Meet SEAL Team 6’s Bladesmith

Introducing Daniel Winkler, the world’s most elite maker of high-performance knives and tomahawks.

On a summer day in 2010, I walked into a sporting goods store in Nashville and bought the sharpest, meanest looking knife I could find. It wasn’t completely for show: a few days later, I boarded a plane to Afghanistan for a yearlong deployment with the 101st Airborne Division. For the next 12 months, the knife—a 10-inch man-killer with a hard rubber handle—hung ominously from my belt, always there just in case. Fortunately, it never came to that. I was not Rambo. Had I been, chances are that knife would have been used for a lot more than slicing open MREs and chasing off feral dogs. And there’s a good chance it would’ve been made by a guy in Appalachia named Daniel Winkler.

Over the years, Winkler, 58, who earned his master smith rating in ‘92, has developed a reputation for being freakishly skilled at his craft. In the early nineties, he was commissioned to make weapons for Michael Mann’s epic blockbuster The Last of the Mohicans, and soon after he started getting approached by elite military units looking for high-performance tomahawks and knives to fill their arsenals. He is now the blade smith of choice for American commandos. According to a recent New York Timesexposé on SEAL Team 6, Winkler’s work has come to be so revered among the SEALs that his hatchets are ceremoniously awarded to those who manage to survive a year in Team 6’s storied Red Squadron.

Maxim spoke with Winkler about the intricacies of his craft, what distinguishes his special line of tactical blades from anything else you can buy on the market, and the delicate art of making a weapon worthy of the battlefield gods.

How did your business relationship with U.S. Military Special Forces begin?

Because of my reputation within the knife industry, certain groups within the military came to me and asked for help in designing equipment that was more specialized than what was available in the open market. They were not happy with either the axe designs and/or knife designs that they had access to. So, being a custom maker with knowledge of high-performance steel, they came and asked me to help with some design work. Initially, all I was going to do was help with the development of some new products that they needed—some new cutlery items—and then farm out the manufacturing to other manufacturers who were more set up to do multiple pieces, because at that time I was still a two-person shop: me making knives and Karen, my wife and business partner, making sheaths. Problems arose from that after we did the designs because I could not find other manufacturers that would manufacture in the manner that I felt necessary to keep the performance level where it needed to be for these people who’d put their lives on the line based on the quality of their equipment. So, we decided to set up our own limited production facility, allowing us to keep control of not only the knife and axe designs, but also the quality of manufacturing methods.

As far as knives and tomahawks go, what were the specific qualities these commandos are looking for?

Functionality of the design is of great importance. If you were to compare the weight and the balance and the design configurations of one of our knives to most any other production knife that’s out on the market, there’s a noticeable difference in the weight-balance, which makes a difference to people who rely on high-performance equipment. The same thing holds true for the axes—not only is it weight-balance, but overall weight. These guys may be carrying 80 pounds on a mission, and if you got a knife that weights 3 pounds hanging on your hip that dangles and doesn’t carry well because the sheath is designed poorly, it’s likely going to be left back at camp on the shelf when you go out on a mission. So we develop knives that are not only properly designed and balance for the primary use that they have, they also are lighter in weight overall, and the carry systems are designed to integrate with the rest of their gear kit. So instead of it staying at home on the shelf, the guys actually carry them in the field as intended. And they’re easy to access, they’re not cumbersome to carry, they perform at a high level, you don’t have to worry about them failing when you’re working with them. That is the main difference in what we’re making and what is marketed as “military special forces knives,” or however so many people market them as. We truly design them to fit the use and the carry limitations of the guys in the field who are actually going there. Now, that costs money to do that. That’s why in the market that we’re in, we’re in the high end of the cost structure. But it’s just like with bicycles. If you want to knock another 8 ounces off an already working racing bike, it costs money to do it, because you have to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise the strength and the structure of the piece of equipment. Knives and axes are the same way.

Is versatility taken into consideration as well?

It’s all taken into consideration, but when it comes to reality, knives have been around for thousands of years and it’s really hard to improve on the overall concept of what a knife is. For example, I was at the blade show this past weekend in Atlanta. It’s the largest knife show in the world. And a person brought me a “survival knife” to look at and review. This knife had everything. It had a fine edge, a rough edge, you could chop with it, you could saw with it, you could pry with it, you could do everything with it— except, by making it a knife that tries to do everything, what it does is nothing very well. So we don’t really get into that concept of knife design. What we do is design knives that have a primary purpose, which is cutting, slicing, stabbing, whatever the purpose of that piece is—that’s the primary use, and then as best we can, if possible, we’ll add a secondary purpose, such as a glass-breaking spike. Something that will provide that knife a secondary purpose, but without limiting its primary purpose. So, basically, our knives are very simple and straightforward without a lot of frills on them, because they’re made to do a primary job as well as can be done.

For these elite soldiers who are deploying overseas, what’s the primary function they’re looking for?Is it hand-to-hand combat?

I think combat applications are very important to them because they are in a situation where, with the way warfare is these days, there’s much more close-quarters contact. So, hand-to-hand combat is a definite possibility. But then they also have to be able to do utilitarian jobs with their equipment. So if they need to punch a hole through a mud wall or use it to pry and open a window, within reason, or breach through a door, the equipment has to have those capabilities also. That’s why we use special formulations of steel for the knives and axes based on the primary usage. We have full blade bevels, which means that the blade is tapered all the way from the back spine of the knife all the way through the cutting edge, using perhaps a little bit thicker steel. Doing full-blade bevels you improve your ability for less cutting drag, so it does slice and cut more effectively. And there’s a lot of subtle details that we put into them that just make them perform better. So, as far as the primary use for either a guy that’s out in the field protecting our country or a guy who is going into the field for an elk hunt, generally speaking a lot of their needs are the same. If you needed to use it as a survival tool, the quality is built in to where if you had to jam it in the crack of a rock and use it as a stair step to climb out of a crevasse or something you’ve found yourself in when you’ve fallen off a hill or a mountain – it’s the same thing whether you’re in a combat situation or a hunting trip.

How are your sheaths—or carrying systems—modified to suit the needs of these commandos?There’s nothing that we’re making sheath-wise that would be considered what I think traditional or commonplace for what’s on the market today. The carry system or sheath is of as much importance as the knife or the axe itself, because if you can’t carry it comfortably and access it effectively then it’s not worth carrying. Even though these guys, whose primary uses might be similar, everyone sets up their gear a little bit differently. So ours can be worn vertically, horizontally, right-handed, left-handed with a belt loop that slips on your belt, a belt clip that clips on easily or can be converted to a MOLLE system. We make the sheath very versatile, but it’s still very minimalist, so you don’t have this big nylon sheath that hangs down your leg and gets hung on car seats and whatever. It fits closely to the body so it’s accessed easily wherever you want mount it. And they’re all form fitted to the actual knife that it comes with, so we’re using basically a thermo-forming plastic with a holster lining on the inside and leather on the outside so its comfortable and quiet both inside and out.