COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. – At more than 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, the orange glowing steel is removed from his forge, and he places it on his anvil where he begins striking. What once was a small rectangular bar of steel repeatedly hit with a hammer slowly shifts shape with the blow of each swing.
The art of the forging metal has been around for thousands of years, but as society has modernized so has the technology and the industrial process; however, there is one member of Columbus Air Force Base, who belongs to a small community of people who still take raw variations of steel and metal to make resourceful tools from it.
Mitch Cargile, a 14th Communications Squadron network technician, helps maintain the phone and fiber cables on Columbus AFB and assists the squadron’s network control on troubleshooting network issues. During his free time, Cargile works on mastering his craft of forging knives.
“The most enjoyable aspect is creating something that can be used for a lifetime,” Cargile said. “I believe my knives will be here long after I’m gone.”
With only seven years of experience, Cargile has already become a proficient knife smith and was featured on the History’s Channel “Forged in Fire” series. The show’s contestants are tasked with recreating some of “history’s most iconic edged weapons.” His episode aired Jan. 15, 2020.
Cargile was filmed for the episode in August 2019. Making it to the final round, he was given four days--a total of 35 hours--to create Charlemagne’s Joyeuse, one of the most famous swords in history, back at his shop in Columbus.
Cargile said it was the “biggest sword I’ve made to date.”
He said he felt his sword performed well during the testing phase on the show. Although he had created a quality sword, Cargile finished the show in second place but said he was happy about the results, and he knows how rare of a chance it was to be on the show.
“It was an amazing experience,” Cargile said. “I met some really good guys that were on set with me. The judges were great. I look at it as an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Cargile said he has come a long way since 2013, when he first got into knife making. He got the idea of making knives when he attended a banquet for Golden Triangle Outdoors, a local nonprofit organization that provides outdoor recreational events for people with special needs. Cargile said he never thought about making his own knives until he saw a local knife maker with some knives on display.
“That kind of sparked my interest,” he said. “So, I decided that I’m just going to come home and make my own knife.”
That weekend, he said he bought a piece of steel and made his first knife on his back porch, and “it’s been a passion ever since.”
At the time, he was doing what is considered stock removal, where a pattern is drawn on the steel and then the steel is grinded back and shaped into that pattern. He said a lot has changed since that first knife as he evolved over the years into forging, which involves heating and shaping the steel, grinding, thermal and heat treating and hardening the steel. Forged knives are known to have more durable and tougher blades than stock removed blades.
Cargile has traveled all over the U.S. honing his craft. From traveling to New Jersey, Texas to Alaska, he has worked with several master smiths. He noted that his greatest accomplishment thus far has been earning his journeyman smith rating from the American Bladesmith Society in June 2019 in Atlanta.
Prior to presenting five knives to a panel of judges in Atlanta, Cargile first had to make a knife that was capable of cutting through a one-inch, free-hanging rope and a two-by-four while remaining “hair-shaving sharp” and had the ability to be bent to 90 degrees without breaking which tests the blades geometry and heat treatment.
Cargile said he not only enjoys making his knives, but it’s been a great way to connect with his co-workers.
“They really are supportive and enjoy coming over from time to time and watching me forge my knives out,” Cargile said.
Justin Sanders, 14th CS telecommunications technician, said he’s known Cargile for 15 years and Cargile is very good at what he does. Sanders also mentioned how Cargile enjoys explaining and teaching others about the forging process.
“He has spent numerous hours learning tricks and trades of the knife-making world, and he’s advanced his skills in a very short time,” Sanders said. “I have witnessed Mitch forge some knives before, and it’s amazing to watch what he can do with a piece of metal and a hammer.”
When it comes to making his knives, Cargile explained that the time varies according to the type of knife and steel being used. As for the basic shape of an average knife, Cargile can forge one out in about a half-hour. After he gets it forged to shape, he proceeds to grind and then begins the hardening and tempering process.
He said the most time consuming part is the final hand sanding and fitting of the guards and handle.
According to Cargile, knife making is a very tedious process.
“It’s one of the most rewarding, satisfying, stressful, hair-pulling-out experiences,” he said. “It is some ways therapeutic to come out here to kind of just get in your zone and do what you really enjoy doing.”
Cargile said although sometimes knife making can be challenging and stressful, it’s what he hopes to do full time one day.
“Anything in life that you enjoy doing is going to have its ups and downs,” he said. “I would almost think if it wasn’t a challenge at some point people would lose interest in it.”