“Place you clothes and weapons where you can find them in the dark.” 

 

When I was operating with the Navy, the official SEAL knife was made by Buck Knives and was constructed of a titanium-beryllium alloy. Nobody liked to carry it because when you sharpened it, and microscopic pieces of metal lodged under your skin, they produced tumors. There was also a steel knife made by Buck for the Navy that looked like a First Blood knock off, but because steel has a magnetic signature (bad for mine warfare), and tended to rust in a saltwater environment, it didn’t get the broad acceptance that Buck had hoped for.

I don’t know what Jimmy Lyle (an Arkansas knife maker who made the original First Blood knife) thought of Buck’s knife. I met Jimmy at his home in Russellville, AR, a couple of years before he died in 1991. Great guy.

In late 1991 or early 1992. Don’t hold me to a specific date because it was some years ago, I was at NAVSPECWARGRUONE (Naval Special Warfare Group One, Coronado, CA) as a drilling reservist, following the First Gulf War. My day job was at the Orange County (CA) District Attorney’s Office, Organized Crime/Grand Jury Unit. I know, reserves are the lowest form of life – blah/blah/blah.

The Joint Special Operations Command (McDill AFB, Tampa, FL) just stood up and an Army general took command. What that meant was that all of Naval Special Warfare became subordinate to the US Army. Moreover, there was money to spend – where the Navy was very parsimonious with the SEALS up to that point. The new funding allowed us to select newer and presumably better knives than the models that caused us to develop cancerous tumors.

SPECWARGRUONE held a ‘knife off’ competition, where various knives were rigorously tested. Manufacturers were invited to submit their knifes to Group 1 to be tortured. A number of different knives were submitted and the only one to remotely meet the criteria was the Multi-Purpose Knife (MPK) entry from Mission Knives (then owned by Rick Schultz of Mission Viejo, CA). The SOG SEAL knife, made of steel, scored well, but (a) it corroded in a salt water environment because it was made of steel and (b) it had a magnetic profile (made of steel) that could set off a naval mine.

Above: Original MPK – Note the distinctive mud-colored titanium alloy.

No, it’s not rust. This knife will never corrode or rust. In the decades since that these knifes have been in service with the Navy, not one has broken. The general issue knife has a gray blade with attribution to the manufacturer. This one has no markings.

I visited Rick a few times at his home in Mission Viejo during this time period. We talked about knives and what a true multi-purpose knife should look like. We also talked about a titanium folding knife (yes, I have one of those too) that he was developing. The hinge pin was steel, giving the folder a magnetic signature. Working in titanium is difficult.

Time passed and Rick Schultz sold his knife company. The new manufacturer took input and suggestions from various United States Special Operations personnel. The MPK would remain the issued knife to SEALs, but maybe a light weight, high strength, non-magnetic, no-corrosive tool—a titanium bladed knife—with a more compact and thinner silhouette, and with a “higher speed and lower drag coefficient” could be made.  Enter the Multi-Purpose Tactical Knife (MPT)

(Above Multi-Purpose Tactical Knife, below, new Navy titanium knife. Yes, I built a garrote for that knife case too.)

Note the grooved section on the blade’s spine, which gives a better non- slip surface when applying pressure to the blade with the thumb. The MPTs ergonomic hilt was specifically designed to feel comfortable in either hand, and, at the same time, can easily be shifted into any aggressive grip style needed to meet any challenge. The parrot’s beak shaped butt of the hilt allows the user maximum purchase when using the blade in either the standard (hammer) grip, fence’s (sideways) grip, or ice-pick (reverse) grip.

The new manufacturer set up in Anaheim, CA. I went there (two decades ago now) and had them sharpen the false (top) edge so that it’s not false anymore. They had the tools to grind titanium much easier than I could. So there’s no false edge on my knife anymore.

This brings us full circle. Which is better? Steel or titanium? To take famous lines from the people at the television knife competition, Forged in Fire, the knife needs to cut and the knife should also be able to kill. Beyond that, the choice is yours.

15 COMMENTS

  1. If I remember correctly, the quote up top is from Heinlein. Those are some very nice blades. I hit my three score and ten this summer and I’ve been thinking of ways to reward myself for surviving that long. First up is a better grade of whiskey than I usually imbibe. I prefer Irish. Second is a really nice 1911, Dan Wesson comes to mind. Maybe a really nice knife should be added to the list. I should start dropping hints to the better half.

  2. Yes, Lazarus Long (Heinlein character) quote. It’s useful to incorporate it into your daily pattern of living.

    I don’t know how much longer I have, but I’ve resolved not to cut corners when it comes to living every day (plague notwithstanding) and to enjoy the ride.

  3. From the FWIW file: I only know of a few grades of Titanium, but I’m sure the hobby metal sellers like Online Metals aren’t going to sell everything that might be used in specialized applications. Heck, my everyday ride bike is a Titanium alloy they don’t list (3Al / 2.5V).

    The titanium I’ve cut behaves like some stainless steel alloys. It works hardens easily and sometimes you get trapped in the situation where you need to cut deep and hard to break through the hardened layer but you’ll ruin the piece by cutting too deep if you do that. Another problem is that it can ignite from the heat of machining.

    There are some incredible steel alloys that hold a fantastic edge, yet can be bent nearly at right angles and go back to straight when the force is removed. I don’t really have a feel for how well titanium alloys perform in that sort of test.

    • The titanium knives did better in the testing in large part to their non-magnetic properties and their resilience in salt water. We threw all of the test knives in a basked and left them in salt water for a month, pulled them out and exposed them to oxygen. Steel oxidizes and really doesn’t like salt water. Titanium is also immune to electrolysis. For a land knife, I’d say that on par they’re similar. Weight isn’t an issue for a knife.

  4. Worked with an ex-military guy who was into the Society for Creative Anachronism in a big way.
    He had some ring mail armor made out of titanium rings 🙂

    • I have a friend who was big in the SCA as well. I don’t know how well titanium would hold up as chainmail. It would certainly be significantly lighter.

      • Update – his was chainmail as well, not ring mail.
        Imagine not having to check for rust all the time. As for lighter, he had a bum knee after his service days, so anything that helped was greatly appreciated.

  5. Like the knives! And those grenade ring pulls are handy too. I always used to put them on jacket zips. Of course garrote’s practical too.

  6. H/T Daily Timewaster-
    In the ancient Edda poem Hávamál, Odin gives advice on proper behavior for Vikings.

    In verse 38 Odin says:

    Vápnum sínum skal-a maðr velli á
    feti ganga framar,
    því at óvíst er at vita,
    nær verðr á vegum úti geirs of þörf guma

    In modern English:

    Let a man never stir on his road a step
    without his weapons of war;
    for unsure is the knowing when need shall arise
    of a spear on the way without

    OK, question time for the expert-
    Looking at most traditional ( ethnographic) combat knives, the sharp portion of the cutting edge extends right to the guard- no sculpturing or relief for a finger or such) I always wondered if that was to prevent the blade from getting hooked up in the opponents clothing on full penetration.

    One assumes the split rings are used between the fingers, with a stick or something, ,with the wire between the fingers,rather than as a ring? So they don’t trap a finger if things go sideways?

    • I’m not an expert. Just have some experience.

      (1) That’s correct. You don’t want anything to hang up. Some people mistakenly believe that a fuller is a “blood groove” but that’s not the case, it’s to lighten the blade. Usually there isn’t a fuller on a knife, but I’ve seen them on bayonets. Sometimes there is suction on a deep thrust, but you break it by twisting the blade slightly.

      (2) If the piano wire is thin enough, it slices and pulls through cleanly to the backbone with rings, and middle fingers. Better if you LOOP the wire over the head of your opponent, but there’s danger in that, too. Should be long enough to loop over an enemy soldier’s helmet. I’ve seen a number of different garrote designs. Some use wooden toggles, which are useful to give more leverage. Some have a ratchet design (East German & Spetznaz) with toggles so once tight, they can’t be removed, but they use wider straps, not piano wire. I don’t have a problem with the ratchet garrotes, but they are not nearly as quick.

      Practicing with a garrote on a picnic ham will give you a better notion of whether your wire is thin enough. And we’re talking about a man using the tool, not a woman or a person with limited hand strength.

  7. Larry, thats some interesting materiel. I can grasp the reasons and concepts, which are pretty sound even though they seem on the face esoteric. Definitely exotic when compared to normally used available industrial metals. Beryllium might still be a strategic metal. There are old Berylium deposits in Maine running up the Lapidalite escarpment from Kennybuckport to Snowshoe above Newery. Lot of high grade deposits of everything of high and rare value on and around around Mount Mica.
    Supposed to be the largest copper deposit on Earth up somewhere in NH. My grand dad owned a diatomaceous earth mine at Black Mountain he found and had legal claim to. They found all sorts of stuff there. I have panned for gold and found some decent gem grade tourmalines, garnets, and beryls too, mostly Helidor, yellow beryl. Lot of good gem material to be discovered up there. It’s said upper New England has the densest concentrations of minerals rare metals and gems on Earth, but its under 20-50 feet of gravel left by the last ice age.
    Those Beryllium deposits are along an exposed volcanic ridge, above the glacial overlay.
    Maybe there is a connection here to some things I recall, you might recognize, I’d like to share?

    Warning! Warning! Tin Foil Hat Moment: I contend there’s not much thats not connected or related in some way when it comes to this stuff and those involved. As the years pass, it’s evident to me at least more than any of us know for certain is connected. Or care to mention. Indeed its a small world.

    I remember from stories and particulars of note from out of Draper Lab’s in the early-mid 80’s, thru the welders/toolmakers grapevine, maybe they produced the Beryllium/Ti alloy templates your knives here are made of? I know from my own experience and from a fellow worked at Draper, the department he worked in they did a lot of R&D machining and materials research/engineering for various dial a yield nook designs, and multi staged fizz-zion/fuse-sion designs, among the many other covert military materials technology of the era. Something about Trit-ium and a unique Beryllium/lithium alloy being important components. (lith-ium was a componant in early fuze-sion devise designs) How Titanium was considered materially a kind of unique aluminum derivative alloy, which enabled alloying with some really crazy elements producing some crazy results. Been a lot of years now, some blank spots in these personal recollections.

    There was a decades long case of a few machinists working at Draper Labs who where poisoned the toxicity of a particular Beryllium alloy, parts so complex it took months of machine work to complete, and one machinist would work only on one particular piece to completion, lot of exposure time there, one machinist lost an arm to tumors from Beryllium alloy chips getting in his skin, a number got very ill from heavy metals blood poisoning, this particular account was published in the NewEngland Yellow Media, the Boston Glob for one a number of times, I personally read.

    I can’t recall the specific Beryllium alloy now, but from my own layman’s uneducated knowledge and remarks my acquaintance made, the speculations struck me to be Beryllium alloys placed, (irraidiated or raid-eeated?), in a fizzion reakt-or to obtain particular characteristics, or maybe they where radioactive due to how or what the manufacturing created prior to being machined at Draper Labs? Obscure is the operative word. One comment I won’t forget was speculation it may have been components recovered from nuke-lee-are whepons test sights, enhanced by the ultra high concentrations of various raod-ee-ations and new-tron effects focused up the test tunnels, where they place all sorts of items to see what happens to them.
    How upper management decreed because of the high intrinsic value of some alloys, they be repurposed, used in fabricating other items to save costs. Sounds pretty much plausible. Why not make some corrosion proof military blades out of it too. Imagine how much you can get compared to thousand dollar toilet seats? Snark. Lots of Snark.

    Here’s where things get funky. There was a decades old little research fizzion pile reakt-or behind the old Watertown Arsenal, for production of many WWII artillery and navel rifles, up at leat to Vietnam.
    Seen the containment vessel countless times myself across the river from a place of employment, constructed in a squat round dome top silo within a high security fenced complex of various plant equipment and structures.

    There was a small 3 man arms R&D shop located in the underground warrens of the Arsenal connected with Natick Labs, testing armor and other ballistic materials with a range of test guns duplicating the typical projectile and caliber external ballistics of the era. A fellow NH Militia member worked there. He mentioned to us on various occasions there was a group rumored at the Arsenal who put a lot of stuff in that old pile to see what kind of effects and materials could be produced.
    I know first hand a couple of them where sneaking in gemological grade uncolored clear Topaz and Quartz’s, among other gem materials, to obtain high value color changes produced from the raid-ee-ation exposure. Nice guys. Making a killing on unsuspecting people with these at the time, undetectable fakes. Lot of people have been exposed to those alpha and gamma radee-ations emitters, from lapidary’s and jewelers to wearing those gems never knowing it was happening.

    Might it be why those filings you speak of festered and caused tumors?
    No one it seems, found out exactly about Draper’s activities in this, most of whats done at Draper and the M-eye-T associated research is classified.
    I tried to get a job there in the late 70’s as a GTAW fusion welder, but was too inexperienced. Glad it didn’t work out, who knows what weld fumes I’d be breathing there?

    Used to visit a buddy on hoot-owl who worked at a plant producing 30mm dee-pleted ur-anus projectiles for the A10’s rotary cannon. That stuff’s some rugged shit. This one time Larry, & bunch of us where hanging out on Friday night, (my friends name coincidently, he was one of the crazy fuckers that made up our tribe then), consuming some tasty cold beverages on the plants loading dock. Larry had brought out a few rejected slugs. Talk about heavy, it has this unique strange color/patina, well old Larry jumps down runs up the pitch of the truck ramp, gets about 50 yards away, yells watch this! Skims a couple 30mm slugs like he was skipping stones, across the asphalt and down into the ramp against the concrete caisson of the dock, tremendous volume of sparks go scattering off like crazy when the slugs contacted each bounce and into the concrete dock. Larry scoots back and throws the slugs up says check out the marks on them. There was none. No marks but dust from the asphalt and concrete that wiped off clean leaving no indications the slug was sending off all those crazy sparks.
    Figure that depleted Ur-anium would make some mighty fine blades. Larry couldn’t get any for me, even scrap. Highly controlled and accounted for.

    There’s a couple other materials worth considering for blades.
    I got my start in forging knives in 1980, in 82 was fortunate to get to know a few guys, and be a student of, who are pioneers in two distinctly viable blade materials.
    Bill Moran who brought pattern welded steel, aka Damascus Steel, the “camp-knife” and the Vietnam era big ass combat knife, into vogue, and began a new age of Bladesmithing as a wider recognized & respected Makers craft.

    The other material is what the two gentleman who figured out how the ancient Persians created it, is “Wootz Steel”.
    If you aren’t aware, Damascus is a pretty loose term for a layered forged billet of forge welded steels, and a few particular non ferrous alloys in recent terms of the art of blade smithing, mostly nickel based, that fuse to ferrous alloys at forge weld temps. To say the myriad of combinations are unlimited, is akin to the exponential number of layers you can create when folding and welding your layered billet.
    There’s some pretty creative blade-smiths using various corrosion resistant alloy in their pattern welded blades. I am very sure that a highly corrosion resistant damascus blade is very do-able. Can’t say first hand, I use only tool and carbon steel for both pattern welded and single alloy forged blades/tools. The “engineering” and execution is pretty straight forward. developing the required Makers techniques is the trick. Lot of incredibly talented folks out there. And the materials world is in a constant state of advancement. Lot of fine exotic of powdered metal alloys of late.

    But that “Wootz” steel is something in its own class. It bears in the telling, because what your writing about here Larry rings a hundred bells in my head.
    Wootz 2-3 thousand years old in its origins. Giving credence to the ageless axiom about nothing is new under the sun.
    Had no idea at the time, other than it being some really cool shit, how very unique events where. Along with a buddy who we both had joined resources to start a forged blade smithy, we got to be in a workshop at the Ashoken Reservoir conference in 84, upstate New York, where the two guys who rediscovered how Wootz was made demonstrated the process. I preserved the research and work paper they handed out, they obtained a patent for Wootz its such a unique materiel.
    Crazy shit really. Wootz, it seems, is actually an alloy steel of carbon nanotube technology. 2-3 thousand years ago, as far as could be determined at that point we participated in the workshop. I believe its one of if not the highest corrosion resistant blade materiel’s created prior modern Aerospace corrosion resistant steel and nickel alloys.
    Held in my hand and really looked at closely a 2400 year old Wootz blade recovered from an archeological dig, think it was discovered in or near the Levant. 2000 years old via carbon dating this blade was buried. No rust or oxidation, period, not even a patina, and there’s not an atom of corrosion resistant metal used in it’s creation.
    How the two guys who taught us their process figured it out how it was originally produced is mind blowing. Couple really sharp minds with lots of practical outside the box creativity.
    How I see it, Wootz is like something from a Sci-Fi novel from an alien race with superbly advanced science. Not shitting you. Really tough stuff to forge from the “cake” which is the billet created from the process of Wootz production. A 150lb little giant barely moves it at yellow heat temps. 8 hours beating on a 1.5 lb cake, barely had it into an oblong billet for stepping up to forging a blade from it. Gave up using the power hammer and got a 20lb sledge from the truck and used that, swinging with everything I and my buddy had to get that cake to form from the lozenge crucible shape into a squared off billet. I’m 6ft 245lbs, built like a gorilla, Ray about an inch shorter and 25 lbs less, we weren’t no pussies far as physical ability, both of us raised on farms and lived outdoors. A Wootz cake is still the toughest thing by orders of magnitude I ever swung a hammer at.
    Bill Moran hung out with us for about 8 hrs, sitting there all night chuckling and making astute comments. I think he was as fascinated as we where. He was a guy with that great twinkle in his eye. Real sweet gentle southerner. He signed the book I bought from him he wrote about Damascus and blade forging, with a real nice missive. I think he enjoyed our young dumb and full of cum perseverance getting that cake to form. We was kids basically, all of 22 years, we had just built a forge under an old broken back extention of a post & beam barn and had begun forging blades. Would not want to be Bill’s enemy, I think he’d slice you up for dog meat in a new york minute and dump your dead ass in a hollow for the buzzards.

    A finished Wootz blade was demonstrated to us can be bent past 90 degrees, hard on the edge of the vice jaws, both ways, in a vice, twice, and show no signs of fatigue failure, cracking etc. Plenty of deformation, but it was still a perfectly good lethal weapon.
    Once forged to final shape, no heat treat is used. The blade is done except for final dressing, polishing etc.

    How a Wootz cake is formed is about as simple a process as it gets. It’s grunt work though, and hot.
    You take a graphite crucible, at least a 7#, with cover, about 1.5 tons of the finest Sewel, or other premium Bituminous metallurgical coal, low sulfur high BTU hard Anthracite can be used also, the fuel is mostly for maintaining a high heat, though there’s plenty of carbon and other element migrations that happen in the “Fire” at those temps.
    You need about 50 cinderblocks to build an open top, dirt floor dry block kiln. 6-12 wood stove fire bricks.
    Take your forge blower and run a duct long enough, say at least 10 feet away, to get enough clearance from heat damage when your cooking your Wootz. Your going to have a one wicked furnace of pure coke going for as long as your coal load lasts, around 3 days all told. The greatest heat lasts about 24 hrs. Do this outside.
    What goes into the crucible is Food Safe mild steel waste slugs from a production fab shop punch, preferably of .250 dia x .064-.125 thickness, a quantity of iron filings, preferably iron filing used for Thermite welding, and a box of Boraxo, plus a 3/4 inch aluminum round bar at least 3 ft in length, any commercial alloy.
    The Firing goes like this: mount your filled crucible on a pedastal of 6 fire bricks laid flat, in the center of a box of cinder blocks about 6x6ft ID, around 3 ft tall. Start yourself a small coal fire up near the crucible pedastal, with your blower duct point at it, say around a foot of gap between the fire and outlet of duct. I use a piece of schedule 80 iron pipe, fed by a flexible aluminum dryer vent duct from the blower.
    Start carefully shoveling coal into your kiln, keeping the start fire cooking, you want to build a mound, (bee hive), centered on your crucible, turn up the air to get a good body of coals, and start coking your “bee hive” with your sprinkle can, you can move your coke out to the sides as you put on more fresh coal, once you have enough coke to build about 4-5 ft beehive above the crucible, you get to cooking your Wootz. It dont need to be a large diameter cavity of burning coke only it needs to be about high yellow inside surrounding the crucible. Requires constant tending. Sodium glasses or filter is advisable as your looking into a lot of high intensity infared thru your inspection hole you poke out to see the inside of your beehive. About 3/4’s way thru the cook, your going to pull back enough fire to see the top of the crucible, remove the cover, take you aluminum bar and plunge it into the melt. It will almost explode so be aware of liquid metal shrapnel, worst than weld spatter down your boot or in your ear canal, it gets everywhere. Replace cover, rebuild your beehive, and cook till your coal/coke reserve is depleted. Let cool undisturbed to complete ambient. Dead nuts cold. Do Not Touch. You may have to smash the crucible to remove your Wootz Cake.
    I’ve done this 3 times, once at the Ashoken conference, twice at the homestead.
    Wootz after it is lovingly hand polished to a satan finish, has what looks exactly like woven cloth structure to it. It is the crystal structure in the Wootz, its large enough to discern by eyeball. Its almost translucent down to the cross over-under of the “fibers” in the Wootz.
    Thats about all I really know. Its some kind of really exceptional alloy/crystalline structure, that far as I understand materials science is just now beginning to get an understanding of. It’s determined to be carbon nano tube structire. Even feels dense. Holds a vicious edge.
    The is an alloy of INDESTRUCTO.
    I use almost exclusively 01 and W2 tool steel for forging blades. Alloys hard to top for blades. Old trued and true steels. 01 is particularly rugged and has pretty decent corrosion resistance. Wootz is like something from an entirely higher order of blade materiel. Another class of ferrous based alloy, nothing like it.

    Blades never FTF, FTE, they don’t tun out of ammo, no batteries required, a most trusty tool with 1001 uses, as weapons they are about up close and personal as it gets.
    Blades sure do touch something Barbarian nature within us.
    Like staring into the coals of a fire.
    Forging blades there’s an ageless fire spirit at work.
    Something Primal.
    Primally Gratifying.

  8. That is an interesting knife set. And Titanium makes perfect sense for your ‘application’… I’d love to have one, but I can’t afford one… sigh

  9. An old friend (engineer) who worked the early U.S. missile systems and another who worked on the nuclear program with Rickover, both mentioned machining of beryllium parts for certain very important components in both missiles and nuclear explosives. The machining was carried out in sealed rooms and wearing total hazmat suits with their own piled in filtered air. This well before the advent of CNC and computers Can’t imagine how deadly chips and dust must be or how the room was cleaned out (maybe it was just entombed in concrete after the project, details were not given).

    BTW, the UP up around Houghton still has very high grade copper and silver deposits, just not economical to mine as on other places. Oldest bedrock in the nation pokes up out of the ground up there. Spent a few summers poking about and hunting for native copper. Thank Ben Frankling for how we got to keep the UP and not have it go to Canada.

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