While no longer required to keep lines of communication open, the utilitarian penknife continues to prove its EDC cred.
The penknife is a tool that has grown to fit our needs for centuries. It used to be an item that was in the pocket or purse of just about every individual alive, but today is easily confused with multi-tools and ‘Swiss Army’ knives.
The penknife is the ancient great-granddaddy of EDC knives, it was not just an EDC knife like we understand today in our assist-open or fixed blade defines knives, rather it was an edged tool that accomplished all daily chore-cutting, from maintaining writing utensils to working on small game.
History Of The Penknife
The original penknives were created to help maintain quill pens, the kind you see in movies made from feathers. These were called dip-pens, as they were dipped into ink to write with. The tips of these pens were shaped with penknives. As the quill lost its integrity from use, the tip was reshaped until it was depleted.
The penknife was small, usually only a few inches long with a fixed blade. They remained in their original form for much of history until the 1700s saw some variation as pencils began to appear on the scene, though in limited numbers. Interestingly, the knives excelled as the maintenance tool of the newer writing implement. Through World War 2 the penknife was considered the most functional and least wasteful means to sharpen a pencil. The British famously banned the use of mechanical pencil sharpeners in the war due to how quickly they consumed graphite and wood.
The last major leap forward in design changes came in the mid-1800s when penknives commonly become folders, where they remain today as a standard design element. These knives rarely had any kind of locking mechanism, and even today many are simply opened with a nail nick and held open with a slipjoint design. The pen blades were later combined with larger blades, usually, clip-points and the utility was expanded beyond simple maintenance functions.
Traditional Penknife Design Points
The penknife in its double-blade form became standardized into one of two categories, those being knives with blades mounted at each end of the grip and those with two blades mounted on one end. The latter is referred to commonly as a ‘trapper’ style, itself a design that has a following even today.
The penknife reached something of a crossroads in the modern era. Knives have always been used for regular tasks, however, as pocket knives changed they diverged from multi-tools. Penknives can fall into either category depending on who you ask, some consider any small, sub-3-inch folder to be a penknife, while others would happily call a Leatherman tool a glorified penknife.
The tool aspect is something that blurs the line today, the original utility was as a tool, but in adding more tools to create more function, it moves into a new category…or does it? As we are about to discuss, the penknife isn’t one particular thing. It is what we need it to be.
Practicality Of The Modern Penknife
Victorinox and its classic SD model set up the penknife as a multi-function tool as opposed to a task-oriented specialty item. Some would argue that a true penknife is simply that, a penknife and any added function beyond maintaining quills or pencils move it from this category. That is not something that has legs to stand on in the author’s opinion, as the entire original premise of the penknife has been thoroughly antiquated as quill pens fell out of use.
The pen blade was functional for general use, but then again so was the larger blade. So what to keep? Many of these multi-function knives still carry two blades of different styles and lengths, however, nobody but perhaps a few dozen individuals worldwide are using modern penknives to maintain quill pens. The inclusion of pen blades on these knives is, as of 2023, purely ceremonial or simply a callback to what many see as a necessary feature. Adding things like scissors or a file was the first step in making these small knives functional for regular life, which was of course their original intent, but life changed beyond their utility.
As materials have evolved, so have the strength and utility of these small blades. Despite this, penknives are not for heavy lifting. It is beyond its role to pry, baton, or otherwise abuse these small knives, but it should be your expectation it hold up to regular use in a light-duty setting.
The penknife today should be thought of as a companion tool and that very much depends on what you do with your life. If you don’t want scissors in yours, they make a variety without. If you need a bottle opener, you’re covered. Hell, if you need a can opener, Boker makes a great replica Japanese version that includes one.
The penknife is the knife for your life, and even if you aren’t trimming feathers, you will certainly benefit from one of these clever little knives.
Traditional Style Penknife Options To Write Home About
Case & Sons Small Pen w/Stag Grip
Case has been making pen knives since time started. Well, probably not that long, but they have been the leader in the category for decades. Just about every hardware store across the country has a Case display hosting the company’s various small pocket knives, among them their famous penknives.
The knives are available in a variety of styles, however, the standout example of a penknife is their Small Pen with stag scales. The knife features two blades, one at each end, and it is just about as classic as you can imagine. It has one pen blade and the other a functionally designed clip point. Despite being a rather benign presentation compared to today’s advanced materials, you’ll never want for function with this old-school setup. For all light tasks you are covered, and to make it better, chances are your granddad carried this exact knife… or at least one very close to it.
Benchmade 317-1 Weekender
Benchmade manufactures a dizzying number of knives, however, each is very well thought out and of extremely high quality. While not exactly a penknife in the strictest sense, this modern twist has a bit of added function and pizzazz. The Weekender is designed as the perfect weekend companion and has features that make it great for light tasks. It is great for work on small fish or small game and is also equipped with a bottle opener, because let’s face it, you’re probably going to be killing beers more often than you’re going to be killing game.
The knife is finished in green micarta and bears flashy copper-colored accents. It has just the right amount of flair to match the rest of your daily gear but isn’t made of easily damaged materials. Think of this little guy as the ultimate modern penknife. It is the most expensive option listed here, but it is arguably the strongest and sharpest of the bunch. For what it’s worth, these are advantages of a small knife where cutting ability is limited and strength is lacking.
Schrade Old Timer
In the world of penknives, there is little room for variation except in price. These small knives are not designed for the strength of heavy work, and in some cases, they are made to a standard that more closely resembles their class in terms of cost.
The Shrade knife here retails at under $20, making it a fraction of the price of some on this list. It has a clip-point blade as well as a pen blade and a pair of small scissors. For the duty of a penknife, you don’t need to spend more and this will last you years if used accordingly. Light duty is something that needs to be stressed here, but at this low cost, you won’t be out much if you do break it. Shrade priced this right to be bought and used, and it makes a great gift or stocking stuffer for that hard-to-buy-for person in your life.
Hen & Rooster Stag Penknife
Hen & Rooster knives are great, medium-cost alternatives to Case or other penknife brands. The company is not as well known as the others on this list, but they make a great product that rivals all in quality and appearance.
Its stag-griped penknife is extremely simple and priced right for someone looking to have a nice knife with real materials as opposed to lookalikes or plastic stand-ins for antler. The knife features both clip point and pen blades and is exactly how you figure a penknife should look. Stag isn’t the only material offered for grips, and the company has a tremendous number of models and variants available.
Boker Historical Japanese Army Penknife
There is a long history of small utility knives integrated with other tools to make them just a bit more functional. This offering by Boker is a replica of a Japanese army penknife that has an integrated bottle and can opener. This penknife served to open rations and prepare food in the field and it is good for just about anything minor.
It is an exceedingly slim knife in all proportions, the single blade being just 2 inches. The blade folds into the steel frame, itself just slightly wider than the blade itself. History buffs may not be aware of this little tool, but they sure will love it when they open it. Boker has a winner here, and to boot, they also have a Japanese multitool and other historical knives should you want to start collecting modern replicas you can use in your daily life.
Check out More of Our Buyer’s Guides
- Best Karambits: Ferocious Southeast Asian Fighters
- Best Tactical Pocketknives: Perfect EDC Options
- Best Hawkbill Knives: Getting Hooked
- Best Tactical Knives: Rugged Beasts
- Best Assisted-Opening Knives For The Money
Knife Guide Issue features the newest knives and sharpeners, plus knife and axe reviews, knife sheaths, kit knives and a Knife Industry Directory.
Get your FREE digital PDF instant download of the annual Knife Guide. No, really! We will email it to you right now when you subscribe to the BLADE email newsletter.
Click Here to Subscribe and get your free digital 2022 Knife Guide!