Sworn to the Black

HEAL­ING THE SOUL THROUGH FUNC­TIONAL ART

Firepower - - CONTENTS - TEXT BY CHRIS TRAN / PHO­TOS BY LIAM FULLER & CHRIS TRAN

One USMC vet­eran who cre­ates cus­tom­forged weaponry as func­tional art

Ev­ery now and then, a piece of art will stop you dead in your tracks. This oc­curred to me re­cently at High Bar Homestead in Wy­oming dur­ing a me­dia event ear­lier in the year. At the event, I was ex­posed to an in­cred­i­ble com­pany called Black­guard Cus­toms by so­cial me­dia in­flu­encer and pa­triot Mans­pot. While prep­ping for a day of pis­tol course work, I ob­served Mans­pot strap on an in­tri­cately en­graved set of knives dubbed the “Bat­tle Cleaver” and “Bat­tle Throw­ing Knife.” The blades were en­cased in weath­ered leather drop­leg sheaths and looked sim­ply wicked.

I asked Mans­pot if I could take a photo of the set; he read­ily obliged, and re­galed me with the tale of Liam Fuller, the U.S. Ma­rine com­bat vet­eran who cre­ated the set for him. I’ve al­ways had the belief that not only is it im­por­tant to ob­jec­tively cover prod­ucts I come across, but to show read­ers the peo­ple, the hearts and souls, be­hind the com­pany. Not only should we be ju­di­cious with how we spend our money on qual­ity gear; it’s equally im­por­tant to know to whom your money is go­ing.

To this end, Fuller and I cor­re­sponded via e-mail and then by phone to dis­cuss what he would like read­ers to know about Black­guard Cus­toms, him­self as an artist, and the mis­sion be­hind his com­pany.

Chris Tran (CT): I was in­tro­duced to your work by Mans­pot while we were both at a me­dia-only event at High Bar Homestead. I was blown away by the beauty of your work. Can you tell us about your back­ground and how Black­guard Cus­toms came to be?

Liam Fuller (LF): I have a back­ground that has af­forded me many op­por­tu­ni­ties in life. My mother’s side of the fam­ily are all artists, art teach­ers, and cre­atives. I men­tion this be­cause my craft ob­vi­ously in­volves sev­eral forms of arts and craft­ing skills. I grew up sur­rounded by artists and crafts­men of all sorts. My el­dest brother is a far­rier and black­smith as well as a Ma­rine and I fol­lowed in his foot­steps a bit. While serv­ing in the Marines I also worked off-base as a tat­too artist, which lent it­self to what I do now in more ways that I would have thought. After be­ing med­i­cally re­tired I moved back to Texas and did the typ­i­cal bounce from job to job, look­ing for a place I fit in. I worked in pri­vate se­cu­rity, mar­ket­ing, freight man­age­ment, and went back to school.

Noth­ing took, but at least in art school I was a bit hap­pier. I bounced back and forth be­tween school and pri­vate con­tract­ing un­til I grad­u­ated with my bach­e­lor’s de­gree in photography. I did photography work when and where I could. I was shoot­ing an event and after­ward there was a party; at that party there was axe throw­ing. I took an axe I had en­graved and ev­ery­one was blown away. So much so that I later made a bunch of axes for a well-known ap­parel com­pany and it snow­balled from there. It reached a point that it needed to be­come a busi­ness, so we (my fi­ancé Kristi and I) spit­balled ideas for the name, brand­ing, and lo­gos for a few weeks. Black­guard was her idea and it was sort of a well-fit­ted joke. “Black­guard” and “Blag­gard” are one and the same and she fig­ured it suited a bunch of surly, dirty, vul­gar vet­er­ans work­ing in our garage.

CT: What ser­vices and prod­ucts does your com­pany of­fer? Do you have off-the-shelf pro­duc­tions, or are all your prod­ucts com­pletely cus­tom from the ground up?

LF: That’s sort of a tough one. We are mostly known for our cus­tom axes and knives. We do have a prod­uct line where peo­ple can just go to the web­site and pick out some­thing, but most of our work is cus­tom pieces. We also make jew­elry, belt buck­les, wall plaques, shad­ow­boxes, belts—the list goes on and on. We try not to limit our­selves and tell peo­ple to chal­lenge us.

CT: You’re not sim­ply a shop that pro­duces great prod­uct. Black­guard Cus­toms seems to be more than that, from em­ploy­ing vet­er­ans, to self-heal­ing through work­ing with your hands, to cre­at­ing mean­ing­ful prod­ucts for char­i­ta­ble and aware­ness or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Can you de­scribe some of the ven­tures and peo­ple you’ve part­nered with?

LF: It feels good to take raw ma­te­ri­als and make some­thing out of them. There is a def­i­nite ther­a­peu­tic value to what we do. Yes, the busi­ness side is stress­ful, but the de­sign and fab­ri­ca­tion is well worth it for us.

“In­spired by you, crafted by us.” “we try not to limit our­selves and tell peo­ple to chal­lenge us.”

Hir­ing vets was a no-brainer; most peo­ple can’t han­dle a vet­eran’s at­ti­tude like other vets can. It’s also good be­cause there’s a level of trust and re­spect from day one and that’s hard to find. Not all my em­ploy­ees are vet­er­ans, so it’s fun to see the re­ac­tions to some of the things vets talk about as eas­ily as talk­ing about the weather or a sport­ing event. We will al­ways hire vet­er­ans first, and work with tran­si­tion­ing vets when­ever we can.

As for the net­work and or­ga­ni­za­tions we work with, well, that all just sort of fell into place. We work with peo­ple like the Cpl Chad O Foun­da­tion for PTSD most fre­quently be­cause of my close per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with Chad’s par­ents. We have sent our own guys to get bet­ter men­tal health care out­side of the VA through the foun­da­tion, in­clud­ing my­self. We have helped raise money with and for the Chris Kyle Memo­rial Ben­e­fit and Auc­tion, Honor Flight Austin, Cpl Chad O, and Vet Fest just to name a few from this year so far. All the events and or­ga­ni­za­tions we do­nated to or worked with, they have all proven that they ac­tu­ally take the money and give back to the vet­eran com­mu­nity. We just want to see more vets get qual­ity mean­ing­ful as­sis­tance.

CT: How do you trans­late con­cepts your cus­tomers want memo­ri­al­ized into metal art?

LF: When it comes to de­sign, we have a pretty straight­for­ward sys­tem. Clients con­tact us with ideas and re­quire­ments. We col­lect ref­er­ence ma­te­ri­als and client re­quests, and cre­ate ei­ther dig­i­tal mock­ups or hand-drawn de­signs. If the client likes it, we move to the next step, which is fig­ur­ing out costs. If they want to make changes, we re­design as needed un­til we land on a fi­nal de­sign.

It gets trick­i­est when it’s a memo­rial piece. There is a lot of pres­sure to make sure ev­ery de­tail is as perfect as we can get it. Th­ese fam­i­lies and friends are trust­ing us to make some­thing that will last their fam­i­lies gen­er­a­tions so that they can re­mem­ber a loved one. It’s all about “In­spired by you, hand­crafted by us.”

CT: What were some of the chal­lenges you faced once you re­turned home, and how did you chan­nel your strug­gles through art and the forg­ing process?

LF: My ex­pe­ri­ence in the Marines def­i­nitely played a part in where I am. Get­ting out wasn’t in my plan, not feel­ing like I be­longed in so­ci­ety wasn’t in the plan, and be­com­ing a black­smith/blade­smith was def­i­nitely not part of my plan. When I got out I found my­self look­ing for my place in the world. As I men­tioned be­fore, I was bounc­ing from job to job and not find­ing “it,” so to speak. This was hon­estly the last place I ex­pected to be.

I hear sto­ries from vets all the time about the dif­fi­cul­ties they went through when tran­si­tion­ing back to civil­ian life and they were fairly sim­i­lar to mine. What I had found while back at school was that my art made me happy, so I pur­sued it to a point. The phrase “starv­ing artist” isn’t a joke and I still worked pri­vate se­cu­rity to pay the bills. When I fi­nally left

“hir­ing vet­er­ans was a no-brainer; most peo­ple can’t han­dle a vet like other vet­er­ans can.”

the pri­vate sec­tor my fi­ancé sug­gested I go back into the garage and make stuff while I fin­ished my de­gree. She was and is very sup­port­ive and a crit­i­cal part of Black­guard.

Hav­ing some shared ex­pe­ri­ences with clients or an un­der­stand­ing of the im­por­tance of unit morale, the re­la­tion­ships be­tween ser­vice mem­bers, and the feel­ings as­so­ci­ated with the losses suf­fered in ser­vice re­ally helps me to re­late to the larger seg­ment of my cus­tomer base. Help­ing oth­ers by craft­ing what they en­vi­sioned is deeply grat­i­fy­ing and ther­a­peu­tic. It makes me feel like I’m still a part of this thing that’s so much big­ger than peo­ple un­der­stand. This is also a rea­son why I try and hire other vet­er­ans and work with all the vet­eran ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions that we do. It’s about giv­ing back to my com­mu­nity and tak­ing care of my fam­ily, and I am not the only vet­eran smith that feels the same way. There are dozens of us out there.

CT: Many peo­ple can’t truly em­pathize with what it means to be a com­bat vet­eran. What mes­sage would you want to bring to our read­ers to give them a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of what it was that you went through? How does the av­er­age Amer­i­can cit­i­zen re­late to and as­sist those tran­si­tion­ing back to a civil­ian life?

LF: What I per­son­ally tell peo­ple is that I vol­un­teered to do what I did so they didn’t have to. It wasn’t for honor or glory or recog­ni­tion but out of a sense of duty. I now look at the world dif­fer­ently based on what I have seen in the world and hu­man­ity. I don’t ex­pect out­siders to un­der­stand and I don’t de­mand recog­ni­tion or re­spect. I did a job

“help­ing oth­ers by craft­ing what they en­vi­sion is grat­i­fy­ing and ther­a­peu­tic.”

Liam Fuller, a U.S. Ma­rine com­bat vet­eran, heads up Black­guard Cus­toms.

Black­guard Cus­toms is known for cus­tom axes and knives, but the com­pany is open to craft­ing many other cus­tom items as well.

Al­ways giv­ing back, Fuller and Black­guard Cus­toms helped raise money with and for the Chris Kyle Memo­rial Ben­e­fit and Auc­tion, Honor Flight Austin, Cpl Chad O, and Vet Fest to name just a few.

Be­low: Mans­pot’s “Bat­tle Cleaver” and throw­ing knife. The axe is not in­cluded in the set, but it is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the painstak­ing ef­fort put into each heir­loom-qual­ity piece of weaponry forged by Black­guard Cus­toms.

Liam shows off two dif­fer­ent ex­am­ples of his en­graved axes. Each is cus­tom-tai­lored for an in­di­vid­ual cus­tomer; the de­sign and homage to their own­ers or owner’s fam­i­lies are Fuller’s way of pay­ing trib­ute.

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