The untold truth of Forged in Fire

The best reality television focuses on talent. Sure, we all love drama, and watching a bunch of people scheme and plot and riff on some version of "I'm not here to make friends" like they invented the phrase is fun and all, but shows that pit smart, talented people against each other in a test of skill? Magic. 

That's why the History Channel's Forged in Fire — in which bladesmiths compete to make various knives, swords, and other bladed weapons — is such a success. Not only is the subject fascinating, it's also educational both in terms of how these things are actually made and the history of some of the weapons they create. The best part is that they manage to wring drama out of the competition instead of interpersonal drama. Each episode is exciting because of the challenges posed to the competitors, not because of their personality conflicts. And also the fire. We're not gonna lie, the fire has a lot to do with how great this show is. And while the series might seem like an open book, there's actually a lot going on under the surface. Here's the untold truth of Forged in Fire, some of which is really going to surprise you.

Forged in Fire was inspired by cooking shows

If you're wondering how someone comes up with the idea for a TV show about sweaty people beating slabs of metal into useful and often beautiful weapons, wonder no more: You hang out with your teenage kids and pay attention. 

Tim Healy, head of programming and development at the History Channel, explained (via Decider) that the inspiration for Forged in Fire came from his 14-year-old daughter's love of cooking competition shows like Chopped. As anyone who's ever interacted with a 14-year-old kid knows, connecting with them can be challenging. So in order to spend some time with her, Healy would sit and watch those culinary shows, and he began to wonder how he could do a "cooking competition show without cooking" (now that's some outside-the-box thinking). 

He also knew from experience that whenever a reality show featured a weapon, the ratings went up, and that was his inspiration — a show where they make weapons from scratch instead of fancy burritos. The idea eventually evolved towards bladed weapons specifically, but Healy stuck with his initial inspiration, structuring the format like a cooking show with new competitors every episode.

A fan burned down a city block

Unlike reality cooking or design shows, where part of the fun is attempting to replicate what you just watched, Forged in Fire isn't the sort of show where you can jump off your couch, excited about fire and blades and wielding a two-pound hammer like Thor. Bladesmithing is a time-consuming craft requiring a lot of specialized stuff. It's also a very dangerous craft, as one huge fan of the show discovered in 2017. 

John Gomes of Cohoes, New York, a big fan of the show, decided to spend one extremely windy afternoon trying to make a hammer in his backyard, using a fire he started in a barrel as a forge. According to The New York Times, the fire got out of control, and the winds did the rest, spreading the fire to Gomes' home and then nearby apartment buildings, eventually driving nearly 30 people from their homes. Shawn Morse, the mayor, called it (via the New York Daily News) "the worst disaster this city has ever seen." Gomes was charged with arson and reckless endangerment, and one of the show's contestants, Kim Stahl, warned other fans, "Not every episode outlines all the procedures that were followed." Which, fair, but we're not sure how you can watch Forged in Fire and think you can make a sword using a barrel in your backyard.

Forged in Fire is pretty dangerous

Okay, saying a show about making bladed weapons is dangerous is like saying running with scissors is dangerous, but it's not actually the blades that you should worry about if you wander onto the set of Forged in Fire. It's the heat. As Erin Healy, the managing editor of Blade magazine, notes, with four forges lined up next to each other, plus the heat of the television studio lights, the set gets super hot. And while the place is vented, it's vented against asphyxiation, not heat. 

Of course, the heat is part of the challenge, and experienced bladesmiths are used to working under similar conditions, but that isn't magic protection against succumbing to the intense, baking heat of the set. While the contestants are provided plenty of water and encouraged to drink it (and to take breaks), the show has had several cases of heat exhaustion, and there's been at least one episode (season four's "The Katzbalger") where a contestant collapsed, suffering chest pains and heading to the hospital instead of completing the challenge. And all this before the knives come out.

Forged in Fire has a woman problem

Bladesmithing has long been a male-dominated field, and that's caused the show some difficulties. It's been criticized for the lack of female representation on the show (the first season, in fact, had exactly zero women on it), especially since the host and judges are exclusively male. It's not entirely the show's fault, of course. There are only four female Master Bladesmiths in the country, after all. In fact, Audra Draper become the first female Master Bladesmith just 20 years ago. And as contestant Rachel Oliver notes, most female bladesmiths don't use the forge technique that the show features. Instead, they use a wholly different technique known as "stock removal," making the search for female contestants even more challenging. 

The show has made a real effort to increase the number of female smiths, though, and producer Tim Healy explained (via Decider) that in season one, it was hard enough to find any bladesmiths willing to come on the show because it was an unknown quantity. Since then, the show has managed to have several female smiths on, and a few have even won the episode and walked away with the $10,000 prize.

The contestants take the weapons home

It's easy to imagine that making weapons comes with some legal complications, and there are a lot of rumors swirling around Forged in Fire concerning what happens to all those swords, knives, and other bladed weapons once filming is finished. Many viewers note that weapons from past shows are often spotted hanging on the walls of the studio, and some have claimed that under New York State law (the show is filmed in Brooklyn), the weapons have to be classified as "props" and kept by the production company. In other words, according to the rumors, contestants don't get to keep the weapons they worked so hard for. 

That sounds reasonable, especially when you've got a bunch of people making something terrifying like a Moro kris. But according to reality TV writer Andy Dehnart of Reality Blurred, it's also 100 percent false. Dehnart actually spoke with a spokesperson for the show, who clarified that while the winning weapon is kept on display on their Winners Wall, everyone else gets their weapon back "as a symbol of [the show's] gratitude and out of respect for the amount of work put into the weapon."

Getting on Forged in Fire ain't easy

While reality shows work hard to hide a lot of the boring details from the viewer (and thank goodness) it obviously takes a lot of skill to get cast on any show focused on a craft like bladesmithing. You're not just wandering the local mall asking people if they want to come make a 12th-century Crusader sword and maybe win some money, after all. You want actual bladesmiths who have a shot at successfully making the weapons they're tasked with. But you might not be aware of just how much the contestants have to work just to be considered. 

Contestant Gabriel Mabry of Doberman Forge detailed some of the steps he had to go through, including answering a questions about metallurgy and doing both an interview and a background check. And contestant Dustin Parrella told the Richland Source that it goes even further than that. After applying to be on the show and sitting for multiple interviews via phone and video, he had to actually forge a blade to the producers' specifications and submit photos of the finished product. And after all that, he reports he still had to do "a couple more" interviews before being invited to compete. Considering how carefully the contestants are screened for the show, it underscores just how challenging and difficult the blades created for the show actually are.

The show isn't a bladesmithing class

As John Gomes, the man who basically burned down his entire town trying to forge metal in his backyard after watching Forged in Fire, discovered, watching the show isn't really a substitute for learning how to bladesmith the right way. As former contestant Kim Stahl told the New York Daily News, "Not every episode outlines all the procedures that were followed." In other words, the magic of editing means you might not be shown some absolutely essential but visually dull (or time-consuming) part of the process. 

For example, many experienced bladesmiths like Darrell Markewitz have complained that while the show loves a fiery "quench" (when the hot metal is plunged into water or oil to rapidly cool it, hardening the metal), it never shows the metal being tempered, which is a slower, less showy process designed to increase the durability of the metal after hardening. They also complain that the judges often misuse bladesmithing jargon (which might be for the audience's benefit, as the show can't expect its fans to become expert blacksmiths just to enjoy the competition) and speculate that many of the failed weapons are the result of skipped steps. That's all fine for something presented for entertainment purposes, of course. Just keep in mind you're not going to be ready to start your own bladesmithing business after a few episodes.

Most of the blades on Forged in Fire aren't so great

Watching professionals and very accomplished hobbyists work to a high standard is one of the greatest pleasures. Competence is sexy, especially when it involves something exotic like hand-crafting bladed weapons. But a lot of the weapons on this show aren't so great. Some are ugly, some are easily broken, and some simply don't do the one thing a blade is supposed to do — cut. 

Steve Calvert, the bladesmith behind Green Beetle Gear, analyzed the show's episodes and determined that most of the failed weapons were due to some pretty fundamental forging errors you would think experienced bladesmiths would know to avoid. But it's important to remember that this is a TV show, after all, and the contestants are working under artificial time and material constraints and striving to create a weapon they're probably unfamiliar with, all on an incredibly hot set that's crowded with equipment and other smiths plus a TV crew. So let's not get too judgmental.

Forged in Fire was almost Project Runway with guns

When Tim Healy, head of programming and development at the History Channel and the creator of Forged in Fire, was first spinning up the idea for reality series, he just imagined a show where people created "weapons" from scratch. The specific idea to have the contestants create bladed weapons came later. In fact, as Decider reports, he consulted with Jodi Flynn, a fellow producer who was pitching a similar concept at the time, Gunsmiths — a riff on Project Runway in that would have had a fixed cast and a season-long arc of challenges as they created guns, with different challenges every week and a focus on the interactions and relationships between the smiths. 

However, Healy really wanted a fresh group of smiths every week instead of Runway's fixed cast in order to take a deeper dive into the culture surrounding the craft. Plus, his research told him that on other reality shows like American Pickers or Pawn Stars, it was bladed weapons that resulted in ratings spikes. So the gun aspect was put aside in favor of the bladed weapons approach the show has found so successful.

Most bladesmiths need the prize money

Every week on Forged in Fire, four bladesmiths accept the challenge of making whatever weapon the show chooses, and the winner receives $10,000. That's pretty good money even when you take the extreme effort involved into account, both in making the weapon and even getting on the show in the first place (which requires several interviews, taking a metallurgy test, and creating a sample blade, all of which is uncompensated). 

However, the three "losing" smiths get nothing, aside from a trip to New York City and being on television, of course. And that's too bad, because according to Career Trend, the median salary for a bladesmith is estimated to be about $31,000, with a low of $20,000 (and most of them make their money creating cutlery instead of super awesome swords and the like). So most of these smiths could probably use that cash. Still, appearing on the show has other benefits. For example, Gabe Mabry told The Stanly News & Press that before being a contestant, his bladesmithing was a side hustle he did along with several other jobs, but after being on the show, he was able to begin bladesmithing full time.

Not everyone involved was an expert

There's a difference between being a weapons expert and being a bladesmith. But you might imagine that a show where bladesmiths have their work judged would get folks who know all about the craft to do that. While judges J. Neilson, David Baker, and Ben Abbott have extensive and impressive blade-making experience (Abbott was actually a two-time winner on the show before ascending to the judge's seat), host Wil Willis and Doug Marcaida came to the series with exactly zero bladesmithing knowledge. Willis is a former Army Ranger with a ton of experience using weapons of all sorts, and Marcaida is an edged weapon expert, knife designer, and martial artist. So certainly, they have the experience and knowledge to judge a finished weapon. 

But still, the producers must've been a little concerned about this lack of knowledge. According to Vice, Willis had finally begun learning the basics of forging by season four of the show, and the History Channel even posted proof of Neilson teaching both Willis and Marcaida how to bladesmith, putting to rest any complaints that the smiths competing on the show might not be getting the best judging experience.

Forged in Fire is controversial

Any time weapons are involved, things can get a little complicated. And that's also true for Forged in Fire. This is a show, after all, where judge Doug Marcaida happily proclaims that a weapon "will kill" when he's pleased with the test results. (To be fair, Marcaida spells and pronounces it KEAL, which stands for "'keep everyone alive"). But the show's focus on blades and their ability to cut through ballistic dummies and cuts of beef (often filmed in cinematic slow motion) has had some police and parents' groups in an uproar since its debut. 

For example, The Sun has reported that some police organizations feel the show "glorifies violence" and might be an especially bad influence on kids. This might be especially true in the United Kingdom, where so-called "knife crime" has hit historic highs in recent years. According to The Guardian, crimes involving bladed weapons rose seven percent in 2019 — nearly 45,000 cases in just 12 months. Unsurprisingly, the History Channel dismisses such worries, noting that there's no evidence of any link between the show and crime rates involving knives or otherwise. For their part, the judges don't seem worried about inspiring the youths to violence. As Vice points out, J. Neilson is proudly teaching his own young children to be bladesmiths.