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!

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!