The smiths competing on History Channel's Forged in Fire get plenty of attention for their craft on the reality competition series. And it's well-deserved. They're performing hard, dangerous work under strict constraints with the pressure of a $10,000 prize hanging over their heads.
But equally impressive are the credentials and works produced by the Forged in Fire judges. If you've ever wanted to know more about these skilled experts, read on to learn about the judges of Season 9: J. Neilson, Ben Abbott, Doug Marcaida, and David Baker.
James Neilson, who goes by his first initial professionally, holds the rank of Mastersmith with the American Blacksmith Society (ABS). He has been with the show since Season 1, Episode 1 — although he hasn't been in every episode. During Season 3, fans worried that J. had decided to leave the show when he was missing from the judges' panel. Thankfully, J. returned after taking a leave of absence to have surgery on his hand, with fellow ABS Master Smith Jason Knight standing in for him while he recovered.
Since Season 4, there have been some episodes in which J. was replaced with two-time champion Ben Abbott. But the replacement was never meant to be permanent, which viewers realized when both J. and Ben sat on the judges' forge for the two-part "Road to Redemption" competition that kicked off Season 6.
When he's not judging other people's weapons-making skills, J. puts his own craft to the test in his forge, located in Towanda, Penn. Neilson's Mountain Hollow specializes in custom high-carbon and Damascus steel blades of all sizes and lengths, as well as handmade handles and sheaths.
Ben brings the unique perspective of having walked through the series' fire (so to speak) as a contestant. As of February 2022, he is a nine-time Forged in Fire champion and made his judging debut during Season 4. He first won during Season 2, then won again in the Season 3 Champions edition, which pitted him against three other past winners. His interest in making swords and knives stems from tours he took of English castles as a young teen, and he is largely self-taught.
If you note a slight British accent, Ben originally hails from across the pond, though he now calls Pasadena, Calif. home. The former Caltech electrical engineer operates Ashgrove Forge, where he makes just about anything you can imagine in metal. His wife Mandy credits him for making most of the pans and cutlery they use in their kitchen.
Doug may not make weapons, but he definitely knows how to use them. His role on the show since Season 1 has been to test the strength and utility of the smiths' weapons. The military vet is also a Filipino martial arts expert and operates his own studio, Marcaida Kali, in Rochester, N.Y. He also teaches classes in weapons awareness for military, law enforcement, and security professionals.
Doug credits his study of martial arts for teaching him discipline and responsibility, which eventually drove him to join the military. On Forged in Fire, Doug is known for the "KEAL" test he uses to evaluate the smiths' weapons, which stems from the phrase, "Keep Everyone ALive." Competitors want their weapons to pass this test!
David Lain Baker specializes in historical weapons and has been tasked with recreating realistic, period-accurate weapons for television and film. Although he started in Hollywood as an actor, he developed an interest in props and made a career out of it. David has worked in the art department on films like Beowulf and Dragonball Evolution, as well as on various television series.
David also served as weapons master for the Spike (now Paramount Network) show Deadliest Warrior, which pitted historical and fictional fighters against each other to determine who would be most effective in a one-on-one battle.
Whether it's a katana or a catapult, David knows what it looks like and how it should be made.
Watched Forged in Fire Wednesdays at 9 p.m. EST on the History Channel.