Making an Authentic Belt Knife.

By Mark Tully

Nothing beats the satisfaction of building something useful with your own two hands, and to the 18th-century soldier or frontiersman, nothing was more useful than a good, sturdy knife.

Knives are very easy to assemble -- all you need are a good blade and something to use as a handle There are basically two types of belt knives: round tang and scale tang. Both types were used during the 18th-century, so all you have to do is decide which type best suits your skill level and impression.

Scale Tang Knives.

knife group This was probably the most common 18th-century knife design -- and coincidentally it is the easiest to make. Most knife blades of the period feature a relatively straight blade back with an up-sweeping cutting edge. Some blades tapered to a point, but most surviving specimens I have seen have an almost straight back or spine. Some of the old blades also had a "clip" point, but in the 18th-century this feature was much more subtle than in the later (1830's) "Bowie" style blades. False edges were common, however, and sometimes gave the appearance of a clipped point. At any rate, most blades of this style were between 6-9" long (10-15" overall), but one surviving specimen has a whopping 11-5/8" blade and is 19" long!

A: George Rogers Clarks scale-tang knife from The Longhunter's Sketchbook, overall length, about 12".
B: A typical "belt knife", overall length, 15". Antler was a common material used for handles on 18th-century belt knives.
C: A good early-style, scale-tang knife can be made from common Ecko Forge or Old Hickory brand butcher knives from a second-hand store. The overall length of this one is 13". The back of the blade was re-ground slightly for a more period look, and the later-period "hammer marked" pattern on the sides of the blade were sanded down. Total cost to make this knife, including the price of the sandpaper -- $4.50.
D. Two common techniques for antler-handled knife construction. Top: A slot is cut in the antler and the flat tang held in place with two metal pins or rivets. Bottom: a hole is drilled through the antler and the round-tang blade inserted and "peened" over at the other end.

The crudest examples of scale-tang knives feature simple wooden handles, but antler or bone handles or "scales" were very common as well. The basic construction technique involves roughing the scales to shape with a rasp, then riveting or pinning them to the tang before the final filing to shape. The side of the scales that contact the blade MUST be perfectly flat for a good tight fit.

blade tangsSome blades appear to have been a sort of "hybrid" of this basic style -- utilizing a wide, flat half-tang riveted into a slit in a one-piece handle. George Rogers Clark's knife was of this latter style (see A and D).

For making a scale tang knife, I recommend the following blades: Track of the Wolf #Blade-BUT-09 ($12.50, 9" blade, 14" overall); or #Blade-BUT-07 ($8.50, 6" blade, 11" overall); Dixie's KE6207 ($8.25, 5" blade, 9" overall). If you prefer a more heavy-duty knife, big Bowie-style blades can be ground down to eliminate that distinctive Bowie profile (see page11, #3).

Round Tang Knives.

Many of the larger "rifleman's" or belt knives were of this style1. In the 18th-century, round-tang knife handles were usually antler or wood, and often looked more like a big butcher knife than what is commonly seen in bigger knives today.

To make one of these knives, you will need a blade with a long, narrow tang and something to use as a handle (see sources section). Once you have found a suitable handle, cut it down so it is about 1/4" shorter than your tang. Drill a hole the same diameter as your tang completely through the handle (you may need an extra-long drill bit to accomplish this). Put some glue in the hole then simply thrust your handle stock over the tang and peen to hold it in place. Original knives often used a washer as a pommel and peened the tang over on it. This helps protect the handle and will give you a much better peening surface. Most tangs are soft enough to peen without heating them -- be patient and use lots of sharp taps rather than one or two heavy blows. Keep peening the tang until it has "mushroomed" out all parts are tight. The trickiest part of peening is holding the blade securely while pounding on the tang. Clamping the blade tightly in a vice between to boards and placing the knife tip into a piece of oak works well.

Not all round-tangs were peened, and if you choose to you can glue and cross-rivet the tang instead. In either case, do your final shaping after the knife is assembled.

For making a big, round-tang knives, I recommend the following blades: Dixie "Ticonderoga" Blade #KN5204 ($28.95, 9-3/4" blade, 5-1/2" tang). For smaller camp knives, Track's #Blade-5226-5 ($16.50, 5" blade, 4" tang) or #Blade-6070 ($16.50, 4-3/4" blade, 3-1/2" tang) will make a nice little knife. Smoke and Fire has a selection of Swedish steel blades that would also make a fine camp knife.

Sources for Knife Parts.

blade points
The most common 18th-century blade profiles are shown as #1 and #2 above. #3 shows how a modern clip-point blade can be ground down to approximate a period blade. #4 shows a modern blade profile. Note the "step" to the rear of the blade. This feature is typical of modern-made knife blades, but is never seen in 18th-c specimens. For a truly authentic-looking knife, this step should be ground down and the median line (see arrow) "softened " with a file. Be careful not t let the blade get too hot when grinding or you'll ruin the temper.
There are many sources for knife blades and parts. Some cheap yet authentic blade styles can also be found at antique stores or second-hand shops in the form of old kitchen knives.

Atlanta Cutlery. Nice selection of blades and handle materials, including antler slabs and sticks. Also knife kits, cutler's rivets, and how-to books and videos. Call for catalog: 1-800-883-0300.

Dixie Gun Works. A large selection of period-correct blades, knife parts and kits. BIG Catalog $5.00. 1-800-238-6785.

Smoke and Fire. Good quality Swedish steel blades. (419) 832-0303

Track of the Wolf. Big selection of blades including several excellent, period-correct styles. Track also has hard-to find dirk and plug bayonet parts. Large catalog $7.00 but well worth it -- chock full of knife and gun parts. 612-424-9860

Knife-Building Ideas.

Examples of 18th-century knives can be seen in: Neumann, George C., Swords & Blades of the American Revolution, Rebel Publishing, Texarkana; Grimm, Jacob L., Archaeological Investigation of Fort Ligonier, Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh, PA.; and Calver and Bolton, History Written with a Pick and Shovel, New York Historical Society, 1950.

NOTES:

1) The authenticity of the big, fierce-looking "rifleman's" knife is somewhat questionable. Virtually NONE of the surviving 18th-century knives feature the large, fancy, brass cross-guards and decorative pommels commonly seen being carried around by frontiersmen and longhunter-types in the movies. I believe these big, bulky "fighting" knifes are an anachronism. Even "Mr. Longknife" himself -- George Rogers Clark -- had a knife that looks more like a common, oversized kitchen knife (see A, note that the overall length is only 12").

Daggers were the "fighting" knives of the 18th-century, and featured a slim, double-edged blade tapering to a sharp point. Daggers would very often feature a cross-guard or quillions, but were rarely highly decorative unless designed as a companion piece to a fancy hunting sword.


GREAT GIFT IDEA!

Looking for a Christmas gift for someone special? Check out the Chef's Choice® Diamond Hone® Knife Sharpener. This handy gadget received the highest recommendation from Chris Kimball, editor of Cook's Illustrated magazine (also see article page 2). Kimball said flat out that all other knife sharpeners on the market today do more harm then good, and the Chef's Choice series is the ONLY sharpener worth using on high-quality cutlery.

There are three varieties of this sharpener; a hand-held model ($30), a two stage electric model ($60) and a three-stage electric model ($80) (prices approximate). The hand-held is probably adequate for sharpening most camp knives, but if you're really finicky about your cutlery, the three-stage Model 110 electric sharpener is fabulous! In addition to the sharpening and honing stages featured in the other two models, the Model 110 has a "pre-sharpening" stage that actually grinds off the existing edge on your knife and re-grinds the correct angle for optimum sharpness (20*). These are professional-grade knife sharpeners, and they are well worth the rather hefty price tag.