Distal taper makes knives feel more lightweight, quicker in the hand and easier to use. However, the concept affects more than just weight. It also distributes balance so the knife feels neither top nor bottom heavy. In other words, the knife is well-balanced so that it goes where you want it to and cuts how you want it to when you want it to. It looks cool, too.
How does distal taper work? It's pretty simple, really. The maker removes steel, usually by grinding, from each side of the blade beginning at the ricasso, that is, from just forward of where the blade and handle meet, and ending at the blade's tip. The effect is of the cross-section of the blade gradually thinning, or tapering, toward the tip. Less steel means less weight and, if removed properly, better balance for the knife. Some makers apply taper to the tang as well, beginning the tapering just below where the blade and handle meet and gradually thinning the tang toward the handle butt. However, in general, the concept is identified more with the tapering of the blade than the tang.
Distal taper is not a new concept. “From ancient times it was used to lighten and balance swords,” noted award-winning swordsmith Vince Evans. “If a sword was not distal tapered, all you would have was a crowbar with an edge.” BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame© member William Scagel, who forged knives during the first six decades of the 20th century, applied the concept to his knives, as did such premier makers as Cutlery Hall-Of-Famers Bob Loveless, Bill Moran and others. Moran was instrumental in making the teaching of bladesmithing the main mission of the American Bladesmith Society, and he made distal taper a focal point in his classes and recommended it to all of his students.
ABS master smith Tim Hancock said tapering is most important on larger, thick blades such as those in the 3/8-inch range that often are heavier and benefit from the weight reduction for quickness and ease of use. “The thinner the blade, the less important distal taper is,” Hancock said. “In fact, full-length distal taper on a bowie blade of a 3/16-inch thickness and an 8-inch length would leave the tip area so thin and weak that, in my opinion, it would be an inferior knife. To me, it's a process of speed and strength. Some balance between the two must be considered to make a superior knife.” Conversely, ABS master smith Jim Crowell said, if done properly, even a blade with a thin spine can benefit from tapering. “The degree of taper won't be as much as on a thicker spine—in fact, it will be very subtle—but even then it provides the most efficient cut,” he noted.
Larger hunting knives, camp knives, some bowies, fighters and knives used in cutting competitions where quickness and cutting ability are keys will benefit from being tapered. On the other hand, ABS master smith Mike Williams said he did not think distal taper was important for the rope cutting of the cutting competitions except for the balance of the knife itself. “It's like using a fillet knife versus a butcher knife,” he continued. “When cutting rope you want the weight forward.” Since tapering removes steel toward the end of the blade, the process does not result in a knife with the weight forward such as a khukuri, for instance. Knives designed for cutting meat and paper will benefit from distal taper because it promotes a thinner edge that produces less drag, he observed.
According to ABS master smith Jarrell Lambert, reduced weight, quickness and balance are not the only benefits of tapering. He adds another: flexibility. He indicated distal taper gives the blade more of it and spreads the stress more evenly throughout the blade than one made of the same material but without distal taper.
Crowell added another benefit of tapering: greater edge penetration. “Distal taper allows the cutting edge to have a smaller degree of angle progressing down the blade, resulting in less drag and producing greater penetration into the medium with a said amount of energy,” he explained. “As a result, a blade with distal taper will always cut more efficiently than the same blade with a parallel spine.
“If you want weight in your blade, maybe for chopping, increase the width of the blade, but have a distal taper. This will provide the weight needed but also a lesser degree of angle on the edge. Consequently, you will have the best of both worlds.”
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