Designing a Combative Knife

October 13, 2019 in Knifemakers Notebook

When it comes to designing a combative knife from scratch, I used to let my mind do all the creating. I would sit and think, maybe see something that sparked the concept, let it brew for a while until suddenly it came out. I would then draw, letting whatever was in my mind spill out onto the paper until it looked right.

I suppose it was instinctive design.

I had been given a lot of pointers when I first started out by my longtime friend and mentor, creator of the Maul system, Schalk Holloway. The Shrike was my first proper combative blade, it was the knife I created for myself for the work we were doing together in the Maul. Schalk credits me as a “Co-creator” but in reality, he did a lot more of the thinking and I was really just a test dummy the ideas were tried on. But it was during that time I really felt the need for a pikal knife and I really couldn’t afford to buy one. I wasn’t really working, and was training basically full time, trying to run my own combatives classes but not really getting much traction.

Designing a Combative Knife

The first Shrike, my personal carry for more than a year.

I had made a couple of blades prior to this, but nothing specifically for fighting. It took a couple of attempts to get the idea for the Shrike down. Getting my head around the Pikal style and all of the features Schalk had mentioned to me wasn’t easy – I was both a novice knifemaker and not really fully understanding some of the concepts being thrown at me. But in the end, I produced a knife I felt happy with, confident enough to carry and passed scrutiny by Schalk. He even came up with the name… calling it a “vicious little bird”.

It was really from that moment on that I began to fall head over heels into Pikal designs… I refined and refined, and refined some more. Explored the extremes of what I felt was realistic and practical, pushed more curves, less curves, finger choils, hooks, neutral grips, indents, double and single edges. It was a 2-year period of beating everything I could out of the Pikal style until I had several designs that I felt were usable and offered something a bit different from one another, but still remained wholly practical.

Coming up on almost 2 and a half years of full time knifemaking now, I am starting to approach things a little differently. Maybe it’s having had to do a few custom commissions this year that have set me off on a new path to creating new designs.

Every so often the new design comes to me. I sit with a concept of what I want to create in my mind… the latest example was a minimalist concept for the Gambit. I had the idea of something minimal in my head, but I wasn’t really sure what it would be. Then one day while hand cutting a Shrike I messed it up and made it too small. Instead of discarding it I pushed it a bit until I could see something in it. I only knew what it was when I saw it, and I knew that’s where to stop. The Gambit was born that way.

Ironside Edgeworks Gambit

The latest version of the Sever also had a similar birth. I had a weirdly shaped off cut of Elmax I didn’t want to throw away – it was too big to waste but not the right shape for anything out of my usual designs. Then it hit me, almost like out of nowhere I suddenly saw the shape. The idea to change the Sever had been floating around in the back of my head for a while and it suddenly came to me in that moment. Everything aligned to produce the updated version of the knife which is now available.

This kind of instinctive design works if you have it. I honestly don’t know if other makers do things this way, but I’m now starting to lean toward a more thought out approach to designs.

I’m reigning things in a little. In 2020 I plan to really only produce 3 new models. One of them isn’t even new, it just hasn’t been shown to the world yet. But I really want to get down to producing thought out blades.

My work has always been about merging practical and artistic, and I’m very wary of becoming too artistic for the sake of creating something new. I do not want my work to ever become a fantasy. If you create knives for a serious purpose like I do, then that really needs to be a concern at the forefront of your mind.

My approach for design now takes a different road. Instead of settling on a singular idea and waiting for the universe to deliver it to me I now set parameters. The most important question a knifemaker can ask himself when creating a new design is “What do I want this knife to do?”.

It may seem trivial and obvious, but it’s actually a sometimes-difficult question to answer. If only because we tend to overcomplicate things these days. Everyone wants to be different, and everyone wants to have multi-functionality to do many different things with one tool. But if we discard all of the nonsense, do away with the design tinsel used to attract high end collectors then we are left with very basic parameters. I want to stress that there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with the “Tinsel”, except that it is quite often used to disguise a really crappy tree. Having high quality finishes, and exotic materials is always nice – just make sure they adorn a design that holds merit.

Ironside Edge Works Harbinger

If I want the blade to be exceptionally good at piercing, it will need a reinforced tip. I want it to be double edged for versatility. I’ll have to now consider a hybrid geometry so I can keep that tip robust. I want it to be strong enough to penetrate skull bone, and still be a razor for that pikal cut. I’ll need to consider the steel and make sure it has the toughness required for that… this is the kind of thought process that needs to be followed now. Careful and considered.

I started my career as a knifemaker specializing in combative blades because that was really all I wanted to focus on. I was lucky enough through my mentorship and influences that I was put on the right path. Perhaps I owe myself some credit in my creativity and vision to see different choices and options. But I think the natural and rapid growth has to slow at some point and mature. Next year will be a period of reflection and refinement, with very subtle changes to come.

That said, I have at least three new ideas coming that I am sure will be well received.

Gaijin, Elil and a yet to be named official “Maul” knife, set to be revealed after the book release.


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