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Indian businessman is weapons maker for Hollywood

Workshop churns out military gear for filmmakers

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A worker welds a part of a helmet being prepared for a Hollywood period movie. The workshop in Sahibabad, India, fills dozens of orders for all kinds of props for historical movies and documentary films, from Napoleon-era swords to American Revolutionary muskets and sabers to World War II helmets and uniforms. (Associated Press)

SAHIBABAD, India — On the outskirts of New Delhi, in a cramped concrete workshop where the air shimmers with the light of welding torches, an Indian businessman has become a master craftsman of Napoleonic swords. And medieval chain mail armor. And World War II hand grenades and helmets.

From Hollywood war movies to Japanese samurai films to battle re-enactments across Europe, Ashok Rai, 31, is one of the world’s go-to men for historic weapons and battle attire.

Mr. Rai’s workshop reverberates with the sounds of metal being hammered and beaten into chain mail, swords, axes, muskets, sabers, spears and helmets.

Mr. Rai, a trapshooting enthusiast, says he has been a history buff since childhood.

“I would watch every war movie that came to town. All my life, I’ve been reading up on all the major battles in history. Now when we make medieval battle gear it’s easy for me to explain to my craftsmen exactly what’s to be done.”

Workers at Ashok Rai's workshop in India sew military uniforms being prepared for a re-enactment of World War II. "They have to look authentic," said Mr. Rai. He takes special care to ensure that the replica weapons his workers create are historically accurate. (Associated Press)

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Workers at Ashok Rai’s workshop in India sew military uniforms being prepared ... more >

He dove into the business at age 17, when he heard a French champagne-maker needed 1,000 swords to give away as souvenirs.

Mr. Rai, whose father had a small factory making tourist handicrafts, traveled to the northern city of Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikh religion, to find sword-makers to make the replicas.

“It took some doing to get the order ready on time. But it got me thinking,” said Mr. Rai. “Here was a niche worth exploring.”

Soon, he dropped out of college, transforming his father’s company to specialize in battle attire and weapons stretching from the 10th century to World War II.

Shortly afterward, he said he had a surprise visit from filmmakers preparing for the Tom Cruise movie “The Last Samurai.”

That led to dozens of orders for all kinds of props for historical movies and documentary films, from Napoleon-era swords to American Revolutionary muskets and sabers to World War II helmets and uniforms.

Mr. Rai was in business.

Other Hollywood blockbusters followed. He says he has made footwear for the Russell Crowe movie “Robin Hood,” and chain mail for “Kingdom of Heaven,” the Orlando Bloom film set during the 12th-century Crusades.

These days, though, Mr. Rai is shifting from Hollywood to battle re-enactments. It’s a big business, particularly in Europe, and unlike Hollywood — where weapons are made just to look good, and often are made from lightweight metal or plastic — he likes making weapons that have the heft of the originals.

Mr. Rai has set up his own company in Germany to market battle gear to re-enactors and medieval fairs, and tied up with a Spanish company to rent uniforms and equipment to documentary filmmakers.

On a recent Saturday, scores of metalworkers were creating hundreds of Norman helmets for a re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings in Mr. Rai’s factory in Sahibabad. A worker fed sheets of metal into a huge, slow-moving metal press. The press came down with a loud bang, spitting out a rough spherical shape.

Elsewhere in the warren of rooms, metalworkers used hammers to beat the spheres into helmets. Others welded brass trimmings to the helmets, which were then polished to join row upon row of shining orbs on the ceiling-to-floor shelves at one end of the workshop.

“They have to look authentic,” said Mr. Rai, fingering the steel headgear with its long noseguard.

He takes special care to ensure that the weapons are historically accurate. Over the years, he has spent a lot of time doing research on medieval costumes and on getting weaponry right to the last detail.

He recently traveled to the Kaiserburg Museum in Nuremberg, Germany, to study the kind of metalwork detail that went into making suits of armor. For a recent order of World War II helmets, he ensured the leather liners were stamped with numbers used by the original manufacturers.

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