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Former JBLM Ranger now weapons maker

Living off the grid on five acres outside Rainier

Chris Rowley holds a few of the mosaic Damascus knives he’s forged in his Rainier shop Monday. JBLM PAO photo.

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RAINIER — Despite living off the grid on five acres outside Rainier, Wash., veteran Ranger Chris Rowley and his wife, Frances, aren’t exactly living the recluse life.

The 43-year-old former farrier transitioned from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment in July. His seven-year military career included six tours in Afghanistan and ended with a medical retirement due to injuries such as placement of a metal plate in his neck and various knee and back surgeries.

Rowley joined the military from his hometown of Angels Camp, Calif., when he was 34 years old.

Going from a man who shoes high-end race, show and dressage horses to being a Special Operations Soldier and now, to his current knife making trade, Nomad Custom Knives and Tools, was a natural progression, according to Rowley.

“I’ve always liked making things with my hands ... I use a lot of the skills I learned in making custom horse shoes to forge (weapons) — for example, making shoes for a specific horse and weighting the sides to improve their (gait),” he said.

While Rowley was in the military, he was asked by several fellow Soldiers to create knives for use on deployments.

“Probably half of the battalion had one of my knives,” he said, as he held one of his custom mosaic Damascus knives.

Those knives are about five inches long and have burl-wood and resin handles and intricate scroll-designed blades.

The blades are created from pressing dozens of layers of steel. Every step of the process is completed by Rowley. He’s able to sell the knives for upwards of $500 each.

“I don’t depend on anybody; I do everything myself,” he said. “My knives are 100 percent handcrafted. I don’t send off to get anything done by someone else.”

That’s a far cry from the teamwork expected of a Ranger. Although Rowley said he loved his time as a Special Operations Soldier, he’s also enjoying being his own boss and setting his own hours and work expectations.

Currently, he’s got a long list of clients and a wait list of about eight months, he said.

That list expands each time a specific episode re-airs of the History Channel’s “Forged in Fire,” on which Rowley advanced to the final two blade-smiths.

Rowley was contacted by the show through social media and appeared on episodes last October, which were filmed at a studio in New York during Rowley’s terminal leave.

On the show, Rowley and the other competitors forged Viking war axes. The competition went from four to two competitors before Rowley was sliced from the competition.

Rowley said that although he made it to the final round, it wasn’t necessarily the best blade-smiths who advanced.

In the competition, time management was a major component, and his prior ability to shoe horses quickly played into his ability to shape his ax quickly. It also helped that the forge used in the competition was a coal forge, which is a style he worked with throughout his blacksmith days.

Also, many competitors are used to power tools. When that’s taken away, they aren’t able to produce as well, Rowley said.

“My understanding of how to move metal and how to heat it gave me a head start,” he said.

Rowley grew up the oldest of two brothers born to Brian and Donna Rowley, of Angel Camp, Calif. Rowley’s grandfather also shoed horses, and his dad is a mechanic.

Rowley said his family’s ability to work in blue collar trades is part of why he has become successful in his current craft.

“I always knew I’d never go to college, and I think that’s pushed too much in high school and in the military. Counselors are always telling you that you have to get a higher education, but there’s a ton of jobs in this country that don’t need academia,” he said. “This country is begging for electricians and welders, and you don’t have to go the college route for that.”

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