Friday, October 28, 2005

Damascus Steel

Development of Damascus steel

When forming a batch of steel, impurities are added to control the properties of the resulting alloy. In general, notably during the era of Damascus steel, one could produce an alloy that was strong and brittle at one extreme by adding up to 2% carbon, or soft and malleable at the other, with about 0.5% carbon. The problem for a swordsmith is that the best steel should be both strong and malleable—strong to hold an edge once sharpened, but malleable so it would not break when hitting other metal in combat. This was not possible with normal processes.
Metalsmiths in
India perhaps as early as 300 BC (although more likely 200 AD) developed a new technique known as wootz steel that produced a high-carbon steel of unusually high purity. Glass was added to a mixture of iron and charcoal and then heated. The technique propagated very slowly though the world, reaching modern-day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan around 900, and then the Middle East around 1000.

This process was further refined, either using locally produced steels, or by re-working wootz purchased from India. The exact process remains unknown, but allowed
carbides to precipitate out as micro particles arranged in sheets or bands within the body of a blade. The carbides are far harder than the steel, allowing the swordsmith to make an edge centered on one of the carbide bands and thus very strong, while the sword as a whole remained flexible as in normal steels. The banded carbide precipitates appear in the blade as a beautiful swirling patterning, apparently the origin of the term damask.

Loss of the technique

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the process was then lost to the Middle-Eastern metalsmiths around
1600 CE, and has been eagerly sought by many since that time. The Russian bulat steel has many similar properties, at least in nature if not in process. Recently various groups have claimed to have recreated the process, though even they admit they cannot be certain how it was originally created. Verhoeven et. al (1998) believe that the key is controlled thermal cycling (10-20 heating/cooling repetitions between room temperature and about 100 °C below the austenitizing temperature) after the initial forging; a somewhat different technique was proposed by Wadsworth and Sherby (1980; also 2001).

For some time, it was believed that Damascus steel was made in a similar fashion to what is known as
pattern welding, a sword making technique that was widely used in Europe and Japan. Pattern welding is a mechanical process that lays up strips of material which are then pounded together, or folded, as in Japanese practice. If the blade is then etched in acid the layering below the surface is revealed, the patterns being similar to that of Damascus steel. For some time this similarity was used to dismiss Damascus as yet another pattern-welded steel, but modern metallurgy demonstrated this to be wrong.
It has also long been argued that the raw material for Damascus steel swords was imported from India, because India was the only known center of crucible-fired steels like

However this too proved wrong when the furnaces in Turkmenistan were discovered, demonstrating at least that the technique was moving out from India. There appears to be no reason to suspect that similar metal factories were not built in Damascus, although if this were the case their later disappearance requires explanation. However, if Alfred Pendray's work is correct, several key impurities that appear to give damascus steel its properties point to particular ores available in India.

Another common myth is that Crusaders introduced the term to Europe after meeting it in combat. However several historical studies have demonstrated that the term did not appear in
English until the 16th century.

Even the name itself remains somewhat controversial. Although it would seem obvious that it refers to swords built in
Damascus, there are several equally likely sources. One is the Arabic word damas for water, referring to the surface pattern that looks like turbulent water. Another potential source is the swordsmith himself, the author al-Beruni refers to swords made by a man he names Damasqui. Finally another author, al-Kindi, refers to swords made in Damascus as Damascene.

This word has often been employed as an epithet in various legends in Eastern Europe ("Sabya Damaskinya" meaning "Damascene sword"), of which perhaps the most known are Bulgarian and Serbian ones of Krali Marko, a historical figure in nowaday Macedonia in the late 14th century.
So, even after 1000 years, Damascus steel remains something of a mystery.

Types of Damascus

The original Damascus was a steel type now called wootz. Until the techniques were rediscovered in the
1980s by Alfred Pendray, it was widely believed that nobody knew exactly how this was made, though a very similar material was made by the Stanford team of Oleg Sherby and Jeff Wadsworth. Pendray's recreation of the traditional process involves putting iron and several other ingredients in a clay crucible and heating them until they meld together. Other recent metallurgical work, both in Russia and the United States, may have created new pathways to this marvelous material.

Pattern welded steel is commonly known today as Damascus, although this is historically incorrect. Pattern weld Damascus is made out of several types of steel and iron slices, which are then welded together to form a billet. The patterns vary depending on what the smith does to the billet. The billet is drawn out and folded until the desired number of layers are formed. Japanese
katana were made with this method. Also kris or keris swords of Indonesia were made of pattern weld.

Another material similar to Pattern weld is
mokume-gane. Mokume is made of the softer metals, like gold, silver, and copper. It is made in much the same way as pattern weld Damascus, and is used for rings, tsubas (the guard on a katana), and knife bolsters. The name mokume-gane means "wood eye", referring to the pattern of the metals, which looks like wood grain. It was first made by the Japanese.
Some ancient
shotgun barrels (usually on double barreled guns) were formed from forged wires. This leaves a visible wire pattern in the barrel and such are referred to as "Damascus Barrels".

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Switchblade Knives


by Bernard Levine (c)1990

published in KNIFE WORLD August 1990

AUGUST 12, 1958, a date that has faded into obscurity, the
Congress of the United States enacted Public Law 85-623, an
"act to prohibit the introduction, or manufacture for
introduction, into interstate commerce of switchblade knives,
and for other purposes," and sent it on to President
Eisenhower for his signature. Under this act, "The term
'switchblade knife' meant any knife having a blade which
opens automatically --

(1) by hand pressure applied to a button or other device in
the handle of the knife, or

(2) by operation of inertia, gravity, or both."
The maximum penalty for each violation of this law was a
$2,000 fine and five years in jail.
It is not within the constitutional authority of the United
States to ban manufacture or possession of a class of item,
although the individual states have almost unlimited
authority to do so. What the federal government may do,
according to Article I, Section VIII, Clause 3 of the
Constitution, is "To regulate commerce with foreign nations,
and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes."
Using the authority of this "Interstate Commerce" clause,
Congress did the very next thing to banning switchblade

In 1958 only two American companies still made
switchblades: Imperial and Colonial. Both were then in
Providence, Rhode Island, and so telling them that they could
not make switchblades for sale in interstate commerce was
effectively the same as telling them not to make switchblades
at all.

Up until 1954, Schrade-Walden in upstate New York had been
the leading manufacturer of switchblades. That year the state
of New York had banned their manufacture and sale, so
Imperial, the parent company of Schrade-Walden, had taken
over the firm's switchblade production.

The George Schrade Knife Co. of Connecticut had also been a
major domestic supplier of switchblades. This firm was sold
to Boker of New Jersey in 1956 (George Schrade had died in
1940). However both New Jersey and Connecticut banned
switchblades shortly after New York had done so, and thus
only the two Providence firms were still in the switchblade
business in 1958.

The debate in Congress over the bills to ban switchblades
from interstate congress (in 1958 there were four versions in
the House and one in the Senate) had the surreal quality
inevitable when immoral men put on a public show of enforcing
morality. As in the present debate over "assault" rifles,
Congressmen, media tycoons, and big-city police chiefs
indulged in hysterical fits of fabricated sensationalism.

Faced with this onslaught in 1958, most reasonable men kept
silent and went along, out of fear of being labeled "pro-
criminal." Even the National Rifle Association knuckled
under, then still believing in the power of appeasement.
To its credit, the Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA)
spoke out against the proposed ban, recognizing it both as
unreasonable in itself, and as setting a dangerous precedent
for additional bans.

IWLA Conservation Director J. W. Penfold
wrote, "Many of our State divisions and local chapters have
firmly resisted State or municipal legislation which would
restrict ownership and use of sporting arms in efforts to
control the ownership of weapons by thugs. Generally I
believe our membership does not believe that such legislation
would achieve its objective but would hinder and thwart the
law-abiding citizens in his use of arms for sporting

Not surprisingly, supporters of the ban later quoted a few
lines of Penfold's letter out of context, in order to convey
the false impression that the IWLA supported the ban.
New York State Senator Frank J. Pino of Brooklyn had a glib
rebuttal for the sportsman angle. He testified, "Actually,
these knives are, I would say inherently dangerous, they have
only one purpose. They are just deadly. They are lethal
weapons, and they are suited for crime, that is all they are
suited for. So that the sportsmen really have nothing
substantial to complain about. But they do complain. It is an
emotional thing with them, somehow.

"I know we have had their complaints, too, in connection
with a bill which I have had in the legislature to limit the
sale of ammunition in the city of New York...
"This is a problem that we have in all of the big cities.
And it is a question of weighing the conveniences of a group
against the welfare and the health and the lives of many,
many people. That is all it is."

No, Senator Pino, it is a question of rights versus
tyranny. Your arguments are the same ones used to justify
concentration camps. They "inconvenience" a group, to promote
the "welfare" of the tyrannical majority.

The only prominent public agencies with the courage to
oppose the anti-switchblade measure were the two that would
be charged with enforcing it: the Department of Justice and
the Department of Commerce. They argued that the measure
would be both costly to the government and burdensome to law-
abiding citizens, yet it would accomplish no useful purpose.
Moreover, it would extend the powers of the federal
government into areas that had hitherto been the exclusive
domain of the states. They were joined in their opposition by
the Bureau of the Budget.

Deputy Attorney General William P. Rogers wrote, "The
Department of Justice is unable to recommend enactment of
this legislation.

"The committee may wish to consider whether the problem to
which this legislation is addressed is one properly within
the police powers of the various States. As you know, Federal
law now prohibits the interstate transportation of certain
inherently dangerous articles such as dynamite and
nitroglycerin on carriers also transporting passengers. The
instant measures would extend the doctrine upon which such
prohibitions are based by prohibiting the transportation of a
single item which is not inherently dangerous but requires
the introduction of a wrongful human element to make it so.

"Switchblade knives in the hands of criminals are, of
course, potentially dangerous weapons. However, since they
serve useful and even essential purposes in the hands of
persons such as sportsmen, shipping clerks, and others
engaged in lawful pursuits, the committee may deem it
preferable that they be regulated at the State rather than
the Federal level."

Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks wrote, "The general
intent of these legislative proposals appears to be to
improve crime prevention by control of the use of the
switchblade knife as a weapon of assault. This approach gives
rise to certain objections. One is that, at best, it is an
indirect approach which addresses itself to only one of many
implements useable by an assailant. This casts doubt upon the
resulting effectiveness in the reduction of crime in relation
to its enforcement problems...

"While this proposed legislation recognizes that there are
legitimate uses that have need for switchblade knives, the
exemptions would appear to assume that the most significant
of these uses lie in Government activities. To us, this
ignores the needs of those who derive and augment their
livelihood from the 'outdoor' pursuits of hunting, fishing,
trapping, and of the country's sportsmen, and many others. In
our opinion there are sufficient of these that their needs
must be considered."

The Department of Defense, by contrast, pusillanimously
endorsed the ban, but only on condition that it be declared
exempt itself. It was, as were all other local, state, and
federal government agencies.

Oddly, most of the backers of the anti-switchblade bills
agreed with Secretary Weeks that prohibiting switchblades
would accomplish little in the way of curtailing crime. They
readily admitted that their measure was largely symbolic.
Being politicians, however, they knew that empty but highly
visible symbolic acts garner far more votes than low-profile
but effective reforms. They also knew that it was politically
safer to criminalize the actions of a couple of small
manufacturers, rather than to punish the juvenile delinquency
of the children of some of their constituents.

The most persistent advocate of a switchblade ban was
Representative James J. Delaney of New York City, author of
the first federal anti-switchblade bill back in 1954. That
first effort never made it out of committee.

In his testimony before the House commerce committee on
April 17, 1958, Delaney stated, "Every day our newspapers
report numerous muggings and attacks, most of them involving
knives. Can we sit by complacently and ignore the bloodshed
in our streets?
Doing away with switchblades will not be a
cure-all for the crime wave sweeping the Nation, but it will
remove one of the favorite weapons of our juvenile and
criminal element.
"... it was not until about 1949 or 1950 that these things
came into common usage. In the gathering of juvenile gangs
and clans, nearly every one of them has a switchblade. It is
a ritual with some of them to carry switchblades. It is not
only the boys, but I was surprised to find that a great
number of the girls carry them also."

Congressman Delaney's mind was made up, so it probably
would have been pointless to confuse him with the facts.
Switchblades came into common use in the United States, not
around 1950 as he stated, but around 1850. After the turn of
the century, thanks to the inventive genius of George Schrade
(and the "protection" of the Tariff Acts of 1891 and 1897),
American made switchblades of all sizes became popular and

Another backer of the ban had an even more creative view of
history than Delaney. U.S. Senator Frederick G. Payne of
Maine asked a witness, "Isn't it true that that type of
knife, switchblade knife, in its several different forms, was
developed, actually, abroad, and was developed by the so-
called scum, if you want to call it, or the group who are
always involved in crime?" The witness, New York State
Justice John E. Cone, co-founder of the Committee to Ban
Teen-Age Weapons, enthusiastically agreed.

The most outspoken proponent of a ban chose a sexual
metaphor to express his anxieties. Representative Sidney R.
Yates of Illinois testified, "Vicious fantasies of
omnipotence, idolatry... barbaric and sadistic atrocities,
and monstrous violations of accepted values spring from the
cult of the weapon and the switchblade knife is included in

"Minus switchblade knives and the distorted feeling of
power they beget -- power that is swaggering, reckless, and
itching to express itself in violence -- our delinquent
adolescents would be shorn of one of their most potent means
of incitement to crime."

So how could the United States of America, the land of the
free and the home of the brave, have sunk so low as to submit
to these demagogues, to feel obligated to "save" its citizens
from an everyday item sold here regularly for the past
hundred years, and in common use for the past fifty? The
answer can be found in the most basic philosophical
underpinnings of our country.

From its establishment in 1789, the American republic
itself, as well as its promises of Life, Liberty, and the
Pursuit of Happiness, have meant different things to
different of its citizens. The most important of these
differences can be traced to two fundamentally different and
largely irreconcilable philosophical outlooks.
Two centuries ago, these differences were widely recognized
and understood, because they very nearly prevented the
Constitutional Convention from reaching any conclusion at
all. Today the differences are just as deep, and just as
pervasive, but most of us tend to see them only in regard to
specific contemporary issues, rather than as more general
matters of philosophy.

The conflicts over such divisive
issues as abortion, gun control, drug prohibition,
affirmative action, environmental protection, and industrial
policy can never be settled by reasoned debate, because the
adherents to each side of these issues do not share a common
philosophy. Instead the resolution of these issues will be
dictated, unsatisfactorily to all, by the naked exercise of
political power: the tyranny of popular or Congressional
majorities inflamed by media hysteria, or the arbitrary
absolutism of the courts.

The two irreconcilable views of the nature of our republic
that underlie these issues today have been a part of the
republic since the beginning. A clear exposition of these two
views is set forth by University of Alabama professor Forrest
McDonald in his 1985 book, Novus Ordo Seclorum, The
Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. On pages 70-74 he
explains the differences between what he calls puritanical
republicanism, on the one hand, and agrarian republicanism,
on the other. First, however, he elucidates their common

He says that in a true republic, a system of "rule by the
public," the vital principle is public virtue (from virtus,
manly strength). In Professor McDonald's words, public virtue
"entailed firmness, courage, endurance, industry, frugal
living, strength, and above all, unremitting devotion to the
weal of the public's corporate self, the community of
virtuous men. It was at once individualistic and communal:
individualistic in that no member of the public could be
dependent upon any other and still be reckoned a member of
the public; communal in that every man gave himself totally
to the good of the public as a whole. If public virtue
declined, the republic declined, and if it declined too far,
the republic died.

"Philosophical historians had worked out a regular life
cycle, or more properly death cycle, of republics. Manhood
gave way to effeminacy, republican liberty to licentiousness.
Licentiousness, in turn, degenerated into anarchy, and
anarchy inevitably led to tyranny." Thus far did the two
republican philosophies agree.

"What distinguished puritanical republicanism from the
agrarian variety was that the former sought a moral solution
to the problem of the mortality of republics (make better
people), whereas the latter believed in a socioeconomic-
political solution (make better arrangements).

"Almost nothing was outside the purview of puritanical
republican government, for every matter that might in any way
contribute to strengthening or weakening the virtue of the
public was a thing of concern to the public -- a res publica
-- and it was subject to regulation by the public. [Puritan]
Republican liberty was totalitarian: one was free to to do
that, and only that, which was in the interest of the public,
the liberty of the individual being subsumed in the freedom
or independence of his political community."

This totalitarian view of a fragile and tottering republic,
one that would be undermined by the slightest private
indiscretion, one that could only be preserved by an
aggressive policing of every individual's private morality in
every minute particular, predominated in Puritan New England,
especially Massachusetts. It also found favor in the areas of
the South, especially parts of Virginia, where the
evangelical Great Awakening took hold. Most southerners,
however, adhered to the agrarian view of republicanism.

In the agrarian view, again quoting McDonald, "Virtue meant
manliness, and manliness meant independence... the
necessary independence could be had only if a man owned
enough land, unencumbered by debts or other obligations, to
provide himself and his family with all their material needs;
and this independence... was in the last analysis measured
by his ability to bear arms and use them in his own
quarrels... In sum, ownership of the land begat independence,
independence begat virtue, and virtue begat republican
liberty... In the southern scheme of things, private virtue,
in the rigorous sense in which it was defined by the Yankees,
was unnecessary to the maintenance of republican liberty. The
arch agrarian John Taylor of Caroline [1753-1824] put it
succinctly: 'The more a nation depends for its liberty on the
qualities of individuals, the less likely it is to retain it.

By expecting public good from private virtue, we expose
ourselves to public evils from private vices.'"
If Taylor were to return today, he would nod sagely at our
drug "crisis" and say, "end the prohibition and you will end
the crisis." The puritans among us (currently a majority,
especially in the mass media) would gasp with horror, and
predict the imminent demise of our republic.

McDonald continues, "Agrarian republicanism was therefore
essentially negative in the focus of its militance: it
demanded vigilance only in regard to certain kinds of men and
institutions which, as its adherents viewed history, had
proved inimical or fatal to liberty... standing armies,
priests, bishops, aristocrats, luxury, excises, speculators,
jobbers, paper shufflers, monopolists, bloodsuckers, and

Agrarian republicans, in theory anyway, viewed their
republic as well-founded and durable. The puritan view of a
fragile and tottering republic baffled them. Private
morality, or a lack thereof, simply had no effect on an
agrarian republic's overall vitality. The only kind of
behavior that could endanger their republic was a calculated
self-serving attack on one of its fundamental institutions:
private property, equality before the law, free markets, the
right to keep and bear arms.

Puritan republicans, by contrast, view every sin, indeed
every temptation to sin, as dire threats to their republic.
Their response in every case is simple and direct. First ban
the sin. Then, just to be on the safe side, ban the
temptation, too.

This is not at all a left-versus-right issue. Militant
puritans dominate the extremes on both sides. Those on the
right who would ban abortion and those on the left who would
ban hand guns both aspire to a puritan police state that will
regulate the behavior of their neighbors and themselves --
although puritan leaders often exempt themselves from their
own rules.

An agrarian, by contrast, might say, "if you oppose
abortion, don't have one; if you oppose hand guns, don't own
one; if you oppose drugs, don't use them. He is willing to
live and let live, unless someone attacks him or his

In the 1950s, America's puritan republican zeal, ever
watchful for temptation and sin, turned its basilisk gaze on
to pocketknives. The 1950s, a time of happy nostalgia for
people too young to remember the decade, saw the almost
unchallenged dominance of the puritan outlook. That was a
time when the fortunes of the agrarian viewpoint had fallen
so low that hardly a single public figure North or South
dared to espouse it.

There is a fascinating double standard in puritanism, an
unwritten rule that the enforcers of private morality are
exempt from its strictures. This applies equally to private
life (such as J. Edgar Hoover's homosexuality or John F.
Kennedy's adultery) and to public pronouncements. Today the
proponents of "assault" rifle and hand gun bans simply make
up their statistics (see my letter citing examples in the
October 1989 American Rifleman, page 18), and their
predecessors did the same thing about switchblades in the

As early as 1953, Representative Delaney "made a 1-man
review and addressed inquiries to the police heads of some 40
of our largest and medium-sized cities. The response
established beyond doubt that switchblades are commonly
involved in crimes in smaller cities, as well as in the
metropolitan areas."

In 1957 and 1958, similar "surveys" were undertaken by
Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver for the Senate Judiciary
Committee's Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency.
These surveys asked police chiefs for hard data on
switchblades used in crimes, especially juvenile crimes.
Not quite half of the chiefs responded, furnishing the
coon-skin-capped crime buster overall crime statistics, total
juvenile arrest statistics, and enthusiastic letters of
support assuring the senator that switchblade knives were no
doubt involved in practically all of these tens of thousands
of incidents.

Kefauver quoted excerpts from some of these
letters, happily oblivious to their irony.
San Francisco police chief Francis J. Ahern wrote "'... a
substantial amount of our juvenile crimes of violence involve
the use of this type of knife.' He further stated that since
the enactment of a local ordinance, the use of such knives in
crimes has diminished."

San Francisco sure was lucky to have such law-abiding
violent criminals.
Senator Kefauver may have had no sense of irony, but at
least he knew a little more knife history than his colleagues
on Capitol Hill.

He remarked toward the close of his
statement, "Invented by George Schrade in 1898 [actually
1892], the pushbutton opening knife was a useful article
produced on a limited scale."
Half a page earlier in the same statement, Kefauver quoted
Boston police chief James F. Daley as having written, "...
these weapons are specifically designed as a vicious
insidious weapon of assault, and can be devoted to no
legitimate use in the everyday life of law-abiding citizens."
Having no sense of irony did not worry the crusading
senator, and neither did having no data. He stated, "The
following statistics give a general indication of the
increase in the use of weapons by juveniles. Although no
statistics are available as to the ratio of these switchblade
knives and stilettos to other weapons, it is believed to be

"In New York City in 1956, there was an increase of 92.1
percent of those under 16 arrested for the possession of
dangerous weapons, one of the most common kind being the
switchblade knife; and also in New York 36.9 [percent] of the
felonious assaults, many involving use of switchblade knives,
were committed by those under 16. On the national level, 29.6
percent of the total arrested for carrying dangerous weapons
was attributable to young persons under the age of 18. A more
shocking and striking figure is that 43.2 percent of the
total robberies committed in the United States last year were
by persons under 21 years of age. A switchblade knife is very
often part of the perpetrator's equipment in a robbery."
If Senator Kefauver had lived longer (he died in 1963), he
might have become a writer for Saturday Night Live, or else a
co-author of the classic work, How to Lie with Statistics.

Only one police chief in the country had the professional
integrity and poor political judgement to compile actual
statistics on switchblades. This was W. E. Parker, the acting
chief of the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department. That
Lt. Col. Parker was a career policeman, rather than a
political appointee, probably accounted for his naive

Parker reported that in the entire year 1956, a total of 15
switchblade knives were used in assaults and robberies in
Kansas City (just over one per month). An additional 80
switchblades were taken from suspects booked for
investigation of crimes (well under two per week).
"In addition," he wrote, "there were 10 to 12 cases in
which these knives were used by one juvenile to take money
from another [less than one per month], and during the same
period there were 6 cases of cuttings [one every two months]
as well as several cases where knives were thrown by one
juvenile at another." In a city of nearly half a million
population, these three dozen switchblade crimes,
misdemeanors, and incidents of horseplay in one year hardly
constituted a crime wave, let alone a crisis.

These lonely facts from Kansas City did not interest the
Congress. They found much more fascinating the lurid
sensationalist stories and editorials in Life magazine, the
Saturday Evening Post, many daily newspapers, and even on
radio and television "news."

These articles were timed to coincide with the
congressional switchblade hearings. They were calculated to
convince frightened credulous puritans in and out of congress
that the country was awash in blood from frenetic waves of
juvenile switchblade violence -- that the republic was
tottering. Congressman Yates said, "newspapers and magazines
are filled with descriptions of gang fights, holdups and
stabbings, committed by teenagers, and running through almost
all such stories is the switchblade knife. The gruesome
similarity in detail related by these stories is relieved
only by the horror that each one reflects individually... The
switchblade knife has become the symbol, as well as the
weapon, of the teen-age gang."

As news reporting this material was a travesty, even more
luridly overblown than firearms stories are today. As
propaganda, however, these articles passed the only important
test. They worked.

*** END ***

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