Johannesburg-based knifemaker Sean Culhane is producing a range of boot knives commemorating South African Defence Force medals and units.
Culhane is working on a limited edition of 30 Southern Africa Medal boot knives, a companion to the Pro Patria commemorative boot knife that he created last year to mark the 30th anniversary of the end of the South African border War.
Each knife carries a relief of the relevant medal etched into the double-edged blade, with the relevant ribbon colours reflected in the handle and the owner’s own details engraved on the reverse of the blade.
“Many military veterans finished their compulsory two years conscription vowing never to have anything more to do with the army, but now you see more and more of them digging out their old service medals from forgotten trunks, getting them mounted and either displayed in pubs or worn on Remembrance Day parades,” he said.
The Pro Patria was issued to all members of the then South African Defence Force for 90 days service above the ‘red line’ through Oshivelo, in the operational area of what is now northern Namibia – or for combat. The medal was instituted in 1974 and effectively issued between 1966 and 1999, when the SADF soldiers finally formally withdrew from Namibia.
The Southern Africa medal was the brainchild of the late chief of the SADF, General Constand Viljoen, to recognise service beyond the borders of South Africa, specifically Angola, whose national colours are reflected in the ribbon.
Viljoen was inspired by the story of Britain’s Victoria Cross, which was cast from the metal of cannons captured at the Siege of Sevastopol. The Southern Africa medal was cast from the copper wiring of a Russian T34-85 tank shot out in Xangongo in 1981 during Operation Protea. Instituted in 1987, it was issued to all ranks for participation in operations between 1 April 1976 and 21 March 1990.
Culhane has so far delivered eight of the Pro Patria boot knives with another 14 in production. The Pro Patrias are made from Sandvik 12C27 steel, which is hardened at 1070 degrees Celsius, frozen overnight and then tempered at 175 degrees Celsius for an hour. The Southern Africa boot knives are made of ATS 34, a Japanese steel copied from Crucible 154CM, which is hardened at 1060 degrees Celsius, frozen overnight and then tempered at 180 degrees Celsius for two hours.
The Southern Africa boot knife differs from the Pro Patria because of the tiny miniature of the medal affixed to the African Blackwood handle. Each of the knives meets the benchmark Rockwell hardness scale and comes with Culhane’s lifetime guarantee.
Culhane first thought of making a commemorative ‘Border War’ boot knife in the 1980s, after his own period in Namibia as an infantryman conscript with 3 South African Infantry Battalion, but he made his mark as a cutler and knifemaker with the Sgian-Dubh, the traditional Highland dagger worn in the sock, while he was servicing with the Transvaal Scottish, a regiment he would later be second-in-command of.
He crafted 101 Sgian-Dubhs to commemorate the iconic part time regiment’s centenary in 2002, selling the entire consignment and then in 2016, designed and produced a limited edition of 153 sgian-dubhs commemorating the South African Scots of the 4th SAI battalion of what was the first South African Brigade, most of whom perished at Delville Wood.
Culhane also makes other military knives on commission like the US Marine Ka Bar and the Fairbairn Sykes commando dagger, as well as the much larger Highland officer’s dirk. He makes each one by hand in his Roodepoort workshop to the west of Johannesburg.
Sgian-dubhs, including etching, turning of the handles and stitching of the leather sheaths which he does himself, take up to four weeks, while the dirks take six weeks because some of the silver work is outsourced.
“I had just begun thinking of doing a Southern Africa commemorative boot knife, when I mentioned it in passing to one of my clients who had bought one of my first Pro Patria knives. As we were speaking, he deposited the entire price into my account so I was committed then and there to making it. As I was finishing it, another client made a deposit, which will be the second Southern Africa knife, so it’s all been word of mouth, really,” he said.