A DEEP HISTORY
THE POCKETKNIFE HAS A RICH HISTORY SPANNING THE GLOBE AND THE CENTURIES
The pocketknife has been a part of history for over 2,000 years, but its origins may surprise you. BY DAVID JAYE
Growing up in a small town that was a mix of manufacturing and agriculture, I was surrounded by farms on three sides and a river on the fourth. It was a magic time for a boy who liked knives.
The farmers and older men would gather in certain spots and invariably a pocketknife or three would be unfolded, and sticks would be rendered to their lowest denomination. Knives were considered a tool, not a weapon, and most men and boys carried one. It was at this time of my life that I began my interest in the history of the knife and bladed tools in general.
It is this love of, and research into, the history of knives from which this story comes. I invite you to take a journey with me back through time to delve into the rich history of the pocketknife.
Folding knives have been with us for countless ages and at one time, I believed they were the product of a great civilization like the Roman Empire. However, they are likely as old as the Iron Age—with the oldest known being found in a Hallstatt Culture site in Austria, dating to 600-500 B.C.
Iberian folding knives, which also predate the Roman Empire, have been unearthed in Spain, as well. Roman folding knives have been located from the first century and by 200 A.D., Roman troops were issued multi-bladed folding knives, which included a blade, spoon, fork, spike, spatula and a pick.
Also demonstrating early beginnings, the Viking period (around 800 A.D.) shows limited use of friction
folding knives, but they were still artisan-made and expensive to purchase.
In the 1600s, Sheffield cutlers were able to cut costs and produce the penny knife, ultimately making
folding knives more accessible to, and widely carried by, farmers and common folk. Opinel of France still produces their version of the penny knife.
The spring back slip-joint knife was also developed sometime in the 1600s in Sheffield, but until the Industrial Revolution brought in mass production, they were too expensive for the average user.
In Spain the Andalusian knife, or Navaja, with a very strong spring, was developed in the late 1600s and manufactured in various sizes. The larger models—being a platform for developing a knife fighting style—were favored by the Roma or Gypsy people of Europe. They are still produced in small artisan shops, as well as factories, to date.
The Beginnings of Legacies
The 1700s saw the development of two distinctive knives, which allowed the quicker opening of the folding knife.
In France, the butterfly or Balisong knife, now associated with the Philippines, was developed with two separate handle halves encasing the blade until, with an adept flick of the wrist, the blade could be deployed. Meanwhile, Sheffield cutlers developed the first switchblade or automatic knife—with both currently being made. Both the Balisong and the automatic have been involved in legal scrutiny for years, due to their supposed application as weapons, yet each has remained widely popular.
The early 1800s saw the invention of the Bowie knife, made famous by James Bowie, duelist and defender of the Alamo. But a more widespread icon of the American people was the humble Barlow knife, a roughly finished, inexpensive folder with a long bolster, which encased almost half of the handle, providing enhanced strength at the area most vulnerable to the stress of a pocketknife, the
pivot pin. No one really knows which of the many contenders of the Barlow family actually invented it, but Russell Green River Works, with its “R” pierced by an arrow logo, is most associated with its production and distribution to all corners of America.
Odessa Teagarden once said, “Best known of the Barlow inventions, however, was the Barlow Knife, a must in the pocket of every schoolboy.” Mark Twain also gave mention to the Barlow knife in his Tom and Huck novels.
In Europe the cutlers of England, France and Germany, as well as Italy and Spain, were also prolific designers of pocketknives and produced many styles still in use. The French developed the Lagouille and Opinel knives, marketing them as picnic knives, as opposed to fighting knives.
The British and the Swiss both produced the multifunction tool knives, which American troops returning from the European theater anointed with the name Swiss Army Knife, even though they were not issued to the Swiss army. The German cutlers also made multifunction knives aimed at hunters, as well as producing automatic and gravity opening knives in the Rhine and Solingen areas—puma Knives are a prime example.
The 20th century saw major innovations in pocketknives.
Case pocketknives became highly collectible and Case still proves themselves as an innovative company—bringing old-time designs with new steels and processes to the consumer. Buck Knives, in the early 1960s, developed the folding lock back hunting knife, after which all knives of this style were referred to as “my Buck knife” by users, even if they were made elsewhere. Michael Walker developed the widely used liner lock, which also morphed into a frame lock. Sal Glesser came up with Spyderco's Trademark Round Hole and pocket clip. Ernest Emerson developed the Wave, which allowed the edge of a pocket to open the blade. CRKT patented the LAWKS, which was a secondary lock to the liner lock. Bob Terzoula coined the phrase Tactical Folder, creating a whole new market in this modern era of police actions and wars. Ken Onion developed the Speedsafe for Kershaw, which
assisted blade opening without the restrictive legislation of switchblade laws and Harold Carson developed the Carson Flipper, which opened the blade and then became a finger guard.
Artisan knifemakers are not only creating folders of beauty and function but are teaming with factory production designers to bring innovative designs to the working user.
Check Your Local Laws
Laws are complicated and a bit strict in nature. Countries, states, provinces, territories and municipal bylaws govern where, when, how and which knives may be carried. These types of laws are not new to our generation.
In the mid-1800s many states legislated against the sale, lending, gifting, carrying or use of Bowie knives. But, Texas is repealing its 1800s anti-bowie laws, which might go into effect by the time this article goes to press. It is always wise to check local laws before carrying a knife to ensure it's legal to do so.
Unlike the place and time of my youth, where a pocketknife was first and foremost a tool, a growing majority seems to believe all knives are weapons first, and tools second. As society changes, we as knife lovers and users must adapt to our times. But I believe the pocketknife will always have a place in our future, and it's exciting to know that we're now using the knives of coming generations' history books. KI