BLADE Magazine

The Enduring Legacy of American Knives

Even If She Isn’t As Old As The Great European Nations, The USA Has Left An Enduring Legacy When It Comes To Innovating New, Exciting Knives.

If the knife isn’t man’s oldest tool, it’s probably a close second. Styles, looks, form, and function have steadily evolved, and even though the basics of a particular type may have originated somewhere else, there are those that are associated most closely with the good ol’ USA. These are knife styles that the buying public, the collector, the factory, and the custom maker would probably associate with the United States more closely than any other country.

“You have to start with the time period when knives actually became ‘American,’” explained BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall of Fame® member Bruce Voyles. “From the first settlers, the Spanish in Florida or the Vikings, every knife they brought to this country was made and came from somewhere else.”

Voyles points to the truly American knife and says that the history of the country allows for a nod to the J. Russell Green River Works in the 1830s—the mountain man period when skinning knives were pretty much an enhanced version of the butcher knife—the epic sandbar fight that brought the bowie knife to the forefront, George Schrade and the introduction of the switchblade, and other examples of knives that are associated with America.

“Everything changed, and the cutlery world was turned on its ear when Jim Bowie got into a duel and that turned into a melee in 1827,” Voyles commented. “This happened across the river from Natchez, Mississippi, and you didn’t have good roads in those days. The rivers were the highways and when this happens, soon the story is heard in other river cities—New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. Everybody hears this amazing story. Everybody wants a knife like Jim Bowie used, Bowie’s knife and then the bowie knife.”

Voyles related the story of George Schrade and the New York City patent office. “A guy comes in with something that looks like an automatic,” Bruce said. “George Schrade tinkers with it and invents the switchblade knife. He is the one that made it a production knife that people could afford. There were others around, but he got the patent on that style of knife. Schrade kept tinkering with it, and he brought his brothers in and started Schrade Cutlery Company to produce George Schrade’s switchblades. So, now the modern American switchblade is truly an American knife, though the government banned it in 1958.”

Known simply as Bowie No. 1, this early 19th-century knife is attributed to the style of James Black. Some believe Black made one or more knives for Jim Bowie.

There is, of course, with every innovation in cutlery or other endeavors, a ripple effect. And Schrade Cutlery is a great example as its knife production expanded and the brand became one of the most recognized in the world.

While folding hunters have been out there seemingly forever, Voyles categorically asserts that the Buck 110, which took the knife world by storm almost 60 years ago, is an American knife that deserves to be categorized all by itself.

“Nothing else looked like that knife when Al Buck made it,” Voyles reasoned. “The other lockback folding hunters looked like pocketknives, but I defy you to show me a look like the Buck 110 that existed any earlier. It’s an American style of its own because everybody copied it. The Buck 110 had different construction and sturdiness, and it was so distinctly different that everybody else copied it. The design was so different, and that is attested to by the number of people who copied it.”

Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Dan Delavan of plazacutlery.com adds, “Americans have introduced a lot of different blades in the past, including the bowie, KA-BAR combat knife, the hollow-handle survival knife, as well as the basic Boy Scout knife. Each knife served a very basic function, from war to camp and basic scouting activities.

“I think the Spyderco hole is all American,” Delavan opined. “Sal and Gail Glesser came into my shop [the old Plaza Cutlery retail knife store in Costa Mesa, California] back at the very beginning with their folder with the pocket clip and the hole in the blade. They were doing county fairs at that time with their sharpener and introducing their knives. We bought on the spot and have been a lifelong dealer ever since. That has led to a lot of different openings for folders and remains a mainstay in the industry.”

Historic American Knives

Historical or modern, vintage or recent, knives with that American flair are identifiable and recognized at home and abroad. Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Goldie Russell of A.G. Russell Knives sees the bowie as iconic.

“The bowie knife is the quintessential American knife,” she noted. “It is believed that the first was made for Jim Bowie in the blacksmith shop of James Black* in south Arkansas. [Bowie knives] became so popular that they were manufactured by Sheffield cutlery factories for the American market.”

Russell went on to raise the work of Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Bob Loveless and his fixed-blade hunting knives to the top as well. 

“Bob Loveless forever changed the style of the hunting knife with his drop-point, semi-skinner, and utility blade shapes, with the drop-point hunter being the most popular,” she continued. “The influence these knives have had on the world knife market includes not just the blade shapes, but also the shaping of the handles to better fit the hand. These models have clearly influenced the shapes, look and feel of knives made by generations of knifemakers, and will continue to do so for decades to come.”

Also influencing generations of knifemakers were the many camp knives, bowies, fighters, and other fixed blades forged from the damascus steel reintroduced by Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Bill Moran in the early 1970s. Moran’s damascus knives set the stage not only for a plethora of standard carbon damascus knives but also later for stainless damascus and mosaic damascus knives.

Bill Moran’s statuesque ST-24 not only paved the way for knives of carbon damascus in the 1970s and beyond, but subsequent models in mosaic and stainless damascus as well. (Dave Ellis image)

Then, there are variations on a theme. The multi-tool, for some a knife and for others something totally separate, has nonetheless influenced the cutlery market and is among those chiefly American styles.

“Tim Leatherman’s inspiration in the design of the first Leatherman tool created an entire category in the world of knives,” Goldie Russell explained, “but also in the tool industry. Most construction workers, farmers, carpenters, forestry workers, and many other segments of our society carry a multi-tool every day. Those who are not carrying one will usually have one in their toolbox.”

Innovation In American Knives

Inventiveness, in itself, is not uniquely American. However, at times the original has the potential for improvement, and just as Schrade improved the switchblade, Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Michael Walker revolutionized what would become the linerlock.

Cattaraugus made a pocketknife with a brass spring/lever that helped prop the blade in the open position. “Walker changed the design so that when the lever locked it kept the long, clean lines of the knife,” Voyles observed. “The bottom side of the blade is blocked, and the big bump there has got something to hold onto. Walker’s lock does not block the bottom of the blade. It blocks the butt end of the tang. Michael didn’t patent it†, and every major manufacturer in the world has knocked it off. Nobody thought it would have such an impact. However, any knife with a locking liner is an American knife because it was an American innovation that did it.”

Russell echoes the sentiment that Walker’s linerlock was revolutionary and an American innovation.

“Michael Walker’s genius of replacing the slip-joint spring with the ball detent spawned the entire generation of modern EDC knives,” she added. “His innovation allowed a portion of the liner to be utilized as a locking device. The idea caught on quickly with handmade knifemakers and has now become an integral part of the manufacturing process for almost every manufacturer of knives. This method of creating a locking folder has made knifemaking much simpler, with much less skill necessary to make an excellent functioning knife.”

The tactical folder took the world of knives by storm in the mid-to-late 1990s, offering a one-hand folder—usually black—with a non-glare stainless steel blade, a synthetic handle, a linerlock and a pocket clip. While some called it more a marketing approach than a knife, the fact that the folder dominated the market for at least a decade if not longer cannot be denied.

Searching her memory and experience, Goldie Russell also identified the flipper folder popularized by Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Kit Carson and the SpeedSafe assisted opener by Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Ken Onion as innovative, influential styles that the world associates with the United States. 

 Ken Onion’s SpeedSafe assisted-opening mechanism on the Kershaw Random Task helped make the assisted opener one of the most recognizable of American knives.

“When combined with the Walker linerlock, the Carson flipper adds the ability to open the knife as fast, or faster, than a switchblade knife,” she remarked. “It’s a clear improvement over the stud or hole in the blade for the purpose of one-hand opening. The use of the flipper as an opening device has become prevalent throughout knifemaking across the world.

“Then, Ken Onion’s addition of a spring to launch the blade open** is another American innovation that has changed the landscape of the knife industry,” she concluded. “Nearly every American brand utilizes some variation of Ken’s way of using a spring to open a blade quickly. The genius was the bias toward closure that kept a folder from being deemed an automatic.”

As the Rambo film franchise grew in popularity during the 1980s, the work of Cutlery Hall-Of-Famers Jimmy Lile and later Gil Hibben made the knives in those motion pictures stars themselves, rivaling Sylvester Stallone for worldwide acclaim. Voyles insisted that the Rambo knife is an American phenomenon that still impacts the knife market today.

“The Rambo knife is uniquely American for two reasons,” Bruce said. “Jimmy Lile designed it and made the knives for the first two movies, and it ignited a boom in survival knives that exists today. Then, the other historical tie-in is that in the 1980s every boy who could walk had a survival knife with a big, round compass on the end and a hollow handle. Even today, those boys are adults and they love the nostalgia of that handmade Rambo knife. Indirectly, Jimmy Lile created all this, and the Rambo knife is uniquely American in that regard.”

Considering the knives closely associated with the United States, their impact is obvious. Those styles associated with the good ol’ USA still resonate across the market and in the inventive minds of those who brought them into being.

*Editor’s note: While many do indeed believe that James Black made a knife for Jim Bowie in Black’s shop, such a knife has never been definitively proved to be as such because Black did not mark his knives.

†Though unable to obtain a patent on the linerlock, Walker was able to obtain a trademark on the name linerlock, a trademark that has since lapsed.

**Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Blackie Collins also made one of the first versions of an assisted opener.

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