Saturday, 12 July 2014 02:00

The Wonderful Murky World of Pocket Knives

Written by Lorne VanSinclair for the Orillia Packet & Times

120 spyderco knife openThe world of knife collecting can be a complex and murky one indeed. Make no mistake, knife collecting is very popular today, amongst young and old alike, but there are so many different kinds of knives, and radically different collecting motivations, that nobody can say they just collect knives. You must specialize and the deeper you get into it, the more specialized you become.

Of course the big divide is between knives used as tools and those used as weapons but some aficionados will cross that line regularly.

One of the biggest areas of knife collecting is folding or pocket knives, they mostly fall in the tool category. You’ve probably owed at least one in your life and it would be exceptional for an older male not to have had one in his pocket at some time. While it can be dangerous, the blade is safely tucked away, it takes time (and usually two hands) to get it out and even then it can fold back and cut the hand that holds it so a folding knife is not an ideal weapon. That means it’s legal to carry one in most places, except airports of course.

120 Antique-Pocket-Knife1The history of folding knives goes back to antiquity, examples have been found from as early as 500 BC. Around 1650, Sheffield, England became the centre of production for what became known as the peasant knife, a simple folding knife with a wooden handle that depended on friction to keep it open. The slip joint (or slipjoint) knife, which has a tension spring along the back of the handle that holds the open blade in place until you apply enough pressure to close it, was invented around 1660. However it was not widely used because it was difficult to make. As always with these things, mass production methods in the Industrial Revolution 150 years later made slipjoint knives accessible to just about everyone and the slipjoint is still the most popular locking mechanism.

Many different styles of knives have evolved; most are still in use today and employ more than one blade. In multi-blade knives there is always a larger one, called the main blade and one, or more, smaller ones for specialized use which may not even be blades at all.

The jack knife, named after Frenchman Jacques de Leige, has all its blades attached at one end. The smaller pen knife was originally designed for cutting quills to make pens but modern versions will have several blades hinged at either end of the handle. Another popular style is the Barlow, a two blade knife with a wide barrel. It is supposedly named after English cutler (knife maker) Obadiah Barlow but several Americans named Barlow also claim ownership.

There are many other knife and blade styles with colourful names like peanut, sunfish, elephant’s toenail, sodbuster and canoe. The stockman knife, used by cowboys and ranchers is one that features three blade styles, sheep’s foot, clip-joint and, most importantly, a spey, used for neutering livestock.

120 romanswissarmyknifeAlthough they are in the tool category, folding knives have a strong military connection. Folding knives have been standard issue in most armies, not for use as weapons (though in a pinch they’ll do) but for almost every other daily task, including eating meals.

The venerable Swiss Army Knife is probably popping into your mind right now; it’s a catch-phrase for anything that tries to do everything. The term comes from U.S. Army soldiers returning from World War II who saw them in Europe but couldn’t pronounce the German name Schweizer Offiziersmesser or Swiss Officers' Knife. It was actually made for the Swiss Army (yes, they had one) starting in 1890 but it wasn’t a new invention; Roman armies were using very similar knives as early as 200 AD.

The first Swiss Army knives were produced in Germany but in 1891 two Swiss companies, which later became known as Victorinox and Wenger, submitted applications to supply the army with knives.

Switzerland is a divided country, with four languages and several regions that don’t always get along. We in Canada can relate to that.

Victorinox was in a German speaking region and Wenger in a French speaking one. In order to keep peace in the family, the Swiss government divided the contract between the two and they both produced Swiss Army knives until 2005 when Victorinox acquired Wenger

120 Swiss armyI’m not sure but I suspect the competition between the two led to the plethora of stuff available in the commercial Swiss Army Knife; you can fix your car, have a meal and pick your teeth and still not open half the things that are in there. That’s fine but one of the main features of a folding knife – it fits easily into your pocket – is lost.

In the late 1800s American cutler George Schrade came upon an idea to make a safer, more convenient folding knife. He founded the Press Button Knife Company to produce folding knives that opened automatically, saving countless broken fingernails. Apparently it never dawned on him that it could be a very dangerous weapon but in the 1950s movie and fiction writers depicted his knife, now called a switchblade, as the first choice of hoodlums. By 1958 it was banned in the U.S. though it is now legal in some states.

 All folding knives that open automatically or with a one-handed action are illegal in Canada.

The Italian stiletto knife is another bad boy. Originally a fixed blade knife, it also comes in folding knife, or switchblade versions but its long, very pointed tip with no cutting edge declares it is meant to stab people, not whittle a stick or peel an apple.

120 Flylock pocket knife with two bladesKnife collecting as a hobby got going in the early 1900s and formal collecting clubs started to appear around 1940. Collectors tend to focus on American made knives and the most valuable items are from the 1950s and 60s. They are often prized as much for the highly decorative celluloid or bone handles as for the finely machined blades. Some of the most popular brands for collectors are Case, Buck, Queen, Remington, Camillus and good old Schrade.

Folding knives are inherently difficult to manufacture with a high degree of precision so hard core fans turn to custom cutlers who do much of the work by hand. Many have been in business for a long time and have a large number of dedicated followers who collect both new and vintage items. Naturally, their knives are much more expensive than the machine made versions.

If you are looking to get into knife collecting, you’ll need to do a lot of reading but there are many books and on-line resources to help you get your education. You might start out casually to find some of the pocket knives you remember from your youth but be prepared; knives are fascinating and you might soon find yourself fully immersed in a whole new world.