Making an American Rifleman’s Knife

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.

Rifleman’s Knife inspired by an 18the C. example. Made by the author.

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.

Well-made reproductions of 18thC. Trade knives from Old Dominion Forge

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 With the march of time more and more knives were produced in the colonies, but I am not sure they ever superseded the imported blades.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.

Beautiful ‘rustic’ knife by Hershal House

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.

Long-knife and sheath by the author with a rustic finish, with the spine left forge-marked.

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.

hand-forged rustic hunting knife with a 4″ blade and sheath by the author.

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.

The edge bevels are now mostly formed. My formerly straight piece of steel is now notably wider than what I started with and curved. this is pretty much inevitable when you thin one side out more than the other.
I was forging in some distal taper as I went along, so the curve didn’t get out of hand.

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.

Now we’re getting there! The blade has an acceptable amount of curve and quite a bit more distal taper. Time to hit the belt grinder, once it stops glowing, anyway.

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.

Here’s the blade straight out of the quench. It’s still quite hot at this point, and you can see scale flaking and peeling off the surface.

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.

Ready for a handle! from this point on the blade is hair-popping sharp, so extreme caution is needed when working on the handle.
As a consequence I thoroughly taped the blade with blue masking-tape. You can still cut yourself, but it takes a lot more stupid to do so.

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.

The rack of antlers I am currently is sun-bleached, which is not a look I like. I solved this by dying it with Feibing’s British Tan leather dye.
Having determined the best orientation for the handle I marked the face for drilling so that the finished knife would be aligned correctly when drilled.

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.

Here’s the handle fitted to the blade. the curvature and shape help to make handling more comfortable and intuitive. the fit should be snug, but not require excessive force to separate the pieces.
Here’s all the components together, the blade, handle and the steel tube that will become the ferrule.

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.

With the Ferrule fitted I taped it to keep the steel clean, then applied several coats of lacqeur to the antler. It’s very porous, so this is necessary to seal it against moisture.
I made several cuts in the edges of the tang. When the handle is glued on the epoxy will fill these groove and firmly lock the handle to the tang when it has cured.

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

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