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Frontier Blade Musings by Mark Hatmaker

[I offer the following in advance of our addition of Frontier blade, tomahawk, and like weaponry to the RAW Program beginning 2019.]

Much advice on early frontier blade work [Bowie knife, dirk, tomahawk, etc.] is speculation. In some cases, good speculation, but in execution it appears to be a variation of some eastern blade work transposed with alternate terminology to give it a patina of New World verisimilitude.

If one takes a deep enough historical dive there are enough resources to give a more accurate eye as to what may have actually occurred with early continental edged weaponry. References buried in contemporary letters, journals, archives and the like abound regarding such things as “bad doin’s with Kansas neck-blisters.” [Knife fight using bowies.]

Many of these refences make no mention of tactics or strategies just as most of today’s blade [and gun encounters for that matter] have little to do with skill and more to do with willingness to engage or respond with deadly force.

Does this mean there was no educated blade work occurring on the American Frontiers? Not at all.

We must consider that this was an armed culture, whether those arms be rifle, pistol, musket, revolver, shotgun, blade, tomahawk, hatchet, ax, cudgel. These “weapons” were often no more than tools. Tools used on a regular basis to provide provender, to fell trees for shelter, to prepare kindling for every meal made. We are looking at a culture that made ready facile everyday use of items that today we often only see as weapons and not the everyday tools that they once were.

Deep familiarity with a tool creates facile users, and statistical distributions dictate that some users were more facile than others and wild brutal circumstances as frontier living often embodied means that some of these facile users made ready use of their “tool” skills in less than domestic-harmony affairs.

Oft used tools imply readier skill than unfamiliar tools seldom used. In a day when being a good shot with a firearm often spelled the difference between going hungry and being a well-fed citizen tool use was essential.

As civilization creeps into frontiers such tool use becomes less and less necessary and therefore less and less used. And the tool use can fade and becomes a parlor trick skill, much as “He’s a good shot at the firing range” or “She drills well during zumbrada.”

We must ask ourselves if recreational use, even if rather skilled, is quite the same as daily utilitarian skilled?

For example, I’ve seen good athletes chop wood for training and the “Oomph!” of providing their own firewood for a suburban home fireplace.

And…I’ve seen skilled lumberjacks who chop every work day.

Believe me, there is a significant difference in use and outcome.

Back to “the educated use” of blade/tools.

Beyond the utilitarian skills conferred, and the greater likelihood of having to use said tools as a weapon in a wild environment, do we have evidence of “thoughtful” use of said weaponry?

That is, uses and ideas strictly martial in nature?

Oh, indeed.

We must never forget that this nation was the proverbial melting pot of cultures and influences.

We have Spanish blade cultures permeating Florida and the entire Southwest.

We have French blade cultures in Canadian Territory and Louisiana.

We have Italian blade culture in New York and again back in Louisiana, particularly in New Orleans.

We have Russian saber influence in the Northwest Territories, as well as a surprising amount of early Japanese interface along the Pacific Coast.

We have Chinese influence in the port cities of California, Seattle and all along the railway system.

And we have the hot-blooded infusion of Scots-Irish blade culture in the Southeast where it is not uncommon to find Donald McBane’s 1728 The Expert Sword-Man's Companion and other such instructionals referenced in frontier letters.

The skills both utilitarian and educated were rife in the Frontiers of the Americas. Skill was likely not uncommon.

Let’s close with an observation from Field Marshal Prince Aleksandr V. Sukorov’s The Science of Victory (1796.)

The bullet is a mad thing; only the bayonet knows what it is about.”

The history and the odds dictate that many of the men and women on the “New” continent “knew what the blade was about.”


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