American soldiers in Bulacan (Philippine Photographs Digital Archive, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan).

The blade culture in the Philippines like those in other parts of the world at one point in time had to contend with the advent of firearms. The Filipinos were already exposed to gunpowder technology long before the coming of the Spaniards because of earlier trade with China. The Chinese presence in the country preceded that of the Spaniards by hundreds of years.

A testament of this are the historical references to Panday Pira (1483 to 1576), the famous Filipino metallurgist and blacksmith credited for inventing the portable cannon lantaka. Panday Pira’s metallurgical knowledge was so sophisticated that he was eventually commissioned by the Spaniards to make cannons for their galleons and for the fortification of Intramuros.

Since the coming of the Spaniards, the Filipinos used to fighting with blades gradually adapted to the use of the gun. In the south, Muslim pirates added into their arsenal of blades flintlock pistols and muskets, preferring those that were compact in size suitable for close-range fighting on a ship’s deck.

Several works of foreign writers on the Philippines during the turn of the 20th century offer glimpses on the early curiosity of Filipinos towards the gun and how they fared with the use of the new weapon.

Florence Kimball Russel in her book “A Woman’s Journey through the Philippines on a cable ship that linked together the strange lands seen en route” printed in 1907 noted of the men of Dumaguete’s fascination with modern western armaments, “The men were of course greatly interested in our gallant armament of rapid-fire guns, and when the quartermaster, who is a crack shot, hit an improvised target in the water several times in succession with a one-pounder in the stern of the ship, the Filipinos were astounded, and stared at him in even greater admiration than they had shown for the formidable little weapon.

Two shotguns of newest design were also brought on deck, and while the native women were frankly bored at this display of ordnance and preferred to talk about the way our gowns were made, the men were delighted, declaring they never imagined a gun could be broken in pieces and put together again so easily.”

In Mindanao, she wrote this interesting passage regarding the Moros’ lust for guns, “Meanwhile the entire male population of the place gathered about us, and we found them in very truth a murderous looking lot, armed to the teeth with barongs and krises and campilans, while none of us had any visible means of self-protection.

There were a few pocket revolvers, however, hidden under the officers’ blouses, and well hidden, the Governor having warned us to take no arms of any description to Tampakan, for while money would have been no temptation to these people, they would not have hesitated long to kill one for a Krag rifle or a Colt revolver.”

While the Muslims of Mindanao have used guns years before the arrival of Americans in the Philippines, there was a dearth of modern firearms in the area during the beginning of the 20th century based on the observation of Needom N. Freeman. In his book “A Soldier in the Philippines,” published in 1901, Freeman wrote, “After these formalities were over I had opportunity of examining the guns of the sultan’s body guard, also the ammunition.

The guns were so rusty that I would have considered it safer to be shot at by one of them than to shoot the gun. The barrels were almost closed with rust. A lot of the bullets were wrapped with cloth, and stuck in the shells. Some of the bullets were loose, and some were driven in very tight. All of the shells had the appearance of being in use a long time, and that they had been fired as many times as they would stand.

They have very little knowledge of firearms; probably the only guns they ever had, and also those of the sultan’s bodyguard, were old, worn-out guns given or sold to them by the Spanish. With our improved rifles I believe that one man could withstand the attack of twenty of them armed with bolos, that is to say, were the American in some fortification, and opened fire on the Morros [Moros] when they came in his range.

They, of course, would not fight in this way, their method being one of sneaking treachery. They slip up behind the unsuspecting victim and behead him with their bolo.” On the Filipinos’ general affinity towards the gun, Freeman noted, “They find a great deal of pleasure in the possession of a gun and it seems that they are content with a gun, fighting and running in the mountains. They care little for life and will fight till killed.”

Freeman’s observation can be explained by the fierce autonomy that the Muslims were able to maintain for so long. Both the Spaniards and the Americans failed to conquer much of Mindanao therefore the Muslims of the south have little interaction with foreign forces limiting their exposure to modern military technology.

In comparison, the Filipinos in Luzon being under Spanish rule for centuries were more adept in the use of firearms. A passage from an unsigned draft of an order in Emilio Aguinaldo’s handwriting dated Malolos, September 13, 1898 published in the book “The Philippines Past and Present,” by Dean C. Worcester released in 1914 offers a clue on the degree of skill acquired by early Filipino riflemen.

Worcester served as Secretary of the Interior of the Philippine Islands from 1901 to1913 and was a member of the Philippine Commission from 1900 to 1913. The letter giving orders to General Pío del Pilar, General P. Garcia and General Noriel or Colonel Cailles, reads, “Warn your soldiers against firing at random as the Spaniards did, if possible have them calculate the number of their antagonists and how much ammunition there is in comparison with the number of the attacking force, in fact, there are occasions when each shot fired kills as many as four men.”

During the height of the revolt against Spain, General Jose Ignacio Paua, known as the “Chinese General in Philippine Revolution” set up an ammunition factory and arsenal in Cavite. An expert blacksmith, he supervised the repair of cannons and guns as well as the production of paltiks [crude handguns] for Aguinaldo’s army.

Eventually, the Filipinos realized that while the blade is a potent and venerable weapon, a massive revolution cannot be won by swords and daggers alone. This is evident in a revolutionary document (a letter to General Moxica of Leyte, dated March 2, 1900) included in Worcester’s book that reads, “If by chance any of our men are wounded on the field or elsewhere, efforts must be made to take away the rifles and ammunition at once and carry them away as far as possible, so that they may not be captured by the enemy; and if the wounded cannot be immediately removed elsewhere or retreat from the place, let them be left there, because it is better to save the arms than the men, as there are many Filipinos to fill up the ranks, but rifles are scarce and difficult to secure for battle; and besides the Americans, coming upon any wounded, take good care of them, while the rifles are destroyed; therefore, I repeat, they must endeavour to save the arms rather than the men.”