Awww geeze, not another blog!

Welcome to A Fine Blade!

This blog will focus one of my lifelong passions and one of man's most basic tools - the knife!

As time and events permit we'll tiptoe into other territory where we can use the knife as a metaphor in discussions about current events and have a little politically incorrect fun.

Because you see, knives rank just below guns as the most politically incorrect subject on the web today.

Guns & Knives = Bad. Gay Marriage & Recreational Drug Use = Good

We'll see if we can't have some fun with that.

So stay tuned, and welcome aboard!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Knives For An Empire

For most of the 19th and early 20th Century the British knifemakers of Sheffield dominated the cutlery trade. The British steel making industry developed and matured fairly early.  The English were making production lots of blister and crucible steel well before the Bessemer Process was invented in the 1850s, and a robust cutlery industry developed to take advantage of the high quality steel being produced.

It helped that English knifemakers had a ready worldwide market - the British Empire and an eager American market that could not be satisfied (yet) by the fledgling US cutlery industry.

The cutlers of Sheffield produced some of the finest knives ever seen, and their products were always in high demand even after cutlery manufacturing in the US and Germany (Solingen) matured in the late 1800s.  The blade stamp 'Sheffield' was a hallmark of quality as much as it was a mark of origin.

Much of the work was piecework, with the manufacturing steps divided into forging, grinding, assembly, fitting and polishing.  The bladesmiths, grinders and assemblers were skilled tradesmen who often worked as independent contractors to large production houses.  They served up to seven year apprenticeships and were masters of their crafts.

This film shows the steps involved in making a folding blade knife.  I believe it was filmed in Sheffield right after WWII based on some visual clues I noted while watching it.  It is a historical record of a process that, I'm sure, has long since died away - that of the individual cutler producing a product under the old piecework system.  The sound isn't too good but the narration is an important part of the story, so turn it up and listen closely!

Alas, cutlery production died off quickly in Sheffield during WWI.  The reason was frighteningly simple - most of the cutlers, the cream of British knifemaking, were inducted into the hometown army regiments that pulled members from the Sheffield region.  These regiments were fed into the battlefield slaughter at places like The Somme and almost overnight an entire generation of master cutlers was wiped out.  Sheffield never recovered.

Sheffield remained an important cutlery production center, but the loss of trained personnel meant greatly reduced production and Sheffield started to lose its market share.  The American cutlery industry raced to fill the market void and never looked back.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Is That a Knife In Your Pocket Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?

They say the best knife for the job is the one you have with you.  There's a lot of truth in that statement.  However, it also helps if you make sure what you are carrying is a truly useful design.  So we'll kick off today's discussion with the concept of the Every Day Carry (EDC) knife.

Like many of you I am very restricted as to what I can carry with me at work.  In fact it's a fair bet that my employer doesn't want me carrying anything with an edge on it.  And yet, a knife is still needed for the myriad of cubicle combat chores that pop up every day - slicing open boxes, cutting string, cutting packaging tape, slicing up a Subway sandwich. Heck, I even had a co-worker ask to borrow my knife to cut a donut in half.  In the theater of cubicle combat a blade has to be versatile and ready for any high risk operation.

But in this environment it helps if the knife doesn't look like a knife, or at least looks friendly, comforting and earth-friendly.  No big honkin' tanto-style folders with skulls and crossbones etched on the blade.  That's too upsetting and it tends to trigger the Political Correctness Violation Alert System (PCVAS) that is hard wired into the building I work in. Instead, something you'd find in the pocket of an Earth First tree hugging terrorist would be just fine.

I've found that a traditional 3-bladed pocket knife meets all of my EDC requirements without triggering the PCVAS.  It helps if the handles are made of stag or bone.  Although those materials can trigger the PCVAS (after all, something had to die to provide me those handles), they make the knife look old-timey and non-threatening, almost comforting.  As one full-time PCVAS monitor at my office recently commented as I was slicing open a particularly defiant banana, "Cool, my grandpa used to have a knife like that!"

I've found you can also mute the PCVAS alarm by observing that any other handle material would necessarily be made of a petroleum-based plastic.  Since we are a Green workplace any petroleum-based products would count against our carbon footprint. And besides, nobody intentionally killed the animals that provided the bone or stag for the handles. They lived in a PETA approved and monitored free range game preserve and died of old age in a loving hospice environment, surrounded by Greenpeace communicants, Yanni music and evergreen scented candles.  Their body parts were harvested as specifically directed in their living wills and the profits from the sale of said body parts were put directly towards research into the medicinal uses of hemp.

So you see dear reader, carrying a stag or bone handled pocket knife is actually a very Green activity!

For the past 25 years or so I've been toting a sweet little three bladed stockman-pattern knife made by Schrade Cutlery under the Uncle Henry brand name.

Schrade Cutlery Uncle Henry Model 897 Stockman
The classic stockman-pattern pocket knife

This knife is, in my opinion, the finest example of a stockman-pattern knife ever produced by a volume knifemaker.  The blade sizes, styles and grinds are perfect, the fit and finish of the knife is first rate and it rides very comfortably in the pocket.  It has an excellent 'walk and talk'; the blades snap open and closed smoothly and with just the right amount of tension.  It is the example against which I evaluate all other stockman-pattern knives.  Many are found wanting.

I call this my 'lost and found' knife.  Although I've owned it for some 25 years I've only known where it is for about half that time.  I'd drop it in a jacket pocket, in a backpack pouch, in a fishing bag or in a duffle bag and forget where it was.  Weeks, months or, in one spectacular fit of forgetfulness, half a decade later I'd find it where I left it.  It was always waiting patiently for me to rediscover just what a great little knife it is.  It is also one of the cleanest knives on the planet; Roberta reports washing it at least a few dozen times (I'm not real good about emptying my pockets before dropping something into the laundry basket).

Sadly, Schrade Cutlery went bankrupt in 2004 and production of this fine knife ended. When I figured this out recently I panicked. What if I lost this knife again? What if the TSA came to my house and confiscated it as a preemptive measure? What if the PCVAS monitors caught me at work and confiscated it for doing battle with mailing envelopes and bailing twine? What if... Oh hell, what if I simply lost it?  Again?  I had to find a suitable replacement!  But could anything measure up to my beloved Uncle Henry?

Well I'm happy to report that the answer is a resounding, yet somewhat troubling, yes! The search for a replacement took me from knife maker to knife maker and included a trip to the 2011 Blade Show in Atlanta, a visit to one of the quirkiest yet fascinating knife dealers on the east coast (more about that later), to in-person visits to the 800 pound gorillas of outdoor retail - Cabela's and Bass Pro, to local hardware stores, surplus stores and even to WallyWorld. Along the way I discovered some really great knives like the Case blue bone stockman.

Case Model 6318 Stockman 

Lordy, that's a beautiful knife.  Case pocket knives sparkle like Christmas!  It's just too damned nice to drop into a pocket full of keys, loose change and the other debris of life I end up carrying.

The Buck 300 series of folders looked promising.  From a distance.

Buck Model 303 Cadet

Now, I love Buck knives and own a fair number of them, but Buck really can't make a decent multi-blade pocket folder at any price. Buck seems to follow the Soviet model of pocket knife design and execution - build 'em big and heavy and square and make 'em as aesthetically pleasing as a T-34 tank.  Sure the knife rates high on the utilitarian scale, but so does a 5lb sledge hammer.

Moving on...

Next I thought I'd give one of the Victorinox Swiss Army knives another look. The Swiss make good knives, and the Victorinox brand are the best of the best. Not only that, these knives held great potential to earn me brownie points from the PCVAS monitors. After all, Swiss Army knives are made in (wait for it)... Switzerland!  Yes!  The land of entrenched neutrality, the Red Cross, golden alpine meadows, pampered cows and, let's not forget, where half of the population speaks French!

I've got several possible candidates in my accumulation. (I hesitate to call it a collection. The term 'collection' implies direction and purpose. I ain't got any of that.)  One of my long time favorites is the Pioneer model.

Victorinox Pioneer

While a great knife, and one I would certainly choose if I was back in uniform again, it is a bit too bulky and has too many tools that don't serve any purpose in cubicle combat.  Now that Vienna sausage cans have pull tops there's not much need for a can opener and since they've canceled the lunchtime leathercrafting series at work there's not much need for an awl.  And of course they killed the two beer lunch, so the bottle opener wouldn't get much use.

Then one day I was nosing around a favorite surplus store and spied a nice looking little folder sitting in the display case.  The salesgal let me handle it and I was immediately impressed.  It was a three blade stockman built on the same pattern as my Uncle Henry. It was very nicely finished and the blades had an excellent 'walk and talk'. The manufacturer was Columbia River Knife and Tool (CRKT), a company I'd heard a lot about but I never had cause to buy one of their knives.  The asking price in the store was OK, but I knew I could do better on-line.  Some quick research revealed this knife was part of CRKT's new Pocket Classic line.  I immediately ordered one up from Amazon (for about $30) and waited anxiously for its arrival.

I was not disappointed.  In fact, I'm amazed at the level of fit and finish this knife presents at this price point.

CRKT Model 6063 Stockman

The blades are flat tapered and ground thin, and are razor sharp and hold a good edge. The bolsters are stainless steel and are very nicely and evenly rounded.  The handle scales are jigged bone and the liners are brass.  All the way around the fit and finish are first rate - everything is precisely joined and well polished.  In fact, it is polished to an amazing level even deep down.  The inner faces of the springs - something you would normally never look at - are polished mirror bright.  And as I've already mention the blades 'walk and talk' with authority and are perfectly centered.

Now here is the troubling part of my observation. This knife is made in China.  In fact, much of CRKT's production is done in China. While China has never been known for its quality cutlery in the past decade or so a number of US manufacturers have moved all or part of their production to China to take advantage of reduced labor and material costs. This includes many 'traditionally American' knife makers such as Buck, Gerber and Ka-Bar. The Chinese have proven to be quick learners. They learned how to make excellent cutlery steel and developed a skilled workforce capable of producing high quality knives at high retail volume. This CRKT stockman is a reflection of this coming of age for Chinese knife production. It meets and in some cases surpasses the level of quality put out by American companies like Case, but at around 2/3 the retail price.

So here is my dilemma. I'm an All American kind of guy. I honestly and deeply believe that Americans can make the best of anything, whether it's pocket knives or space ships. China is our economic and military rival and every penny they get from us helps strengthen their position in the world. But CRKT is an American company and they are merely using China as a production source. Do I commit patriotic sin if I buy a knife made in China for an American firm?  Perhaps, just a bit.  But sometimes American companies just can't meet the need.  The best example is Buck Knives.  Nothing in their pocket knife lineup comes close to the level of design, fit and finish this CRKT knife presents.  Case makes excellent knives but they are more collector pieces than daily carry items.  I need something that I feel comfortable carrying and using day in and day out.  This CRKT stockman fits the bill perfectly.

Let's end on a high note.  CRKT has several different knife styles in their Pocket Classic line.  In addition to the stockman, they offer a whittler, a trapper and a toothpick.  I wanted to check and see if the knife I bought was a fluke - a singularly good example among an otherwise mediocre run of knives.  I purchased one of their whittler models and I have to say this knife too is superb.

CRKT Model 6065 Whittler

It is clear that CRKT is putting out excellent pocket knives at an amazingly low price.  The little stockman is now my favorite EDC knife.  I feel somewhat naked and unprepared for the day if it is not in my pocket as I head out the door.  My faithful Uncle Henry has been pulled from active service and now enjoys a well earned retirement, nestled away comfortably where I know I can always find it.

My final concern is that a Chinese produced knife will set off multiple PCVAS alarms and if I'm ever found out the PCVAS monitors will have me locked up for life.  Let's see, China spews millions of tons of pollutants into the air every year, dams up river gorges and executes Tibetan monks.  On the other hand, the Chinese do like calligraphy, opium and Al Gore.  Maybe it all balances out.  Like ying and yang.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Just In Case Santa Anna Makes a Comeback

I figure what better knife to inaugurate my new blog with than the Bowie knife.  Is any knife more American than the Bowie?  Well, yeah.  Like the early English trade knife patterns, but I digress.

Jim Bowie was a scoundrel, land speculator, scofflaw, slaver and, many claim, a murderer.  He also just happened to be at the Alamo and dying of tuberculosis when Santa Ana decided to teach the uppity Texicans a lesson by wiping them out.

Jim Bowie.  Without the knife.

Several years before the Alamo, while living in Louisiana and Mississippi, Bowie had cause to use a big ol' hunting knife on a few folks.  One of these fights, originally arranged as a formal duel, devolved into a melee that ended with Bowie disemboweling the sheriff of Rapides Parish.  He used a big knife his brother Rezin had given him.  This was the infamous Sandbar Fight  that established the legend of Jim Bowie and the Bowie knife.

But what did the first Bowie knife look like?  Who knows.  Whatever Bowie was carrying at the Sandbar and at the Alamo has been lost to time.

An early pattern Bowie, commissioned by Jim Bowie's
brother Rezin.  This is probably close to the style of knife
carried by Jim Bowie.  This knife is on display at the Alamo
in San Antonio, Texas

What we do know is that it was probably made in Arkansas by a local blacksmith and it was most likely nothing more than an enlarged butcher knife.  Historians are pretty sure it didn't look anything like the Bowie knives we see made today.  The blacksmith's name was James Black and he did a good business in knives.  A number of his blades exist in collections today but none have been identified as the Bowie knife, the original carried by Jim Bowie at that Alamo or a close authentic copy.

A picture of James Black, reputed to be the blacksmith
that created the first 'bowie knife' for Jim Bowie's brother Rezin.
Note the knife he's holding in his left hand.

No matter - by the 1840s the Bowie knife and Jim Bowie's death at the Alamo had become the stuff of legend.  American cutlery manufacturers couldn't make Bowie knives fast enough.  Literally.  To fill the gap the English stepped in with their own interpretation of the knife and they exported tens of thousands of 'bowie style' blades and finished knives to the US right up into the early 1900s.

The fact that nobody really knew what Bowie's knife looked like didn't seem to slow anyone down - all they had to do was make it big and call it a 'Bowie style' and it sold. Early on two features became almost standard - a clip point blade and a coffin-shaped handle. Seems these two features had shown up on a James Black knife made after the Alamo and everybody just assumed that was what Jim Bowie's famous knife looked like. Rezin Bowie was always real circumspect with his description of the original knife, probably because he couldn't really remember what it looked like. But he wasn't about to admit that - there was too much money and prestige on the line!

Once the Bowie knife was burned into American folklore it proved impossible to root out. It has become a movie star. Literally. Any movie about Jim Bowie or the Alamo had to have the Bowie knife as a co-star. Just as in real life, the Bowie knife on screen became an integral part of the Jim Bowie persona. It became the iconic American blade style. Even in today's jaded age of the internet where pundits work overtime to pull down our heroes, Jim Bowie and his knife remain an almost untouched icon of the American frontier. Sure, he was a flawed character, but he was authentic! He was as big a personality and as forceful a character as his legend suggests, and the knife he carried was as authentic and as forceful as the man. By God, he was an American! Well, at least until he was granted Mexican citizenship and headed to Texas...

Virtually every knife maker - whether a large cutlery firm or a small time maker - has a Bowie style knife (or two, or three) in their catalog. Some offer entire lines of Bowies. Some independent knifemakers make nothing but Bowies. They are as popular today as they were in the 1840s.

A modern interpretation of the Bowie knife made by Case Cutlery.
This knife was a gift from my wife back in 1977.  I'm not sure
who the coon skin capped fellow is who's likeness is etched
on the blade.  Davey Crocett perhaps?  About the only thing
he and Jim Bowie had in common is that they both
died at the Alamo

If, like me, you spend any time and effort accumulating knives you will very quickly add several Bowie-style blades to your collection. They are impossible to avoid. A knife must satisfy two or three stylistic trademarks before it can be called a Bowie. First, it has to be big. Why big? Simple - Jim Bowie didn't win the fight at the Sandbar with a pocket knife. Real Bowies are big, manly knives. Girls don't carry Bowie knives, they carry dainty little pen knives. A Bowie is a man's knife. It's gotta' be big. If it ain't big it ain't a Bowie. Period. Next, it has to have a clipped blade. A clipped blade is one where a false edge is ground along the top 1/3 or so of the blade. This clip angles down to meet the belly of the knife blade at the tip. What's the false edge for? Why, for easier penetration when disemboweling your enemies. Did you learn nothing from the Sandbar Fight incident? Last, it must have a double cross guard. This is so when you are going mano a mano with your enemies your hand is protected as you thrust, slash and parry with your knife. It also helps if the knife has a coffin shaped handle because, well, because that's what James Black put on his knives and if it's good enough for James Black (and James Bowie) it's good enough for us!

Another classic modern interpretation of the Bowie.  This one is
by Buck Knives and is their Model 119 Special.  This has been Buck's
#1 selling fixed blade knife for decades.

But is the Bowie style knife good for anything other than fightin', slashin' and stabbin'? Opinions vary, and they vary very, very widely. Some consider it the ideal all-around knife. Some consider it good for nothing but killing (well, duh). That last group is mainly politicians from Chicago, downstate New York and the entire state of New Jersey. Hell, let's just throw the entire Democratic Party into the blame pool and call it a day. The truth is that this style does make a good all-around outdoor knife. I'll be fair and admit that there are other blade styles better suited for things like skinning animals or delicate camp chores like slicing food, and sometimes the shear size of the blade gets in the way. These relatively minor complaints aside, the Bowie knife is a great all-around design. Plus, it's just darned cool looking. So menacing. So ready for a fight. So damned politically incorrect. I love it!

So dear readers, your assignment for this week is to go watch John Wayne's classic movie 'The Alamo' and then go buy yourself a good 'ol Bowie knife.