Revel in a short list of knife industry milestones that transformed the knife world.
Editor’s Note: BLADE Magazine is celebrating its 50th anniversary of its founding this year. To recognize this milestone, we are running a series of articles looking at the changes to the knife world the publication has been privy to over its history.
Time marches on. And in the cutlery industry, the half century from the early 1970s to the present has been filled with both revolution and evolution.
From the corner of a massive hall at a gun show, the slight mention of a new style of field tool, and the basic everyday factory blade carried in the worker’s pocket, the knife industry, both custom and factory, has blazed its own trail over the past 50 or so years, emerging from a somewhat obscure existence to the mainstream. And along the way have been those moments of discovery, awareness and excitement that have marked the trail.
For reference, a few of those moments include the following.
Though what would become the Knifemakers’ Guild Show was first held in 1970, the show that occurred three years later is still talked about today. That was when Bill Moran reintroduced damascus steel for knife blades, kindling a revival of interest in damascus as the new “super steel” and generating a wave of collector fervor. Also in 1973, Blackie Collins founded The American Blade, a magazine for the knife industry like nothing that had been seen before. Known today as BLADE®, the publication remains a voice for the industry and a tangible contributor to the life and times of the knife enthusiast.
In the following decade, knife shows increased in number and attendance, including the BLADE Show, the New York Custom Knife Show, California Custom Knife Show and the Guild Show, the latter which led the pack for at least 20 years. At the same time, Guild members established industry trends, including the drop-point hunter and the popularization of super steels 154CM and ATS-34 by Bob Loveless, while A.G. Russell vigorously supported the knife industry through his advocacy, sharpeners, knives and growing catalog business.
In 1976, the American Bladesmith Society was formed, and those who forged their blades and worked in damascus at long last had their own organization to promote training and excellence with hammer-ins and other events that brought people together to learn the art of bladesmithing. By 1988, the ABS opened its own school, the Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing. For the first time, bladesmiths and knifemakers could take advantage of a year-round school that offered instruction in forging, bladesmithing and more.
Nineteen-eighty-one saw the introduction of two watershed knife creations by Spyderco and Michael Walker. With the C01 Worker, Spyderco headman Sal Glesser introduced the first knife with both the famed hole in the blade for easier one-hand knife opening and a pocket clip for enhanced carry. Walker, meanwhile, debuted his groundbreaking linerlock folder. The innovations led to a concentration on ease of carry and deployment, focusing the industry on such elements that made the experience of knife ownership something even more special.
Hollywood took its turn in the early 1980s with the Rambo series of feature films and the knives that played starring roles. Cutlery Hall-Of-Famers Jimmy Lile and Gil Hibben became celebrities in their own right, and sure enough, other knife-and-sword-oriented films followed, including the Conan series, Commando, Predator and The Last of the Mohicans. These were just a few but the knives of custom makers profoundly influenced the marketplace. Soon enough, collaborations between custom knifemakers and factory knife companies began to flower.
By the 1990s, equipment such as CNC, laser cutters and CAD/CAM entered the knifemaking realm and brought about rapid change in the way custom and factory knives were made. The introduction of such hi-tech equipment into the maker’s shop gave rise to a debate over the very definition of handmade—a debate that continues to this day.
At the same time, the emergence of the internet brought the commercial knife market to the world, as custom makers, factories, dealers, collectors and others offered knives for sale on an unprecedented scale. The global reach of the internet led to a burst of information on every aspect of the knife industry, from websites, forums for the exchange of information, how-to videos, online auctions, and even a bit of the dark side—buyer beware! Know your customer and other maxims rang true.
Along with the information explosion, competition was more robust than ever, particularly with the onrush of China’s factory presence, not only in quantity but also, later, in quality. The Chinese influence has redefined notions of affordability, value, and how knives are produced and distributed, and the resulting market conditions continue to impact the buying habits of consumers worldwide.
Of course, there are ongoing challenges. Two significant advocacy groups, the American Knife & Tool Institute (AKTI) and Knife Rights, assumed leading roles in responding to knife laws and particularly to the zeal of government regulation, which at times has threatened the livelihood and freedom of Americans to carry one of man’s oldest tools. Pro-knife legislation and the legalization of automatics in many states are evidence of the credible work that has been done, with much of the organized response from the knife industry resulting from the defeat of the 2009 effort led by U.S. Customs to reclassify one-hand knives as switchblades/automatics.
The history of the modern knife industry is one of rapid change and continuing innovation. Long-time maker Tim Britton recalls the influence of Blackie Collins and Blackie’s foray into publishing. “Blackie could sell refrigerators to Eskimos,” he commented. “The American Blade magazine was one of his favorite projects, and his input and support facilitated the start of the Knifemakers’ Guild. We had one show, the Guild Show, where we could share fellowship and technology. Names like Buster [Warenski], Henry Frank, [W.W. “Bud”] Cronk, Jim Schmidt and Bob Loveless became famous at our annual shows.
“Virgil England took us to another planet and then along came the Chinese industrial monster,” he continued. “Tactical knives were their focus and they had no hesitation in copying American designs. The American Bladesmith Society developed a business model whereby rediscovered damascus steel could be taken to all new levels. There was never any question in this group about ‘what is a handmade knife’ or who is copying whose design. Knifesmiths flourished, and Forged in Fire has taken us all to a new level. Knifemaking caught on in other countries, and those makers continue to produce some of the finest work imaginable.”
Custom knifemaker Jim Sornberger well remembers the early days of the Guild and its organization. “The Guild thing was first discussed in 1970, and that was Bob Loveless and A.G. Russell,” he said. “Actually, A.G. bought tables for a bunch of the guys and set that up. He said, ‘Let’s have a show and get a block of tables,’ and so he did that. The Guild was the best organization of knifemakers in the world, and it had the biggest knife show anywhere in the world for many years.”
As for technology, Sornberger says it is simply a fact of life. Evidence of progress and efficiency are seen in makers’ shops routinely today, including CNC equipment, mills, lathes, ingenious versions of versatile grinders and more. “You can’t reverse technology,” he reasoned. “There are always new methods of doing something.”
Ron Lake had a huge hand in the evolution of custom knives, introducing his clever tab-lock interframe folder and helping popularize 416 stainless. “It was a different world back when,” he remarked. “We had a small corner at a gun show, and Blackie Collins was sitting off by himself 30 feet away from me with a slipjoint knife, and I remember Loveless cut himself with that knife! A lot of people came and went from the knife world back in those days.”
As Moran brought damascus back into the spotlight in 1973 and other developments were coming along, Lake remembers the growing ranks of the virtuoso custom knifemakers, including Billy Mace Imel, Buster Warenski and others. He also recalls the sudden impact of Spyderco. “I think maybe it wasn’t so much the hole,” he said, “but the clip. That in itself was a mind-boggling event—maybe not so much at the time, but later as people started using it.”
Ron Lake, Bob Loveless, Bill Moran and A.G. Russell
The influential journalistic career of B. R. Hughes has made its own contribution to the modern knife world. Hughes was there in the beginning of the modern era. He planned the first Gun Digest Book of Knives along with Jack Lewis, and it hit the market in 1973.
“That was a meaningful year,” Hughes remembered. “Ron Lake, Bob Loveless, Bill Moran and A.G. Russell are the most influential individuals in the history of custom knifemaking, and A.G. played a bigger role than a lot of people give him credit for. He saw the need to organize and there was a meeting in Tulsa in 1970, and the first Guild Show was in 1971, and it grew unbelievably. They met in Houston and there were about 20 or so makers, and then the next year the show was in Kansas City, and there were 40 or 50, and it just kept growing.”
According to B. R., damascus was a catalyst for revival in American bladesmithing. “The inclusion of damascus saved bladesmithing,” he said, “and there were fewer than 15 bladesmiths in America in 1973. The number was going down. There was Bo Randall and then Rudy Ruana as well, but just a few younger bladesmiths.”
Then, he says, the founding of The American Blade weighed in. “That was immense,” he offered. “I started writing about knives in the early 1960s, and there were primarily just gun magazines. I wrote for Gun Week, doing some knife articles for them, but there was no knife magazine, and the people I wrote about were people I met at gun shows. Without a knife magazine, it made it tough to write about knives.”
Hughes added, “I was fortunate to be around the first meeting of the Guild and things like that.” Indeed, B. R. saw and wrote about history as it was made.
Knife Industry Ups and Downs
These days, the world of knives continues to expand, to change, to elicit praise and criticism. Britton has watched much of this evolution. “Quality Chinese repros are available at flea markets and gun shows for $15 to $40,” he observed. “Many knifemakers are designing knives for knife companies, further blurring the differences between handmade and factory/manufactured. The internet is being used extensively for marketing—from very ornate websites to knife forums. The ‘Show Calendar’ page in BLADE is crammed full of announcements of shows from San Francisco to Paris. Several knife dealers have created a secondary market, and literally thousands of knives are available for sale 24/7.”
Concurrently, Britton is excited about what he notices these days. “We’re seeing abrasive materials, grinders, CNC equipment, new steels, and exotic types of handle materials from paua shells to hippos’ teeth,” he noted. “Creative craftsmen are exploring new horizons with acrylics and phenolics and stabilized wood burls. We see something new at every show.”
That, succinctly, is a strong indication of an industry, a passion, a way of life that continues to flourish despite the strain and stress that are natural byproducts of absolutely anything and everything that is alive. A half century from now there will be more milestones, more discussions and even greater achievement.
Members of the BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall Of Fame® mentioned in the story and sidebar are Blackie Collins, Sal Glesser, Gil Hibben, B. R. Hughes, Billy Mace Imel, Ron Lake, Jimmy Lile, Bob Loveless, Bill Moran, Bo Randall, Rudy Ruana, A.G. Russell, Jim Sornberger, Bruce Voyles, Michael Walker and Buster Warenski.
25 Knife Industry Milestones
1973 Bill Moran reintroduces damascus for knife blades at the Guild Show
1973 The American Blade debuts
1976 Bill Moran, B. R. Hughes, Don Hastings and Bill Bagwell found the American Bladesmith Society
1981 Spyderco debuts the C01 Worker, the first knife with both a blade opening hole and a pocket clip
1981 Michael Walker introduces a folder with the linerlock mechanism
1982 First Blood and Jimmy Lile’s Rambo knife appear in theaters
1983 Michael Walker first uses titanium in the construction of one of his linerlocks
1987 Buster Warenski completes the King Tut dagger reproduction
1988 The Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing opens in Old Washington, Arkansas
1992 Bruce Voyles moves the BLADE Show to the Renaissance Waverly Hotel in Atlanta, where it opens to rave reviews
1990s An explosion in Crucible Particle Metallurgy and the so-called “super steels,” and such materials as carbon fiber, mosaic damascus and more revolutionize knifemaking
1990s Computer numerically controlled equipment, laser cutters and more for knifemaking begin to appear
1990s Internet knife web pages, knife discussion forums, knife instruction videos and more start making their mark
Mid-1990s Tactical folders begin to dominate the custom and factory knife industries
1997 The BLADE Show moves from the Renaissance Waverly Hotel to the adjoining Cobb Galleria Centre and completes its ascendancy as the world’s most important knife event
1990s Chinese companies begin entering the factory knife business
1998 The American Knife & Tool Institute (AKTI), the oldest surviving knife advocacy group, debuts
2001 Terrorists bring down the Twin Towers and the knife industry reacts with a slew of military inspired knives, tomahawks and more
2006 The Knife Rights advocacy group debuts
2009 The knife industry unites to defeat an attempt by U.S. Customs to declare all one-hand-opening knives switchblades/automatics
2010s Social media begins taking the internet knife business to the next level
2010s Knife Rights and AKTI work to overhaul anti-knife legislation, including overturning automatic/switchblade bans and establishing knife preemption laws at the state level
2010s European knife manufacturers such as LionSteel, Fox Cutlery, Maserin and others begin winning more than their share of BLADE Magazine Knife-Of-The-Year® Awards
2015 Forged in Fire debuts and exposes millions of television viewers to knifemaking and bladesmithing for the first time
2020 The pandemic ravages the world and also the knife world, closing knife shows everywhere—including the BLADE Show
2020s The knife industry survives the pandemic, and, thanks to internet sales, even thrives in some segments—and knife shows begin to return
More Knife History:
- Walter “Blackie” Collins: Applying The Edge To BLADE Magazine
- American Knives: Legendary Designs From The Land Of The Free
- Antique Switchblades: World War II And Beyond
Knife Guide Issue features the newest knives and sharpeners, plus knife and axe reviews, knife sheaths, kit knives and a Knife Industry Directory.
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