Awww geeze, not another blog!

Welcome to A Fine Blade!

This blog will focus one of my lifelong passions and one of man's most basic tools - the knife!

As time and events permit we'll tiptoe into other territory where we can use the knife as a metaphor in discussions about current events and have a little politically incorrect fun.

Because you see, knives rank just below guns as the most politically incorrect subject on the web today.

Guns & Knives = Bad. Gay Marriage & Recreational Drug Use = Good

We'll see if we can't have some fun with that.

So stay tuned, and welcome aboard!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Now THAT'S a Knife!

As Mick Dundee demonstrates to us in the video above, a big knife has a quality all it's own.

Impressive, intimidating and unapologetic.  These are all useful traits found in big blades.  In today's world it's just too difficult to intimidate someone with a pen knife.  Only a big blade will do.

From a practical standpoint the era of the big blade ended in the 1970s.  Before then big blades were common sights on camping, hunting and fishing trips.  Our collective national experience, fed by westward expansion, the Civil War and two World Wars told us that big blades were what you needed when afoot in the wilderness.  This necessity hearkened back to the days when firearms were unreliable and slow to reload.  You got one shot with your gun and then it was back to the blade to finish the fight.  It didn't matter if you were attacked by a bear or were set upon by wild savages, nobody finished fights with pocket knives.  You turned to the sword or a large knife.    

But America's infatuation with big knives can actually be traced to a single historical incident.

In 1827 Jim Bowie attended a duel where many of the attendees carried pistols.  The incident quickly devolved into a riot and everyone carrying a gun emptied it early in the fight.  Things were ended using large knives and sword canes.  This was the infamous Sandbar Fight near Natchez, Mississippi and the incident cemented the legend of Jim Bowie and his large blade in American popular culture.  After the story of the fight hit the eastern newspapers the demand for large 'Bowie's knife' style blades became insatiable.  No self-respecting woodsman would venture beyond his front yard without a large Bowie-style blade on his belt. 

The famous studio shot of Teddy Roosevelt in his buckskin
outfit with a large Bowie-style blade stuck in his cartridge belt.
Legend has it he bought the knife from Tiffany's!

It took almost 150 years for American tastes in outdoor knives to change.  I believe this was driven by two influences.  First was a flood of laws that made carrying large knives in public illegal.  Some jurisdictions went even further and simply banned them outright.  Many of these laws had been in place for years in places like New York City but enforcement was expanded in the wake of the civil unrest of the 1960s.  Suddenly carrying a large knife drew suspicious looks, even on camping trips.  The pressure was on to abandon the large blade.

However, I attribute the real change to the influence of custom knifemakers like Bob Loveless and Jimmy Lile.  These men were experienced hunters who championed the concept of the smaller drop point hunting knife.  Large volume knife manufacturers picked up on the trend and soon you had companies like Gerber putting out affordable, high quality drop point knives.  This trend is still going strong, and the drop point hunter blade style still rules.

And yet, the large Bowie-style blade is still immensely popular.  In terms of volume sales it is probably as popular as it was 50 years ago.  The reasons are simple - there are just some chores only a large blade can handle.  As the late Ron Hood was fond of saying, "You can do small things with a big blade, but you can't do big things with a small blade."  The other reason is that, well, the Bowie knife is just so damned American!  American history and outdoor culture is so tightly intertwined with the Bowie knife that it is impossible to separate them.  Anybody with any interest in American knives will one day own a big Bowie-style blade.  It is a cosmic inevitability.

Knife manufacturers around the world are happy to supply the American addiction to the Bowie knife.  Virtually all domestic and foreign manufacturers have a Bowie-style blade or two in their lineup.  Some manufacturers seem a little embarrassed with their Bowie knife offerings, hiding them at the back of the catalog and referring to them as a 'clip point' style or the currently popular 'combat knife' (like that's any more politically correct than 'Bowie knife').  Others are up-front and in-your-face about their Bowie knife offerings. Loud and proud.  No apologies or genuflections to political correctness.  The bigger the better.  Almost a big, fat middle finger to the anti-knife bed wetters.

Perhaps the most up-front, in-your-face, unapologetic big knife purveyor in the market today is Cold Steel Knives.  Cold Steel's founder and president Lynn Thompson just loves big blades and the Cold Steel catalog is chock full of swords, machetes, kukris, tantos and, of course, some of the biggest Bowie-style blades available on the market today.

One of the Cold Steel blades I'm particularly taken with is the Trailmaster Bowie.  In my opinion it is one of the best modern interpretations of the classic Bowie knife.  This is a big piece of steel - the blade is 9 1/2" long and 5/16" thick - but it is surprisingly well balanced and quick in the hand.  The blade sports a long false edge, or swedge and ends in a well formed clip point.  The double brass guard perfectly complements the blade.  The Kraton handle is a nod to modern materials and manufacturing, but the shape is reminiscent of the classic 'coffin-style' handles.

Cold Steel Trailmaster Bowie.  This particular model is made out of carbon steel.
I included a Case medium stockman pocket knife for scale reference.
Cold Steel has these manufactured in Taiwan, but the design is all American and
is very well executed.

As Mick Dundee would say, "THAT'S a knife!"  Loud, unapologetic, intimidating and so uniquely American in design.  Just what you need to finish an argument.  Or conquer the West.

Stay sharp!


Sunday, December 11, 2011


There's a lot of heavy breathing that goes on in knife and knife-related forums regarding the concept of the EDC knife.  In case you are not up to speed on web-speak, EDC = Every Day Carry; that is, the knife you chose to carry with you every day.

Seems a lot of internet commandos just can't bear the thought of leaving the house with anything less than an 11" combat Bowie strapped to their side 'just in case'.  In case of what I'm not sure.  Perhaps a zombie attack.  Or an asteroid impact.  Or an instantaneous world-wide Ebola outbreak.  Or...  well, you make something up 'cuz some of their reasoning resides at the far edges of normal human imagination and paranoia.

Now I'm not against big knives.  Lord knows I've got my share of them in my collection.  But I don't wear them to Wal-Mart.  However, I do carry a pocket knife regularly.  Roberta would perhaps say compulsively.  I normally won't even go out to the mailbox or walk the dogs without a knife in my pocket.  Or go to Wal-Mart, or on a day hike, or out to do yard chores, or out to do some fishing.  A pocket knife is part of my daily 'kit', and goes into my pocket before my car keys or wallet.

I simply can't imagine daily life without a pocket knife.

Earlier this year I wrote about my search for a suitable replacement for my venerable Uncle Henry pocket knife. At the time I sang the praises of the Chinese-produced CRKT Pocket Classic Stockman.  It was and still is a great knife.  Perhaps the best value in a pocket knife available today.  But the Chinese connection started to weigh on me more than I thought it would.  I started looking for a replacement for my replacement.

After a few weeks of searching I decided to give an old American classic another look and I picked up a new Case medium stockman to try out.  Since I'm wary of carrying a highly finished pocket knife around with me, particularly one that costs as much as a nicely finished Case, I settled on Case's line of working pocket knives that sport the synthetic G-10 handle material.

Case Pattern 10316 SS Medium Stockman

At first glance this knife lacks the elegance of other Case pocket knives.  The G-10 scales (similar to Micarta) are somewhat blah looking and the blades have a rough satin finish.  But on closer inspection it's clear Case put the effort into finishing the knife where it really counts.  The bolsters are nicely rounded and polished which means the knife won't be poking holes in your trouser pockets.  The knife includes brass liners which helps the blades open and close smoothly.  The blades all have a good (though not great) 'walk and talk'.  Overall the knife is well fitted, with the scales blending nicely with the stainless steel bolsters and the brass handle pins nicely flushed and polished to the handle scales.

It is a very nice working knife.  A worthy EDC knife, and one that is made in the USA.  I can now sleep guilt-free.

So the next time you see me at Wal-Mart ask to have a look at my knife.

Stay sharp!


Saturday, December 10, 2011

I Like Ike

Dwight David ('Ike') Eisenhower is one of my personal heroes.  An outstanding soldier, statesman and outdoorsman, and a rabid golfer and football and baseball fan.  His story is classic American.  A kid from a lower middle class family, through talent, hard work and just a bit of luck earns a slot at West Point and is launched on a career that takes him to the pinnacle of military success and ultimately the White House where he becomes one of the most successful and beloved presidents ever to serve.  Then, like George Washington, he wanted only to return to his farm to tend his cattle and get in the occasional round of golf.  And a few hands of poker.  And maybe some fly fishing and pheasant hunting.

Ike was a guy's guy.

Eisenhower's official White House portrait

Sometime in the early 1950s Ike picked up a pocket knife from a dealer in Texas.  It was a Case Pattern 63 double ended pen knife.  Apparently Ike fell in love with the knife and ended up giving examples away as rewards and mementos.  He even had the blades engraved with his initials and date for special events like Presidential Dinners.  I won't dive too deeply into the relationship between Eisenhower and this knife since the knife author Gary Moore covered the topic in a great little article he wrote for Knife World Magazine in 2006 titled 'Ike's Knives'.  Follow the link and have a read.  It's a great story!

A week ago I was visiting my favorite knife store and I spied this little beauty.

Case Pattern 6263 'Eisenhower'

I'm not sure how much I like the lime green handle scales, but the history of the knife and Eisenhower's engraved signature on the blade meant it had to come home with me.

Apparently this pattern is very popular with Case collectors.  Case produces it in a number of styles, varying the handle materials and releasing them with and without the engraved signature.  Seems collectors can't get enough of 'em, and Case makes small variations from year-to-year to keep the addiction going.

Historical connection aside, this is just a great little knife and makes a great gentleman's pocket knife.  It is small and carries easily and inconspicuously in the trouser pocket and the rounded bolsters means it won't wear through the pocket.  The main blade is just long enough to be useful - cutting string, pulling staples, slicing an apple, carving up a steak (one of Eisenhower's favorite activities) or whittling on a pencil end.  Just a great little knife.  No wonder Ike loved 'em.

So that's it.  I like Ike and his favorite knife!

Stay sharp!


Saturday, October 22, 2011

So A Man Walks Into A Pharmacy...

And finds a knife store!

Back in June I attended the 2011 Blade Show here in Atlanta.  The W.R. Case & Sons knife company was set up showing off their wares.  If you've never seen a W.R. Case factory display it is amazing.  It's like they set up your rich uncle's study on the showroom floor, with deep carpeting and oak display cases holding hundreds of beautifully finished folding knives.  It's a jewelry store for real men.  I often say that Case knives "sparkle like Christmas", and the Case factory displays are specifically designed to highlight the high polish and unique handle materials Case uses on their knives.

Anyway, as I was looking at the knives in the display cases and leaving nose prints all over the place I asked the factory rep if they were doing any sales at the show.  Most of the other factory booths were selling knives to the show attendees and I'd already filled my backpack with new and exotic blades.  The Case factory rep told me that Case was not doing sales because they did not want to undercut any of their dealers who may also have a booth or table at the show.  His comment made sense; Case is highly reliant on their authorized factory dealers and wants to protect them as much as possible.  Many of these dealers are small mom & pop hardware or sporting goods stores that have been selling Case knives for decades.  Case promotes the idea of the Case knife as a uniquely American product that is still available in small town stores - it fosters the idea of small town America that is part of the perception they build around their products.

During our conversation the factory rep mentioned that one of the biggest Case dealers in the southeast was located just a few miles from where the Blade Show was taking place.  I pressed him for more details, and while he couldn't remember the name of the store, he did drop an intriguing bit of information - this dealer was also a pharmacist and he's got his knife store set up in his pharmacy.  I knew that CVS or Walgreens wouldn't be letting any of their pharmacists sell knives out of their stores, so this place had to be an independent operation.  Some internet sleuthing quickly turned up what I was looking for.

Tracy's Medicine Center
Tucker, Georgia

Hmmm... apparently Mr. Tracy isn't shy about the fact that he's both a pharmacist and a knife dealer.  See Mom, knives and drugs do go together!  And Tracy isn't just a nickle and dime knife peddler, he's a Case Master Dealer.  That means he sells LOTS of Case knives.

I just had to see this place in person so a few weeks after the Blade Show I headed up to Tucker (about an hour from where we live).  Tracy's was easy to find - it about the only business with English language signage left in the neighborhood.  An outpost of Americana in a sea of 'se habla Espaniol'.  I imagine Mr. Tracy feels a wee bit isolated.

I walked into the store and rounded the aisle holding cold remedies and was greeted with this sight:

Oh, there's more!

And yet more...

I love mashup of 'Home Health Care' and knives.  It works for me!

And a bit more...

By my estimation almost one third of the pharmacy is given over to knife sales.

When I entered the store I noted a guy about my age with a brushcut poking through the displays.  He commented that if I wanted to look at anything he'd be happy to help me.  This was Brett Tracy, the pharmacist and owner.  I took him up on his offer, and he proceeded to take me on a slow and careful guided tour though the display cases, not trying to make a sale but to demonstrate the variety, uniqueness and beauty of the knives Case produces.  It quickly became clear that Brett doesn't sell Case knives because they turn a good profit.  He sells them because he's a Case fanatic and he's found a way to subsidize his own addiction.

Yes of course I bought a knife from him.  Or two.  Or three.  I won't admit publicly.  And I've been back at least once and I'll be back again soon to do some Christmas shopping (a great excuse, eh?).

If you are in the Atlanta area and have an interest in Case knives I encourage you to drop by Tracy's.  You won't be disappointed!  They are located at 3171 Tucker Norcross Road in Tucker, GA.

Stay sharp!


Friday, October 7, 2011

An Interesting Provenance

I recently picked up a Becker BK-10 Crewman Utility knife.  Ethan Becker of Becker Knife and Tool (BKT) designed this knife years ago as a potential replacement for the Air Force Survival Knife.  Ethan essentially cut down his successful BK-9 Combat Bowie to create a shorter, lighter, tough and well balanced utility knife for use by military aircrews.

Becker BK-10

This knife was recently manufactured by Ka-Bar and is still offered for sale by them, but you won't see it listed in any Ka-Bar catalog or on their website.  In fact, Ka-Bar has never officially manufactured the BK-10.  Huh?

BK-10 marked Ka-Bar

So how can a knife not be made by a company that manufactures it and sells it?  That's the story that makes this knife interesting.

Let's go back to 2007.  At the time Becker Knife and Tool had a licensing arrangement with the Camillus knife company to manufacture the complete line of Becker knives.  This agreement included the BK-10.  However, in 2007 Camillus went bankrupt and all knife production ceased.  Ethan Becker then turned to Ka-Bar to take over production of the BKT line.  Ka-Bar jumped at the opportunity and cranked up production.  Ka-Bar is now the sole manufacturer of Becker knives and makes most of the same knives that had been produced by Camillus.  As part of the new licensing agreement Ka-Bar got ownership of all unfinished BKT knives and components that had been left in the Camillus factory.  Part of that haul was around 200 heat treated blade blanks for the BK-10.  

These blanks sat around the Ka-Bar factory for a few years while Ethan and Ka-Bar management tried to figure out what to do with them.  There were too few to open a new product line with, and besides they were Camillus blades.  Ka-Bar had not (and still has not) agreed to bring the BK-10 back into production, so these were effectively orphaned knife blades. 

Word of these orphaned blades leaked out to the Becker knife collector community (affectionately known as 'Beckerheads').  Discussions started up between the president of Ka-Bar, Ethan Becker and leading members of the Beckerhead community.  In a short time a brilliant idea was hatched.  Ka-Bar would finish out the 200 or so BK-10 blades as completed knives and sell them directly to the Beckerhead community as a special offering.  Ka-Bar was even able to secure enough original Camillus sheaths to include in the package.  

The BK-10 would effectively be a Camillus knife finished by Ka-Bar.  Sort of a Frankenstein move - raising the dead.

"It's alive!"

The knives were first offered to official members of the Beckerhead community.  You needed to have a Beckerhead membership number to be able to order a knife.  Once that demand was satisfied Ka-Bar opened sales up to the general public, but you had to call the factory to order one.  That's how I got mine.

An interesting knife with an interesting provenance.

So how good a knife is it?  Very good.  We'll get more into depth on that topic a little later.  But for today it's just about the provenance.

Stay sharp!


Thursday, October 6, 2011


"I command you to bring me skeleton knives!"

It's almost Halloween, so let's have some seasonably appropriate fun!

Knives without handle scales - what are commonly called skeleton knives - are an interesting niche in the knife world.

Seems every knife maker feels compelled to have at least one, and often several, skeleton knives in their lineup.  The outdoorsy survivalist hunter-gatherer crowd has 'discovered' skeleton knives and has taken to them in a big way.  To hear them talk you'd swear nobody ever thought to make a thin, lightweight knife out of a single piece of steel until they came up with the idea.  Well, I've been around long enough to know that everything old is new again.

Over 30 years ago my Dad has a nice little Browning skeleton knife, a drop point skinner, that he carried now and again while fishing.  (Hey Dad, what ever happened to that knife?)

About 20 years ago I was carrying a nice little skeleton knife made by Gerber.  It had a wicked serrated edge and was designed specifically for white water rafters and kayakers.  It was intended to be used to cut free of any entangling rope or webbing and was carried in a neat little plastic sheath designed to be snapped onto a flotation vest.  I carried it while serving as a jumpmaster in the Army, strapped either to my load bearing rig or to my rucksack.  Its only purpose was to cut parachute static lines in case I had a towed jumper.  I thank God I never had to use it, but I have no doubt it would have done the job.

And that's just it; a successful skeleton knife tends to be a small, purpose built object.  The format, an all steel knife with no handle materials, introduces some interesting design challenges and restrictions.  The very minimalist nature of the skeleton knife means it's hard to get right and easy to get wrong.

Thankfully we've got a number of knife manufacturers putting out some really nice skeleton knives these days and for the most part they are getting it right.  Let's have a quick look at some.

Buck Knives leads off today first because I like 'em and second because they've got a really good lineup of skeleton handled knives, perhaps the largest in the industry right now.

Buck 140 Packlite Skinner and 136 Caper
The Buck 140 small Packlite Skinner and the 136 Caper are the two best models in Buck's lineup of skeleton handled knives.  They shine because of great handle shapes that make them comfortable to use and overall excellent balance.  The 136 Caper, in particular, is a delight in the hand and makes a great general purpose small knife.  I think a half dozen of these would make a really unique steak knife set.

Next up is the big brother to the 140, the 141 Packlite Skinner.

Buck 141 Packlite Skinner
The 141 is simply an upsized 140.  It too feels good in the hand, but the handle is getting a little large-ish to be considered truly comfortable.  Still, it is a very good mid-sized blade.

Next up is the Buck 143.  As far as I can tell this knife is only sold in Wal-Mart stores since that's the only place I've ever seen it for sale.  The 143 is the classic example of how small changes can have huge impacts on how a knife can feel in the hand.

Buck 143 Pakliite Skinner

The 143 sports a larger blade that is roughly the same size as the 141.

Buck 141 (top) and 143 (below)

But the handle is the same size as that found on the 140.

Buck 140 superimposed on the 143

Now, the combination sounds good, and to the marketing guys at Buck and Wal-Mart it must have seemed a winner.  In reality, however, it feels terrible in the hand.  The elegance of the comfortable handle from the 140 is ruined by the awkward transition to the larger blade.  The thumb ramp gets in the way and the whole knife feels awkward.  To make matters worse Buck has done no corner rounding of the metal handle and it is just uncomfortable to hold.  This is a Frankenstein's Monster that just doesn't work.

The sheaths that come with the Buck line of skeleton knives are nothing fancy, but they hold the blades safely and securely.

Buck 140 with sheath

The street price for any of these knives does not exceed $20.  In fact the Buck 141 goes for about $19.20 on right now, and it is the most expensive of the bunch.  The Models 136, 140 and 141 are great knives and well worth a look.  Take a pass on the 143.

Let's move on to my other favorite brand of knives, Becker Knife and Tool (BKT) made by Ka-Bar.  Becker Knife and Tool is really a one-man show, Mr. Ethan Becker.  Ethan is one of those guys who does it all.  He's a professional chef, writer, outdoorsman, and has been designing knives for over 30 years.  Currently Ka-Bar manufactures his designs and they do a great job.  BKT has three skeleton knife designs in its lineup, the BK-11, 13 & 14.

From top to bottom, the BK-14, BK-11 and BK-13

The BK-11 and 14 both share the same blade design - they are identical and they use the same sheath.  The BK-11 (in the center in the above photo) is wholly Ethan's design.  Ethan likes to eat and drink, and he wanted a small, handy knife that incorporates a bottle opener.  The BK-14 came about just a few years ago when a member on the BKT group on decided he was going to marry the blade of a BK-11 with the handle of another extremely popular skeleton knife, the ESEE Izula.

ESEE Izula

The guy was a professional welder and did a great job, and the knife generated a lot of interest.  So much so that Ethan and Ka-Bar approached ESEE about copying their handle design.  The result was the BK-14, which is stamped with both Becker Knife & Tool/Ka-Bar and the ESEE logos.

(This BKT - ESEE mashup reflects the common relationships that exist in the American knife industry these days.  Knife manufacturing is a tight knit industry and there is a lot of cross-fertilization of concepts and designs between knife designers like Ethan Becker, custom knife makers and large volume manufacturers. The end result of all of this is that the American knife buyer has access to great knife designs for very little money.  This is truly the Golden Age of knife manufacturing in the US.)

Regardless of the handle design, the BK-11 and 14 are both great knives.

BK-14 with sheath

And what about that teeny little guy in the bottom of the photo, the BK-13?  Seems the BK-13 was designed as a knife that could be easily carried in an accessory pouch on the sheath of a larger fixed blade knife.  In fact, the sheaths for Becker's BK-7 and BK-9 knives include an accessory sheath designed specifically to take the BK-13.  By itself it's a good little blade.

BK-13 with sheath

That's about it for now.  Have I reviewed every skeleton knife available?  No, not by a long shot.  I've only reviewed those knives that have caught my fancy.  As more cross my path and catch my interest (and wallet) we'll take a look at them down the line.  

Stay sharp!


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Battle Blades

Perhaps the most popular fixed blade knife style is what I loosely term the 'battle blade'. A battle blade is any knife designed for a Soldier to carry into combat. That definition is open to broad interpretation, and the interpretation of the battle blade concept leaves us with dozens of styles interpreted perhaps hundreds or thousands of different ways.

Many manufacturers of battle blades are selling image over substance. Whether it's the staged photos of pseudo-SEALS in knife fighting stances that grace the pages of magazines targeted at the armchair commandos or the movie poster shots of a camo'd-up Sylvester Stallone gripping a Rambo combat knife. Most of it is hooey. The common soldier today is not going to be fighting mano-a-mano with a knife wielding opponent like in a medieval sword duel.  As a civilized society we've gotten beyond that. These days we've got pistols, sub-machine guns and Apache gunships to take care of the close-in fight.

Still, there may be times when Soldiers have to use a knife for self defense. For example, when the enemy  breaches a defensive perimeter. In WWII the Japanese raised the nighttime human wave attack to a new height, overwhelming Marines and Soldiers with sheer numbers. Experienced Marines on Iwo Jima and Okinawa would sleep in their foxholes with their combat knives stuck in the dirt next to them, ready to grab without fumbling. They learned bitter lessons in places like Guadalcanal and Tarawa that it wasn't if the Japanese would try to infiltrate or overwhelm their positions, but when. Perimeter breaches were common in Korea and Vietnam ("Charlie's inside the wire!") and those tended to be free-for-alls from the start, with Soldiers using whatever was at hand - guns, knives, entrenching tools, axe handles, 5 gallon jerry cans, tent poles, Claymore mines and 105mm howitzers filled with beehive rounds. Perimeter breaches have been reported in Afghanistan, and some have been pretty nasty. In one noted case Acting Sergeant Dipprasad Pun of the British Gurkha regiment ended up using a machine gun tripod to beat off Taliban attackers. The only thing he didn't have at hand was his famous Gurkha knife - he'd left that back in his hooch.

And yet these incidents are relatively uncommon in today's world of combat. While a battle blade does need to be able to fill the role of a defensive knife, more importantly it needs to be a good, sturdy, all-purpose working knife. A Soldier's duty in the field is mostly mundane tasks involving lots of manual labor. Things like setting up tents, filling and stacking sandbags, laying commo wire, camouflaging fighting positions, pulling maintenance on weapons and vehicles, moving equipment from one place to another, etc. The soldier needs a knife that helps him in these tasks, something that can cut heavy rope and commo wire, break strapping bands on crates, chop tree limbs, sharpen aiming stakes, pry open stuck lids, slice open MRE pouches. One day I watched a kid pry open a Sun Microsystems computer case with an Air Force survival knife.  He was "gonna' do maintenance on it" (the computer, not the knife). The battle blade will end up being used in ways the designer can't even imagine.

So what are the design requirements for a battle blade? A battle blade has to be sturdy, large but not too large, comfortable in the hand, able to hold a good edge but easy to re-sharpen, have a good general purpose blade shape and a good sheath. It needs to be a jack-of-all trades and a master of most. It needs to be handy, well balanced and well made. And oh, did I mention it needs to be sturdy? Let's toss in affordable, too. As a general rule the US military does not buy battle blades for the troops. Battle blades are an individual purchase item, and $100 is about the upper limit of what a common Soldier can afford to pay for a knife.

I'm not even going to pretend to claim that I have owned, tested, used, handled or even seen in-person every battle blade currently available. However, I have owned and/or tested a lot of them. Far more than I'd like to admit to my dear wife. My tastes in designs have changed somewhat over the years, shaped mostly by my personal experience in the Army. Here are some general observations:

  • Time, materials and manufacturing processes march on.  Knife manufacturers generally do a better job today than they did just a few years ago.
  • There is no substitute for good design.  Period.
  • Some designs are ageless because they work, some are ageless because the marketing guys just won't let go.
  • Price is not a reliable indicator of performance.  A good battle blade does not have to be expensive.
  • Sheath designs and materials have evolved right along with the blades.  While not really lovely, modern battle blade sheaths are far better than they were just a few decades ago.

    So let's take a look at a few battle blade examples I'm personally familiar with. I believe these knives are a small but representative cross section of fixed blade knives that were available to the common soldier during my time in the Army, from the late 1970s to the early 2000s.

    The USMC Combat Knife

    A current production USMC Combat Knife by Ka-Bar

    When you say 'combat knife' or 'battle blade' this is the knife that comes to mind for most people. And for good reason. It was an excellent design when first produced in 1942 and is still a pretty good design today. What it has going for it is an outstanding blade size and shape. In fact, this blade size (7") and shape really have not been improved upon in the 70 years this knife has been in production. The knife was designed by the USMC as a general purpose utility knife and the Ka-Bar knife company manufactures them today pretty much the same way they were made back during WWII. In fact, Ka-Bar was one of the original manufacturers chosen by the USMC. The Marine Corps designed the knife specifically to leverage the existing production skills of the American knife industry. The USMC combat knife was really just an up-sized leather handled hunting knife, the same kind of knife the US cutlery industry had been producing for decades.

    However, this is a knife design born of compromise. In 1942 steel was a strategic resource and everything made of steel - from C-ration cans to aircraft carriers - was designed to use as little steel as possible. An ounce saved in design could lead to tons saved in production. The Marine Corps opted for a stick (hidden) tang design to save steel. While an acceptable compromise in 1942, it also introduced a weakness into the design and there were a number of reports of the knife failing where the blade goes into the handle. Additionally the leather handle and sheath were prone to rot, particularly in the hot, humid environments the Marines found themselves operating in as they island hopped across the Pacific.

    Still, this was the right knife at the right time. Not just for WWII, but for Korea and Vietnam. Most successful modern battle blade designs follow the classic lines of the USMC combat knife, and for good reason. In over 70 years the 7" bowie-style clip point blade style has not really been improved upon. It is the classic American battle blade.

    USAF Survival Knife

    USAF Survival Knife currently made by the Ontario Knife Company

    As a kid I used to think this knife was hot stuff, and I wanted one real, real bad. When I went on active duty in 1979 one of the first things I bought at the PX was an Air Force Survival Knife (made by Camillus, if I remember correctly).

    Although the blade was short it had a good profile and the handle was fairly comfortable. The saw back was useless - it was designed for cutting aluminum aircraft skin, not wood. The sheath looked cool, but it was a joke. It was made of leather so thin that it was almost too light to safely hold the knife.

    The first time I took it to the field it started to come apart. The handle loosened up and the cross guard rattled.  I was not impressed. Thinking I got a lemon, I bought a second one. It did the same thing. I either traded them off or lost them. I don't remember for sure and frankly don't much care.

    I understand these are still fairly popular with the military and you can order them through the supply system. I'd take one if someone gave it to me, but I wouldn't spend my hard earned money on it. I just pray no Air Force guy ever had to use one of these in a real survival situation.

    Glock Field Knife

    Glock Model 78 Field Knife

    When I deployed for Desert Shield/Storm in 1989 I took along a Randall Model 14. At the time I thought the Randall was the pinnacle of battle blades. Ever since I was a teenager I'd wanted a Randall, particularly the Model 14. I found one for sale at the old Cumberland Knife and Gun Works in Fayetteville, NC just outside of Fort Bragg. Although I really couldn't afford it (it cost me something like $140 in the early 1980s) I just couldn't pass it up. Roberta blew a gasket and we ate ramen noodles for the rest of the month but, dammit, I had my Randall!

    Somewhere in the middle of the Saudi desert, 1989.  That's me on the
    right.  If you look close you'll see my Randall Model 14 on my
    pistol belt nestled between the ammo pouch and canteen.
    The t-shirt is a whole other story.

    Now, the problem I found with a fancy and expensive knife is that you are afraid to get it dirty or scratched. I was afraid to take the thing out of its sheath. The other issue was the handle. With its deeply cut finger grooves the knife was uncomfortable in all but the basic underhand grip. I soon realized that I needed something I wasn't afraid to use. One day I found a Brigade Quartermaster catalog laying around in the mess tent and spied the Glock field knife inside.  Fifteen bucks. What did I have to lose? I sent off the order and, to my complete surprise, the knife arrived about three weeks later.

    I was impressed. The blade profile adheres to the tried-and-true bowie-style clip point. Although the blade is narrow the steel is sufficiently thick. It closely resembles a bayonet. The handle is nicely shaped and comfortable. The sheath is impressive and deceptively simple in design. The knife locks into the sheath very securely and without the need for a keeper strap, and it attaches very securely to the standard pistol belt.

    The edge was about as sharp as a butter knife when I got it but after a half hour on a sharpening stone it was acceptably sharp, and stayed that way for the rest of the war.

    It ended up filling the battle blade role perfectly. In one memorable session we had to slice open and empty hundreds of sandbags as we were moving out of our defensive positions and preparing to redeploy back to the US. By this point I was sadistically searching for opportunities to abuse this blade, and the idea of testing it on hundreds of sand filled polypropylene bags was too tempting to pass up. It did just fine, thanks. Of course I had to resharpen it afterwards, but I'd have to do that with any knife abused in the same way.

    This isn't the best battle blade, but it is pretty damned good.

    Gerber Mk II Survival Knife

    Gerber Mk II Survival Knife circa 1977

    The double edged dagger is, historically, the most common form of battle blade. It is nothing more than a shortened sword and it predates every other blade design.  For thousands of years it was the only battle blade design.

    For over 30 years Gerber produced one of the best modern interpretations of the dagger in their Mk II 'Survival' knife.

    This is another knife I lusted after as a kid. It showed up a lot in the early editions of Soldier of Fortune Magazine. It seemed every edition had shots of clandestine American operators in Central America sporting one of these on his pistol belt. It was the coolest battle blade! They were tough to find and I spent over a year searching high and low for one. I think I finally came across this example at a gun show at the old Masonic Auditorium in Toledo.

    I was overjoyed to find it, but I shoulda' saved my money.

    It's not a bad knife.  In fact it is a very nicely executed knife. This knife was made back in the days when Pete Gerber still ran Gerber and they produced excellent knives. The grinding on the blade is complex and expertly done and the handle has an outstanding shape and feel. The sheath is one of the best production sheaths I've ever seen. Overall it is a first rate knife that approaches custom-level quality.

    Too bad it's not really useful for much more than stabbing things.

    The story is that the knife was designed in 1966 by retired Army Captain Bud Holzman when he was working for Gerber. This was Holzman's interpretation of the classic Sykes-Fairbairn commando knife. It was immediately popular with troops in Vietnam and was sold through the PX system. However, sometime in the mid-70s the design became too politically incorrect for the PX management. It was scary looking and judged too 'brutal' by the wussies that ran the Exchange system. It was all about the newer, kinder and gentler volunteer Army, and PX managers were shifting focus away from actually serving soldiers to maximizing profits at the perfume and jewelry sales counters. I ain't jokin' here folks. Anyway, in an effort to keep the knife in PXs Gerber carved some serrations into the blade, modified the sheath to take a sharpening steel and repackaged it as a 'survival' knife. Things were soon all good with Exchange management and Soldiers could once again buy this at their local PX.

    Survival knife? Survive what? A zombie attack?

    I carried this thing to the field exactly once, and very quickly realized it was about useful as bass boat in the Sahara.

    Buck Model 119

    Early 1980's vintage Buck 119

    The Buck 119 (also known as the Special) is perhaps the most popular fixed blade knife ever produced. It is Buck's #1 seller in their fixed blade lineup and has been in their catalog since the early 1960s. It is a simple and rugged design - a 6" bowie style blade made out of stainless steel, a tough yet comfortable phenolic handle and a polished aluminum pommel and guard. The whole package, including a leather sheath, ran about $30 when I picked this one up. Today this same knife will cost you just under $50 at your local Wal-Mart.

    I bought the knife pictured above in the early 80's. As you can see it's had a tough life. I wanted a lanyard hole so I took it down to the motor pool one day and had a mechanic put it on a drill press and drill a hole through the pommel. The leather sheath didn't last long and it was quickly replaced by a generic stiff nylon model. It lived on my pistol belt for a number of years and suffered all the abuse that comes with being taken for granted. It turned out to be a pretty good battle blade. While I don't have any really cool war stories to tell about this knife, the fact that is spent so much time on my hip is a testament to its usefulness.

    This knife has two flaws that keep it from getting top marks. First is the design of the blade tip. Buck's bowie-style blades from this era had an exaggerated upswept tip. It's actually worse than it looks in the photo. This means the knife isn't all that good for stabbing or puncturing things. Next is the shiny aluminum pommel and guard. With the Army it is all about concealment - blending in. Shiny metallic items tend to stand out. I usually ended up wrapping the exposed parts in OD duct tape when we were in the field. Buck later came out with an OD green rubberized handled version of this knife that was pretty popular with the troops. I'm regretting not picking one up.

    This is a good, well made and unpretentious battle blade. Not as good as some but better than a whole bunch of others. 

    M7 Bayonet

    M7 Bayonet made by Ontario

    The M7 bayonet was introduced in 1964 at the same time the M16 rifle was adopted. It is really nothing more than a continuation of bayonet designs that had been in use on American combat rifles since the early 1900s. That's not a bad thing. We made some fine bayonets down through the years.

    The M7 has a 6.5" spear point blade with a very narrow profile and a false edge on the top of the blade that extends almost halfway back to the handle. This makes it an excellent thrusting and stabbing weapon. It's actually a pretty darned good bayonet. Too bad the M16 is a lousy bayonet mounting platform.

    Overall, however, the M7 was pretty useless as a general purpose field knife. The primary edge grind was too thick so it was hard to get a good edge on the thing. Even worse, if you buggered up your bayonet by using as a pry bar or a chopping tool you'd get an earful of crap from your platoon sergeant about 'intentionally damaging government property'. It wasn't worth the grief, and most M7 bayonets stayed in their sheaths.

    I found this bayonet sitting in a safe in my office down in Panama in the mid-90s. I have no idea where it came from because at the time all bayonets were considered 'sensitive items' and had to be locked up in the arms room with the rifles. I suspect it was a leftover from Operation Just Cause; either some American trooper lost it during the invasion or it was seized from the Panamanian army and eventually ended up in my safe. Things like that happened all the time down in Panama - it was a weird place. I was shutting down my unit as part of the Panama Canal turn-over and we were under a lot of pressure to get stuff turned in and get out of town. Since this bayonet wasn't on anyone's books I figured the best place for it was in my duffle bag. So hey USARSO, if you are still short an M7 bayonet I know where you can find one!

    M9 Bayonet

    M9 Bayonet

    In the very early 1980s we started to get reports out of Afghanistan about a really cool bayonet that the Soviet Army had adopted for the AK-47. Our Special Forces guys who were over there working with the Taliban (yes Virginia, there was a time we actually supported the Taliban) were bringing back examples as war trophies. The AK-47 bayonet was a cool concept, more a general purpose combat knife than a stabbing tool. It also incorporated a unique wire cutting attachment on the sheath. It was pretty neat and Soldiers started to ask, "Why don't we have anything like this?"

    Now, the 1980s were a time of great change in the US Military. Ronald Reagan was in office and the Army started to shake itself out of its post-Vietnam malaise. Money was available again for new equipment development. Someone at the Infantry Board heard the Soldiers cries and asked, "Hey, why don't we come up with a new bayonet that is also a good field knife?"

    A small R&D company named Qual-A-Tec did the initial development based on the AK-47 bayonet concept and got the production contract. Much of the early manufacturing was done by a company called Phrobis III and Buck Knives. In fact, Buck used the same basic blade design as the basis for their famous Buck 184 'SEAL knife'.

    The M9 bayonet proved popular with the troops. It was new, it was cool, and most importantly it wasn't the old M7 bayonet. The M9 proved itself to be a good (though not great) general purpose utility blade. It was made out of stainless steel so you didn't have to worry about maintenance. It had a good primary bevel so you could get a decent edge on it. The sheath was a huge improvement over the M7 bayonet and included several interesting improvements  It used the Bianchi-style belt attachment device first seen on the Beretta M9 pistol holsters. The body of the sheath was connected to the belt attachment using a large fastex clip so you could easily remove the knife and sheath as a single unit. And of course, it incorporated a wire cutting device just like the AK-47 bayonet.

    There were early reports of blade breakage related to heat treating issues but those were quickly worked out. Over the last 20 years or so (geeze, has it been that long?!) the M9 bayonet has proven itself a decent and reliable bayonet/utility knife and battle blade.


    So there you have it. I realize this is not a comprehensive look at the topic. There are far too many types of blades to tackle in one pass and tastes in battle blades vary widely. However, I think this is an honest look at some of the more commonly available blades of the time.

    In the future we'll look at modern re-interpretations of some of these classic designs.

    Stay sharp!


    Monday, September 26, 2011

    Gransfors Bruks

    In the world of axe aficionados the name Gransfors Bruks gets a lot of respect, almost religious reverence.  For good reason.  In a time when most axes are cheap commodity items, made of questionable steel and cranked out by the thousands for sale in big box stores, Gransfors Bruks' axes are produced with a level of skill and attention to detail that is not found anywhere else in the axe manufacturing world.

    I stumbled on this great video on YouTube this morning and thought I'd share it.  If you have any interest at all in how large metal objects like axe heads are forged this is an interesting demonstration.

    To be honest, most folks today don't really have a need for an axe.  Nobody is going to go out and clear an acre of land with a hand axe.  That's what chainsaws are for.  The axe is very much a niche item, particularly one as nicely made as a Gransfors Bruks.  But, there are still people that use them regularly.  For some tasks like limbing downed trees, splitting firewood or rough shaping logs the axe is still the ideal tool.  Agencies like the US Forest Service still use axes extensively - for jobs like backwoods trail maintenance it is easier to strap an axe to a backpack and carry it 30 miles into the brush to clear downed trees from hiking trails than it is to haul in a chainsaw, gas, oil, protective gear, a sharpening kit, etc. to do the same job.

    Now, while I'm saying that most folks don't need an axe these days there certainly is no harm in having one or two ready to go in case that errant tree falls and blocks your driveway.  Or you finally decided to build that log cabin in the back yard.  Or carve out that Viking longboat you've been thinking about.

    I don't have a Gransfors Bruks in my small axe collection.  After watching this video I think I might just have to correct that shortcoming.

    Stay sharp!


    Sunday, September 25, 2011

    An Epic Encounter

    Or is that an EPIC encounter?

    Yesterday I was working the Georgia Chapter of Trout Unlimited at the EPIC Outdoor Game Fair at the Foxhall Estates outside of Atlanta.  My friend Bill, who was working with me at the Trout Unlimited booth, said "Hey, Buck Knives has a booth in the vendor's tent!"  That's all I needed to hear.  We made a beeline for the tent and, sure enough, Buck was all set up with an outstanding display.

    I'm a sucker for a Buck knife - any Buck knife - so this fellow sold me one.

    C.J. Buck (left) and Bill
    C.J. Buck is the great-grandson of Hoyt Buck, the founder of Buck Knives, and is the current President and CEO of the company.  He's also a great guy, and easily spent 15 minutes talking fly fishing with Bill.

    C.J. and Bill talking about fly fishing
     How was the rest of the show?  Great, if your interest is over/under shotguns that cost more than a house (that's more than a house, not a house payment), single malt scotches, polo ponies and African safaris.  I was way out of my economic and social class league.  But it was fun to see how the evil rich (ya' know, them's that don't pay their fair share) amuse themselves.

    I do have to give a shout out to another great guy, Bill Oyster of Oyster Fly Rods.  Bill had his excellent display set up and spent a good bit of time talking bamboo rods with my friend Bill and I.  Bill Oyster is a legend among Georgia fly fishermen.  He's personable, friendly and open, and will share just about anything related to the craft of bamboo fly rod making.  He also has a little trick he uses to show how sturdy bamboo rods are.  He'll lay one of his pieces of work on a hard surface and jump on it with both feet.  When he does that fly fishermen around the world cringe, but Bill does it to demonstrate just how solid a properly made bamboo rod truly is.  They may be expensive, but they ain't delicate.

    Here's Bill giving a short class on the steps involved in bamboo fly rod construction.

    Splitting cane

    Discussing bamboo properties

    Discussing tapers

    Setting tapers on the planing jig

    Stay sharp!


    Sunday, September 18, 2011

    Blade Of The Month - Cold Steel Pendleton Lite Hunter

    I'm a sucker for a good knife that is also inexpensive.  With modern materials and production methods it is possible for today's manufacturers to crank out great knives at low cost.  All they have to do is put some thought into the design.

    I'm also one of those guys who constantly asks "how low can you go?"  How cheaply can a manufacturer bring a truly outstanding design to market?  Well, today we are going to look at what is, in my opinion, the single best low cost knife on the market today.  It has all competition beat in terms of design and execution.  It is the current 'How Low Can You Go?' champ.  The Cold Steel Pendleton Lite Hunter

    Cold Steel Pendleton Lite Hunter

    This knife is a low cost version of the Cold Steel Pendleton Hunter, itself a great knife.  This knife was designed by custom knifemaker Lloyd Pendleton and has been in the Cold Steel lineup for a number of years.

    Cold Steel has a reputation for producing some really nice low priced knives.  They leverage their relationships with manufacturers in the Far East to re-interpret some famous designs using less expensive materials and manufacturing processes.  That is how we got the Pendleton Lite Hunter.  In comparison with the original Pendleton Hunter this knife sports a simpler molded handle, the blade is made of a lower-cost (and thinner) steel - Krupp 4116 - that is stamped instead of ground.  Krupp 4116 is widely used in the kitchen cutlery industry so it's a proven steel.  Krupp 4116 isn't a sexy steel like Cold Steel's San Mai laminate, but it works just fine in the real world.  The sheath is a simple nylon pouch style that is used with several other Cold Steel knife designs like the Finn Bear, so there's a big cost savings there.

    What I also suspect, but can't confirm, is that this knife is not a full tang design.  My guess is that the tang only runs part way into the handle, a common compromise with lower cost knives.


    Update! I recently contacted Cold Steel and asked whether or not the Pendleton Lite Hunter has a full tang.  Here's the reply from Anthony Russell in Cold Steel's Customer Service Department:

    "The tang goes just over 1/2 way to the end of the handle, and the handle is injection molded around the tang.  The tang is also "keyed" into the [handle] for added strength."

    So as I suspected it is not a full tang knife. It's not a problem, just good to know.


    What the Pendleton Lite Hunter retains from the original is the excellent blade profile and handle shape.  The blade incorporates a slight upsweep along the spine that results in a deeper edge belly and reinforced tip.  The handle is extremely comfortable in a multitude of positions.  In fact, I think I like the Pendleton Lite Hunter's handle more than the original model.  The handle shape and texture is very reminiscent of the excellent cast aluminum handles Pete Gerber used to put on his classic knives like the Gerber A-400.

    The knife is very light, very comfortable in the hand and very easy to use.

    The sheath is also a pleasant surprise.  It is a simple pouch design that is very well constructed and is a very effective design.  The sheath is made of stiff nylon that is stitched and riveted and it incorporates a thick spine to help it hold its shape.  It ain't fancy, but it does precisely what a knife sheath is supposed to do - hold the knife securely and protect the user from the blade.

    So how much does all this goodness cost?  This morning I checked prices on the web and found you can buy this knife from for a whopping $13.72!

    Stay sharp!


    Tuesday, August 16, 2011

    The Case Congress Knife

    I stumbled across this video on YouTube this morning.  Two observations:

    1. The Case Congress knife is bee-utiful!

    2. I've never seen a video made by this guy before, but it is obvious he understands the concept of production values.  While he's clearly not from around here, he speaks better English than 99% of the fanboys posting their garbage on the web.

    A great review and a great historical perspective.  Enjoy!

    Guess what's next on my shopping list.

    Stay sharp!


    Sunday, August 14, 2011

    The Buck Folding Hunter

    Buck 110 Folding Hunter
    This is a current production standard model with
    ebony handle scales and brass bolsters

    One of the benefits of being a member of the Buck Collectors Club is that you get access to Buck's production numbers for specific models of knives.  As I was poking around the club's website I hit on the numbers for the Buck 110 Folding Hunter.  I was surprised to read that since it's introduction in 1964 Buck has produced over 10 million of the standard model Folding Hunter!  When you consider that Buck also makes several other versions of this model - versions with special blade steel, fancy bolster and handle material and even a very popular plastic handled version (the BuckLite) total production is probably closer to 12 million.  Buck claims that this is the most popular folding knife in the world, and I believe 'em.

    This Buck was a ubiquitous knife in the circles I traveled in.  Just about every Soldier carried a Folding Hunter of one style or another.  If you held a formation and told everyone to lift their BDU blouses to show what they were wearing on their belt about half would have a Folding Hunter resting there.  Me included.  My first Folding Hunter was bought around 1979 and promptly lost.  A year or two later, when this struggling second lieutenant could afford it, I went out to the PX and bought a replacement.

    Buck 110 Folding Hunter circa 1982
    This was my daily carry knife.  The sheath is a replacement
    made by Brigade Quartermasters and specifically designed
    to be worn on the wide pistol belt.  This knife has seen service
    in Germany, Korea, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Panama, Honduras
    and across the United States

    The Folding Hunter is one of those rare products that has both improved and gotten cheaper over time.  The retail price of a Folding Hunter in 1965 was $16.  Adjusted for inflation that same $16 dollar knife should cost $114 today.  Yet you can walk into most Wal-Marts in the US and purchase this same knife for less than $30.  High production volume, production experience and automation have made their mark here.  Buck can crank out these knives at an incredibly low price yet keep quality very high.

    As to quality - it is clear that Buck does a much better job of finishing these knives today than they did 30 years ago.  My 1982 example has a very square, chunky profile and using it for hard tasks can be a bit uncomfortable.  My 2011 example has a nicely rounded handle and frame and is one of the most comfortable to hold knives I have in my collection.

    But just how well do they hold up in the real world?  If my 1982 Folding Hunter is a fair example of the breed then I can say without hesitation they hold up very, very well.  This particular knife has been used to cut manila rope, nylon webbing, and aluminum communications wire.  It has carved tent stakes and aiming stakes.  It was used more than once to dig small holes.  It has cut up any number of Army issue slabs of ham, chicken (yes, in the Army even chicken comes in slabs) salisbury steak, blueberry cobbler and pumpkin pie.  It has sliced open hundreds of MRE bags, cut parachute suspension lines and tent canvas, scraped carbon build-up off of M-16 bolt carriers and served as a pointer during briefings.  It has sliced open hundreds of sandbags, a particularly tough test of a knife's edge holding ability.  It has carved open aluminum soda cans to make strobe light covers and emergency cook stoves.  It has been used as a paperweight and as a dead-weight to do river depth soundings.  It has caved the husk off of coconuts and chopped bamboo.  On more than one occasion it was used as a hammer.  It carries the scars of 30 years of proud service; the blade is scratched and scuffed and the brass bolsters are dinged and gouged.  It desperately needs a good edge re-grinding and sharpening, but it snaps open and locks up with authority and the blade is as tight in the frame as it was the day I bought it.  It is an honorable veteran that has earned its retirement.

    Buck Folding Hunters
    From top to bottom - 1982 production Model 110, 2011 Model 110
    and a Model 426 (BuckLite) with a composite plastic handle

    The point here isn't that the Buck Folding Hunter is a good, cheap knife.  Rather, it is a great knife that stands up to rough use yet is inexpensive enough that the owner doesn't feel he has to baby it.  Thirty dollars buys you a whole lot of knife.

    The Folding Hunter astounded the knife world when it was introduced.  At first the Buck board of directors was very reluctant to approve production - they really did not see a market for the knife.  I believe it was Chuck Buck that convinced them to give it a try.  Chuck figured this knife would sell well with hunters who would use it just a few weeks each year.  It turns out Chuck was flat wrong - but in a good way.  The Folding Hunter took off in ways Buck never imagined.  It proved immediately popular not just with hunters but with the military, policemen, firemen, tradesmen, and just about anybody that lived, worked or spent time in the outdoors.  Demand exploded and caught the knife industry by surprise.  Almost every other knife manufacturer scrambled to get their version of a large, single blade lockback knife into production.  Most were very good in their own right, but none ever approached the popularity of the Buck Folding Hunter.  It was there first and has stayed first for almost 50 years.

    There you have it!  The Buck Folding Hunter.  A classic knife from an iconic American company.

    Stay sharp!


    Saturday, August 13, 2011

    Would Congress Sell You a Congress Knife?

    Not these days.

    There is a very distinctive pocket knife pattern known as the 'congress pattern'. It has been around since the mid-1800s. Lots of folks on hearing the name assume it is somehow directly linked to the US Congress. Perhaps it was a style of knife officially adopted by Congress? Or presented by Congress on special occasions? That is nice to think about - our august and beneficent Congress officially adopting a knife. Unfortunately there is no record I can find proving that Congress ever officially adopted anything with a sharp edge on it. The true story behind the congress pattern knife seems to be more of a self-fulfilling wish.

    In the early 1800s the cutlery firms out of Sheffield, England were pouring knives and cutlery products into the young United States to fulfill an almost insatiable demand for quality blades.  At the time the US was still an agrarian society and was expanding fast, first up over the Appalachians and into the old Northwest Territories (the upper midwest), then into the Louisiana Purchase.  Land was cheap and fertile and a hardworking family could easily support themselves on a modest sized farm.  There were few labor saving devices in those days and everything on the farm was done by hand or horse power.  Most farm tasks involved a cutting edge - a knife, axe, saw, even a plow blade.  Local blacksmiths and small manufacturers in the eastern US handled the 'rough trade' implements; axes, hatchets, butcher knives, saw blades, etc., but there was still a demand for finer cutlery that American manufacturers couldn't meet - quality kitchen cutlery, fine hunting knives and well made pocket knives.  This is the market the Sheffield cutlers dominated.  Sheffield cutlery had an almost mystical reputation; English crucible steel was the best production steel available at the time and Sheffield's skilled workforce could turn out an amazing range and volume of high quality knives and tools to meet specific needs.  The blade stamp 'Sheffield' was considered a hallmark of superior quality and American customers selected Sheffield products before all others.

    The cutlery firms of Sheffield were also marketing geniuses.  Lets face it, the average 19th century farm laborer or office clerk really only needed one pocket knife in his life - something to cut up his lunchtime slab of roast beef or ham and to whittle a new nib on his quill pen.  A pocket knife was a durable consumer item - something that didn't wear out in use and lasted years or decades.  The Sheffield firms needed to convince consumers that they just HAD to have a new knife long before the old one wore out - they needed to build steady, repeat demand.  The cutlery firms hit on a brilliant marketing gimmick - the concept of the cosmetic upgrade.

    More than a century before the marketing wizards of Detroit put the same plan into action, the cutlery firms of Sheffield figured out that if you gussy up a plain knife just a bit - add mother of pearl handles or silver bolsters, or put a better polish on the blade - they could more readily catch the eye of the young dandy who was doing a little window shopping.  Maybe he was tired of looking at the old, scuffed up wooden handled knife he carried around in his pocket and that new, shiny, fancy knife was just what he needed to impress his girl.  It was all eye candy appeal, and damn if it didn't work!

    Then they took it to the next level.  The Sheffield firms hit on the idea of generating the perception that specific tasks demanded very specific cutting blade styles.  Any old pocket knife can slice open a letter, but the cutlers of Sheffield implied that only a specially designed desk knife with a letter opening blade can get the job done done with elegance and style.  No true gentleman should ever be caught opening important correspondence with a plain old pocket knife.  It was undignified!  Similarly, while any old pocket knife can slice up a pear or an apple the cutlers of Sheffield impressed upon their scruffy American cousins the notion that only a knife with a specially designed blade is suitable to the elegant task of carving up the dessert fruit.  It would be just so ungentlemanly to let your lady see you slice up those delicate grapes with the same pocket knife you used to clean your fingernails.  Only a specially designed Sheffield fruit knife was correct for the task.  Oh, you unwashed masses!  You have so much to learn (and so much money to spend).  Let the master cutlers of Sheffield bring elegance and orderliness into your lives!

    The 19th century cutlery catalogs put out by the Sheffield firms show a bewildering array of knives.  The combinations of blade styles and finishes are endless.  Pocket knives for camping, cooking, carving and castrating.  Doctor's pocket knives for doing emergency surgery.  Whittling knives for turning big sticks into little sticks.  Pruning knives for tending the garden.  Farriers knives with a folding pick for cleaning your horse's hooves. Delicate little bird knives that slip comfortably into the vest pocket on upland game hunts.  Knives for cutting tobacco leaf and knives for clipping the end off of a fine cigar.

    Out of this crazy mix of blade styles and finishes emerged the knife known as the 'congress pattern'. It appears the name was merely a marketing device first used by Joseph Rodgers & Sons sometime before the mid-1800s. It was originally a four blade knife with edges suited for shaping pen nibs and carving and whittling. I guess the marketing guys at Joseph Rodgers figured that's all that American congressmen did with their time - whittle on wooden sticks and sharpen quill pen nibs. Thus the congress pattern knife was born.

    Joseph Rodgers & Sons congress pattern pocket knife.
    From a late 19th century cutlery catalog.

    A funny thing happened on the way to the Capitol Building.  The knife proved so popular that people naturally assumed the congress pattern was what congressmen carried and that it was somehow endorsed by the US Congress.  After all, who wouldn't want to own the very same knife that their local congressman carried?  It helped that it was also a very good design with a great combination of useful blades.  In one of the classic examples of advertising shaping reality a lot of congressmen - senators and representatives - ended up carrying  and using the congress pattern knife.  In fact, one of America's greatest presidents and an acknowledged knife and gun enthusiast regularly carried this knife.  No, not Teddy Roosevelt.  Abraham Lincoln!  The night he was assassinated in Ford's Theater he had a congress pattern knife in his pocket.  That knife is now on display in the Library of Congress.

    The contents of Abraham Lincoln's pockets on the night he was assasinated
    at Ford's Theater.  Note the distinctive congress pattern pocket knife.
    From the Library of Congress 'Artifacts of Assassination' on-line display 

    [Editorial aside here.  Yes Virginia, Abraham Lincoln was a big gun and knife enthusiast.  He loved reviewing new weapons patents and often invited gun makers to demonstrate their new inventions right on the grounds of the White House.  He was fascinated by the Henry Rifle design and pushed the War Department to adopt it during the Civil War. That was probably the last time a gun was fired for sport or pleasure on the grounds of the White House.]

    A question that is often asked is whether or not the congress pattern knife was ever sold in the gift shops in the US Capitol Building.  I don't think anyone can say for sure, but what we do know is that right up through the early 1980s various commemorative pocket knives were offered for sale in the gift shops.  While visiting the Capitol on several occasions in the early 80's I clearly remember seeing pocket knives for sale.  In his classic book 'The Practical Book of Knives' the author Ken Warner shows a Schrade Uncle Henry stockman pattern knife he bought in the Senate shop in the Capitol.  So, I think it's a fair assumption to say that at some point a congress pattern knife was offered for sale in the US Capitol.  But those days are far behind us.  I'm sure that today in a building filled with dull minds there are no sharp things on offer.

    While not as popular as it once was, the congress pattern knife is still available from a number of manufacturers.  Case Cutlery, the premier US pocket knife manufacturer, offers several styles in their current catalog.  It is a good pattern and it still sells well.

    Recently I came across a congress pattern knife offered by CRKT (Columbia River Knife and Tool).  I've owned several of their other pocket knife offerings and they are all very well done.  I decided to order one up and when it arrived I became fascinated by the knife's design and history (and hence this blog post!).

    The CRKT Congress Pattern Knife

    Blades out!  An extremely useful combination of blades.  No wonder this
    pattern was so popular.
    As much as I love stockman pattern pocket knives, this congress pattern could steal me away.  One thing is certain, I'll have to get my hands on a few more to help me make up my mind.

    Stay sharp!