There’s something to be said for training on diverse platforms. Last week I burned my hand at work, along my right thumb and the web between the thumb and forefinger. Not hugely serious, but painful, and any pressure makes it worse. Because of it’s location it also requires a pretty big dressing to secure the gauze. In an emergency the pain isn’t really going to be an issue, but the bulk of the dressing? I discovered that I cannot hold my EDC pistol correctly.
Oops. Yeah, I can shoot left-handed, but I am far, far better with my right hand. If I am betting my life that’s the safe money.
I can operate the gun, but in an emergency if I have to snatch it and shoot fast it’s not going to be pointed where my muscle-memory thinks it is, and I’ll miss the most important shots of my remaining life. If I was a ‘one gun to rule them all’ type I’d be boned. Fortunately I have a broad variety of handguns I shoot well enough to be my life on, and one of them still works just fine.
We all train to shoot weak-hand (or should) in case our strong-hand is disabled, but it didn’t really occur to me to have a plan if my strong-hand is disabled in daily life and out of action or limited in usefulness for a week or more. Because I practice with a broad variety of guns there was a solution, uh, at hand.
Taking a step sideways from guns, but I figure, hey- most gun folks are also knife folks, right?
From the pre-revolutionary colonial period through the early decades of the 19th C. an outdoorsman’s primary weapon was a single-shot rifle or musket. While an adept rifleman could reload one of these weapons more quickly than you might expect it was by no means fast, and if that one shot didn’t settle matters you needed something to follow up with. While for some men that might have meant a pistol or two that still could leave you in a serious situation with empty firearms. The two primary weapons to back up your firearm(s) were the hatchet and the knife.
The sort of knife favored for this was something with a blade eight to twelve inches long, though the longest examples are more of a short-sword than a knife. Other than that loose specification the field was wide open; they could be single edged knives or double edged daggers, with a single guard, double quillon or no guard at all. The handle likewise could be simple, elaborate or improvised from whatever was at hand; bone, antler, wood, or horn. Most men carried what we now call a ‘Trade Knife,’ a simple, well-made single-edged knife imported from Europe.
With time and use the handle, sheath etc. might be replaced with more creative and ornamental versions, but the basic knife was a relatively plain affair. Like the Seax in the Viking Era or the Bowie in the 19th.C. these were all-purpose tools and weapons. They might see all sorts of uses on the frontier, but their functionality as a weapon often overrode other considerations. With the march of time more and more knives were produced in the colonies, but I am not sure they ever superseded the imported blades. There are examples of ‘frontier crafted’ knives of a somewhat cruder construction or finish, but these are dramatically outnumbered by commercially-made blades.
The fashion among historic reenactors these days seems to lean towards ‘aged’ knives or blades with a rustic finish. By ‘aged’ I do not mean appearing to be an actual antique, but rather appearing to have been in use for many years. I favor a rustic appearance myself, even if this may not be the best reflection of history.
Sometimes it IS About Me…
Normally I make knives by stock removal. I saw the shape out of bar stock then grind it to shape and heat treat it; the forge is used only as a heat-source for hardening the blade. Once a year or so though I do forge a knife, usually something small. Mind you even a forged blade is generally finished with exactly the same techniques as one made by stock removal, but sometimes forging can produce shapes or effects that are problematic for a strictly stock-removal knife.
This year has been a bit different for me; I started by using forging to introduce a desired texture on a knife. The next knife owed more of it’s shape and character to the forge, and the one after that was entirely hand-forged, a small rustic hunting knife.
I was having fun, so I decided to get a little more adventurous and do a fully hand-forged Rifleman’s Knife.
Now mind you it’s fair to say that I am an expert knife and sword-maker, but I am no one’s idea of a blade-smith. This would be far and away the largest hand-forged knife I have done to date, and it would be fair to say the prospect made me nervous. Oh what the hell; I’ve never expanded my skills by playing it safe.
What I’m Working with
I use mostly 5160, so it made sense to use that because I understand the material and heat-treating it better than other steels. There’s also plenty of cut-up bits lying around the shop. My forge is a two-burner farrier’s forge that I converted for blade-work by cutting holes in the ends and insulating and closing the wide door on the front. I have a section or rail-road track cut into a simple anvil, and while it’s great for bending metal and light forging it’s not up to doing a large blade. Fortunately I also have a nearly-proper anvil as well; it’s a battered and frankly kind of crappy imported anvil. It’s not very good, but it’s good enough for this. I also have a variety of hammers, including a 2-1/2lb. cross-peen.
Of course I also have a well-equipped knife-making shop with a couple of 2×72 belt grinders, a metal-cutting band-saw, a couple of drill presses, a couple of quench-tanks and assorted lesser tools; this is my livelihood after all.
Crafting the Knife
I started by grabbing a piece of 1/4″ bar stock and cutting a tang on one end. Yeah, it’s cheating but I figured to make things easier where I could; forging the blade was going to be challenging enough. this left 9 to 9-1/2″ or so to make the blade. I fired up the forge, grabbed the tang with the forging-tongs and seat it to heating up.
No pictures of the opening stages of the process, because it didn’t occur to me that I’d want them. I started by forging a point on the bar. I kept striking the edge of the bar on one side, then I’d flatten it out and reheat it. In short order this gave me the approximate shape I desired and I started in on the edge-bevels, working alternating sides and striking at an angle to thin the blade on one edge. I’d spend a minute heating the blade, pull it out and hammer for 10-15 seconds and then it went back in the fire. I had to keep straightening as I went; the blade not only wanted to bend side-to side but to twist as well. I’d get in my blows with the hammer, then quickly straighten the blade and remove any twist before the metal cooled too much. This means a whole lot of ‘rinse-and-repeat,’ but eventually I got the bevels pretty much as I wanted them, at which point it occurred to me to take some pictures of the process.
Now it was time to deal with the curve, which I did by focusing my hammer-blows on the sides of the spine, introducing more distal taper as I went. This taper is important for balance and blade geometry; thinning the blade towards the tip moves the center of gravity back, making it livelier in the hand. It also gives it a thinner cross-section towards the point, which improves cutting ability.
Once the blade was a straight as I wanted it and had the right amount of distal taper it was time to take it to the belt-grinder. I started with a 60-grit Ceramic belt and refined the edge and point, then went to work on the bevels. I ground on an unsupported slack-belt to produce a slightly convex surface for the bevels. I didn’t worry about getting every single hammer-mark out; I was going for a ‘frontier-crafted’ look after all.
After I had things pretty much as I like I switched to a 240-grit belt to remove the marks from the 60-grit belt and give a smoother, more even finish, then it was back into the forge for hardening. I heated the blade to hardening temperature by color and the look of the steel. I judge this by experience and eyeball; when the steel goes into solution at hardening temperature it looks different to me. When I have that color nice and even across the blade it’s time to quench.
I have a 4″ tube about 3′ high filled with olive oil, or a trough filled with oil for edge-hardening. In this case I went for the tube; edge-quenching can induce changes to the curve and I liked what I had. I sank it in the oil, let the flames burn out and when the oil stopped boiling I waited a few seconds then removed the blade. It came out acceptably straight, thank God.
I let it air-cool, then cleaned it up and sharpened it with the 240-grit belt and buffer. then it was into the oven to soak at 375-degrees (Fahrenheit) for a few hours to temper the blade.
With the blade thoroughly taped it was time to work on the handle. In line with the ‘frontier-crafted’ theme antler was an obvious choice, as was going for very simple construction. I carefully selected a section of antler, then determined it’s best, most useful and comfortable orientation for a right-handed person with an average-sized hand.
I used a drill-press with a 1/4″ bit to hog out the pith to accept the tang, which is pretty easy given that this material is somewhat soft. The tang needed some modification to allow for the curve of the handle, and while it came out rather on the short side it’s only an inch shorter than the handle, and historically such knives worked just fine.
The top of the handle showed a significant amount of pith, and this is extremely porous so this needed to be addressed. I did so by filling in the pith with cyanoacrylate cement, then grinding is smooth and polishing the result. Dust from the antler was imbedded in the glue, giving a decent finish.
Antler can easily split at the join of the handle and tang, so I adopted one of the simpler solutions, placing a ferrule around the antler. In it’s simple form this is just a metal tube surrounding the base of the handle to prevent splitting.
Fitting the ferrule means reducing a section at the base of the handle, then filing away until the ferrule fits properly. In most cased this also requires hammering the tube into a more oval shape to fit properly.
In the old days they would most likely have used a form of hide-glue to secure the handle. You’d heat up the glue, insert a wad of it into the handle then sink the heated tang into it and wipe away the excess. Properly used this is pretty good stuff; some of these handles are still secure after 2-3 centuries. But we have more convenient methods available to use today, namely high-strength quick-setting epoxy.
The final step before mounting the handle was etching the blade and ferrule. I use Ferric Chloride for this, and it best to wear rubber gloves. While corrosive it’s not sufficiently caustic to burn you instantly, but if you have even the tiniest nick, scrape or cut it will find it, and you won’t like the result. It’s also a PCB, which can cause all manner of issues; use in a well-ventilated area and wash promptly and thoroughly after use.
I went over the metal bits with 400-grit sandpaper, then used a paper-towel to apply a coating of the etchant to them. I went over them several times, re-wetting the parts as needed. After several minutes of exposure to air I had the look I was going for, and liberally applied WD40 as a kill solution to the etchant and to prevent rust.
Once this was done I thoroughly cleaned the tang with acetone to remove any remaining oil, mixed the epoxy and filled the tang-hole with it. I do mean filled, too; you don’t want any voids around the tang. You then force the tang into the glue, wiping off the excess forced from the hole as you go. Once the handle is correctly seated be sure to wipe very trace of excess epoxy from all surfaces; if allowed to cure it’s ugly and much, much harder to remove.
After the epoxy was cured and the tape was removed the knife was finished, but of course now it needs a sheath. I was going to include that process, but this post is already running long, so we’ll cover that another time if folks are interested.
Anyway, that’s a quick sketch of the process; I hope that you enjoyed it.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 27 February 2021
If you like what you read here, please consider clicking the link above and supporting me on Patreon.
OK, I’m told my last post was entirely too sensible, and that I need to write something ridiculous before people started thinking I’d hired a ghost-writer or been replaced by an alien pod. You’re going to have to bear with me on this one, we’re not getting straight to the point.
In 1859 Smith & Wesson introduced the first of their cartridge revolvers. It’s mechanism was a bit awkward and it was only fast to reload compared to percussion revolvers. It was chambered in .22 Rim Fire (what we now call .22 Short) and was far from a power-house… but it caught on because reloading was faster and easier than previous front-loaders.
The lack of power was addressed, uh, sort of, with the introduction of the #2 Army revolver, which naturally was never adopted by any army anywhere, chambered in .32 Rim Fire. Still not awfully powerful but worlds better than .22 RF. This cartridge is where our story begins.
Once S&Ws monopoly patent on the bored-through cylinder expired every Tom, Dick and Harry jumped on the band wagon and started making small revolvers, and many of them chambered .32 RF or .32 Short RF. Rimfire cartridges have their limitations, and they were supplanted by center-fire cartridges pretty quickly, but there are still a lot of .32 RF revolvers and ‘Squirrel Guns’ around from it’s very brief heyday.
Some of these guns are quite interesting, like the Remington ring-trigger pocket revolver, but I have avoided them. I like to shoot my guns, and production of .32 Rimfire ammo had almost entirely ceased by the time I was born. Short runs and special production runs have occurred but for the most part it simply can’t be had.
The I saw that someone had figured out a way…
Several makers created cartridge cases that are bored to accept a .22 Blank, mostly set off-center so that when placed in the breech or cylinder correctly the firing pin will strike the edge of the rimfire blank and fire it. You can load a blank, add some black powder and a ball or heel-base bullet up front and fire your gun to your hearts content. Of course if the cartridge isn’t aligned correctly the firing pin won’t hit the blank. It’s a bit of a pain in the butt, but it’s doable. Not inexpensive , either.
The next refinement I saw was the same idea, but instead of a .22 Crimp Blank with black powder you use a nail-gun Powder Actuator, which is really just a powerful .22 rimfire blank. You don’t deal with powder at all; the blank is sufficient to propel a bullet at useful velocity. OK, it’s easier but it’s still expensive, so I won’t be rushing out to buy me a .32 RF any time soon… but it got me thinking. In this day of ammunition and primer shortages could you adapt this to a more modern firearm?
In short- yes. but it would need to be a revolver and it would still probably be more trouble than it was worth… but what about a single-shot pistol? You know a nail-gun blank will propel a .32 bullet at useful velocity from the modified .32 RF cartridges. Why not in a muzzle-loader? It would be useful for small game, and Nail-Gun blanks are not in particularly short supply, and making a single-shot pistol is something I know how to do…
Yeah, I did it. Some sawing, a bit of grinding, some silver-soldering and threading and… OK, it should be simple enough. Of course what should be and what actually happens, in the immortal words of Jane Cobb, ‘…ain’t never but similar.’
This is well-travelled territory for me, so it went surprisingly quickly… until it didn’t. Where it didn’t was achieving the right balance of springs and firing-pin location and shape to reliably detonate the blank. That took all bloody day and then some. Finally it was firing the blank, fist-time, every time. *whew!*
So, to load one stuffs a bullet in the muzzle and uses a ramrod to force it as deep as it will go. Since this bore is .320 rather than the typical .312 used in .32’s this is not exceptionally difficult; it’s tight, but you needn’t hammer it in.
Once this is done you cock the pistol t the first notch, release the catch on the side and tilt the barrel up. Put the Powder Actuator in the breech, close and latch it and you are ready to go. Simply cock the hammer, aim and fire.
The blanks come in strengths from 1-5, and i started right in the middle with number 3s. I have to confess I had my doubts, but it worked a treat! It went bang like a gun, recoiled like a gun and put a bullet into ordinance gel like a gun. Success! It works just as it should.
So how powerful it it? Well, the #3 blank propelled a 100gr LSWC at sufficient speed to penetrate 10.5 inches, and a 60gr, bullet 13-1/2″ deep. Reasonable and comparable to factory .32 S&W Long ammunition. Later I’ll break out the chronograph and see what’s what, and perhaps try it with a #4 blank.
I am aware of course that I haven’t actually accomplished anything particularly useful; neither I nor anyone else needs such a contraption. But then it’s not always about ‘need,’ is it? It’s fun, and that’s all it needs to be.
Now that I have proven the concept I’ll finish the gun nicely, add some sights and grip panels. There’s no hurry of course; I’ve got blog-posts starting to back up… anyway, rest assured I’ll keep you posted as things progress.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 22 February 2021
If you link what you see here, please consider clicking the link above and supporting me on Patreon.