Nasara masu kayan aiki is a saying in Hausa that is an expression of awe at white people's technology and labor saving devices. This show, about forging blades (mostly) but sometimes other weapons like crossbows which airs on the History Channel makes one think working with metal is not so hard because of all the tools (power hammer, press, drills etc) on the forge floor.
Except for special editions which are discussed later, the show's standard format is:
1st Round: 4 smiths are given 3 hours to produce a hardened blade. The blades are examined and the smith with the most faulty or least perfect blade is eliminated and asked to exit the forge.
2nd Round: the 3 remaining smiths are given 2 hours (3 hours in the earlier seasons) to finish the blades while addressing any flaws from stage 1. At the end of the 2 hours, the blades are tested by the judges for strength and sharpness. Another contestant is eliminated after the test.
3rd Round: The 2 remaining smiths are then shown a sample of a weapon which they must recreate at home within 4 days (in earlier seasons, 5 days). At the end of that period, they return to the forge and the weapons are put through 3 tests for strength, sharpness (or other function if the weapon is a crossbow or hammer or club) and keal ability (see below). The contestant with the best weapon wins $10,000.00.
There was a champions edition where the contestants were all previous winners. The winner got the title "Champion of Champions".
There was an armed forces edition where the 4 contestants were from different branches of the US armed forces except the coast guard. If the navy represented them, then why were the marines given a separate slot? If the US had a national police, it would have been sort of neater to have them compete. Even though police are not normally armed forces.
The format of the show was changed in the "Beat the Judges" (henceforth BtJ) season. Here, 4 contestants come to the forge with knives made at home. The knives are judged before testing and one contestant is eliminated. The 3 remaining knives then go through the tests like in round 2 of a normal episode and another contestant is eliminated. The 2 remaining contestants are then given 3 days to make another weapon which is tested as in stage 3 of a normal episode. The last remaining contestant then goes up against a judge in a grueling 8 hour round where a weapon is built from start to finish. The finished weapons are then tested and a winner emerges.
I like a lot of things about the show. Ordinarily I dislike reality shows because of the unnecessary drama. This show has none of that. There is no relationship between the contestants except occasional collaboration. Even where family members or people with a prior relationship come on, the show is just about the weapons being made. While sometimes there is excessive display of emotion like whooping, it is kept to a minimum. The same with other antics like contestants telling sob stories in order to get an advantage. For that I am genuinely grateful. I really dislike displays of stupidity which is what I consider the behavior of most reality TV contestants.
The judges are all experts in a genuinely objective manner and all they care about is the knife. Its performance, how wieldable it is and finally how good it looks. This is so much more fair if one compares to judges of cooking, singing, dancing or other talent shows where subjectivity is so blatant as to be biased with judges talking ad nauseam trying to justify their choices. Speaking of cooking, this show was inspired by Chopped, a cooking competition whose format was adopted by Forged in Fire with only the ingredients being swapped for metal.
The judges all have different personalities. J. Nielsen, who is an ABS Master Smith has a sadistic grin whenever he picks up a weapon. He is the judge who tests the weapon's strength. If the weapon is a knife, and the test requires hitting the knife, he does so with a seeming desire to break the knife. His verdict is given with (I imagine) a slight smile that seems disappointed the knife did not fail. He is sometimes replaced by Jason Knight or Ben Abbott. Abbott is a champion of champions and has never been beaten on the floor even in the BtJ season. Nielsen has been defeated once on BtJ.
David Baker is the second judge. He is described as a historic weapons expert. He seems to be the most TV savvy of the judges. This is probably due to his work in the entertainment industry creating historic weapons. His white hair and moustaches give him a gentle, friendly mien. Like a doctor that has treated many members of a large family with many generations. When he competed on BtJ, he moved about with a calm assurance that seemed based on a certainty that his expertise would see him prevail. He has lost once on BtJ.
The last judge is Doug Marcaida who is an edged weapons specialist. He usually does the "keal" test. It is a test to determine a weapon's lethality, thus more properly "kill test". However, he says that his weapons are meant for protection, so they keal; meaning they "(k)eep (e)veryone (al)ive". This is like calling a missile a defensive weapon. He is the only judge that has no forging experience. He seems like a friendly fun guy and always seems rather apologetic and sympathetic when a weapon fails under his tests.
There is also a host or MC. Wil Willis is an air force veteran who explains the challenge to the contestants, introduces the judges and announces winners or losers. He is a handsome guy who seems like someone who is still unsure of his luck in getting such a good gig. He sometimes participates in testing the blades by shooting at the edge of a blade in a test called the bullet test. The aim is to see if the blade edge would split the bullet. I have never seen a blade fail that test nor have I seen the test in a long while. I wonder if the show had decided that the test, for all its dramatics is not stressful enough. One thing that Willis does which grates is when shouting the elapsed time. When talking about a singular unit of time, like 1 hour, he would correctly say "1 hour has elapsed." However, when the unit of time is in plurals, I think the correct word should be "have". As in "2 hours have elapsed." But he still says "2 hours has elapsed."
Given how exhausting forging is, it is surprising to see so many obese contestants. Further surprises are the mistakes contestants make such as keeping a hot blade on an anvil which usually leads to warping. Or not cleaning their steel properly. Or not setting up a straightening jig to anticipate warps. Some contestants also display an astonishing disregard for their personal safety. There was an episode where someone dropped a hot billet and stupidly picked it up barehanded. Others hold their billets with a long handle or tongs without gloves despite flames shooting out of the forge. Others grind their metal or wood sans masks. I wonder if there is no danger of inhaling damaging particles and if so are those who wear the masks sissies?
Arguably the most interesting bit is the weapon that would be recreated for the final challenge. I much prefer the swords or pole weapons. Some of them look really cool. I think making those is a real test of skill, like the Scottish Claymore which was so difficult that it was given as a challenge twice; probably the only weapon to have that distinction. In the spirit of globalization, inclusivity or maybe just being pc, weapons from around the world are sometimes given as a challenge. Some of them, like spears, are pretty easy to make I think. Some are really primitive, like a Congolese weapon called a Hunga Munga. That weapon looked just as likely to wound its wielder as the target. In addition to showing all the different weapons, I also learnt that there are many different kinds of steel and knife making techniques.
Political correctness also marred some of the episodes where the kill tests were censored. The kill test is either done on an animal carcass or a ballistics dummy. The test on the dummy looks bloody because of the realistic looking blood oozing from the cuts. So on some episodes, the test was not shown. I think the pc brigade has been fought off because the show now shows everything.
This is a show that I really like. It began airing in 2015 and is currently in its 7th season.
The direct translation of the quote with which I started this piece is "white people have tools". The translation does not capture the essence of the original which is always admiration. On a related tangent, one of the Hausa words for white people is nasara. It is a direct borrowing and slight corruption from Arabic which calls Christians nasraniyyan. Nasraniyyan is a borrowing and corruption of Nazarene.
Iron Noder 2020, 6/30