The American Bladesmith Society Show

By Chuck Hawks

2007 Raffle Kinves
The raffle knives. Illustration courtesy of the American Bladesmith Society.

The Silver Legacy hotel/casino in Reno, Nevada hosted the American Bladesmith Society (ABS) knife show. Running concurrently downstairs at the Silver Legacy was the American Custom Gunmakers Guild and Firearms Engravers Guild of America Show. Tthere was plenty for Guns and Shooting Online's Rocky Hays and yours truly to see and do over the weekend of January 26-28, 2007 in Reno.

We stayed at the Silver Legacy, which also hosted the Show, and offered entirely satisfactory rooms, a good coffee shop, and excellent service throughout. The El Dorado, Silver Legacy, and Circus Circus properties are all internally connected, so anyone staying at any of the three hotel/casinos has access to all without venturing outdoors.

The weather cooperated during our stay, with sunny days and cool nights, although we had precious little time to explore the surrounding scenery. Reno is situated in a valley surrounded by mountains and the Truckee River runs through the town, so it is really quite an attractive city. There was snow on the nearby hills, but not in town during our stay.

What you see at the ABS Show is a convention hall with tables displaying hundreds of beautifully made, custom built knives of all sizes, fixed blade and folding. Everywhere you look there is elegant metal work, engraving, and fancy handles of ivory, stag, mother of pearl, exotic woods, micarta and sundry synthetics. Damascus blades are popular and were much in evidence. Prices run into the thousands of dollars.

The 2007 Raffle Knives naturally received a lot of attention, especially from those who had purchased the $10 tickets. These were Bowie pattern knives donated to the ABS by James Rodebaugh and Ed Caffrey, and all profits from the drawing went to the ABS. They grace the photo at the top of this article.

James Rodebaugh's Black River Bowie has an 8� blade forge welded into 420 layers of 15N-20-1084, the Damascus blade is in a �Wolftooth� pattern. The exhibition grade Ironwood handle is fitted with a Damascus fluted butt and blued finial.

Ed Caffrey's Bowie�s 8 �� blade of 52100 steel is forged and differential heat treated, then flat ground with convex edge. It�s Dog Bone styled handle�s frame is engraved, textured and has Desert Ironwood Burl Scales. Guard is engraved, hot blued mild steel.

All sorts of daggers, short swords, Bowie knives and sundry classic fighting knives were represented in abundance at the Show. Most of these very fancy custom pieces will find homes in various collections. Edged weapons more practical for modern urban self-defense were also shown in large numbers, probably because of the restrictive gun laws in many locales.

Perhaps a brief summary of what is required for a blade to pass the standard competency tests of the ABS would be of interest. There are four basic performance criteria:

  1. The blade must sever a length of free hanging 1" diameter hemp rope in one stroke.
  2. The blade must chop a 2x4 wooden board in two, twice
  3. The edge must remain sharp and undamaged after these tests
  4. The blade must not break when its tip is clamped in a vise and it is bent 90 degrees.

Needless to say, to achieve such performance requires a heck of a blade. All ABS Master Bladesmiths have submitted blades that have passed the above performance tests in supervised trials.

I simply didn't have time to talk to all of the knife makers with table space at the show, even though everyone seemed willing to show their wares and help my cutlery education along. They all seemed to have an interesting story to tell; custom knife makers are much like custom gunmakers in that regard. So I will limit this article to a brief description of just three ABS bladesmiths. While no knife maker is "typical," these are at least representative.

My personal interest in knives is primarily as a working tool for daily pocket carry or for use in the field. The only custom made knife I have ever ordered is a pocket knife with a single lock blade 2.75" long. It was made for me by ABS Master Bladesmith Wayne Goddard of Eugene, Oregon, long before he became famous, and is covered in an article on the Outdoor Accessories Page of Guns and Shooting Online.

Wayne has been making knives for over 35 years and has written three books on the subject of knives and knife making. He also writes a monthly column for Blade magazine and has become so will known in the industry that now he mostly makes knives for collectors. Wayne also designed a folding knife for limited production by Spyderco. The most recent version of Wayne's design is a burgundy handled folder with a 3-5/8" blade of VG-10 stainless steel. This knife is reviewed on the Outdoor Accessories Page.

While perusing the Show's many offerings I fell into a lengthy conversation with Murray Carter of Carter Cutlery and his lovely wife (who makes the leather sheaths for Murray's custom knives). Murray apprenticed in Japan under a 16th generation bladesmith. After completing his apprenticeship he was invited to take the position of number 17 in the Sakemoto family tradition of Yoshimoto Bladesmithing, the only Caucasian to have been granted the honor of this position. Murray lived in Japan for 18 years. He and his family recently moved to Vernonia, Oregon in the U.S., and Murray is rated a Master Bladesmith by the ABS.

He is also a shooter and gun owner, so of course we talked about guns as well as knives. It turns out that he was the first foreigner on the Japanese home island of Kyushu to get a shotgun and hunting license. There he hunted Sitka deer, pheasant, doves, and crows.

One of Murray's most interesting knives was featured in the epic "The Last Kajiya." While in Japan, Murray lived across from the battlefield where the historic battle shown in the movie "The Last Samurai" was actually fought. He forged the outer Damascus of that knife using shrapnel from cannon shells fired during the battle in 1877. However, as a general rule Murray prefers to make working knives rather than display quality pieces.

Murray makes an extensive line of hand forged knives including neck knives, kitchen cutlery, outdoor knives, and Damascus knives. Most of these are available with a wide variety of handle materials and shapes. You can e-mail Murray at [email protected]. His catalog is, in itself, a brief tutorial on Japanese knife making.

By the time I got to Michael Vagnino's display, the Show was closing. But he graciously took the time to explain the clay coated steel tempering process to me, which he uses extensively. Michael is also an ABS Master Bladesmith specializing in handcrafted fixed and folding blade knives.

Mike has been a full time knife maker since 1998, and he makes only custom knives, mostly from his own hand forged Damascus steel. Mike also offered to help me with an article about custom knives, so you will probably be reading more about Mike Vagnino in the future. Michael and his wife live in Visalia, California and you can learn more about his knives by visiting his web site at:

Rocky and I greatly enjoyed visiting the 2007 ABS Show. If you are interested in custom built knives, and certainly if you are considering ordering such a knife for yourself, it is the place to be.

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Copyright 2007, 2015 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.