Some Fire Steels

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Notchy Bob

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I didn't start out to be a fire steel collector. It just sort of happened.

There is another thread about fire steels that made me think about some I have accumulated, and I thought there might be some interest.

Brent's Steels  -Abbott.jpg


All of these in the first picture were forged by Don Abbott, a great fellow and a master blacksmith. At the top left is a type generally associated with New Mexico, although similar ones have been found in Old Mexico, too. There are examples in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), the Smithsonian, and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), among others. As far as I know, this type of steel, called an eslabon in Spanish, was only associated with the southwest.

The top center steel is the most common traditional British type. They called this type of steel a "flourish." Note the straight, rectangular body, and the tail comes off the upper back of the body, not the top. The "colonial" or "monkey tail" steels that you see nearly everywhere are different, in that the tail typically comes off the top of the body, which is easier to make than having the tail come off the back. Don said forging this steel required a somewhat higher level of skill.

At top right is a steel normally considered a Flemish or Dutch style. However, I found a similar one in the anthropological collections of the AMNH online, which had been collected from the Beaver Indians of northwestern Canada, and that's the one Don used as a model to make the one you see here. Regarding the Beaver Indians, these interesting people speak an Athabaskan language. According to tribal traditions, several hundred years ago the tribe split. One faction, whom we call the Beaver Indians, stayed in their traditional homeland in British Columbia. The other faction traveled a way southeast, and joined up with the Blackfoot Confederacy. This group is known as the Sarsi (spellings vary) or Tsuu T'ina. The Blackfoot tribes speak an Algonquin language. The Tsuu T'ina have kept their own language, but they adopted many aspects of plains Indian culture.

The one on the left in the middle row is a very close copy of an original collected from unspecified "Russianized natives" of Siberia by Waldemar Bogoras in 1902. The original is in the AMNH. However, this general type of steel is common in countries around the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea, and I have seen these described as "Albanian" steels. No telling how it got to Siberia, or where it might have actually been made. The steel next to it is a copy of one dug from a Viking grave at Birka. I think the original is in a museum in Sweden, but I don't remember for sure. It is pretty typical of ancient Norse fire steels. Carl Russell called this type a "Frankish" steel. Superficially, you might find it similar to the Albanian steel, but the arms and body of the Albanian type form sort of a triangle, while the arms of the Norse steel are flatter to the body. Also, the Scandinavian type has that "hump" coming off the body in between the arms, which the Albanian steel does not have.

The bottom steel in this bunch is a nearly exact copy of one I saw for sale in an auction online. The original was accompanied by a little tinder-horn which I believe was made of ram's horn. There was no information whatsoever about provenance, and I did not buy the original. It looks Scottish to me, but I can't prove it. This is a very handy steel. I keep meaning to make a tinder horn to go with it, but haven't gotten to it yet. Suitable ram's horns are hard to find, and they aren't cheap.

Brent's Steels - Various.jpg


The steels in the second picture came from some other makers. The one on the upper left, made by Randy Wolfe of Bethel Forge, is definitely a Scottish type, and pretty well documented. Some people call it a "snail" pattern.

The two "C" shaped steels on the lower left were both made by Darrel Aune of Primal Connection. These should be of interest to you Texans... these two are both very close copies of steels picked up after battles with the Comanches. The originals are both in the Smithsonian. One of them (I forget which) was formerly associated with the Tonkawa people, but this was later found to be a mix-up. I think maybe one of the Tonkawa scouts working with the Texans picked it up and either traded or sold it to whoever collected it. These are very plain, sturdy, no-nonsense steels. No frills, but they are easy to hold and the wide body will take a lot of use before it wears out.

Darrel Aune also made those three on the right. I would call the top one a "Continental" style. It might be French or Spanish. I don't remember where the original is that we used for a pattern.

The middle one on the right is a colonial Spanish steel, I think from the time of the conquistadors. For comparison, the eslabon shown in the first picture is a later type, probably from the late 18th and 19th centuries, so this "B" shaped colonial Spanish steel would be an earlier type. I saw the original in a book that's kind of hard to get to at the moment, so I can't give much more detail right now.

The bottom steel on the right is patterned after a Russian steel, of a type traded to the natives in Alaska. The Russian presence on our west coast, from Alaska to California, has come up a couple of times on this forum, but it doesn't generate much interest. It should... the Russians were major players in the fur trade. Anyway, there are several steels of this type in the Smithsonian and the AMNH, collected mostly from the Tlingit people. However, I ran across another reference indicating a steel of this form was dug from an old Iroquois village site in western New York. So, while the Russians were not the only ones making steels of this type, this does appear to be the most common form of fire steel offered by the Russians to the native people of our northwest coast during the fur trade.

Oddly, as an example of a reenactorism, someone a few years ago mis-identified an Alaskan native woman's knife as a Russian fire steel. It looked like the bottom one in this illustration, from Otis Mason's The Ulu, or Woman's Knife, of the Eskimo (1902):

Ulus.jpg


Somebody mis-identified it, and at least one modern blacksmith started making and selling "Russian fire steels" in this form. It was an honest mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. Not a big deal, I guess, but conscientious practitioners of living history try very hard to get things right, and never stop researching and seeking corroboration for things that might be questionable. The less motivated folks seem happy to take another reenactor's word for it.

Brent's Steels - Kirkham.jpg


The three items in the photo above were made by a particularly gifted British blacksmith named Andrew Kirkham. I ordered them from Ray Mears Bushcraft. The steel on the left was described as the "Traditional Canadian Design." This is the "bright oval" steel you see referenced in the fur trade literature. "Bright," in this context, is an old-time ironmonger's term that means "unfinished"... i.e. the metal is not blued, browned, japanned, painted, or anything else. It is not necessarily polished mirror bright, but just left as smooth, bare metal. The only place I know of where the term "bright" is still used in that way is in the nail department of your local builder's supply. "Bright" nails are bare metal, like this steel. Mr. Kirkham got this pattern exactly right, tapering in width slightly toward the ends. A lot of people who forge these make the ends too wide. Anyway, there were surely hundreds of thousands of steels exactly like this one carried into the interior of Canada and I believe in our northern states, to be traded for furs. Metal detectorists seem to find a lot of them in the waterways and in old campsites near and west of the Great Lakes.

The middle item in this photo is Mr. Kirkham's rendition of a trade awl, or canoe awl. Most of the "trade awls" you see offered for sale now are abominations, and virtually unusable, simply bent out of square stock with an exaggerated "dogleg" bend, and the tips sharpened. Mr. Kirkham did taper the blades properly, and he made a neat, tight bend in the middle, but the originals were not bent... They were forged with an offset. It's kind of hard to describe. Mr. Kirkham's "Offset Stitching Awl" is not exactly correct, but it is closer to the originals than any other modern-made trade awl I have seen, and it is a sturdy, functional, and usable tool. I need to put a handle on this one.

The steel on the right is Mr. Kirkham's take on the "Classic C" type, which I have seen described as Italian style. I don't know how accurate that name is, and as a matter of fact, this type of steel has been found in many places around the US. The Smithsonian has one collected from the Kickapoo and another from old Mexico, and the AMNH has examples from the Menominee. This type of steel was pretty common. This particular steel and the "Traditional Canadian" oval made by Andrew Kirkham are both very nicely finished and they spark really well. His steels are a little thinner than most that you see, at about .125", which I think is likely pretty typical of the originals from the fur trade.

Brent's Steels - Smaller Ones.jpg


Just mopping up, here are three smaller steels. The one on the left is only 2.625" long. It was made by Orien MacDonald of Old School Tools. The shape is a very old one, but I don't know if it has any specific regional association. This one is a good steel, maybe a little harder to hold because of the small size and the shape, but it sparks well.

The steel on the upper right is obviously from the Museum of the Fur Trade, and was made for them by Dexter/Russell, makers of the Green River Knives. This is intended to be a replica of a fur-trade era bright oval steel, and it is a good-looking piece in a small, handy size. However, mine doesn't spark well at all. Maybe a knowledgeable blacksmith could re-do the heat treatment, or maybe it could be case-hardened, as a lot of the originals were. I haven't looked into it. Even if it doesn't spark well, it makes a nice souvenir and buying one helps support the museum.

The steel on the lower right was made by Wilmas of Sweden. It is slightly asymmetric and looks handmade, but it isn't. These appear to be precision cut out of flat stock and mass produced in the form of ancient Viking fire steels. Like the Russell steel from the Museum of the Fur Trade, it is a poor sparker. At least this one is. As with the Russell steel, I have wondered if it could be re-heat treated or case hardened to make it spark better. It's a nice looking steel, handy to hold and easy to pack. It would be great if it could be made to work better.

That's a bunch of steels. Collecting them has been a lot of fun. If you have some of your own to show off, now is your chance.

Best regards,

Notchy Bob
 
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rusty

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I have a bright oval from the museum of the fur trade, it has no markings on it, but it sparks very well, it must just be case hardened, but it looks like it has been punched out of a plate of steel...D
 

Notchy Bob

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I have a bright oval from the museum of the fur trade, it has no markings on it, but it sparks very well, it must just be case hardened, but it looks like it has been punched out of a plate of steel...D
That's good to hear. Maybe I'll pursue case hardening this one.

I don't know if the stampings on mine would indicate it is older or newer than yours. I think I've had it about ten years. I checked their website, and they still have these for eight bucks. the one they show has no markings, so maybe you have one of the newer versions.

Thanks for your comments.

Notchy Bob
 
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Hi Bob

That's a wonderful collection of fire steels. And no two exactly alike. Also, thanks for the history lesson. Super interesting.
I own just two fire steels. One commercially available today for fire making. The other is in my collection. From South India, 18th Century. The striking edge appears to be too dull for a cutting tool.
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Rick
 

Notchy Bob

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@rickystl ,

Thanks for showing your steel from the south of India. That's a nice one! Oddly enough, there are some ancient steels from Scandinavia that are similar in form. They might have horses, other animals, or just free flowing designs instead of lions for the handle section, and some of them had a steel "bit" affixed to a cast bronze handle, but they followed the same general form. This is a modern reproduction of an ancient fire steel from Finland:

2022-07-28.png


That one is not mine, and in fact I don't own an example of this type of steel. The picture is from the Jelling Dragon website. However, if you Google "ancient Finnish fire steel" you will find multiple links showing examples dug from archaeological sites.

That one of yours is a beauty!

Notchy Bob
 
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Here's one I forgot I had. It's one of the accessories from an Afghan rifleman's belt that I own. Even it's original leather scabbard and flint is still intact. Probably early to mid 19th Century.

Rick
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