History of Bladesmithing in America and Around the World [Updated]
Metal forging is an ancient craft that is important to the history of almost every country in the world. Smiths used bronze and iron to create the objects necessary for nation building.
Over the centuries, metalsmithing techniques evolved and became specialized for the creation of blades. Bladesmithing is now considered by many metal craftspeople to be closely related to blacksmithing but unique from it as well.
Bladesmithing knives and swords requires a more complex series of steps than blacksmithing and other types of metalwork. This is because blades must be processed in such a way as to make them both strong and sharp.
Heat treating, tempering, grinding, polishing, handle making, and blade assembly are just some of the unique skills a bladesmith must master to create beautiful and functional finished products.
The history of bladesmithing is complex because of its worldwide reach. While almost every country in the world has interacted with bladesmithing in one way or another, the United States has an interesting history of bladesmithing that we will emphasize in this article.
The following includes a brief discussion of the ancient and global history of bladesmithing, the origins of American blades, and American bladesmithing history from before the country’s foundation to the present day.
Blades Before the Birth of America
Blacksmithing and bladesmithing are far older than the United States! With ancient origins in the Near East, these closely related crafts have a long and rich history.
Knives have been essential to humans since the very beginning. Primitive knives used for hunting and self-protection were carved from stone.
The very first metalsmiths crafted with soft metals such as gold, silver, and bronze. Knowledge of metal working is thought to have originated in the Near East and spread to the Mediterranean regions.
The Hittites are credited with some of the earliest iron forging in around 1500 BC. This group discovered iron smelting and in turn propelled humanity into the Iron Age.
While metalsmiths could now use iron as well as the softer metals, early bladesmiths continued to craft mostly bronze knives and swords. Bronze knives had a characteristic short and wide shape to compensate for the metal’s weakness.
Blades of Europe from the Vikings to the Age of Discovery
Eventually, bladesmiths realized the merits of working with iron. Bronze transitioned to iron and new styles of swords began being developed.
While countries like China, Japan, India, and Persia excelled at bladesmithing, the style of blades that most influenced those of America were European.
Long before America became a country, European bladesmiths perfected their own unique types of knives and swords for everyday carry and use on the battlefield.
One of the most popular historical swords of Europe is the Viking sword. While this weapon was actually produced by the Franks on the main European continent, it gained the favor of the Vikings and is named accordingly.
Frankish or Viking swords featured wide blades but were longer than Greek and Roman styles. The hilts of these swords were often decorated with precious metals, bone, antler, and other prized materials.
Because these swords were so valuable, they were often passed down to children or buried with their wielder.
By the early Middle Ages, swords had once again taken on new shapes and sizes. Bladesmiths developed the broadsword and longsword in increasingly larger sizes to make them more effective in battle.
As plate armor advanced and new methods of warfare developed, blades needed to be longer, stronger, and sharper. The medieval sword was effective at cutting and thrusting. The pointed end of a blade could puncture plate armor or stab the joins between plates.
The European longsword in its many variations remained popular until the 16th century. The Renaissance period marked a shift in the types of swords produced by European bladesmiths and their uses.
Swordsmen now favored thrusting maneuvers and required blades that were lightweight and sharp. Craftsmen in bladesmithing centers like Solingen, Germany created highly ornate rapiers to meet new demands.
The Renaissance rapier featured a thin and pointed blade that was quick and sharp. Decorative hilts featured hand guards to protect from the thrust of an opponent’s sword.
Government-funded trips to the Caribbean islands, Central and South America, and North America brought European weapons to the New World.
Explorers from Spain, England, and other countries used swords and knives for survival, self-protection, and in conflicts with Native peoples.
The sword styles brought to the New World would influence future knife and sword designs of the American Colonies.
Early American Blades
As the first colonists arrived in North America from England, the Netherlands, and other countries, they discovered the limitations of European knife and sword styles in the rugged environment.
The following section is a brief overview of blades used in America before it became a country. The establishment of new towns, interactions with Native Americans, and early wars influenced the knives and swords adopted by colonists and settlers.
The First Settlements
European blades arrived in North America as colonists created the first settlements in Virginia and Massachusetts. These brand new towns relied on imported goods from England and other countries to survive.
New settlements like Jamestown did not possess the manufacturing capabilities to create blades. Instead, styles from Europe continued to be worn in the New World.
Knife and sword styles adapted to meet the demands of life in largely unsettled territory. Blades also largely depended on the wearer’s social status.
European small swords, for example, proved cumbersome and too expensive for the average merchant or farmer. Only gentlemen continued to wear small swords as part of their everyday ensemble.
Instead of swords, most colonists and early Americans favored multipurpose knives that could be used for everyday tasks like hunting, chores, trading, cooking, and eating.
Blades from the American Revolution to the Present
American bladesmithing history begins in many ways with the American Revolution and the French and Indian War, which took place just prior to the Revolution in the 1750s-60s.
These wars heavily influenced the trajectory of bladesmithing in the Colonies and the new American nation. Several types of blades became popular during the war and became a part of American blade culture into the coming centuries.
These blades were used as weapons in close combat and as multipurpose tools for life in the wilderness and in camps.
The following is an in-depth discussion of swords and knives in American history. Special emphasis is given to swords of the Civil War and knives of the American Revolution. Late 19th century and early 20th century knife styles are also discussed.
These events marked major developments in American bladesmithing and are therefore important to cover in detail.
American Sword Manufacturing in the 18th to 20th Centuries
In the earliest years of American history, most swords were manufactured in Europe and brought to the North American continent via colonists. Many of the swords utilized in the American Revolution originated from bladesmiths in Europe.
By the 19th century, towns and cities in America were well enough established to support bladesmithing operations. New manufacturing centers sprang up to meet new demands for knives and swords.
One event that grew the American bladesmithing industry was the Civil War. The 1860s saw a boom in sword and knife manufacturing. Some of the top Civil War bladesmithing companies are listed here.
A comprehensive list of American sword makers of the Civil War can be viewed here.
Ame’s Company was by far one of the top sword producers of the Civil War and the 19th century. The company operated from 1832 to 1966.
During the Civil War, Ame’s produced around 200,000 artillery swords and cavalry sabers. Swords crafted by Ame’s Company are still collected today.
Christopher Roby manufactured blades specifically for the Civil War between 1861 and 1867. Although their production was short-lived, Christopher Roby managed to produce 32,200 cavalry, artillery, and other swords.
Mansfield & Lamb
Interestingly, Mansfield & Lamb produced textiles and tools before transitioning to bladesmithing. Because the demand for weapons during the Civil War was so high, many companies outside of the bladesmithing industry began making blades to help the war effort.
Those with the required production capabilities, such as Mansfield & Lamb, could keep up with dedicated bladesmithing companies. Mansfield & Lamb became the second largest producer of cavalry sabers during the Civil War.
The company created an estimated 37,500 cavalry blades.
Sheble & Fisher
Sheble & Fisher produced light artillery swords and cutlasses, which were not offered by many other manufacturers. This company’s blades had unique design features that fascinate collectors today.
Blades made by Sheble & Fisher had flatter pommels than other swords of the Civil War era. They also featured copper wire wraps rather than the more common brass. The swords’ narrow handles also help them stand out from Civil War blades.
Henry Sauerbeir crafted a range of swords for use in the Civil War. Presentation sabers, regulation officer sabers, and cavalry sabers are some of the blades made by the New York City and Newark, New Jersey-based company.
Henry Sauerbeir swords feature unstopped fullers and unique pommel shapes.
Henry Disston immigrated the United States from England in 1833. He set up a saw and tool shop in Philadelphia and earned a reputation for high-quality products.
When the Civil War broke out, Disston’s shop began producing guns and swords. Disston’s company continued to operate into the 20th century. It held government contracts through World War II and was later sold to a Swedish firm in 1984.
Schuyler, Hartley, & Graham
Unlike the other companies listed, Schuyler, Hartley, & Graham produced uniforms, accessories, and camp supplies in addition to swords. Many Civil War cavalry sabers and officer swords bear the mark of this New York-based company.
The Knife in American History
While swords were important weapons used in major wars and other conflicts, the knife had an everyday significance in the story of America.
The history of American knives is best told by examining the most popular and influential knife styles in chronological order. Early American knives of the American Revolution influenced the design of later models.
It is important to understand the design and function of early knives to understand how and why later styles evolved.
The belt knife came to America from Europe. This style of knife hung on a man’s belt and could be used for a wide range of everyday tasks.
The belt and knife pictured below are ornate European versions that would have been reserved for gentlemen. Colonists of high social standing would have worn belt knives in a similar fashion.
Traditionally minded men would have favored the small sword, which was also worn on the belt.
The belt knife became a favorite tool of farmers and merchants. Less cumbersome than a small sword, the belt sword could be used for chopping, stabbing, carving, and whittling.
Over time, European styles of the belt knife became simplified to better meet the everyday needs of urban and rural workers.
The dagger has a long history in Europe and came to be an important weapon in America as well. The dagger is a long knife that resembles a small sword.
Daggers have a tapered blade with two sharpened edges. The design of the dagger makes them ideal for thrusting maneuvers. They were mainly used as close combat weapons during the American Revolution.
Daggers came in a variety of styles and many colonial and British soldiers carried one as a close range weapon.
Because the Continental army did not supply its soldiers with knives (their priority was muskets), soldiers brought daggers and other knife styles with them from home.
Scottish immigrants began arriving to the American Colonies in large numbers in the early 1700s. They brought with them the Scottish dirk, which is similar to a dagger.
Unlike a dagger, the dirk featured a single-edged blade. Early dirks measured between twelve and seventeen inches. Their grips were usually decorated with Celtic patterns. The dirk shown below features a woven grip and Celtic knots.
In the American Revolution, many Scotsmen fought on the British side. They brought their dirks to war as personal weapons.
The rifleman’s knife featured a single-edged blade and measured around twelve inches in length. The knife’s hilt was crafted from iron, brass, pewter, or silver. Grips were typically made of hardwoods like hickory, maple, or walnut. Bone, horn, and antler could also be used.
The blade of this knife possessed good edge retention and its length made it stronger than other options.
The rifleman’s knife was carried as part of the trio of weapons possessed by rifleman. A knife, rifle, and tomahawk could protect a soldier in various battle scenarios.
By the American Revolution, the rifleman’s knife became a multipurpose weapon. Civilians who joined the war oftentimes carried a rifleman’s knife.
Utility knives had a range of practical uses in colonial America. Its users could cut, chop, skin, and trade the knife. The utility knife became so popular amongst Native Americans that manufacturers shipped thousands to America for the sole purpose of trade.
18th century utility knives came to the American colonies from primarily England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Colonists could purchase the blade in fixed or folding varieties.
The folding knife increased in popularity by the end of the 18th century. It slowly replaced the belt knife as an everyday tool. Folding knives came in various lengths and styles. Most measured two to twelve inches depending on their intended use.
Folding knives proved so practical that the Continental Army required all soldiers to carry one. Their simple, single-edged design made them perfect multipurpose tools for soldiers living in camps.
Perhaps the most famous knife in American history, the Bowie knife has influenced American knife making for over 200 years.
The first Bowie knife was used by James Bowie in the Sandbar Fight. After being attacked, beaten, and shot multiple times, James Bowie used a large knife to defend himself. He survived the fight and his knife became famous.
Blacksmith James Black is credited with making some of the first Bowie knives in American history. No one knows for sure what the earliest Bowie knives looked like, but they likely featured a coffin shaped handle, heavy cross guard, and sweeping clip blade.
During the Civil War, Bowie knives reached longer lengths than ever before. Some even resembled small swords. The Bowie knife shown in the image above is not quite sword length, but is long nonetheless.
Bowie knives continued to evolve after the Civil War and remain some of the most popular American knives.
Pocket Knife by Greenfield River Works
One of the first knife manufacturing companies in America was founded in 1834 by John Russell. Russell was born in 1797 and learned goldsmithing from his father.
He speculated in cotton in the south before deciding to start his own cutlery company. Russell opened his first factory in 1833. It was powered by a sixteen horsepower steam engine and included grindstones, emery stones, and trip hammers.
Russell created chisels and axes before transitioning to knife making. After learning that water power cost less than steam, Russell opened a factory on the Green River in Greenfield, Massachusetts. The company became Greenfield River Works.
John Russell’s business did well locally, but he faced steep competition. Sheffield, England produced some of the most sought-after knives of the time. To compete, Russell hired top knife makers and offered higher wages than Sheffield.
Greenfield River Works eventually sold knives nationwide. His Barlow line of cutlery proved especially popular in the American South and West. An estimated 66,000 Greenfield River Works knives were sent west with the many emigrants, buffalo hunters, settlers, and miners seeking fortune in unsettled western territory.
In 1933, Greenfield River Works merged with Harrington Cutlery. The company continued to make the Barlow knife until 1941.
Hunting Knife by Marble’s Knives
Another famous knife brand was Marble’s Knives. This company popularized the hunting knife as we know it today. Webster Marble was an outdoorsman with an innovative eye for knife design.
He introduced the Ideal model knife in 1899. The knife featured a four to eight inch blade with a clipped point. The deep fullered edge grind of the blade allowed users to sharpen the knife in the same manner as a straight razor.
The Expert sheath knife arrived on the market in 1906. It was advertised for hunters, trappers, and guides. Although not as durable as the Ideal, the Expert still gained massive popularity.
The Girl Scouts of America even made it their official knife in 1930.
By 1915, Marble’s Knives introduced the Woodcraft knife. This model served as the official knife of the Boy Scouts from 1933 to 1940.
The design of Marble’s Knives continues to influence the hunting knives crafted today. After their initial release, manufacturers around the world scrambled to copy Marble’s signature style.
Marble’s Knives faced heavy competition by the 1940s as hundreds of cutlery companies crafted cheap knives for use in World War II.
The company ultimately ceased production of their famous models in 1976 and was sold to an overseas company.
American Bladesmithing Today
Today, bladesmithing and knife culture continues to thrive in America. Pocket knives, utility knives, and hunting knives are everyday essentials for millions of people.
Large manufacturers and self-employed craftspeople offer unique blades inspired by historical designs. Whether you want to buy a custom knife or large company’s bestseller, knives are easy to find for a range of prices.
Besides everyday use, modern and historical knives are widely collected. Websites make it easier than ever to research, purchase, and sell historical blades and reproductions.
Sword and knife making is also a popular hobby for creative individuals. Shows like Forged in Fire and popular YouTube channels have inspired people to try their hand at crafting blades themselves.
While bladesmithing has evolved throughout American history, it remains an important piece of American culture.