A damascus folder seen at the 2008 ABS Hammer-In.
A High-quality Muzzleloader
Deserves a High-performance Knife
by Dean Mitchell
ing materials. The makers of that time made handles from local
Part one: background and preparation materials. A knifemaker on the coast might use driftwood. In the
east, antler, cherry, walnut, and even ivory was available. In
During the 1985 muzzleloader season I was on a hunt with a Alaska, oosic, walrus tusk, and hardwoods were beautiful
friend. We harvested two nice bucks. As the deer were field choices. In Texas there are mesquite and Osage orange, as well
dressed one knife after another lost its cutting ability. Near the as horn and antler. In Oklahoma there was the plentiful prairie
end of the operation, we used my knife. It was made by a sod. Though abundant, utilitarian, and cost effective, Oklahoma
renowned company, very well sharpened, and the only carbon prairie sod never proved to be a popular handle material. Okla-
steel knife in use. Its edge went dull when it split the ribcage. homa makers often had to import handle material.
After the hunt it was stored and never carried again. In the latter part of 1986, a friend happened upon a reprinted
A few months later, for the customary token coin, a close knife article written by Ken Warner in 1966. It was about knife
friend traded me a lock back pocket knife made by another well makers who handmade fine knives that functioned. That story
known company. Its stainless blade was rather hard to sharpen, changed this writer’s life. There was no excess money in the fam-
and yet would get dull quickly. Different edge sharpening angles ily bank account to play with, and work prevented any attempt to
were tried, all to no avail. The straw that broke the camel’s back take off to visit and learn from a maker. Research revealed the
happened one very frigid winter morning. The knife slipped from phone number of a well known maker named in Mr. Warner’s
a gloved hand and dropped from high atop a scaffold. When the story. I had expected merely to be brushed off, since this was not
knife hit the concrete pad below, the blade shattered in two. a call from a paying customer. However, just the opposite hap-
After this, I began a personal search for a dependable knife pened. Mr. Bill Moran talked as if we were old friends. In a relaxed
that would hold an edge, sharpen easily, and fit the hand. A and patient way he answered the questions over the phone, and
USMC K-Bar very nearly fit the bill. Its 1095 carbon steel blade he freely shared ideas and advice. He gave me information about
did what a knife is supposed to do. It cut, and cut, and cut and The American Bladesmith Society and other resources.
when the edge dulled, it could be sharpened on a handy rock In short order a shop-made forge and anvil were set up
if necessary. However, it was a bit large for everyday carry, in the back of the barn. My occupation required travel to
and eyebrows tended to shoot skyward when I forgot to re- different parts of Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, Kansas,
move it before Sunday School. and Colorado. This proved to be an excellent way to ac-
At this time, some twenty-five years ago, we lived in very quire old used and abused blacksmith tools. Other tools,
rural Oklahoma, on a farm. The nearest town had a population grinders, sanders, and buffers, were shop made from any-
of forty-seven. There was no Internet, and most of the infor- thing that could be scrounged. The ABS took me into the
mation about knives was in random short stories in gun publi- fold as an apprentice maker. I wore out copies of the Foxfire
cations. In those days there were few suppliers of knife mak- book with Hershel House blacksmithing by reading it so
February 2010 39
Camp Bowie by Brion Tomberlin email@example.com
many times. I practically memorized issues of Blade Maga-
zine, Muzzle Blasts, and the Dixie Gun Works catalog.
In the fall of 1989 I went to the shop of Mr. Jerry Fisk. The
goal was to take the ABS Journeyman Smith performance test.
Mr. Fisk was already one of the movers and shakers of the
Camp Bowie by Jim Crowell firstname.lastname@example.org
American Bladesmith Society. He was always ahead of the
curve. When a person passed his review, there was no doubt
as to the functional quality of the test blade.
In this test the applicant must submit the knife to the Mas-
ter Smith for his approval. The carbon steel blade must be
Brion Tomberlin Jim Crowell
40 Muzzle Blasts
Damascus Bowie by Steve Dunn www.stevedunnknives.com
forged and heat treated by the applicant. Most of the appli- This is the first half of the Journeyman Smith rating test.
cants make a Bowie-style camp knife with a ten-inch blade. If The second part requires that five knives be reviewed by a
the Master Smith requires, the applicant must forge a blade to board of judges at the annual ABS meeting at the Atlanta,
a given size and shape. Once the test starts, the test knife edge Georgia BLADE Show. The knives are judged for fit, finish,
can not be touched up or stropped. and design.
The first phase of the test is to chop completely through a After passing this performance test, several Master Smiths
TREATED pine 2x4 (knots included) at least twice, using only gave this new Journeyman Smith some very valuable advice.
a three-inch section of the blade. The Master Smith may re- After all these years they can not be quoted verbatim, but the
quire additional 2x4’s be chopped in two. If the edge dulls, main ideas are these:
chips, rolls, or is incapable of shaving dry hair, the applicant
fails. If the blade passes the chopping, the rope test is next.
The second phase of the performance test is to completely
sever the bottom three inches from a free hanging (no weight on
the bottom) one-inch diameter manila rope, with one stroke. This
part of the test proves that the knife edge is still sharp and will bite
and cut aggressively. There is a mental side to this test too, if the
applicant is not confident in the cutting ability of the blade,
chances are that the knife will fail to make the cut. As in the
chopping test, if the blade shows any flaws, the applicant fails.
The last requirement is the ninety-degree flex test. The edge is
ground off of the test knife for safety. The point two inches of the
knife is secured in a vise, and the applicant must flex the blade to
90 degrees and hold it there for thirty seconds. The blade should
return to almost straight when the pressure is released. The edge
can crack, but the blade can not break. This test shows that the
apprentice can apply a heat treatment that results in a hard and
tough edge, springy center, and a tough spine. Steve Dunn
February 2010 41
Damascus Folder by Harvey Dean email@example.com
1) A handmade knife should be better than a factory knife in
fit, finish, and performance.
2) The historic smith would not be in business long if his
work was shoddy. People depended on edged implements as
much or more than on firearms. Look at historic edged weap-
ons: they were high quality. Any smith who could repair a gun
lock would be able to make his knives with equal skill.
3) Buffing to achieve a quick finish or to hide flaws only
makes the knife look worse. A hand rubbed or polished finish
(like Japanese weapons) leaves clean lines.
4) If one wishes to make period knives, look at originals.
Form followed function. Edged weapons evolved over time.
Poor design or poor performance died with the user.
5) ABS Master Smith Daniel Winkler makes perhaps the
best “antiqued” period knives. When one looks at a Winkler
knife, the craftsmanship and quality shine through the aged
finish and flavor.
6) In 1987 Al Pendray began casting Wootz ingots, and
forged them into Oriental Damascus blades. In 1990 Mr.
Pendray used a reducing atmosphere in the forge to produce
forgings with large, conglomerate, planar assemblies of ce- Harvey Dean
Vernon C. Davis & Co. has been sold to Stonewall Creek
Outfitters which is owned and operated by Troy & Shannon
Roope. We will be open to any suggestions and comments that
Join the National Muzzle Loading
would help us serve you in the future. You can contact us at 434-
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42 Muzzle Blasts
Dog Bone Bowie by Steve Culver www.culverart.com
Steve Culver (left) verse twisted, stacked, and re-welded, and then wrapped
mentite. He has finally solved the mystery of the Wootz Dam- within a folded steel band. The process resulted in a near
ascus steel forgings. duplication of the pattern revealed by the raidographed re-
Note: India was the pre-eminent iron and steel maker of the mains inside of the sword sheath. The sword was interred
ancient world. Wootz steel was made from 200 BC to 600 AD. over 1000 years ago along with Sutton Hoo’s artifacts in an
The carbon content in samples runs from 1.23% to 1.7%! Pat- eighty-foot-long ship.
tern welded damascus dates to 400 - 700 BC. Carburization of I passed the ABS Journeyman test in 1992. Two years
wrought iron and layer welding combined with manipulations later I passed the Master Smith performance test with a
gave different patterns. The Vikings and Merovingian Franks 320-layer pattern welded Damascus blade, and then suc-
are thought to have developed these weapons first. cessfully attained the Master Smith rating after my work
7) In 1990, Scott Lankton replicated the beautiful Dam- was judged in Atlanta that same year.
ascus sword of the Saxon Sutton Hoo. The complicated forg- In the past fifteen years there have been many ad-
ing sequence required multiple rods being twisted and re- vances in the knife world. The Internet can be a mine of
information. Unfortunately, it can also be a cesspool of
disinformation. It is up to the user to sift. For those who
seek knowledge about beginning knife making, I believe
that it is wise to search out a maker whose goal is to make
the best knives possible and who will share his knowl-
The Author cuts six water bottles in one stroke, after chopping through
February 2010 43
Wayne Goddard has written two books that have helped
launch many knife makers on the right path. The $50.00 Knife
Shop, and The Wonder of Knifemaking provide information in
an easy to understand format and will help a beginner grasp
the basics of making a high performance knife with looks to
match. Mr. Goddard’s explanations and formulas for heat treat-
ing will be an asset for those that wish to make steel tools,
springs, frizzens, and strikers.
If you seek the most reliable teaching in person, join the
American Bladesmith Society (www.americanbladesmith
society.com). To sample the information and teachers, attend
an ABS Spring or Fall Hammer-In at Old Washington, Arkan-
sas. The cutting competitions at the Hammer-Ins are outright
Every knife maker has gleaned from others. After all, there
is nothing new under the sun. Each maker uses what works
best for him. As a new maker, read how-to books, make notes,
and start having fun. Go back later and check your notes. You
may find something that works better.
Make a Wayne Goddard “one knife forge” and carry it to
camp. Making a high performance knife that looks great while
in camp is awesome!
In the world of buckskinners, reenactors, hunters, and pa-
per punchers, most do not favor a shiny, buffed, stainless steel
knife. On the firing line at The Greenwood Longrifles match in
Brazoria, Texas you can bet dollars to doughnuts that a shiny
Jerry Larison severs a free hanging loop of one inch rope after chop-
knife will be sawing patch material halfway through the match. ping four two-by-fours and cutting five water bottles.
Some of these knives will have to be sharpened twice during
the match. A patch that is pulled sideways during cutting, or A fine rifle deserves cutlery of equal quality. Stay tuned in
not cut concentrically could affect accuracy. (This could be the coming months as we take you through a series of articles
another test for the Bevel Brothers.) dealing with knives of this quality. MB
44 Muzzle Blasts