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A Short History of American Pocket Knives

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While it is impossible to say with any degree of certainty without actually having been there, I imagine that Man’s love of cutlery began somewhere back in our dark and unrecorded history when one of our early Cro-Magnon ancestors discovered that using a sharp rock enabled him/or her to cut things.

From there, based upon the fossil record, Man’s ingenuity has continuously improved the quality of his cutlery through the centuries and that evolution is still taking place today. In fact, a knife is such a useful tool that it seems that no matter how technologically advanced Man become, we simply cannot do without it because we still have a need to cut things just like our ancestors did and so far, a knife is still the best tool for the job.

Since both metallurgy and materials have vastly improved, so has knife design. In fact, as these improvements have come about, the popularity of the pocket knife has also proliferated to the point to where, not only do we now have a long history of pocket knife use in America, we have our own, long-standing, highly recognizable, American pocket knife brands; each of which produces a plethora of single and multi-bladed pocket knife and folding knife designs under their brand name.

Although the early history of pocket knives is a little vague, the first known “pocket knives” date to at least the early Iron Age and possibly to the Bronze Age. Then in the mid sixteenth century, blade centers such as Sheffield, England, Toledo, Spain, and Solingen, Germany emerged as commercial centers where knife blades were mass produced by skilled craftsmen who did nothing but make knives their entire lives.

Consequently, with the emergence of these concentrations of skilled craftsmen who also had access to a commercial distribution network, not only did the price of pocket knives fall to the point where the average person could afford one, the quality of the blades also drastically improved. Therefore, the “Peasant Knife” became quite popular among farmers and other rural inhabitants because it was very inexpensive to manufacturer due to the fact that it consisted of nothing more than a wooden handle with a folding steel blade with no Slip Joint locking mechanism and no frills; although some smiths did include a tension screw at the pivot point to help hold the blade open during use.

It was an inexpensive design that served its purpose and therefore, it was quite popular among people of modest means. In fact, the modern day, French-made, Opinel folding knives are a good example of a Peasant Knife although, they do incorporate a simple, slide-ring, locking mechanism.

The Industrial Revolution in America enabled bladesmiths to mass produce a far more complicated version of the folding pocket knife in the form of the now common Slip Joint pocket knife which required too much manual labor to mass produce cheaply without heavy machinery to stamp and/or drop forge the needed parts. Next, there was the introduction of the Lockback locking mechanism to the world of folding knives which came about with the birth of the Buck 110 Folding Hunter which is quite arguably the most iconic American-made, lock-back, folding knife in existence. Which, in turn, brings us to the present day and the enormous proliferation of American knife companies; each with a distinctive look and feel that is immediately recognizable by any knife aficionado or avid knife enthusiast.

In fact, if you mention American knife companies to any knife enthusiast, five names will immediately spring to mind: Case, Buck, Schrade (manufacturer of Old Timer/Uncle Henry), Queen Steel and Schatt & Morgan. Consequently, these five brand names are so iconic among American knife enthusiasts that they comprise the bulk of our domestic pocket knife business today (although the Schatt & Morgan brand name is now owned by Queen Steel).

Any kid back in the day who has ever walked into a hardware store, a feed store, a farm supply store, or a sporting goods store has undoubtedly seen display cases full of shinny new Case, Buck, and Schrade, Queen Steel and Schatt & Morgan pocket knives and thus, these five brands became firmly fixed in our minds as the five iconic American brand names (remember, we didn’t have the Web back then!).

However, you would also occasionally see a display that contained some of “those foreign-made knives” with brand names such as Böker or Puma that were produced in Solingen, Germany. In addition, each of these brands had a very distinctive look to them that immediately separated them from the others and thus, made them instantly recognizable to others.

Aside from distinctive blade shapes, Case pocket knives commonly had shinny, polished, stainless steel blades with jigged bone handles. Whereas, Buck pocket knives had duller, non-polished, stainless steel blades complemented by their distinctive black, Delrin, handle scales. Schrade pocket knives also had a distinctive look with their dull, non-polished, high carbon tool steel blades with distinctive, dark brown, Delrin handles that were designed to simulate died bone handle scales. Furthermore, you could spot a Queen Steel from a mile away because of their highly distinctive, blue and white, “Winterbottom” jigged bone (and later jigged Delrin) handle scales whereas, Schatt & Morgan knives usually featured dark brown, jigged bone,  handle scales.

Although we were aware from their advertising that all five companies used high carbon steels, we also knew that Case, Buck, Queen Steel, Schatt & Morgan, and Uncle Henry knives were constructed from stainless steels (Queen City Cutlery/Queen Steel was the first knife company to incorporate this new steel) whereas, Old Timers were made from high-carbon tool steel and therefore, they would inevitably form a dark brown patina within a few days of purchasing them and then carrying them in your pocket.

Case, Buck, Queen Steel, and Schatt and Morgan knives were commonly considered to be of better quality than the Schrade knives were even if it was not actually so. However, now days, a simple Web search will reveal that non-stainless, high-carbon, tool steels are often tougher and just as hard as many stainless steels!

Pocket knife design has come a long way since those early Peasant Knives and thus, not only are such designs as the Slip Joint common place now, we can also choose between Lockbacks, Liner Locks, Frame Locks, Push Button Locks, and several other new and innovative locking mechanisms with either manual, assisted opening, or automatic opening mechanisms. In addition, with the ushering in of the Industrial Revolution in America, high quality pocket knives became readily available to the average citizen and thus, the Slip Joint pocket knife design has blossomed to the point where there were so many different types that they were given distinctive names such as Stockman, Congress, Canoe, Sunfish, Toothpick, Doctor, Fruit Tester, ect. based upon the shape of the handle, the number and type of blades each one has, and the intended purpose of each blade design.

It tends to boggle the mind to try and comprehend the numerous minor differences between them all unless you are a fanatical scholar of cutlery!

However, among Americans, necessity is the hallmark of invention and thus, each of the commonly recognized pocket knife types was specifically designed to meet the needs of the person carrying it usually based upon their occupation.

For instance, a rancher would likely carry a Stockman which has a Serpentine handle shape and Clip Point blade, a Sheep’s Foot blade, and a Spey Blade whereas a banker or a clerk would likely carry a Pen knife which has Peanut handle shape with a Clip Point blade and a Pen blade.

Not only was the shape of the handle on each type of pocket knife influenced by its intended purpose, the shape, size, and number of blades was also greatly affected by the use for which it was intended.

The Clip Point is designed to be a general purpose blade and is usually the largest blade on any pocket knife. Whereas, the Sheepsfoot blade was specifically designed for trimming sheep’s hooves and the Spey blade was specifically designed for spaying farm animals.

The Pen blade was specifically designed for sharpening ink pen quills and thus, anyone who had a need to write on a regular basis definitely owned a Pen Knife.

So, although I would like to discuss these subjects further in this article, each of these subjects both deserves and needs to be treated to its own article to more than scratch the surface and truly do the subject justice.

I would suggest that you check back often for more educational articles on the fascinating subject of pocket and folding knives.

If you have any topics that you would like me to cover, please don’t hesitate to get in touch by using the comment form below.

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