Making charcoal is the first step towards creating a new version of a historic Sicilian knife.
It is common for action movies to feature distinctive knives, such as in the Rambo series of movies. These are often reproduced and sold post-release along with other items related to the movie. As a person who is not only a writer, but also a knife maker with my own shop in Georgia, it was a natural combination of my skills to make a distinctive knife to use in the production. As it developed an ancient Sicilian culture, The Sicel made a combat knife that was so distinctive that it was described by later Greek and Roman writers in their histories of the island. One of my purposes in making a trip to Sicily was to look at such knives in museums. As it turned out, I could not find any on exhibit, and used a bit of conjecture and my knowledge of what it takes to make a strong, functional combat knife to design my own version of this historic blade.
Luigi, The Claw, one of the characters in the novel I am writing, Father of The Grooms, has been an active Mafia member since World War II. As a boy he participated in the resistance against the Germans and suffered the loss of his left hand because of a bomb explosion. In recognition of his service he was given work as a draftsman for American sponsored archaeological excavations that took place on the island as the war debris were being cleared from Sicily’s historic towns.
While employed he learned that some of the Late Bronze Age inhabitants of Sicily, The Sicel, made a dagger with what the later Greeks described as a “flame-shaped blade,” which fascinated him. Because each progressive civilization pillaged the tombs of each previous culture, metal objects from this period were, and are, very scarce. I visited three of the most important museums on the island, and I never saw an example of this type of knife.
Nonetheless, Luigi imagined that he was a direct descendant of these early Sicilians who had fought against everyone else who had invaded/occupied the island including the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Austrians, Spanish and in his own lifetime the Germans. In honor of this long history of resistance against exploitation of natural and human resources, he decided to have a knife maker build him a workable modern copy of this historic knife using modern steel.
Wavy bladed knives are typically thought of as being produced in Indonesia where the kris is a well-known pattern of knife and short sword. Although wavy-bladed knives are not unknown in Europe, they are much less common than knives and swords with straight or slightly curved blades. Today this shape is most commonly seen on bread knives which may have one wavy edge and a straight back.
The soils of Sicily have not been kind to bronze objects. Thinner items like cooking pots are often eaten partly through by the elements and corrosion of various sorts, including the so called “bronze disease.” This type of corrosion attacks statues and other objects, and museums must guard against it by making sure their objects are free from surface salts and kept in a humidity-controlled environment. The older the bronze is, the more delicate it becomes.
To have maximum psychological effect, Luigi wanted his knife to be wide at the hilt and then have its wavy blade undulate down to a point about 10-inches away. This would be a good compromise between portability and visibility to potential opponents. His blade was also to be sharpened on both edges so that it would rip and cut with either upward or downward strokes.
The practicalities of making cast bronze blades tough enough to use in combat dictated that they be thicker than correspondingly long steel blades, and they often employed a reinforcing spine that ran down the center of the knife. Such a feature is unnecessary on a steel blade, and it was omitted. The thinner point presented some problems from a design perspective as it might tend to either bend or snap off. This point would need to be protected from too radical a quench by applying a protective layer of mud or edge heating with a torch and then applying the quench.
In Venice there is a water-powered hammer that has been used since Medieval times for making blades and armor. Since I am writing fiction I might take literary license and relocate that forge to Syracuse for the purpose of making the knife. I do not know if that location has ever been featured in a movie, but it would be interesting to include it in a flashback.
In the meantime I had to decide what Luigi’s knife was to look like. I often make wooden models of new knives that I am going to build so that I can establish the blade’s shape, grip size and the general proportions. In this case I salvaged a plank from an oak pallet and drew out a preliminary design, which I cut out with a band saw and thinned on the heavy belt sander that I use for knife making.
I derived an appropriately shaped blade and had to give thought about how to shape the grip. Many primitive knives that have pommels shaped like horses’ heads or other animals. I also considered ending the grip with the head of a god. However, all of these shapes tend to prick the palm or back of the hand with some of the ornamental details unless the grip was very long indeed. These were interesting from a design and historic point of view, but not as functional as they might be.
In researching the Sicel, one of the few decorative elements that I saw came from the door of a tomb. This was a coiled spiral with a longer vertical element which was a stylized version of male sexual organs that were rendered in more recognizable form on another part of the door. This was obviously significant to a culture that also worshiped a mother goddess of fertility and rebirth, something like the later Demeter in Greco-Roman times.
Use of these design elements would allow me to have a cross-guard with rounded knobs on the blade to be mimicked by a smaller double-ended pommel. These elements would allow a firm grip to be sustained on the knife for either stabbing or thrusting with the pommel knob fitting on the crease of the palm and the fingers pushing firmly against the cross-guard when needed to penetrate something tough, like leather armor.
It often happens with new technology, like the transition from stone tools to bronze, that the objects being made are somewhat over designed compared to the simplified models that follow. Whereas such a knife would be made today with wooden grips that might have three pins, I am going to grind the tang full width with the olive-wood grips extending over the top of the blade and secured to it with additional pins and a central medallion of the Sicilian flag that was adopted in 2000. Whatever might happen to the knife that grip will not fail.
Similarly, first generations of objects are often designed to fit a single individual, and since Luigi is having a custom knife made, it will fit his hand, which coincidentally, happens to be the same size as my own.
On flesh the effect of such a knife is devastating. No matter whether it is thrust into a body with a downward, straight-in thrust or pulled upward it will continue to cut new flesh as it is extracted. The Greeks fighting the Sicel apparently thought these daggers to be terror weapons and beyond the use for those engaged in honorable “civilized” combat. Although they wrote about these knives, and feared them, they never adopted them.
This lesson was not lost on Luigi. By having such a wicked- looking knife made, its presence was often sufficient to bring compliance to whatever demands his Mafia bosses call on him to enforce. He did, on occasion, use the knife with deadly effect to execute those who betrayed what he considered to be Sicilian honor or who were a direct threat to him and his family during the Mafia Wars of the 1990s. During that bloody time 40 or more people died each day during the height of the conflict.
“How can we help it?” He says in the book. “We came from a bloody past. My life has been filled with fighting and bloodshed; to expect a different future is a worthy, but unrealistic, hope. Yes, my knife caused death; but in more cases it preserved life.”
I have now made charcoal for my forge, tested and rejected some old steel that I had, made a wooden copy of Luigi’s knife and will pick up supplies for it in the coming Blade Show in Atlanta. The steel model that I will make will use Damascus steel from Alabama Damascus. The contrasting pattern between the etched Damascus and the Burl grain of the olive wood along with brass pins will make a stunning knife.
I will likely make two versions. One edged on both sides for use in the Movie and the other edged on only one side so that it can be legally owned in more states. In either case these will be beautiful, exotic knives with a historic European connection. It’s fun for me to recreate something, the likes of which, has not been seen for 3,000 years. This is the approach that I used with my Hovey’s Knives of China line of cooking knives which are based on ancient Chinese patterns, but made of modern steels in the United States.
Sorry, no photos of Luigi’s Sicel flame-bladed knife design or prototype can be released at this time.
To find out more about the Father of The Grooms book, screenplay and movie project go to https://fatherofthegrooms.net. To find out more about Hovey’s Knives of China go to: www.hoveysknivesofchinablog.co.