Lot's of different pics of this sign.

Lot's of different pics of this sign.
"I don't make hell for nobody. I'm only the instrument of a laughing providence. Sometimes I don't like it myself, but I couldn't help it if I was born smart."

1st Sgt. Milton Anthony Warden.
"From here to Eternity"

Paul Valery

"You are in love with intelligence, until it frightens you. For your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint. Your acts of pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were irresistible. Finally, you fear blood more and more. Blood and time."

The Wisdom of the Ages

"When a young man, I read somewhere the following: God the Almighty said, 'All that is too complex is unnecessary, and it is simple that is needed',"

Mikhail Kalashnikov
"Here lies the bravest soldier I've seen since my mirror got grease on it."

Zapp Brannigan

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Of Historic Bowies and Steel

Hoo boy. If anyone's lacking for a fight/can'o worms, visit any discussion of the Musso Bowie.
First off; it's called the "Musso Bowie" because it's owned (in the present day) by Joseph Musso.
A pitched battle between Musso himself and an iconoclast (like me!) questioning the veracity of the claims that it was made by one James Black, a blacksmith believed to have worked in Washington, Arkansas can be found in all its blood-spurting splendor here.
And, it's current. Last September.
For my money, Mr. Musso seems to be quite invested in proving that the provenance of his big knife is tied to that slave-trading enigma, James Bowie. Can't blame him. Everybody wants the stuff they own to be as cool and significant as possible.
Not being a Texian, I've never understood the mystical significance of the tactical/strategic debacle that was "The Siege of the Alamo" so I'm going to steer waaaay clear of that issue.
I just wanted to stir the shit a little concerning some statements made (with seeming authority) regarding the big Bowie.
Apparently Musso has spent good money having the thing examined by metallurgists and the like. I have no argument whatsoever with any of their findings. I can't look at the thing and, beyond looking at it, I could say little.
But, as published elsewhere and mentioned in the above-linked forum brawl, the Musso was determined to have been made from "double-shear steel".
One of my favorite and most useful reference works is a collection of articles from a publication known as "The Practical Blacksmith and Wheelwright", circa 1890 (It's available on Amazon for way too much money or for free online here.

"Blister steel is made by causing the carbon of charcoal to penetrate in a heated state. German steel is blister steel rolled down into bars. Sheet steel is made by hammering blister steel. Double-shear steel is made by cutting up blister steel and putting it together [forge-welding] and hammering again. Crucible steel is made by by melting in a pot wrought iron and unwrought iron and charcoal and scrap."

They go on to describe Bessemer steel which didn't exist in the 1830's.
Okay, earlier in the book, the old practice of making built-up, wrought iron anvils is described and it is clearly stated that such anvils (indeed all anvils up 'till the advent of Fischer "patent" anvils) were faced with "...the lower grades of steel - viz 'shear' steel or even 'blister' steel..." The reason for this being that the lower grades of steel were more easily welded to the wrought iron body of the anvil.
As a humorous aside, the concept of whether anvil would "ring" or not was a measure of the effectiveness of the weld - nothing more. For anyone selling modern, cast-steel anvils; of course they'll ring. They're one chunk of steel. Idiots selling the 110# Harbor Freight, Russian specials (that's my anvil!) on the E(vile) Bay, state that they "ring". Duh.

Okay, my point is this: I have no doubt that someone with skills and tooling could indeed discern double-shear steel which does indeed seem to prove the antiquity of the Musso. It's just that - how to put this delicately - it was apparently made of low-grade steel.
It gets better.
From this articleRevisiting the James Black Question After the Flayderman Opus – Or, Do We Know Any More about the Origin of those Guardless Coffins?

"Analysis of his estate inventory from 1839 by Batson showed that Black had all the tools and materials necessary for the production of knives – including 31 lbs. of cutlery-grade cast steel, material a conventional blacksmith would not have needed."
Says who?
What do they think a smith made his own tools out of - or any tools the other tradesmen in town would have needed? Cast steel. And "cutlery-grade cast steel" didn't exist.
Referring back to "The Practical Blacksmith", one Henry Seebohm of Sheffield (They know steel there) lists the "tempers" of available steels. In this context "temper" refers to carbon content and they run from "razor temper" at 1.5% carbon or, as we say nowadays "one hundred and fifteen points" to "die temper" at seventy-five points. Nowhere is the word "cutlery" even mentioned.
Furthermore, the die steel would be excellent for a knife blade. Presently, I'm using 1090 (nintey points).

And, "31 lbs.": Wow, that's a lot.
Or not. Picture to the left: Over 31 lbs. of "cutlery grade" (it must be - that's what I use it for) Bessemer steel. There's a price you pay for living in the modern world.
Two chunks of 1080 stolen from Burlington Northern, a broken fishplate and a chunk of rail. 55gal. drum of beverage included for scale.
Maybe this is easier to visualize: Steel weighs 42# per board foot, if you will; 12X12X1".
A stack of printer paper a little over an inch tall would weigh 31# if it were a chunk of steel. It ain't much.
If I was down to thirty-one pounds of steel, I'd be in trouble.

And the statement: "...all the tools and materials necessary for the production of knives."; Hell. I've got that. At least I seem to. What I don't have is the tools and materials - and abilities - to make a living as a 19th century blacksmith.
This can be illustrated by going to the online version of aforementioned book and noticing that, starting around page 140 and going on for over thirty pages, one can see some of the various hammers, tongs, fullers, swedges, tire shrinkers and the like that a fella would need if he was to hang out his shingle as a "blacksmith".
Not to mention the fact that, if you were such a tradesman, the banker who holds your mortgage, for example could pull his buggy up to your shop with a broken leaf spring.
You would be compelled to forge-weld it back together, re-curve it and heat-treat it - quickly. No pressure though.

I don't know how we all got to this state of being so worshipful of the mythical "blade steel". The double-shear Musso would seem to indicate that just about any steel with a significant carbon content would suffice and that folks used to be aware of that.
Thrown in for visual interest and to pad my ego (I'm a vain, vain man): various big Bowies either past or in progress.
The top one is a Musso with an antler handle.
Next up; a work in progress superimposed over a "measured drawring", as Norm Abram would say, of the original Musso, drawn by Mr. Musso himself.
After that, a project from over a year ago: my version of "The Iron Mistress", immortalized in the film of the same name (Alan Ladd as Bowie).
Big Dubya, you know what's next. A copy of the first knife I ever sold.
Last but not least, an orphaned d-guard. No sheath yet but available; $180 shipped


Big W said...

Bowie's , bowie's and more bowie's! Dan your a bad man and so are your knives. I like mine best, why not? but that D guard is bad ass...

Dan brock said...

As was said by "The Artist Formerly Known as Cassius Clay":
"I'm a baaaad man!"

Anonymous said...

good shared plowshareforge.blogspot.com

Andy said...

So what did people rant about before forums? Or did they just kick cats and throw rocks at the paper boy?
The one you linked to can't hold a candle to some of the gun ones:-)
Isn't it Texican, not Texian?

Anonymous said...

I have seven of Dan's knives in my personal collection and can attest to their fine quality and workmanship. They are items worthy of future museum collections. While I would not foolishly take on a bear with just a blade, I would feel comfortable having a Dan Brock blade if backed into a corner. James Mills, Thomasville, NC

Dan brock said...

Thanks for that, James.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog..

Dan brock said...

Thank you!

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