go that he’s the ringer. It did not happen that way. We had some amazing challenges and a lot of them came down to the wire on who was going home and who was winning.

Ashley: Well, and the format for this show, too, it’s set up in a way that it does give everybody a chance because we’ve got a range of bladesmiths, blacksmiths and gunsmiths and they don’t know what they’re making when they come in. You could be a bladesmith and have to make a flintlock. You could be a gunsmith and have to make a sword.

There’s a leveling of the playing field when you’re a master but you don’t know what you’re going to get.

You may draw something that’s in your wheelhouse and you may not. You have to draw on your knowledge of woodworking and metalworking so that you can make something that we can beat the crap out of.

M&C: Any female contestants?

Zeke: Yes. Absolutely.

Trenton: Yes we did.

Ashley: Yep.

M&C: One, two, a few?

Trenton: Was it just one?

Ashley: I think there was just one.

Trenton: So there’s a lot of lady ferriers [blacksmiths] out there and there’s a lot of sculpturists out there now, especially artists that are blacksmithing on that end of it. As far as when it comes to weaponry there’s not a whole lot of ladies who have jumped in.

A lot of them jumped in to do the big gates and all the traditional work, but not a lot have jumped over to the weapons yet. But that’s changing.

Zeke: That was one thing that I really enjoyed seeing when I was working at the college. Every year I was there we had an increase in women who were joining to become gunsmiths. It was really neat to see it growing within a different population than just the old guys that like to work on old guns kind of thing.

Master of Arms premieres Friday, November 2 at 10 PM ET/PT on Discovery Channel

April Neale
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