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The Iron Mistress:  Bowie & His Knife Revisited 

It still amuses me that despite having two blogs; this blog on – usually – political and social issues, and my other blog (http://ndktravels.wordpress.com) on – usually – photo and photo education issues, one of the most viewed posts of either blog had nothing to do with either main topics but instead is one from this site on knives, discussing specifically the pros and cons of Bowie styled knives.  Click here to read it: (https://ndkphotoblog.wordpress.com/?s=Bowie+Knife).  That post was written to answer a question from a previous more generealized post on knives and knife sharpening and uses for different designed blades.  And because I was bored with politics and am a student and aficionado of the American frontier and old west, it was a fun diversion for me.  Characters who were larger than life even back then in their own time fascinate me, in no small measure because even the “normal” folks of their time were so vastly tougher than we are. What were the people THEY thought were tough like? Too many soft sheets separate our generations and every time some experiment is conducted to see how modern people fare trying to live the lives of ordinary folk back then, the moderns fail miserably.

I also had no idea that people these days were so interested in knives, especially THE one belonging to Colonel James Bowie, late of Texas by way of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas.  And now, over a year since I wrote and illustrated that post, I received another question from a viewer who somehow stumbled across and read my comments on Bowie knives.

The reader asked a very legitimate question.  He asked how I could write so specifically about a knife style that was based on a near mythical knife that had never been illustrated.  No one, he correctly pointed out, knows exactly what the famous knife actually looked like since although there are lots of examples of large knives from that period, there were no drawings or paintings (photography was not available at the time) showing Bowie and his knife together.

The questioner is correct and that fact in itself is interesting since it was part of Bowie’s persona and legend and many other portraits of the time show individual males with their weapons.  In fact, over time, it was clear that during his life Jim Bowie owned and used several different large knives from several sources and the knife that started his reputation as a knife fighter at the “Sandbar Fight” was a gift from his brother Rezin, and was NOT the blade that later became famous in its own time.  It almost certainly was not the blade Bowie had when he fell at the Alamo or even after its famous use on the sandbar..  Why do I think this?

Big knives were common and not the stuff of news stories; knife fights were common — there were even schools, especially in New Orleans, like fencing academies, that taught various styles of knife fighting.  We do not know if Bowie ever attended one or if his fighting style followed one or another approach, in fact other than for the results in terms of wounds to opponents, we know almost nothing about how he used his knife or knives in various encounters.

Additionally, dueling was increasingly frowned on officially but it was still a common way to settle affairs of honor. Rarely were the weapons used set out for special comment like Bowies knife had been. (The  growing illegality of dueling was why the fight took place on a sandbar: it was an impermanent feature in the river and therefore in no one’s official jurisdiction.)  Rezin’s knife was beautifully made but it was not the sort to inspire legend.  That took a different and unique type of weapon.

It should be noted that some historians believe ALL of Jim Bowie’s knives were designed by Rezin but if so there is no hard evidence to support it and a lot of anecdotal evidence to contradict it. Resin cashed in on his brother’s growing reputation at every opportunity including designing and selling knives as “Bowie’s” knives. No one knows for sure, however, but history seems to not support Rezin as the prime designer of the knives that came to be called “Bowie knives” even though he likely DID design the knife Jim used at the Sandbar fight.

So who cares?  Well does it not seem odd that we know so little about what is arguably the most famous real weapon wielded by a real person in history? Yes, this is a bit of historical trivia with little or no modern relevance.  But try to tell me you would turn down a chance to recover, say, Excaliber! The Bowie Knife as an archetype has become a sort of American “Excaliber,”  a legendary blade wielded by a mighty and perhaps mythical warrior. But Bowie and his knife were real.

Setting aside for this discussion the inconvenient truth that James Bowie was a land speculator, slave owner and trader, timber seller, gambler, notorious hot head as if the term were created to describe just him, and part time con man and scoundrel whose legend and general personal reputation was saved for posterity largely by having the good luck to die at the Alamo, what remains accepted is that his knife and his fighting prowess were legendary in his own time and that by all accounts he was essentially fearless.

As it is with following gunslingers from Hickock to Hardin, real and pretend historians get apoplectic over how many fights – if ANY – he actually had or used his knife beyond the first very heavily documented one on the sandbar outside Natchez. He came from a well-to-do family but could have become even richer in his own time just licensing his blade design.  But there were no such “intellectual property” protections available then and as his reputation grew, every knifemaker in the country was inundated with requests for a knife “like Bowie’s.”

And yet, strangely, there are a couple of drawings/painting of him, one even holding a sword… but not one of him with his knife… or ANY knife. In fact in all of his writings, Jim Bowie himself never mentioned a knife of any sort.  The only paper evidence that Jame Bowie ever even owned a knife is a store receipt from 1823 in the Cris Nolen collection and from four years before the sandbar fight..

So what did the knife, especially the last one, the one he had with him at the Alamo, look like?  We know he had one since surviving women wrote in their journals about Col. Bowie and his knife.  But no one took the time to describe it.

Perhaps because big knives were so common at that time that even if it had a unique design the assumption was that it was not the knife per se that won the fights but the person wielding it.  We think of knives as weapons of last resort today, but in the era of unreliable one-shot firearms they were higher in the order of selection.  If, in the middle of a fight you carefully aimed your one shot firearm and heard a click instead of a bang, without a backup you were likely in for a very bad day.  Not until the era of repeating and reliable firearms did the knife lose its status as a primary weapon.  Jim Bowie did indeed, at the Sandbar, take a knife to a gunfight, but for most humans today that would be a terribly desperate action.

Because of their importance as tools and weapons, Bowie (and his family) commonly gave knives as presents or as trade and a number of those have been passed down through the families of the recipients.  They are of several blade designs although multiple examples look very much like the Collins/Musso/Hibben knives (a Hibben version is shown below).  There is even an old image of an unknown man (below right) holding a knife that is almost a dead ringer for those knives including the brass back..

old photo from a painting of an unknown individual holding a

old photo from a painting of an unknown individual holding a “Bowie knife.” Note the resemblance to the Collins/Musso/Hibben blades. (Any of you history buffs know who this is?)

(I do not know who that portrait is of?  It does not look like James Bowie at least based on other portraits, or of Rezin Bowie either.  If anyone knows — and why he might be holding a Bowie knife — please let me know. Today, with our modern attitudes playing down the concept of exceptional people, we often credit the tool with the users’ success and so are interested in it thinking that if only WE had that gun, camera, car… knife… we could do what they did,  so we focus more on that tool than the user and their skills.  And so an interest in and countless arguments have ensued over just what that knife looked like.  And enormous amounts of effort have been spent trying to find an example, perhaps THE example — THE knife itself — to end the discussion.

Some claim we will never know the answer — which is good for maintaining the argument.  Others claim we already have it and just won’t accept it or at least those with a different idea about what it “must” be like won’t accept it and thereby crush their fondly held theories.  There are a couple of interesting possibilities.

Phil Collins, the musician, is an avid follower of all lore involving the Alamo.  He possessed the largest collection of Alamo artifacts in the world and recently donated them to the Alamo museum.  In his travels he came across a very old knife in a museum that was said to have been THE knife taken off of Bowie’s body by one of Santa Anna’s soldiers, handed down through the family and finally sold.  This is not the first or only such claim for the knife in some family collection, but this knife is more like what one would expect and that knife looks very much like the 1830’s pattern Bowie by Gil Hibben shown in the previously noted post and below and in the portrait to the right.

And it also looks like the knife now owned by John Musso, a Hollywood art director which has “JB” engraved on it and has been mineral tested and dated to the 1830s.  If course there was no properly credentialed provenance for either so no one knows with absolute certainty that either specific example was Bowie’s own knife (and in fairness, Musso has never claimed that the knife he acquired was, in fact, owned by Jim Bowie).  Both of those knives, however, nearly identical in appearance, were well made while some others claiming to be THE KNIFE were pretty crude by comparison.  It is unlikely that Bowie, who was not poor by any means, would accept a poorly made knife — or anything – much less inscribe it as his own.

We have muddied the water with all this attempt to find THE knife as a sort of historical Holy Grail, but the people of the time knew what a Bowie knife was.  And it scared them so much that in many places they were banned and killing a another man with one, even if the opponent was armed, was a prima facie case of murder.  C’mon now, that has to be some incredible hunk of steel!  Below is Gil Hibbens’ modern handmade copy of one of the better candidates for Bowie’s own knife.

Gil Hibben Bowie is a neaar match for the Collins and Musso found knives, It has a 14

Gil Hibben “Alamo” Bowie is a near match for the Collins and Musso found knives and the knife in the old photo above, It has a 14″ blade with brass blade catcher, sometimes called a “parry bar.” This knife epitomizes the “Texas” style Bowie and many feel it would have been the style of knife Bowie had with him at the Alamo .  The stars on the cross guard were commonly stamped into the weapons of officers in the Texas Army.  Houston or Austin commissioned Bowie as a Colonel and it is known that he did lead men into battle in the Texas war of independence before the Alamo, so the rank was more than an honorary one. On top is an early Buck 110 folding hunter with an obviously Bowie inspired blade. I thought they made a good pair to photograph together.and to provide a sense of scale.

To add to the confusion, although the knife was loosely described a number of times in period newspaper accounts… those accounts vary in details.  Additionally other famous knife makers of the day including Searles of Baton Rouge and Schively of Philadelphia made versions for customers based on tales of “Bowie’s knife” and the English knife makers of Sheffield, who made some of the most sought after cutlery in the U.S. at the time, produced quite a variety of so-called Bowie knives sold in large numbers to frontiersmen of the mid to late 1800s and even early 1900s, some even marked  “Bowie.”

Among the most common styles was a pattern with a shallower but longer clip or “swedge” that extended back of the clip along the spine or back of the blade.  That style is now known as the “I*XL” style Bowie and was incredibly popular, In fact the Sheffield Bowie knives were for a spell England’s second major export item shipping all over the world.

Here below is a more modern adaptation of the I*XL Sheffield pattern.  This knife, made by Schrade with a 12 inch blade is a very strong working knife, extremely sharp yet easy to handle. The tip is inline with the grip axis.  I’ve not seen old examples of double hilt knives (though there may be some) though it is more prevalent in modern knives.  It significantly improves the grip on an already heavy knife. As I noted in the first post, this is a knife I often have lashed to a backpack or otherwise had handy when heading into seriously off-trail areas.This knife will — and has — made short work of making a shelter or a fire.

A Schrade Bowie with 12

A Schrade Bowie with 12″ Shefflield I*XL inspired blade. As a working knife not a fighter there is no brass blade catcher on the spine.  The sub-hilt Micarta grip is a modern addition but it significantly improves handling and control of this heavy working blade.  This is a really serviceable tool but Bowie probably never saw a blade that looked like this.

Another style somewhat between the Hibben and the Shrade/Sheffield styles came after the turn of the century from Cooper knives, one of the oldest continually manufactured custom knives known. Beginning in 1924 Cooper who made incredibly popular knives for outdoorsmen, farmers and ranchers, patented a process to seal the grip and tang to avoid moisture seeping into the spaces and rotting the handles which were often wood and prone to cracking.  Now however a “Cooper Style” knife refers more often to the sealing process than any specific blade design.  Steve Voorhis makes a “Texas/Alamo” style Bowie though with a narrower blade with less of a full “belly” than Hibben’s.  It more closely follows the original Cooper style and as with all of his knives, it is a mirror-finished beauty.

Custom Steve Voorhis Cooper Style Bowie with 13.5

Custom Steve Voorhis Cooper Style Bowie with 13.5″ blade.The mirror finish blade and nickle bolsters and guard are reflecting the perfect blue skies of southern California.  I’d heard of Steve Voorhis’s knives before and this one lives up to his sterling reputation as a master bladesmith.

As an aside, I recently read the opinion of an armchair outdoorsman who waxed poetically about how anyone going into the woods with a knife bigger than a folding knife or small belt knife was a “fool” — his word.  Goodness knows I’ve done some foolish things in my life, of that there is no question.  But I’ve been on my share of survival outings, some lasting several weeks, and I’ve made fires and shelters with little knives and big ones from skinnning knives to machetes and including with that Schrade shown above.  I can assert categorically it was easier and faster to do so with that Schrade.  And if there had been any sense of urgency (weather or medical issue) mandating the need for the fire and shelter quickly, I would far rather have that big Bowie than just my Swiss Army knife or even a small belt hunting/skinning knife.  But that is getting me off track and away from the question at hand…

Old Jim, looking down from that great land office in the sky, must be quite amused.  He was the namesake for arguably the most well-known knife in history and yet, my questioner is quite correct: no one can say with any certainty what it actually looked like.

However there is one blade design that became so associated with the Bowie type that most non-collectors or historians upon seeing it would immediately say was obviously a Bowie knife because they have seen it over and over in the movies and on television playing its role as The Bowie Knife.  In the early 1950s Warner Brothers bought the rights to the recently published book on Bowie’s life by Paul Wellman titled “The Iron Mistress.”  The book is a good read, unflinchingly depicts the sordid side of Bowie’s life by accepting the sensibilities of the early 1800s southern states.  A little more squeamish about things and far more politically correct than the author, and needing more of a love interest for its story arc, Warner Brothers produced a movie of the same name, “The Iron Mistress,” with Alan Ladd as Bowie. They ended the story before his death at the Alamo in order to concentrate on the love(s) of his live using the knife as a backdrop and supporting character.  It was released on 1952.

But THE KNIFE could not be ignored as a major part of any story about Bowie but, as we noted, no one knew for sure what it looked like.  So Warner’s  prop master, Arthur Rhoades and John Beckman, the Art Director, buried themselves in research, studying all they could of period accounts of the weapon as well as seeking out examples of so-called Bowie knifes of the era from private collectors and even the Smithsonian. Phil Collins’s knife had yet to be discovered so there was no actual knife existing in 1951 that claimed to be Bowie’s own.  The closest were copied and recopied patterns from James Black and family, who made the thing in the first place according to most historians, and nearly endless Sheffield versions. Marketed as “like Bowie’s” there were myriad American and British-made Bowie style knives that flooded the various collections.

Many of the Sheffield Bowies, though very well made, had a narrower blade.  They could be sleek and “pretty” (if a tool designed to remove an oppponent’s body parts can be called pretty) and were quite lethal but they didn’t “look” so intimidating.

Here is another example of a derivative pattern from the Sheffield Bowies that is a gorgeous Rosewood handled Damascus steel knife, but despite the fact that it is strong and hair-shaving sharp, it is not all that scary looking.  It is also not a true Bowie knife, it has a clip blade but the clip is not sharpened and the tip is not in perfect alignment with the grip axis.  I did not highlight it in this photo but the back has some custom file work that is decorative but would be a barrier to penetration in a fight.   This is more of a big outdoorsman’s camp/hunting knife than the true Bowie.

A Demascus hammer welded blade, 11

A Damascus hammer welded blade, 11″ in the I*XL sheffield bowie style. Not a true Bowie but a petty blade that takes a wicked edge.

However, for the movies especially, Bowie’s blade needed that intimidation factor… in spades.  Armed with that intensive research and informed by the needs of the viewing public to be awed by “The Knife”  Beckman designed and Rhoades made the “Iron Mistress” knife.  I’ve not read whether or not they ever anticipated the public response to it but it was immediate.   When in the movie Bowie/Ladd picked it up from the maker, Black, and held it up for the camera, it instantly became the iconic Bowie knife for generations of movie goers and old western buffs.  If it was not what Bowie’s knife actually looked like it certainly should be… it had the visceral feel of the knife that made Bowie famous – and infamous as a ruthless duelist known mostly for disemboweling or decapitating opponents with his knife.  His was a knife that when displayed, according to some period accounts, brought several fights to a halt before they even started. Given the alcohol-soaked realities of the frontier, that had to be some knife.

For a moment try to put yourself into the mind of a potential antagonist facing Bowie.  Here was a man whose common reputation was that against all odds he ended deadly bloody knife fights with minimal injuries to himself and maximum injuries to his opponents.  All the papers carried lurid accounts of opponents being disemboweled or beheaded.  Almost every one in those days had been injured at one time or another and knew what it felt like to receive a cut.  But this blade was different

You could imagine that devilish tool raking along an arm or leg or side and parting flesh like a razor, except a lot deeper.  And there you stood with your hunting knife and a blade of maybe 7-9 inches.  Knife fighting was no elegant enterprise like dueling with epees or rapiers.  Knives were and are brutal awful tools with minimal finesse; like dueling with cutlasses or battle axes. And there you are, staring at a man reputed to be adept at carving body parts like a Christmas turkey.

In our modern world we automatically think of a firearm as more deadly than a knife but FBI statistics do not support that idea.  To the contrary, within its range, an edged weapon is statistically far more lethal than a firearm. According to those FBI statistics, 10% of attack victims who are shot will die of their wounds, but 30% that were stabbed will die.  According to Darren Laur, an expert on edged weapons and tactics, in a comprehensive multi-country study, “Knife attacks were found to be exceptionally accurate, to penetrate deeper that some bullets, creating remarkably permanent cavities and rip through numerous organs in one stroke.”

So here then, Bowie’s adversary is facing a person who has been here before as evidenced by, the planted, balanced stance that lets him advance or retreat easily, his knife hand and arm cocked back, the point of his knife never leaves a line to your throat and his eyes never waver from watching for any twitch or movement that will trigger that cocked arm and its cold steel. and that knife… dear God that awful knife… A thought starts down in your toes and quickly infiltrates all the fibers in your body: first it whispers then it silently screams at you that this is a huge mistake and you think of an urgent need to be somewhere — ANYWHERE else.  You did not have to be a coward to size up this unflinching man and his massive blade to think better of going ahead with the fray.

Now here, folks, with the Iron Mistress, is what a Bowie knife should look like.  It met all the design criteria we have come to accept:  the point is in line with axis of the grip for thrusting. It had a sharpened recurved scythe-like clip for “rib tickling” and eliminating the need to turn the knife into a blade edge up position for fighting (though in the movie Bowie/Ladd does needlessly turn the knife main blade up in a fight probably for effect), and a long, thick, heavy blade that could easily chop through muscle and bone.  Rhoade’s version did not have the swell and “belly” of Collins’s find or Hibben’s version (which are probably more accurate), nor did it have the “Spanish Notch” often mentioned in old descriptions of Bowie’s actual knife. But it had its own vicious “look.”

It was not quite as big as those found versions from Collins and Musso (the blade was 11+ inches instead of 14,)  but in the hands of the actor it was designed for, Alan Ladd, who was not a large man himself, it looked plenty big.  And plenty intimidating. (Interestingly the posters and one sheets of the film REDUCED the size of the knife in Ladd’s hand… I’ve never understood why unless to downplay the violent aspects and build up the love interest with Virginia Mayo).  And it still would be more than a match for some punk’s switchblade or balisong in the hands of someone who knew how to use it.

This movie version of the knife was a somewhat brutish, inelegant design that seems purpose built to carve opponents into spaghetti with frightening ease.  The design effect, more pointed cleaver than hunting knife, was softened by giving it a mirror polish.   That prop knife (and its trick special effect siblings) became so associated with the Bowie character that Warner Brothers, whose prop department owned it, used it in several Warner movies featuring Jim Bowie (played by Sterling Hayden and Richard Widmark) and even rented it to Disney for “Davy Crockett” with Kenneth Tobey as Bowie and then to DesiLu studios for the pilot of the TV series about Bowie starring Scott Forbes. It is a trick version of that same knife that opened each episode of the series as it was thrown at and stuck in a doorway. It should be noted that in the movie, Bowie/Ladd throws his knife away leaving it to viewer speculation what he ended up carrying at the Alamo.

Answering a flood of requests, Warner Brothers commissioned a commemorative limited edition of 200 fully functional copies of their now famous contribution to the Bowie lore (which sold out almost immediately) and famous knife makers like Bo Randall, Gil Hibben and Jimmy Lile (first Lile then Hibben made the knives for the Rambo series of films and who claimed their interest in knifemakng came from the Iron Mistress) to Steve Voorhis have made versions of the Iron Mistress that are still in demand.  And since most have accepted that Bowie’s real knife is lost to history, the arguments now have centered on whether the Iron Mistress pattern is good or bad, whether it looks like the real one or not.

So… OK, OK, if we don’t know for sure what the real knife looked like, what does the famous/infamous Iron Mistress look like? I can hear the question filtering through cyber space: “Are you going to quit talking about it and show it to us?”  Alright, since you asked so nicely, I’ll show you…  The knife below is one of that limited edition of 200 knives. Except for lacking the escutcheon plate it is identical to the movie knife and is a fully functional, extremely sharp knife made of 5160 steel.  There are a number of better made versions by custom knifemakers, indeed I have one by Steve Voorhis that is in all ways a superior knife.  But this knife in the photo below is one of the commissioned limited edition knives, so I am please to have it in my collection.

The Iron Mistress. This is 1 of 200 limited edition copies of the knife fromr the Iron Mistress Movie commissioned by Warner Brothers. The edition sold out almost immediately. The knife appeared in 4 moovies and a television series as THE Bowie knife and is what generations of fans think of as the quintessential Bowie knife even though it is probably not exactly what Jim Bowie's famous knife actually looked like. This has a nearly 12

The Iron Mistress. This is 1 of 200 limited edition copies of the knife from the 1952  “Iron Mistress” Movie starring Alan Ladd as Jim Bowie. commissioned by Warner Brothers. The edition sold out almost immediately. The knife appeared in 4 movies and a television series as THE Bowie knife and is what generations of fans think of as the quintessential Bowie knife even though it is probably not exactly what Jim Bowie’s famous knife actually looked like. This has a nearly 12″ blade and is shaving sharp. The blade, like that in the movie, is mirror polished and in this shot is reflecting the clouds overhead.

It may have no resemblance to Bowie’s real knife but nevertheless it remains what, to many people, is the quintessential Bowie knife.  But before it is dismissed entirely as a modern invention, as some modern “experts” are quick to do, log onto Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUFYU3cTm3I for a video on Bowie’s sandbar duel and more data on period Bowie knives.  At 09:39 of that video the camera is panning across a display case of period knives and there in the case, 3rd and 4th knife up from the bottom on the right side of the case, are two spitting images of the Iron Mistress blade design.  HMMMMmmmmmmm…

So to answer the question, while it is true we have no renderings of Bowie’s actual knife and no defendable provenance for found knives that may or may not be his, it remains one of the more interesting mysteries from the early days of the American frontier.  But since large knives were a common adornment of frontiersmen and outdoorsmen throughout the 18th and 19th century, we do know what came to be commonly accepted as a design reflecting Bowie’s knife created circa the late 1820s (The Sandbar fight was in 1827).  The knife he used in that fight was certainly technically a “Bowie knife” since it was made by a family member (Rezin Bowie) and worn by and used by his brother Jim Bowie.  But it was basically a well adorned straight bladed butcher knife (in the early 1800s any large knife was generically referred to as a “butcher knife” regardless of design or actual purpose) and it is possible we actually have that knife or a twin still being displayed. It is very different from what we now call a Bowie Knife.  As his brother’s fame grew, Rezin cashed in on it and had many finely wrought knives of HIS knife’s pattern made and distributed as gifts calling them, accurately, “Bowie’s Knife.”  After all, he was as much a Bowie as Jim was.

But as brother Jim’s legend grew and the concept developed and solidified a very different blade design emerged to lay claim on the “Bowie Knife” title.. Being big did not make it a Bowie; having a clip point did not make it a Bowie, having a sharpened false edge did not make it a Bowie.  It was a unique combination of these characteristics and others that made it a Bowie knife.

It was a large heavy bladed knife (10″-14″ in blade length) but not just any large knife would meet the criteria.  To properly be called a Bowie knife the clip of the blade was 1/3 to over 1/2 of the total blade length and was sharpened, usually showing a recurve (though some examples were more straight), It needed a good thickness (1/4 inch or more).for strength and to avoid breaking against an opponent’s blade but did not rely on a fuller (often misidentified as a “blood groove”) to stiffen and strength the blade, Its tip or point was inline with the grip axis to facilitate thrusting, The balance is slightly forward of the guard to facilitate cutting and chopping strokes and frequently a soft brass bar was soldered or welded to the back of the unsharpened blade starting at the hilt to help slow or parry an opponent’s blade. And it had a cross guard sufficient to protect your hand from an opponent’s blade sliding down your blade during a parry.  This created a knife that was both frontier tool chest AND a deadly fighting weapon sometimes of first resort when your single shot smokepole either misfired or was quickly empty while the enemy was still coming at you. Black claimed the characteristics noted above were an accurate reflection of the knife he made, but that is the only word we have for it.  And we even have others claiming that Black did NOT make the famous knife but some other knife for Bowie.  Good grief…!!!

So whether or not ol’ Col. Jim ever had or even ever saw a knife like that is open to speculation.  But if not, I think he would have loved it and wanted one for his own.  But as to historical accuracy for ANY of these designs, we simply do not know.  All we can do is the best research we can, factor in what we know about the grim business of fighting with knives, and then, like everyone else… guess.

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Posted by on September 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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The Cutting Edge: Part Three – Deadly Blades (with photos)

San Diego — Fascinating…  The world of “blogging” is truly a magical place.  I thought my last entry on sharpening would end this series and i could get back to ranting about this or that.  Ha!  Now I get virtually no hits and less feedback from photo-related stuff, lots of hits from my political rants, but now I’ve gotten some really fascinating emails re this “escape” series (for me) on knives and knife sharpening.  One email asked an interesting question: what did I think was the best knife type?  And another asked which I thought was the best blade design for a fighting knife.  Hmmmm, now the fact I would get those questions is interesting to me.  As i said, I thought the last post would be the end of this discussion but it looks like it is good for one more.

I’ll take the first question first.  Deciding on the best knife requires more data in the question.  Best for what?  Best kitchen knife, best camp knife, best pocket or carry knife?  The answer is, “It depends…”  Don’t you just HATE that answer?

But actually that is the same answer I give for questions about the best camera; it depends on what you want to do with it.  A simple answer is that the best one is the one you have with you when you need it.  Assuming, that is, you take very good care of all of your knives then the truth is that you can do virtually ANYthing with almost any knife… if (and it is a big IF) you (a) know how to use it and (b) it is properly sharpened.

I think a better way to approach it may be to ask what is the most useless knife (apart from the one you left at home)?  For my tastes, the modern switchblades and balisongs are the most useless.  They scare the stuffing out of untrained folks and liberals but as working knives they are not strong enough and as serious fighters, while being flashy to twirl around and look dangerous with, and are quite capable of dealing death in surprise rushes and attacks, they are really no match for an all out fighting knife in the hands of a trained and skilled user.  At least that is my opinion of them.  But that is avoiding the point – uh, so to speak… sometimes I can’t help myself.

If fighting and heavy camp chores are not part of the intended functions for a knife than in my opinion one of the best all around blade designs is a drop point.  It allows for cutting and slicing, is the best skinner since it can easily avoid cutting the tissue beneath the skin, and the unsharpened back makes it easy to grip and control in a variety of ways for a variety of uses.  It is a great general purpose design.

However if those limitations above (fighting and heavy camp use) are actually part of a knife’s intended uses, then that leads us to the next question about the best or most deadly fighting knife design.  If fighting is truly a part of the knife’s uses then it is hard to argue that such use is not the most serious since it is a life-and-death issue.

Do remember, in the hands of a trained fighter, even a box knife can kill you.  For that matter a ballpoint pen can be deadly in the hands of someone who knows how to use it.  In fact, let me start this discussion with some deadly serious advice for you.  If the question was asked in the same vein as asking which camera is best because the questioner thinks the results are totally a product of the tool, and the belief is that if you just have a good fighting knife then you are home free, I have some terrible, ghastly, unpleasant news for you.

You could be armed with a broad sword, but unless you were trained in how to use it, if you were facing a trained fighter with a pocketknife or even a little prison-style homemade shank, they would most likely carve you into spaghetti before you knew what was happening.  Knife fighting is not some genteel duel of honor; it is brutal, bloody, painful business.  The simple box knife noted before can open up an arm to the bone with a single well-executed cut.  (It has to do with tissue compression and trust me, you do not want to see this demonstrated…) If that includes a major artery or vein you are in deep trouble.

Knife fighting is not about little nicks and slices though you might get a bunch of those too.  It is not a case of death by a thousand little cuts, it’s a case of having muscle flayed to the bone, getting your throat slit, your head removed, or being disemboweled all in the blink of an eye.   Knife fighting has moved far away from band-aid territory into the arena of many stitches and a very painful recovery where every time you move some major but sliced muscle you will have an instant reminder of just how stupid that was to get involved.  And that is assuming you survive and have not been killed outright or left to let your human brain analyze all that is happening to you as you bleed out long before help can arrive.

Unless you are used to pain and shock and can control your natural reactions to them, the first time a bad guy carves a slice in a muscle somewhere on your body you will likely be stunned with the pain, want mostly to just throw up, and in most cases be instantly defocused on the fight, refocused on the site of the pain, and therefore out of the fight… and therefore, fair game for whatever the street savages desire to do to you.

Bottom line, and you really need to believe me here: if you are not trained to fight with your knife, and I do not mean reading about techniques or watching them on TV, I mean spending training time with real sparring partners launching real and painful attacks with training weapons, then do not dream of pulling a knife on an attacker who seems to know what they are doing.  And if you do not know enough to be able to judge whether or not they likely know what they are doing then assume the worst and get the hell out of there or they will likely kill you or leave you sort-of alive but very much the worse for wear.  And they will now own your fancy fightin’ blade even if it looked like the perfect Klingon weapon.

So lets just assume this is just an intellectual discussion about a type of tool and not that i am trying to tell you what sort of knife to get so you can go out and do battle with it.

From the ancient Sumerians down to 17th century Europe, various cultures toyed with modifications to their bladed weapons based on materials available and the armor of the enemy.  All of the designs in the hands of trained warriors were very efficient killers.  But other than the exceptions mentioned in the first installment of this series, most of the designs for small blades, that is, knife blades as distinguished from sword blades, fell into very limited categories usually based on a mixture of sword design and the major need to be a multi-functional tool.  Long and short fighting blades alike were designed primarily for either a thrust (light, usually straight blade with a diamond cross section, a needle sharp tip centered on the grip axis and the balance close to the quillion or cross guard); or they were designed for the cut or slice (heavy single edged blade with major curve to the belly and the balance toward the tip), neither of which made for a very efficient working tool.

Masters at Arms had schools all over Europe and in the early Americas teaching ‘gentlemen’ how to use both bladed weapons and firearms since dueling was all the vogue.  But dueling between gentlemen had rules and ‘seconds’ were on the scene to assist their principal as well as to enforce those rules.  Then, as now, when you were attacked by thugs, bandits, street vermin of all types, there were no rules for them to follow except to steal what you had even if it meant killing you because failure for them meant more hunger and hardship.  When you live in a time or place where under the best of circumstances life is hard and painful, you become calloused to it and have little or no thought for what you are inflicting on those who have what you need and are silly enough to prefer to keep it.

Life was extremely hard back then, few of us could survive the life most people had to live.  And many lived on the very edge of survival, barely eking out a precariously thin living by removing goods from others often with little regard for the results.  To kill some apparently (to them) rich gentleman for a scrap of bread was not seen as a problem.

However from the other side of the encounter, it is also important to understand that in the early 19th century in America, suicide was considered a mortal sin.  And allowing yourself to be murdered by not fighting for your own life was considered akin to suicide by the moral perspective of the day.   Plus not fighting to save your family was simply unthinkable. Together, it made life and death fights not all that rare an occurence and one for which you wanted to be prepared.

A firearm would seem a better choice and they did have them. But firearms were expensive, notoriously unreliable, single shot, and often inaccurate (except for expensive hunting rifles and dueling pistols) so a bladed weapon was highly favored as never misfiring and never needing reloading.  But good swords were also very expensive, and they required real training and practice to use efficiently.  Worse, they are less than convenient to carry (and were, in some places, illegal).  So the knife found itself suddenly occupying an interesting niche in the pantheon of weaponry apart from its more utilitarian duties.

Many men in the late 1700s and early 1800s had fought in the War of Independence or the War of 1812 and had also fought against the native Americans in some incredibly brutal up-close-and-personal encounters against a foe truly into pain and endurance, so were not particularly squeamish about a little blood… or a lot of blood for that matter, though it was generally preferably that it was leaking out of someone else.

For anyone who has ever been in a real fight to the death with any sort of weapon, or no weapons for that matter, one thing is crystal clear: the main goal is not to kill the opponent, but to not let the opponent kill you.  Staying alive is what matters most of all.  And to avoid the approbation and reputation that would flow from allowing yourself to be murdered by some scumbag cutthroat, you needed a reliable, efficient, easy to carry and draw defense weapon.

So by the early 1800s, the knife had became a more common go-to weapon for unfriendly social encounters, and was seen increasingly as a specialty weapon and not just a common multi-functional tool you dragged out in desperation after your gun was empty and the bad guys were still coming at you.

Blade makers, blade users, and blade masters all were searching for more efficient designs that would give the users of their techniques and products an edge, so to speak, in a close encounter of the deadly kind.  Into that world stepped the now legendary James T. (Jim) Bowie.

Due to a lack of definitive records, much controversy surrounds both Bowie and the knife that will forever be tied to his name.  But there are enough descriptions about it and enough copies made by the Bowie family blacksmiths and other regional smiths that we know certain criteria.  The common saying of the day was that a true Bowie knife was long enough to be used like a sword, sharp enough to shave with, strong and heavy enough to chop with and wide enough to use as an emergency paddle (in a canoe).

As a defense against some known enemies, in 1827 Jim’s older brother Rezin had made and given to Jim a knife that was typical of the day in that it looked more like a large single edged butcher knife with a fancy grip and slightly thicker blade.  Using that knife against a dedicated opponent who had just shot him twice and run him through with a sword cane, he not only carved up the opponent but carved out the starting of a legend for himself.   While healing from those wounds and thinking about the encounter, Bowie got around to designing his own idea of a good knife.   It had a totally new blade design element that changed knife fighting to this day and that makes it, in my opinion, the best all around fighting knife design ever made: it had a large “clip” point with a false edge that served to lighten the blade.  Clip point or “false edge” designs per se were not new: what he did with his was revolutionary.

That false edge of his design brought the tip down to the center line for better thrusting.  It also had a slight recurve and when sharpened, as it was in all fighting versions of the design, provided a blade that could cut during all parts of a thrust and recovery.  In fact that recurved edge was sometimes called the “rib tickler” though I doubt if someone was laughing when ‘tickled’ by it.  The blade was usually about ¼ inch thick (so it was heavy and strong, balanced toward the tip more like an axe than a typical knife of the time) and the main edge had a deep belly curve that sliced through tissue like a hot knife through butter and designed for saber or cutlass style cuts.

The design proved to be so functional that by varying the blade length, blade thickness,  steel composition and the balance point, it could work as a great camp knife (5-9 inch blades), a good skinning knife (3-5 inches), or, of course, in fighting trim with a 10-14 inch blade (and some examples were 18 inches which made it a short sword more than a knife), was a close quarter weapon capable of delivering wounds only a saber or broad sword could do prior.

Below are two extreme examples of Bowie style blades from little to big.  At the top is a Buck “Folding Hunter” with a 3.75 inch Bowie style “clip” blade.  At the bottom is a custom Gil Hibben copy of an 1830-ish fighting Bowie Knife with a 14 inch blade.  This follows one of the patterns James Black, the maker of Bowie’s knife used for knives “like Bowie’s” although no other documentation exists to show us what that specific knife really looked like. (The problem is that Black and others made many knives for the Bowie clan and which one was THE Bowie knife of legend is open to question; any knife that anyone in the family used could properly be called a Bowie knife.  The one this is modelled on was clearly a fighting knife due to the brass “blade catcher” on the spine and the so-called “Spanish Notch” on the other edge allegedy used to help trap and break another inferior blade.  It is as good a candidate as any.  It would take a knife like this to accomplish the results credited to Bowie and his knife.

Sorry Crocodile Dundee, your blade was cute…  but… THIS is a knife!  Interestingly it was reported that several potential encounters evaporated when Bowie drew his knife so it had to be something pretty special in a day when large knives were common.

Don’t get me wrong, from then till now people have used all manner of knife blades in serious encounters.  From short Italian ‘Stilleto’ styles to Japanese ‘Tantos’; from Indian ‘Kris’ daggers to Arabic ‘Jambiya’ to Gurkha ‘Kukri” blades, knives have brought death in ugly packages.  But people have also been killed with penknives and even sharpened credit cards.  Held properly, a business card can open up a vein. There is almost no edged implement from shovels to scythes, not to mention axes, that cannot and have not been used to deadly purpose.

My own choices were and are dictated by training and mission specifics.  Here are a some examples of knives I carried into harms way to show an almost extreme range:

At top is a Kershaw™ “Amphibian” boot dagger.  Make no mistake, in skilled hands this little knife can be deadly as any, but its forte is extreme speed and surprise.  And it is not really designed to be an offensive fighter.

In the middle is a Spyderco™ folder.  Wicked looking to be sure but its serrated edge is designed more for cutting webbing and cordage than slicing muscle and tendons — though it will certainly do that.

Next is a Colt™ “Rail Splitter” model 4-blade pocketknife.  I bought this to replace an nearly identical one I carried everywhere from highschool to the military where I lost it.  No one would seriously think of this as a weapon (except the TSA and Progressives) but I’ll bet more people have been cut with pocket knives than any other type… of course usually they have managed to cut THEMSELVES being careless rather than cutting someone else.

And at the bottom is my own knife design used on some later missions in the military.  It has a few inches of the spine of its 10-inch sword point blade sharpened for back cuts and smoother penetration.  The balance point of this D2 steel knife is near the grip making the blade feel exceptionally light and fast.  The grip is long enough it can be used like a hand-and-a-half sword to increase the energy of a cut and the pommel is large enough to give you a good grip when withdrawing the blade from whatever it might be stuck in. It does not have the heft and balance so cannot hack like a true Bowie, but it holds a frighteningly sharp edge, is extremely fast, and being light it is easy to pack for long distances as well.  It is, in my opinion, a far better pure fighter than the heavier Bowie; but its weight, balance, composition, thickness, and temper renders it nearly useless for any other function.

And just to round this out to show the versatility of the Bowie-style blade, the next photo is of a so-called “survival knife.”  It has a modified Bowie styled blade and the false edge is not such a deep recurve nor is it sharpened.  Above it is a “Champion” Swiss Army Knife.

The saw-back on this knife actually has proper “double set” teeth so it does really work for sawing small wrist-sized wood (unlike a lot of them) and it also produces excellent tinder from the saw dust.  The original “saw” teeth on early military “survival knives” were not for wood but for escape from the Plexiglas canopies and windows in military aircraft.  I did not expect to have to escape from a downed helicopter once out of the military so I chose one with a practical saw. Some modern “saw backs” are just for show.  Plus, its heavy 9” blade is great for chopping and cutting wood, and the handle contains useful stuff.  Even the sheath contains a very sharp reasonably sized skinning knife.  I wrapped the sheath in 550 paracord and the handle in a lighter cord (you can see peeking out from under the cushion wrap from a tennis racquet) because in the type of survival/emergency situation where you would need a knife like this you never have enough lashing to construct shelters. Another modification of the Bowie designis that the clip or false edge in this knife does not drop the point down to the centerline of the grip for thrusting nor is it sharpened.

Sylvester Stallone’s character, John Rambo made this style of knife (designed by Jimmy Lile for the first two films and then by Gil Hibben) look really cool and deadly, but in fact it is a terrible fighting knife.  The hollow handle eliminates the strength of a full tang construction and the saw back would get tangled and hung up in clothes or tissue and limit both penetration and withdrawal of the blade turning it into only a cutting weapon.  It does its intended job very well but that job is not to be a weapon with which to dispatch enemies but rather a tool with which to make things to keep yourself alive.

The era of Jim Bowie and serious knife fighting lasted only a few years.  He was killed in the Alamo in 1836, the same year Samuel Colt invented the revolver in the form of the “Patterson Colt.”  Within a few short years, firearms, especially handguns, had so improved in reliability, power, and accuracy that the knife once again became relegated to being primarily an important multifunction camp/hunting/survival tool.  Of course there were still knife fights, as there are still knife fights and stabbings today when something better is not readily at hand.  But except for specific military needs such as the KaBar knife for Army and Marines and the British Commando Dagger and its descendant the Sykes-Fairbairn knife, it was no longer a front line weapon.  Yet in many locales, fighting Bowie knives had such a fearsome reputation that they were outlawed for carry long before firearms were banned… and in some places still are.

In today’s urban combat zones the little miscreants on the streets are often armed with various “cool” looking blades that are deadly against unarmed or surprised victims or between combatants using the same types of blades.  Some of the more experienced and hardened among them are ‘trained’ in prison to perform a vicious sudden slashing rush that even with a small blade can be deadly for the unsuspecting victim. (And you thought prison was not educational…)  But a skilled fighter would slice them into lunchmeat with a real fighting Bowie knife having over a foot of additional reach.

In addition to its fighting ability, I think the Bowie design is also a useful general pattern for outdoors and camping use.  The survival knife above is a modified Bowie style as, for that matter, are most survival knives.  In the shot below is a modern Bowie by old time U.S. knife maker, Schrade, following the pattern of many of the Sheffield English Bowies from the mid-1800s and later.  Slightly smaller and thinner than the 1830s Bowie replica above, its 12-inch blade still can reach out farther than a boot knife or even most hunting knives, if fighting becomes necessary.

But surprisingly to some, it really is a good all around camp knife (if weight is not an issue) since it has the heft and chopping ability of a small hatchet to help make firewood or even shelter (on this particular knife the clip is sharpened more like a hatchet and it works well for gathering and splitting small campfire wood); the main edge can cut or slice like a chef’s knife; when handled properly it is a workable, though certainly not perfect skinner; and it can be used make other tools including digging sticks (do not use your precious blade as a shovel, use it to make something you can dig with) and serious weapons like spears.  As a general rule, in non-fighting dress a knife is not designed to be a primary weapon but rather a tool to MAKE primary weapons.

I’ve encountered people on the trail who saw my big knife, usually lashed to a backpack, and snickered or even made some uncharitable comment about me thinking I was Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett (though none have thus far mentioned Jim Bowie which is odd to me; Boone and Crocket and most frontiersmen all carried large knives of unknown patterns, but Bowie was legendary for his).  Truth is I can only wish I had those individuals’ skills in the woods so am flattered by the comparison.

I have no quarrel with those who think they are fully equipped for what emergency and survival preparedness people call SHTF or TEOTWAWKI events with a Swiss Army Knife (I have one too) or a sporty looking paring knife.  The smaller belt knives popular today among hikers can provide a sense of being equipped or even a sense of being “armed” like the frontiersmen and mountain men of old and help create a sense of preparedness and confidence. And they are handy for other things.  Once I saw a poperly bedecked hiker out with his plastic shovel use his little knife to cut some poison oak leaves because he forgot the roll of TP.  No, i didn’t tell him… was that wrong of me?

But on the well laid out trails even in wilderness areas (how can it be a wilderness when there are marked trails running through it???) they have neither the expectation of, nor much if any experience with, serious survival needs.  For an hour-or-so hike on a maintained trail I usually carry a smaller lighter knife too.  They plan on carrying their own little camp stove, and enough trail mix and gorp for an army of squirrels and otherwise are dedicated to eliminating every possible ounce off of what they will carry. I’m glad i am old enough to remember what it was like to sleep on a properly made bough bed: warm and springy.  To avoid damage to a given tree we might take one or two boughs from over a score of trees.  But those days are gone except for in true emergencies.  But in that emergency, not many people have ever been taught how to make a bough bed or a debris hut to stay warm like squirrels in winter, or how to build reflector fires to turn their little lodge into a sort of oven.  Those things take a large knife to construct speedily and easily.

Even if some trouble befalls the modern trekker they seem, based on conversations with some of them, more into endurance testing than being able to live comfortably off of the land; and their modern city-bred sensibilities leave them offended at the thought of a real cooking fire or cutting wood for a shelter, and makes them throw up at the thought of killing and eating Bambi or Thumper for dinner (assuming they could figure out how to skin and butcher the meat… assuming they knew how to capture and kill it… assuming they could start a fire to avoid eating it raw).

They have no need for and would most likely hurt themselves or a friend with a big blade.  But I am not into endurance or testing my tolerance for cold or hunger.  My uncle taught me early on how to use what nature provides to be reasonably comfortable and to prosper even if it is for a short time waiting for help to arrive.  He did that and taught that with the help of a large knife and I am just following suit.  Yes, of course, it is nice to learn where your limits really are, but it is even nicer to have the skill and equipment to never have to get near them or truly test them.

i almost never am out in the woods, mountains, forests, or deserts without some sort of knife.  For a short hike away from a parking lot I most likely will only have a small one though I still prefer belt knives to folders because they are a lot stronger.  Here are some of my smaller knives I might grab for a short hike.

On the left is a damascus steel knife with a semi-Bowie style blade (properly called a “Trailing Point”), made by Colt… yes THAT Colt.  In the middle, to be fair, is a drop point knife made by Smith & Wesson and a terrific skinner. On the right is a knife made by Chicago Cutlery that has a blade very similar to a Russell knife used by the Mountain Men so I liberated it from the kitchen and made the sheath to go with it to wear with my fringed and beaded buckskin finery.

All of these knives have seen use in camp, but not to gather or prepare firewood (except perhaps to make tinder or kindling) or to construct lodging. They do not have enough heft and I guard my honed edges too much for that unless it was a true emergency and I did not have a proper blade along with me.  But on short treks away from the car to capture an image, such a need is most unlikely.  In fact, truth be told, ANY need for a knife at all on such little walks is most unlikely except for an occasional splinter or cactus needle that needs removing.  It is just that I feel undressed without one.

On the right is a shot taken by a student on a photo workshop in Canyonlands in the late 1970s and you can see that beaded sheath from the shjot above hanging on a beaded belt.  Canyonlands is a wild place but you can easily see that at this point, I am not very far from my Land Rover (oh how I would dearly love to have that vehicle back!).  When we explored deeper into the canyons I carried a different (and bigger) knife and some other emergency gear/supplies.

But if I expect to be out for several hours or especially into rough terrain where I or one of my party could be hurt and need to spend the night; I’ll grab one of the bigger ones.  Call me paranoid if you wish; that is OK with me.  But…  I’ve spent enough time in the bush that I’ve been in such situations.  They are not fun.  They are even less fun without good tools.

A true survival situation usually comes on you suddenly: someone slips and falls and you hear the bone snap; one of your party suffers a medical emergency and cannot go on; and with the terrible realization that you are in deep trouble immediately comes a natural but potentially deadly emotional response: panic.  Panic drains energy at a stunning rate.  Even if you know how and are willing to try to start a fire or build a shelter. both enterprises require energy.  And they take a lot more energy if done with a little blade than done with a big one.  Don’t believe that?  Try cutting down a wrist-sized sappling for a shelter ridge pole with your pocket knife.  Of course it can be done, but when the sun is setting, cold is coming on fast and you are still whittling away at the wood, the panic will increase and under the stress you will start to sweat. The sweat and the dampened clothes will turn dangerous for you as the cold increases.  By then you could have a shelter and a nice comforting fire going with a bigger blade that was sharp and that you knew how to use.

So, my personal conclusion is that although I own a number of knives with various blade designs and sizes, and when possible chose one of them based on the task at hand for which that design is most efficient, if I had to pick just one and that pick was the only knife I could ever carry or use for all knife related tasks, it would be a large Bowie type blade.

Actually it would probably be THE one in the shot above since I already have it and it has thus far done all I have asked of it.  The only down side of that specific knife is that it is made of 440 stainless steel which though it takes and holds a great edge, when it finally DOES get dull it would be harder to sharpen properly in the field.

And yes, in photos of me in the outdoors over the years you may note different types and sizes of knives being carried.  All of the photos in this post are of a few of the knives I own.  Consequently I don’t have to rely on just one blade for everything – so I don’t.  Knives are tools.  You ideally pick the right tool for the right job.  Screwdrivers are tools too but you do not choose a Phillips screwdriver when you need a flat blade or a Torx™.  Same with knives.

But that was not the question…

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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The Cutting Edge… Part Two: Putting an Edge on the Edge

San Diego –OK, here is part two; the “how to sharpen” segment that was supposed to be in the first part before i got off track…

There are those who will happily tell you of their expertise in this topic, i.e. sharpening knives.  I’m not one of them.  I claim no special expertise because it truly is not magic.  But I do like to have all of my edged instruments appropriately very sharp based on their functions.  And I do know how to make that happen, thanks, not to any intuitively masculine insight, or having served as a novitiate under an inscrutable master of the blade, but rather to the help and guidance of some people that have crossed my path who truly were experts at it.

A number of dinner guests have commented on the sharpness of the knives and asked where I get them sharpened.  When I tell them I do it myself on my workbench I often get requests to show them how or even to do it for them.  I will happily take one of their knives and show them how so they can then sharpen their own knives.  And it is easy if a little time consuming.  But since you pay a good price for good knives, it only makes sense that you would want to keep them doing what they were designed to do…cut well.

There is neither time nor space here to get into the details of why different tools need different types of steel, varying degrees of sharpness, and different sharpening bevel angles based on the need for cutting power versus edge durability. Harder steels can take a sharper edge and hold it longer (though they are harder to sharpen in the first place) but with hardness come brittleness and a very fine edge of very hard steel is easy to nick and damage.  Softer, higher carbon steel sharpens more easily but has to be kept free of rust and it wears faster.  You decide what works best for your own needs.  There are lots of web pages devoted to providing this information so you can make an informed decision.

In terms of bevel, surely it is obvious that a true razor’s thin edge would not last very long on an axe used to chop and split wood.  There is some confusion by many over the terms “razor sharp” and “shaving sharp.”  Any edged implement from an axe to a filet knife can be made sharp enough to shave hair and therefore be “shaving sharp” but only a razor truly benefits from the extremely thin angles of grind suitable to a device that ONLY exists to shave hair (picture a razor blade here).

For all edged devices however, the sharpness is a function of how thin the material is at the very point of where the sides meet.  But how well they perform their job depends not only on their being sharp, i.e. the cutting edge coming together to form a very fine point, but on the type of angle created to make that point.

For a long time hollow ground edges were considered among the sharpest because the two concave sides created a very fine cutting edge.  Some knife makers made an advertising campaign out of it.  And yes, it is a very sharp edge.  But that shape not only creates a very vulnerable point unless the material is very hard, it also creates a lot of friction and drag as it cuts because of the way it forces the tissue being cut to expand.

So in use, the hollow ground edge sometimes seems to be duller than it actually is.  Consequently, at least at the cutting edge itself, most modern experts to not seek to create a hollow ground edge although some knife designers use it on the central blade to reduce weight and actually strengthen the blade like a giant ‘fuller’ (often mistakenly called a “blood groove”) but then allow it to thicken out toward the edge for proper sharpening.

Most good blade sharpeners these days use either a flat ground edge or a convex ground edge, the latter being the one experts strive for as the sharpest, longest lasting, and providing the best cutting power, but which can only be done consistently and properly using a flexible belt sharpener (more on this later).  Sharpening using a set of stones produces a flat ground edge, though many experts simulate a convex edge by creating a multiple angle flat grind.

The key to sharpening anything is to keep the angle of grind absolutely constant through the entire process.  In all cases, the process follows a standard workflow:  (a) Define the edge, (b) create the burr, (c) remove or align the burr, and (d) polish the edge.  In, practice although one may go through 3-5 or 6 grits of stone or abrasive, is a three part process:

(1) Define the edge,

(2) Sharpen the edge, then

(3) Polish the edge.

Step one is the most destructive and is done only when absolutely necessary due to blade damage or abuse.  It ends up removing a lot of material and over time thins the blade.  A new knife has the edge already defined and unless you want to repurpose it, if you keep it sharp and do not damage or abuse it, keeping it sharp does not remove very much material.  It is so much easier to keep a knife sharp than to sharpen a dull one!

Defining the edge is done with a very coarse stone such as a carborundum or course abrasive stone of about 80 grit, or sometimes, if a lot of work is needed, even a file.  I know the mere mention of a file will set modern blade experts’ teeth on edge but I can tell you from experience that farmers and outdoors people have used them to quickly redefine an edge or to remove material when an tool’s edge was seriously nicked.  But like subsequent steps, great care must be taken to maintain the angle of the edge and not to rock the stone or file.

Most experts will advise you to NEVER use a power grinding wheel unless you have LOTS of experience with it.  There are VERY good reasons for the advice.  Not only will it completely ruin an edge shape in micro-seconds if you slip, but, and as importantly, it heats the fine edge so rapidly that you can destroy the temper.

With care, experience, a good eye for angles, and an extremely steady hand, you can do the edge defining freehand.  But the best thing is to use a sharpening angle guide to maintain the angle.   Most people have a very hard time not rocking the blade during a sharpening stroke and that is the major cause for problems and lots of effort being put into creating very unsharp knives.

To make explanations of the process simple, lets start first with a simple flat ground edge.  If you only learn to do this and keep the knife sharp it will be shaving sharp and quite good for most uses: better, in fact, than you may have ever been used to.

The precise angle/bevel is different for different types of knives.  For heavier outdoors, camping, ‘hunting’ and general purpose knives the normal angle is about 25 degrees on a side.  This creates a strong edge that will stand up to cutting and light chopping of wood and rope or whatever is needed.  Kitchen knives are often set at 15 to 20 degrees on a side and specialty knives like filet knives or skinning knives, if the steel will allow it, might be as shallow as 10-15 degrees on a side.  Just remember, while the thinner blades are sharper, that thin grind has weakened the edge and leaves it far more vulnerable to damage.  So while you could create such an edge on anything, it is generally relegated to blades that are only expected to cut into soft items.

And remember too; if you are changing the sharpening angle of a blade from what it was previously to a thinner angle then you are (re)defining the edge and have to remove some material from the main portion of the blade itself and not just around the edge.  And in doing so you are committing that knife to the sort of service appropriate to that blade and edge configuration.  Also remember that a very sharp knife of any type will cut you with virtually no effort or pressure applied so learn to handle them correctly and safely.

So what do you need to sharpen your knives?  You can do it with a good set of sharpening stones ranging from coarse to medium to hard; or you can purchase one of several sharpening aides or even sharpening devices.  All of them work; but a blade, even a newly sharpened one, is only as good and durable as you treat it so if you are not willing to learn to treat your knives properly you probably need some device to let you make easier work of the constant sharpening you will have to be doing.  More on this at the end.

OK, let’s get started.  Recall the process work flow from above.  All of the steps are done almost identically; the difference being in the progression from a coarser stone or abrasive to ones that are very fine and hard.  So back to step one.

Using the proper angle, stroke the stone, pushing the blade forward on the stone as if you were slicing off a piece of stone.  To do it properly the stone should be at least as long as the blade of the knife.  If the blade is VERY dull or you need to remove some nasty nicks then give it 5-10 strokes on a side then turn over for the same number of strokes so you can keep the bevel even.

WATER OR OIL OR DRY?  This is as good a place as any to insert the controversy about using lubricants on the stone.  The general wisdom for centuries was that using oil or water on a stone helped to float the debris from the grinding away and this is true.  But left to sit it also clogs the stone so after use it needs to be cleaned and dried.  A lot of modern experts prefer water but old timers still swear by oil.  Once you have oiled a stone it is now a committed oil stone.  Clean them with paint thinner, let that dry, then put the stone away where it is protected from dust and such than can settle on the surface.

However… one of the worlds leading experts on edged weapons and sharpening swears that his tests prove a dry stone cuts faster and cleaner although the stone does need to be kept free of the debris by brushing during the process.  I have tried them all and you know what? They all work.  The key is in maintaining the cutting angle and keeping the stone clean far more than what type of lubricant, if any, you use.

As the two edges of the bevel start getting close enough to meet at a point, cut back to 2-3 strokes then check for the creation of a burr by running a finger from the flat of the blade toward the edge on the opposite side from the side being honed.  This burr is a thin crest or wire of steel created as the two edges meet and is a sign that the bevel is at a true point.  It will appear on the side opposite of the one being honed.

Turn the knife over and give it another 2-3 strokes.  The burr should now be on the opposite side.  Check to make sure.  Now flip the blade again and lightly give it a stroke to remove the burr.

ABOUT THE BURR… Creating the burr is a necessary part of sharpening.  If it does not form it means the two bevels have not met at a point.  But there are two opposing schools of thought as to what the sharpener should then do with it.

There are those who believe that you ought to make use of it.  On the final honing strokes they advocate drawing the blade across the stone away from the edge to actually align the burr with the centerline of the blade.  The result truly is, for a moment, an incredibly sharp, micro-serrated edge.  With it you can shave enough patches on your arm to look like you have an acute case of mange.

But when you do any serious cutting or chopping, that incredibly fine burr simply folds over and, in effect, dulls the edge.  To blow away onlookers by shaving slivers from the edge of a paper towel or creating paper thin slices of tomato, use and polish the burr for a scalpel sharp but incredible vulnerable edge. 

But for serious use of a knife the majority of expert knife sharpeners work to eliminate the burr and then polish the real edge to a very fine, smooth point.  That is nearly as sharp and it lasts a lot longer.

OK, back to the process…

If you looked at the blade under some magnification it would look like it was serrated from the grit of the coarse grinding stone.  The next step is to remove those serrations.  If the edge did not need redefining, you would be doing exactly the same with a finer stone but the serrations would be finer.

Now go to a medium grit stone or abrasive of around 200-300 grit. And do exactly what you did to define the edge.  This second step is really the sharpening step. Same angle, same approach though some recommend now using a circular motion on the stone to help polish away the scratches from the coarser stone.  You will see the coarser “scratches” start to disappear into finer ones.  Once again when you have raised a noticeable burr.  Now use the slicing stroke and by use increasingly lighter alternating strokes remove the burr.

And now go to the even finer, harder stones finishing with a hard ceramic stone, doing with each precisely what you did from the first and making sure the angle of blade to stone remains constant.  When you have finished with a hard ceramic stone or a 6000 grit abrasive, you will have a mirror polished edge that will shave with the best of them but also have a useable edge.

This has created a flat grind edge and is the most common and easy to produce edge.  It can be very sharp but has a few drawbacks.  It does not wear as fast as a concave edge but it does still wear under normal use.  And as it wears, the resulting sharpening requires you to subtly but continually redefine the edge and wear down the blade.  So many knife sharpeners who use stones in their work, use a multi-angle bevel.  It is very similar to the flat grind in approach and work but adds some steps.

First it starts with a much thinner grind, say up to 5 degrees thinner to create the initial bevel or what is sometimes called the “relief” of the blade.  This does not have to be ground to a burr but it has to come very close and it needs to be finished as if it were the final edge unless you do not mind the rough look of the coarser stones.

When the relief has been formed, now increase the angle up to 5 degrees and, starting with the coarse stone and working through to the final polishing stone, create a new but very small primary cutting edge; creating then removing the burr.  Because it is not quite so thin it will last longer and it can be rehoned quite a few times before the relief bevel needs to be reground.  Additionally, the now slightly convex shape tends to cut through meat with less friction and resistance than the concave grind or even the flat grind so it seems to be even sharper than it is.

Because of this some really serious sharpening addicts use a three step bevel but you need really very good and precise angle guides to do this.  And you can see where this is headed: based on the additive quality of this increasingly convex edge shape, the ideal is a truly smooth convex grind.

I’ve read that some experts claim they can do this on flat stones with demanding control but I confess I cannot do it and end up just dulling the blades.  Multi-angle I can do but smooth convex is something my old hands cannot properly control. And the truth is, the professionals who adopt this approach don’t try either except perhaps to blow away the apprentices.  What they use is a flexible belt sharpener.  With the proper spring tension on the belt there is just enough “give” to allow for a controlled convex edge all the way from coarser abrasives down to polishing belts.  Finished off with a light touch from a cotton polishing/buffing wheel and this creates a stunning edge that is longer lasting than the others and cuts more easily as well.

Of course, all edges wear and need attention.  Keeping the knife sharp by simply repolishing the edge after use will keep it sharp a very long time before you need to actually resharpen it.  But normal cutting chores are not all that work to degrade the edges on your knives.   You can prolong the need to resharpen them by paying attention to these care tips.

Cutting on hard surfaces will dull a knife faster than nearly anything else so always, ALWAYS use a chopping/cutting block or board.  Obviously the dining table “steak” knives are always used against the ceramic plates to they need the most constant attention of all if you want to keep them sharp.  And believe me dinner guests will notice and comment when their steak knife cuts the meat like a hot butter knife through whipped butter.

Do not – repeat – DO NOT wash them in a dish washer.  Setting aside the damage to wood handles, it would take up a lot of space for a complete explanation so please, just trust me here, hand wash the knives in mild detergent, rinse thoroughly and then proceed as below to store them.

Cutting acidic foods like tomatoes will degrade a fine edge so be sure to wash the blade off with hot soapy water, rinse well and dry with a towel before putting them away.

And when you put them away do not just toss them in a drawer full of knives!     First, after cleaning and drying use a paper towel and apply a very light coating of cooking oil to the blade to hold back rust.  Yes, even stainless blades will get micro rust particles on the very edge and start to dull just sitting there minding their own business.  Some people advise against using cooking oil since if it sits long enough it can go rancid and smell.  My knives do not sit long enough for that to happen and since they are washed before and after use that fear has never come true for me.  If you use something other than cooking oil (honing oil, light machine oil like 3-in-One™ is good), you need to make VERY sure it is all washed off before you use the knife to cut food.

Then put the knives into a block.  If they must go in a drawer, at least protect them with the cardboard “sheath” they came with.

SHARPENING APPLIANCES:  Finally a quick word about knife sharpening appliances, especially those that basically make all of the decisions for you.  I have used a lot of them in an attempt to find something to recommend to friends who seem unwilling or unable to properly sharpen their knives using whet stones.  Nearly all of them will produce a serviceable edge of you use them exactly as instructed and all of them are better than nothing.  I have a few of them stashed around such as in my car, motor home, backpack, etc. for quick in-the-field touch ups.  Some are better than others but none of them will produce the quality of edge that you can get yourself if you are willing to take the time and learn to do it right.

And I have to mention that ubiquitous kitchen device, the steel.  Those are designed to be used by butchers to quickly straighten out and realign little areas of rolled over edge that hit bone or something dense.  They are to keep the blade going a little longer and not… NOT… sharpening devices.  And unless you can hold a perfect angle of blade to steel you will do far more damage to your blade than good using one.  Leave that to the people who know how, and when, to use it.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Something New On The Cutting Edge… So To Speak

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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