Don Shipman of Shipman Knife & Hawk and Longfear Forge in Waco, Texas, is nothing if not thorough. Whether in love, service to country or researching and assembling his edged-weapon Heritage Sets, he strives to honor the spirit of the warrior, the frontiersman and the gentleman.
Take, for example, the name of his forge. In Irish Gaelic, “long” means “ship” and “fear” means “man.” But The Ship Man, as his Special Forces friends sometimes refer to him, doesn’t stop there. “I use the analogy that ‘long’ gets its meaning from the Norse ‘longships,’ which raided medieval Ireland,” Don explains. “‘Man,’ especially ‘strange men,’ is frequently associated with ‘danger’ in languages. So, ‘man’ equals ‘danger’ equals ‘fear.’ Thus, Longfear forge equals Shipman Forge. All of the above works especially well with my Norse and Irish ancestry,” he concludes.
So, on his blades, you will find the crossed-arrow Shipman logo, and if Don forged the item, you’ll also see the Longfear stamp. “The stamp is…wait for it…a Viking longship prow! Totally badass!” And that’s what it’s like talking with Don. You’re going to get an education, and you’re going to enjoy the lesson because he makes it entertaining.
Don makes edged weapons that could have been used or made by the common man on the American frontier, no matter where that frontier may have been at that point in history. Sets can include a knife and a tomahawk, or more than one of each, along with usually a bonnet, blanket or piece of clothing. He’s working on one now that may include a gun. Each item in the set is researched thoroughly, from handle woods to clan tartans used in the headgear cockade—think rosette on a prize-winning ribbon.
First, if you don’t already know your family’s origins, Don will research your family’s heritage using Ancestry.com, the online genealogical site that assists in tracing your family tree. He establishes where your family came from and where your family settled or migrated to when they arrived in America. The frontier may have been upstate New York at the time, or Ohio, or Kentucky as westward expansion continued. If you’re of Irish or Scottish descent, for example, he’ll determine, to the best of present-day knowledge, to which clan your family belonged. Similarly, if you think you may descend from Vikings, he’ll investigate your Nordic heritage.
Next, he’ll research available materials in the region where your family lived once they arrived in the New World. Was that variety of maple tree growing in the area where and when your family settled? Yes. Then Don may use that wood to fashion a knife handle. What styles of knives or tomahawks were being used in that region and for what purpose? For instance, there’s the tomahawk that has a bowl in one end used for smoking tobacco and passing around, what we would think of as a peace pipe. There’s the ’hawk with the spike opposite the cutting edge, which our ancestors used in times of combat for striking their opponents. And, hawks with nubs on the back were often used as a mallet or hammer, making the weapon double as a utility tool.
Every facet of the collection is thus researched. If Don wants to use a turkey feather, for example, to adorn a bonnet, he first confirms if turkeys were plentiful where your family lived and at that time. The woolen bonnets are supplied by reenactment companies such as Jas. Townsend & Sons out of Pierceton, Indiana. In Scottish versions, the headgear is larger and of thicker material, but the Irish renditions are precursors to the berets used by U.S. Special Forces. And like our elite warriors wear what’s called a flash—think a shield-shaped patch adorned with symbols from their unit—on their berets, Colonial-era warriors would wear a cockade made with their clan’s tartan, say, or other emblem representative of their heritage.
Don will educate his clients on the proper time and place to wear certain emblems. For instance, your set may include one bonnet with multiple cockades or other adornments. There may be a tattered cockade appropriate for everyday wear, or one that should only be worn at formal occasions. The headgear may include a feather, which, Don explains, would only be appropriate for a chief of a Native American tribe to wear. However, he acknowledges that his clientele may correctly believe they have earned the honor and they will wear the feathers to military galas, for example.
Don knows more than a little something about warriors of many nations and their weaponry. He ended up serving 30 years in the U.S. Army. “All I wanted to do was not embarrass my father and be a good soldier,” Don said. His father was an Army sergeant major, and Don was born and raised in Wurzburg, West Germany (at the time) until he was 13 years old. His dad’s final duty station was at Ft. Hood, Texas, where his parents went through the process of naturalizing Don. At the time, Germany had compulsory military service. This entailed sacrificing his dual citizenship, but saved him from possible conscription into the German army.
When his father retired, the family moved back to the home state of both his parents: West Virginia. So, Don was a high-school kid in a very foreign world. How foreign? “This kid got on the school bus and he had a fat bottom lip. I’m thinking, ‘It isn’t even 9 o’clock yet and this kid’s already been in a fight.’” Thus was young Don’s introduction to chewing tobacco. On the very same day on the very same bus, a few stops along the route, three redheaded sisters get on the bus. “My eyes immediately go to the tallest one, ’cause that’s how I roll,” Don said. “She had wire-rimmed glasses, and I thought, I’m cool with that.”
Fortunately, through an old-timey bus driver who lined the students up by sex and height, eventually the tall girl and older boy ended up sitting beside each other. Don barely said a word. Unbeknownst to him, however, the future Mrs. Shipman, Diane, or Annie as Don calls her, took matters into her own hands, putting the word out that the seat beside her was always reserved for Don. She knew right from the get-go that he was “the one.”
Don was dating his best friend’s sister, and although he got to the point where he could talk to Diane—a lot—and wanted more than anything to be with her, he couldn’t figure out a way to break it off with his friend’s sister without hurting her. “Next thing I knew, I was in basic training,” Don says, laughing. The other attachment dissolved naturally during the separation. In another example of his thoughtfulness, when Diane wanted to skip the hassle of a wedding, he told her he understood and that she could scale the event back, but that a wedding was bigger than both of them. “I told her I couldn’t do that to my parents, and that if she thought about it, I didn’t think she could do it to her parents either.” The Shipmans have now been married 37 years. They have a son, Isaac, born when Don became a Green Beret, and a daughter, Samantha, whom Don delivered.
Following a long family tradition, Don joined the U.S. Army in 1977 as an armored reconnaissance specialist, completing basic and advanced training at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. Although he hadn’t intended to stay, he did well and acted on the guidance of superiors, continually accumulating the schooling and assignments that allowed him to advance. When he wanted to join Special Forces, he was advised to take drill sergeant school. He did, and soon got accepted to qualify for Special Forces. The only problem was, he would have to wait for a slot in his preferred specialty: engineer, “because, yeah, I wanted to blow things up.” Or, he could go in immediately as a physician’s assistant, and have a marketable skill when he transitioned back to civilian life.
Qualifying on both the physical level and being required to “drink from a fire hose” medically speaking, Don made it through. “I was never afraid of the academics.” Because medics are limited in number and a Special Forces unit cannot deploy without one, Don deployed frequently. Honduras, twice; Key West for combat scuba diving instruction; Somalia, pre-involvement; Kenya, four times; Tanzania; Djibouti; Egypt; Pakistan and Afghanistan, “before they were cool;” Bosnia-Kosovo; Saudi Arabia; Kuwait; Iraq…in other words, he was exposed to the warrior tradition of many cultures.
But it was when he was face-down in the sand during Desert Storm, yelling at the next closest man, who was yelling back because neither could hear the other that Don began bargaining with God to get him and his brothers out of this. “God, family, country. I’d done a lot for my country. It was time for more God and family.”
Stateside, Don accepted a research position with a special operations medic from the Vietnam era who would encourage him to accept the Army’s offer to get his doctorate. Don finished out his career teaching at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. In the course of his medical training he was made an officer and retired as a major.
In all those years, aside from an occasional fishing trip, Don had never had a hobby. Now with time and resources he could indulge his creative side. About seven years ago he was on the Military Times Hall of Valor website where you enter your surname and up pops a database of recipients of the Silver Star up to and including the Medal of Honor. There were more Shipmans than Don could count. He’s a firm believer in the line that Rudyard Kipling made famous in his poem “Recessional”: “Lest we forget—lest we forget!” No soldier truly dies unless he is forgotten.
Don wasn’t even drawn to knifemaking, not right away anyway. But in feeding the home fires, it began to bother him that hardwoods like black walnut were being burned. “It’s practically a sin,” he said. So, he fashioned a hawk handle out of one piece and enjoyed the process. He gave it away. Then representatives from the Ranger Lead The Way Fund asked Don if he would make something for them to auction off at their 2013 gala. He made Rogers’ Rangers I, a set including a bonnet with a Roger’s Ranger badge, a 23-inch tomahawk and an 18-inch Scottish dirk with sheath. In 2016, he was asked to make Rogers’ Rangers II for a Green Beret Foundation auction. He had found the perfect outlet for his love of history, his brethren and the various streams of humanity that forged our country’s beginnings.
Don’s pieces look old and homespun, in keeping with both the available technology of the era and the skill level of the common men who fashioned them. If he doesn’t forge the blade himself, he uses The R.E. Davis Company in Woodville, Ohio, which specializes in weapon reproductions. Pieces from Shipman Hawk and Knife are pitted, worn and sometimes slightly warped, because that’s what a centuries-old edged weapon should look and feel like.
‘Knives of War’ Reveals Elite Forces Use of Knives in Combat
Compiled by two British and one American author, “Knives of War” is a guide to edged-weapon use from World War I to the present. Of particular interest is behind-the-scenes information on the use of the Marine Raiders Gung Ho Knife, the Gerber Mark II Combat Knife as well as the most famous fighting knife of all time, the Fairbairn-Sykes. This is a must-have for any knife lover’s library.