While it is hard to say without 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 ancestors discovered that using a sharp rock enabled him/or her to cutting things. From there, according to the fossil record, Man’s technology as applied to cutlery has continuously improved through the centuries and continues to do so today even though the firearm now rules the modern battle field.
A knife is such a useful tool that it seems that no matter how technologically advanced we become, we simply cannot do without it because we still have a need to cut things and a knife is the best tool for the job. Consequently, as both knife technology and knife materials have improved, so has knife design. In fact, as these improvements have come about, pocket knife popularity 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, best American made pocket knives; each of which produces a plethora of single and multi-bladed pocket knife designs under their brand name.
A Brief History of Pocket Knives in America
While the early history of pocket knives is a little vague, the first known pocket knives date to at least the early Iron 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 consisted of nothing more than a wooden handle with a folding steel blade. No slip joint, no locking mechanism, no frills; although some smiths did include a tension screw at the pivot point to help hold the blade open during use. However, it was an inexpensive design and it did the job and thus, it was popular among people of modest means. In fact, the modern day Opinel folding knives are a good example of a Peasant Knife even though they do incorporate a simple locking mechanism.
The Influence of the Industrial Revolution
Next, the Industrial Revolution in America brought us the ability to mass produce a far more complicated design of the folding pocket knife in the form of the now common Slip Joint pocket knife which simply requires too much manual labor to mass produce without machinery to stamp and/or drop forge the needed parts. Then, there was the introduction of the lock back to folding knives and 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.
The First Few American Made Pocket Knife Brands
In fact, if you mention American made pocket knife companies to any knife enthusiast, three names will immediately spring to mind: Case, Buck, and Schrade. These three brand names are so iconic among American knife enthusiasts that they comprise the bulk of our domestic pocket knife business today. Thus, any kid who has ever walked into a hardware store, a feed store, a farm supply store, or a sporting goods store has seen displays full of shinny new Case, Buck, and Schrade pocket knives and thus, these three brands became firmly fixed in our minds as the three iconic American brand names (remember, we didn’t have the Web back then!).
However, you would also occasionally see a display that contains brands of some American made pocket knives such as Queen Steel or Schatt & Morgan as well as some of “those foreign-made knives” with brand names such as Boker or Puma that were produced in Solingen, Germany. Also, each of these brands had a very distinctive look to them that immediately separated them from the others. For instance, aside from distinctive blade shapes, Case pocket knives had shinny, polished, blades and jigged bone handles. Whereas, Buck pocket knives had duller, non-polished, blades along with their distinctive black, plastic, handles and Schrade pocket knives also had dull, non-polished blades with distinctive, dark brown, plastic handles that were meant to look like bone slabs.
Although we were aware from their advertising that all three companies used high carbon steels, we also knew that only the Case and Buck knives were stainless steel and that the Schrade knives would turn brown within a few days of purchasing them and then carrying them in your pocket. Consequently, the Case and Buck knives were commonly considered to be of better quality than the Schrade knives were. However, now days, it is a simple matter to the Web to discover that non-stainless, high-carbon, steels are often tougher and harder than many stainless steels!
The Evolution of Pocket Knife Design in America
Also, 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, we can also choose from lock backs and liner locks with assisted 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, slip-joint pocket knife design 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 and the number and type of blades each one has. It simply boggles the mind to try and comprehend the minor differences between them all unless you are a fanatical scholar of cutlery (like me). Thus it can be hard to pin one down as the best pocket knife.
Nowadays Each Pocket Knife is Made for a Purpose
Among Americans, necessity is certainly 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 whereas a banker would likely carry a Peanut or a Pen knife.
Thus, 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. For instance, the Clip Point is a general purpose blade and is usually the largest blade on any pocket knife. Whereas, the Pen Blade was specifically designed for sharpening quill ink pens and the Spey blade was specifically designed for spaying animals while the Sheep’s Foot blade was specifically designed for trimming sheep’s hooves. Thus, designs like the Stockman feature a broad Clip Point blade, a Sheep’s Foot blade, and a Spey blade. Whereas the Congress design, on the other hand, features a large Pen Blade and a small Sheep’s Foot blade one side and a large Sheep’s Foot blade and a small Pen Blade on the other side.
In conclusion, there’s more to come…
So, while I would like to discuss these subjects further, each subject both needs and deserves its own article to more than scratch the surface and even begin to do the subject justice. Therefore, check back with us weekly for more educational articles on the various and fascinating subject of pocket and folding knives. In fact, I have a whole series of educational articles planned that will explore both the history and types of pocket and folding knives as well as a couple of articles that will explain in detail what the different types of knife steels are and what the different alloying elements are that comprise them and how each element effects the properties of the finished steel.
In addition, I will also be writing more pocket knife and folding knife review articles, and making more recommendations for the best pocket knife. So, “stay tuned folks” and check back weekly for fascinating new articles from yours truly, in the meantime head on over and checkout some of my pocket knife reviews.