On YouTube, every conceivable interest is catered to, including the brutal power of top quality, highly engineered swords. David Farrier talks to Lynn Thompson, founder of sword, knife and viral video makers Cold Steel.
“The pig is the closest thing to a human, in terms of flesh consistency, arrangement of organs.” Welcome to the violent, viral world of Cold Steel Swords
I’ve been captivated by Cold Steel ever since my friend Dan showed me one of their videos on YouTube. The video, entitled “Chinese War Sword”, had millions of views. It showed showed various men slicing and dicing everything from bamboo, to a pig carcass dressed in a jacket.
Now I’ve seen my fair share of fantasy swords in my time. I am, after all, from New Zealand – Lord of the Rings country – but these swords and their videos were something else entirely.
They were product demonstrations, but they were theatrical and violent. The music, editing and sets reminded me of an 80s heavy metal music video. They were, dare I say it, inspired. There was a reason some of them had 12 million views.
Recently I decided to dig a little deeper into these strangely violent viral videos, reaching out to the company’s founder, Lynn Thompson.
I discovered a man deeply passionate about swords. He’s spent years reading up on weapons and tells me he has a library of over 2000 weapons-related books.
His company, founded in 1980, is nestled in Ventura, California, about an hour south of Santa Barbara. His wife, an interior designer, helps him with “aesthetic aspects” of the business.
But I wanted to know more about Thompson and his sword empire. We began by talking about pets and his love of suits. By the end of the interview, I discovered that America isn’t just obsessed with guns, it’s obsessed with swords.
Lynn – thanks for your time. I know you are busy! First off, tell me a little about yourself. How old are you? Where in America are you from? Do you have any wonderful pets?
Not unlike most women, I don’t disclose my age.
My goal is to stay perpetually 24. I keep myself young by training in martial arts with people younger than myself.
I am originally from Brazil. It wasn’t until I moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan that I learned to speak English as a child. My parents forced us to learn even quicker because they stopped speaking Portuguese in the home. After five years, we moved to California, and I’ve been here ever since.
I have had dogs all my life, but right now I currently have Nikki, a 13-month old Doberman. She has just as much energy as intelligence. We also have Socks, a quarter horse, who is aptly named because when you look at him, it looks like he is wearing four white socks. He’s a highly trained in both English and Western disciplines.
When did you get into the sword game?
I started Cold Steel in 1980, and we first started as I knife company. As the company grew and demand grew, I started expanding into other projects. I personally have always been very interested in swords. I’d been quality testing our knives and testing swords I had purchased at gun shows, and I realised it was doable to make a quality sword our customers could afford. I didn’t want people to only have the option of custom swords that cost as much as a down payment on a car or have nothing at all.
Our very first sword was manufactured in 1991, which was a Chinese manufactured “copy” of a Japanese WWI Cavalry Saber. We saw a big boom in our sword business right around the time of Tom Cruise’s big film The Last Samurai, because we and one or two other companies were the only ones manufacturing swords at a reasonable price point.
Being in the sword business forced me to become an expert in sword fighting. I feel that it’s unreasonable for me to sell you a sword that’s meant for combat, without knowing how it works. I equate it to someone trying to sell you a saddle when they have never ridden a horse. So I took it upon myself to learn all about swords and sword fighting. I consistently train for hours every week. I’ve put in the blood, sweat, tears & I have the injuries to prove it.
I came across Cold Steel’s videos when a friend showed me, and I can’t get enough of them. Like – if we’re watching a movie at my house on the projector, I will often show one of your videos as a preview. When did you start making these videos?
We first started making our “Proof” videos in 1996, with one camera in the parking lot of the office we had at that time.
My wife and I edited the time coded footage in my gym. It was very low tech. It wasn’t until DVD’s became readily available that we started investing more in the production.
We’d then include a DVD of the Proof videos in each catalog for that year, and that’s when the brand really took off.
Who are the men in the videos – are they staff or actors?
Staff. Besides myself, you see Robert and Sergio most frequently, both of whom have been here 20 plus years.
I am fascinated by their wardrobe choices: often business shirts and ties. It doesn’t seem appropriate for the work being done! Talk me through your thinking there.
The only one you see in a suit and tie or business shirt and tie is me. bThat was intentional, I wanted to set myself apart as the president. But more importantly, I wanted to show customers that this wasn’t just a company with another “suit” at the helm, but rather someone who will back up the company’s brags and get his hands dirty. And I believe, in doing so, I help show that Cold Steel is for everyone, whether you hold a blue collar, white collar, or no collar kind of job.
Your videos vary in extremes. One second you’re cutting a bit of thick rope or bamboo, the next you are chopping through a pig carcass. How do you choose what to demonstrate your swords on?
The materials used are all carefully chosen to help demonstrate different aspects and qualities that are critical when picking a quality knife or sword. They help measure against edge holding, pierce-ability, point strength and rigidity. So many factors besides just its sharpness. Of course, we wanted our videos to be interesting and visually stimulating – we didn’t want them to come across as overly scientific and sterile. So you’ll see the little touches we added that make things fun, like dressing up each mannequin differently, or as you mentioned putting a pig in a jacket.
In terms of selecting a pig for the videos, I drew inspiration from a 1980s video in which Jeet Kune Do instructor Paul Vunak sliced ham with a balisong. I extrapolated that to using pigs. After all, the pig is the closest thing to a human – in terms of flesh consistency, arrangement of organs – and I wanted to give my customers an idea how their knife or sword would perform in a real-world self defence situation.
I think the most confronting demonstrations are the ones with Ballistic Torsos, which I didn’t even know about until I discovered your videos. From what I can tell, they are modelled after humans, made with materials that mimic human skin, bones, organs and even brains. They are for the military to test guns on and stuff. Where did you get the idea to use those?
We had struggled with finding realistic targets, and I remember first reading about ballistic gel bodies from writer/policeman Ed Sanow. At the time when we first started ballistic gel bodies, they were very hard to come by. They’re also cost prohibitive as they’re several thousand dollars apiece, but we thought it could be and would be very impactful, visually speaking. We wanted something that could really show off what our knives and swords can do.
But, the decision to start using ballistic gel bodies wasn’t one we made overnight. We knew it would be risky, and the use of them could offend our customer base because it’s so graphic.
But, we absolutely want to tell the truth, which is why I think we ultimately came to the decision to use them. We want our customers to feel confident that they can adequately defend themselves with our products. And when you watch our videos where we’ve used the ballistic gel bodies… I think we did a pretty good job of conveying that!
With all that in mind, who is your target customer and what are they using these swords for? In New Zealand I have some friends who collect swords, but they are mainly fantasy swords (this is Lord of the Rings country, after all) and just for display. I get the feeling with your swords maybe people are using them to go hunt bears or pigs or moose?
As a company, we don’t get political – except when it comes to one thing: We believe in the inherent right to bear arms. We vehemently support the U.S.’ 2nd Amendment. Our target customer is therefore EVERYONE! As such, one of the things I’ve always recommended is having a minimum of two knives on you for everyday carry. One knife should remain unused so that it is razor sharp and ready, its sole purpose is being used in a self defence application. Hopefully, you never need it. The other knife is your everyday utility knife.
When it comes to our knives in particular, we do a lot of business with the military and law enforcement community, as well as the prepper community. The primary purpose of a sword however, and truthfully, how the sword originated, was for the purpose of war and killing other men. In parts of Europe – France, Germany, and Spain – I’ve noticed that people still hunt with shorter swords there. A longer sword is not the preferred method for hunting, but it is a great self defence tool in modern times for a myriad of reasons. I’d suspect that the majority of the people buying our swords are buying them for self defence.
Swords are often underestimated and overlooked in today’s world when picking a defensive tool – but they shouldn’t be. Around 50% of most gunfights occur within five feet and 90% of gunfights occur within seven yards.
A sword can certainly be used in these situations, and it all comes down to your movement and reaction time. Hear me well, I am not saying a sword is better than a gun. But it does have some advantages: It’s silent.
Unlike a gun, you don’t give up your location by emitting sound when you’ve used a sword for defence. Swords are not regulated: You’re not required to test or undergo a mandatory waiting period to purchase a sword. There are less negligence-related sword injuries or deaths. Stray swords don’t go through walls and kill a toddler across the street instead of your intended target.
Some of your videos have million of views. That’s sort of amazing. Did you ever see this videos taking off this much – and have they helped business, as well as entertain?
I didn’t know the videos would take off like they have. It’s awesome to see that they have a following all their own. But, I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit that I hoped the videos would become popular! Their popularity has in fact helped business, and certainly has helped us in terms of brand recognition on a worldwide scale. But I am always looking to improve upon that and I ask myself how can we be different? How can we try something new?
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