Something New On The Cutting Edge… So To Speak

07 Dec

San Diego –– Sorry I just can’t bear dealing with the Washington idiocy where polemics substitutes for policy and volume substitutes for veracity.  If you can’t see it by now you are not going to and we are all lost anyway, at least the country is.  And besides something both practical and historic has caught my attention and my, at least temporary, interest.

On my trip to Denver, the place I stayed asked me to cook my famous (or infamous) cowboy bean pot for the family.  When I went to slice up the meat for it I discovered that they had not a single knife in the kitchen that would even slice through a slab of bacon.  Common tables knives were actually sharper than a chef’s knife and a smaller slicing knife.  In telling others of that I discovered that a large number of my friends had drawers full of equally dysfunctional blades pretending to be working knives.  Many believed that properly sharpening a knife was some arcane bit of inscrutable lore and beyond normal mortals so either yearly…YEARLY? … sent them to be sharpened or actually just tossed them out and bought new ones!  Good grief.  I’m here today to utterly dispel that myth, talk about sharpening and along the way toss in some historical data on edged implements.

On the farm and ranch, and even on the ghetto streets, i grew up around knives of all kinds: working knifes, skinning knifes, butcher knives, camp/hunting knives and, alas, also around fighting knives.  My hands even today bear the remnants of a fine laticework of scars received, in my vigorous and often stupid youth, from the edges of knives being held by opponents dedicated to seeing to it that some harm befell me.

Sharp edged devices have propelled our history and civilization from the chipped stone period, through bone, copper, bronze, iron and on to the latest developments in steel.  They have shaved hair, prepared meals, plowed ground, cut harvests, and, alas, served as implements of war although of the most up-close-and-personal kind.  A person adept at slicing and dicing food in a kitchen will blanch when facing the cold steel in the hands of an opponent; it is nearly an historically engraved intuition imprinted on our collective memories.

For all of those uses, good and ill, the only knife of value was a sharp one; dull ones were dangerous since they were prone to slipping at the wrong moment and doing unintentional damage to the holder or, worse, someone nearby.  Each type of blade had a proper type of steel and a proper type of edge for the best performance of its chief purpose and in the hands of a skilled person was always used then cleaned, sharpened, conditioned if needed, and put away so it would be ready for use whenever next called upon.

Knife design in the last few centuries is a classic case of “form following function” but even into medieval times the knife (as opposed to the sword or farm edged implements) was a multi-function item used to do everything from whittle wood into tools, cut cordage and wrapping, prepare (and sometimes eat) food, and, when things got extremely grim and desperate, serve as a last ditch defense weapon.

Except only for about four design anomolies (the distinct wavy Kris dagger of India and region, the Arab Jambiya, the Japanese Tanto, and the Sax of Teutonic tribes), from Grecian, to Roman, to Celtic, to Saxon tribes, knife blades came in various lengths and were usually long by today’s standards but while the hilt (handle) might vary from culture to culture in design and decoration, the blades themselves were either single or double edged and either dagger shaped or like a modern single edge kitchen knife with straight spine (back) and blade that curved up to meet the spine at the tip.  Functional knives were shorter and fighting knives were longer with wider blades, but that was pretty much the only difference.

As metallurgy improved along with advances in warrior armor, swords styles changed faster than knife styles.  Even in the days of musketeers after firearms had rendered plate armor useless and dueling was fashionable among “gentlemen,” the companion fighting dagger had a typical dagger blade lengthened to 10 – 18 inches long  though the hilt was often fashioned to match the sword and form a set.  It was not until the late 1820s/early 1830s that a major leap in knife design came on the scene courtesy of an American legend, the redoubtable James T. Bowie (pronounced “Boowie” or “Buhwi”) and his older brother Rezin (pronounced “Reason”).

Though occasionally his ethics as a land speculator and early involvment with slavery were questioned, his courage and dueling skills were admitted even by his enemies… and he definitely had some.  But in 1827 after serving as a second in a duel in which he was attacked by the seconds of the other duelists (ironically after the duelists themselves had called it quits), shot twice and impaled on a sword cane, he used a knife given to him by his brother to eviscerate and kill the attacker.  His handiwork was so skilled if horrific he became an almost overnight celebrity which brought with it his share of people wanting to do him ill.

He carved a wooden form and gave it to a regionally famous blacksmith and bladesmith named James Black who improved on it and produced what is arguably the first true clip point fighting knife.  With this design, the top of the blade is not straight, but cut back into a curved “clip” which brought the tip better in line with the grip for thrusting and, when that clip or “false edge” was sharpened it created a truly fearsome weapon that could cut in all directions with a single move in the hands of a trained fighter… like Bowie.  it was said just drawing the knife ended a number of altercations and in fact there is only one other documented use of the knife in a fight when he was attacked by three men (including one he had spared in an earlier duel) and when the dust settled, he had decapitated one, split the skull of a second, and disemboweled the third.

His fame was secured even in his own day but he was killed at the Alamo in 1836 just a few years after the last fight.  By then every one wanted a “knife like Bowie’s” and along with personal and designer modifactions, blacksmiths including James Black himself, a Bowie family blacksmith named Searles, and even knife factories in England were cranking our “bowie knives” by the bucket full.  A few big knives with clip points were recovered after the Alamo fall, many taken as prizes by the victorious soldiers so no one knows for sure what Jim Bowie’s original knife really looked like except for general descriptions and some copies of it made by Black in the 1830s.  The blade design works well for a lot of functional chores like hunting and camping so modernly is made is blades from 6″ and up.  Modernly, the false edge/clip is usually not sharpened for general use knives; that embellishment reserved for fighting knives.

I have a custom Gil Hibben copy of an 1830s “bowie” knife attributed to James Black.  It fits the descriptions of Jim’s blade but then so do some others of slightly modified design.  The brothers, cashing in on Jim’s fame, gave knives as gifts but these were of varied blade designs and lengths.  But to do the type of damage attributed to Bowie, you would need either a sword or a long heavy blade.  The blade is 14 inches long.

No one knows Black’s or Bowie’s sharpening techniques although even a big blade would have to be very sharp to inflict that kind of damage through typical 1830’s clothing.  But current steels are so much better in nearly every way that whether sharpening a kitchen knife, a hunting knife, or a fighter, sharpening practices have to adopt to the materials and so sharpening on a bowl or rock is far less effective these days than it was in his.

This has gotten out of hand (what a surprise for me…) so I am going to post this bit of historical fluff and reserve sharpening instuctions for the next post.

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Posted by on December 7, 2011 in Uncategorized


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