A fine example of a tool and weapon of war, the chute knife more than rose to fulfill the roles for which it was intended.
Harry Archer was a somewhat shadowy figure. At the height of the Vietnam War, he was engaged in nasty business—fighting a stealthy enemy in a steaming jungle, sometimes up close and all too personal.
Those who knew Archer acknowledged that some of his exploits were “larger than life.” They considered him an early non-movie version of author David Morrell’s fictional character of John Rambo*. Still, Archer was real, flesh and blood. And it seems altogether fitting that responding to his need for knives that “deliver” in a tight spot—survival, seconds along the fine line between life and death—he would come to know and rely on another legend.
According to John Denton, perhaps the world’s foremost authority on the knives of BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Bob Loveless, Loveless and the man he came to describe as the “head of CIA operations in Vietnam” were introduced to one another by knife writer/Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Ken Warner. It followed that Loveless made several knives for Archer’s use in the field, among them a fine sub-hilt and stag-handle example of his well-known Big Bear, along with several other Big Bears. Loveless’s close friend and fellow maker Steve Johnson was working in Bob’s shop at the time and participated in crafting these. A fighter in a tulip wood handle is another cold beauty.
Then there is the well-known Harry Archer chute knife, a versatile fixed blade with good looks and the ability to travel light but cut paracord for a quick exit from a tangled parachute shroud, and with a stout spine for prying loose from the wreckage of a helicopter. The chute knife was made for the jungle. It was made for Harry Archer.
“It seems that Loveless had been left out of a book by Warner, and Loveless sent Ken some knives to review,” Denton recalled. “It just so happened that Archer was there with Warner. Harry saw the knives and bought them all.”
Johnson worked with Loveless from June 1971 to October 1974 in both the Lawndale and Riverside, California, shops. He had a hand in the production of the prototype chute knife in the earliest days and 23 years later signed a photograph for Denton attesting to his work on that piece of history. Steve’s inscription reads in part: “This is to certify that I, Steven R. Johnson, worked on the Archer ’chute that is numbered ‘AP-003’ while in Lawndale, CA, approximately 1971-72.”
Johnson explains that the chute knife is a fairly small, compact fighter and survival knife, short, light, double-edged and strong, but not made in stock thicker than 3/16 inch. Holes for thongs are placed in the rear of the handle and the guard for lashing the knife to a pole or limb to make an improvised spear. It rides into action atop a chest pack or secondary parachute for quick, easy access. Claims that Warner had a hand in the design are unconfirmed, but “the chute” simply looks the part of the warrior’s dependable asset.
“You’re able to cut both ways with the knife via the swipe of an arm or hand,” Johnson related. “Specifically, it’s for cutting parachute cord should it be tangled or caught in a tree. It’s a knife that a pilot, paratrooper or soldier should carry, and it would not be a burden but useful and available in every situation.”
HARRY ARCHER LORE
Stories of Archer’s combat prowess have been told and retold, but to raise awareness of the immediacy of a close-in fight, nothing is better than the harrowing tale that Denton remembers Loveless repeating. John points to a photo of a vintage Big Bear, identifies it as a knife that Archer took into combat, and says, “Harry and his men got into a hand-to-hand fight, and the tip of the blade was broken off inside the enemy. Harry took the knife back to Bob to fix, and Loveless said, ‘Where’s the tip?’ Harry replied, ‘It’s still in the rib cage of the Viet Cong soldier.’ So, Loveless fixed the blade.’”
Like the Big Bear and other Loveless creations, the chute knife has its place in the lore of Harry Archer. After he collaborated to produce the prototype, Johnson continued to work with Loveless on more of the chute knives. He remembers meeting Archer in the California shops.
“Loveless really admired Archer and his adventures in the Vietnam War era, working with USAID**, the CIA and different assignments in various parts of the world,” Steve commented. “[Harry and I] discussed life in camp in Vietnam, interactions with Vietnamese soldiers and personnel with whom he was serving. That was quite interesting.”
Steve calls the chute “one great knife” and remembers conversations in Lawndale when the veteran operative praised it as light and small enough to carry so that it could always come along on a mission. Johnson also made a chute knife for Archer and continues to produce his own model today.
“We worked together on Archer’s order for a ‘Johnson’ version of a chute knife on a bench in the rear of Bob Loveless’s shop, in his garage in the back of his house in Lawndale,” Steve smiled. “Archer asked me to make my version, which we—mostly he—designed in the early 1970s. He did a drawing for me. The 154CM blade was about 4.5 inches long, the handle slim and a bit longer than normal, and it had a large thong tube, three handle screws, a stag handle, and checkering on the top and bottom of the tang just behind the guard.”
For Johnson, working with Archer was a pleasure and a defining moment in his illustrious knifemaking career, which, after recovery from a serious accident, took him from Loveless’s shop to his own space in Manti, Utah, more than 40 years ago. “Harry Archer was a great guy who appreciated my work, as well as Bob’s,” Steve added, “and I made him a few knives after California. He was very easy to talk to, respected others, and he really was a man of intrigue and adventure. And Bob Loveless treated me like a son.
“I’m making a chute knife for Atlanta [Steve was interviewed prior to BLADE Show 2021] as we speak, with the blade polished so far, instead of the top grind being just the length of the clip,” Johnson concluded. “I use the pattern that Loveless gave me when I left his shop in Riverside in 1974 or 1975. This particular knife is going to have a stag handle and stainless steel fittings. I’ll make more when asked, and I still have a few on order in my books.”
Long-time maker and designer Bob Dozier was a friend of Loveless and went on to design a chute knife for Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer A.G. Russell. Though his only acquaintance with Harry Archer is through the recollections of A.G., who knew him, Bob says his version of the chute knife remains in demand for one simple reason: “It sells.”
Dozier turns out his chute knife with a 4.75-inch D2 tool steel blade and overall length of 9.75 inches. The handle is green canvas Micarta® “because Goldie [Russell] won’t let me put anything else on them. I’ve got some blades hanging right now, getting ready.”
Dozier is familiar with the Loveless chute knife configuration but never had the Loveless pattern. He looked at the earlier chute knife profile and made some tweaks. “My handles are like the Loveless, but I don’t cut the butt off as square as he did. I leave more of a point on it than he did. Mine is still mostly like Bob’s, and he was one of the first to make a really good slab-handled knife. That’s one reason why most of us have copied him.” Dozier’s chute knife, designed and built for A.G. Russell Knives, has a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $895.
SAGA of The CHUTE
The saga of the chute knife certainly has a human side. While Denton estimates that early Lawndale chute knives might fetch as much as $14,000 if found for sale today, and chute knives made in Riverside command up to $12,000 each, they are desirable on the collector market. Nonetheless, the greatest value of the chute knife lies in its lifesaving and protective capability in the hands of a dedicated professional such as Harry Archer.
Through those years of association, Loveless and Archer became friends, sharing a common bond of respect and admiration for the best in fighting and utilitarian knives.
“Loveless said that Harry would come by his shop after periods of being in the jungle for months at a time,” Denton remembered. “He used Bob’s place to unwind and try to become civilized again before heading home to Virginia. But Loveless also said, ‘Harry was like a wild animal when he came to the shop, trying to keep his head straight before he saw his family.’”
The chute knife is indeed a fine example of a tool and weapon of war rising to fulfill the roles for which it was intended. It remains a popular pattern because of its looks, quality and versatility. And for one other reason in particular: It helped men like Harry Archer survive the most desperate of situations and make it home.
*In actuality, Morrell based the Rambo character on Medal-Of-Honor recipient Audie Murphy.
**USAID is the acronym for United States Agency for International Development, with the inference here being that in this instance it functioned as a cover for the CIA.
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