Vintage knives: More blades mean more fun

Few knives in the world are as instantly recognizable as the red-handle, multi-blade Swiss Army Knife (SAK). Manufactured for over a century, it has shown up in the most unlikely of places, and is carried not only by soldiers but also students, handymen, professionals, travelers and knife enthusiasts across the planet. Yet, the SAK was not the first multi-blade knife made. Historians cite other examples that have been around for over 200 years, with French and English multi-blades dating from the 18th century.

Sophisticated multi-blade knives exhibit equal ingenuity and design as the Swiss models, but with features suited for specific tasks. Multi-blades are the largest class of folding knives, and include all pocketknives that have an assortment of blades in a single pattern. 

Magnificent multi-blades were fashioned for World’s Fairs and International Exhibitions to showcase the intricate art and skill of the cutlers. A multi-blade made for the 1851 Great Exhibition featured 60 implements and was referred to by Simon Moore in a 1991 article in National Knife Magazine as a “forest of blades.”

Built by the famed English knife manufacturer Joseph Rodgers & Sons in 1822, the 60-blade pattern was bought by the Stanley Tools Co. in 1969 at a Sotheby’s auction and presently resides at Stanley’s company headquarters in Sheffield, England. Among the implements are a variety of commemorative blades, forks, scissors, awls, punches, manicure blades, corkscrews, wharncliffe blades, and edges of every conceivable shape.

Some multi-blades are fashioned for a particular industry, activity or pastime. Horsemen’s knives feature blades related to horse care and feeding, or for equestrian sporting activities. They often include a hoof pick or stone pick for removing small rocks from horses’ hooves; a leather awl for drilling holes in harnesses or tack; a small saw blade; wood screw starters; corkscrew; tin can opener; bottle opener; and a master blade. Some even contain a fleam, a veterinary instrument used to perform bleeding operations on animals that exhibited swollen joints or muscles. Many also have tools to extract spent shotgun shells.

Spent Shell Extraction

A number of British and German knife companies developed sportsmen’s knives, generally characterized by attachments on the ends of the knives that fit over the brass casings of shotgun shells to help remove the spent shells not ejected by the guns themselves. Some included two curved brackets, one for 12-gauge and one for 16-gauge shotgun shells. The knives almost always came with corkscrews, and most of them included some combination of a screwdriver, toothpick, awl, fingernail file, cigar holder, small scissors or a buttonhook implement for lacing up high-top boots or shoes.

Sportsmen’s knives were finely crafted and often showcased pearl or stag handles, nickel-silver fittings and milled liners. Joseph Rodgers made many such knives, as did the German knife manufacturer, J. A. Henckels and Co.

Bartenders and waiters of days gone by appreciated the bartender’s knife, also known as a champagne pattern. In addition to a traditional master blade, champagne-pattern pocketknives logically employed corkscrews, champagne bottle wire cutters and small pen blades, with some including leather awls, cigar cutters and cap lifters.

Pliers knives and wrench knives make their presence known in the tool knives category of multi-blades. Outfitted with traditional master and pen blades, they also integrate implements for mechanics and handymen. The typical wrench knife has a built-in crescent wrench, while the pliers knife sports workable spring-operated pliers that either fold out from, or are built into the end of, the handle. 

Wrench knives are quite rare and have always commanded a premium price from collectors. The Cattaraugus Cutlery Co. manufactured nearly all known wrench knives for a short time period in the 1920s. Each sported a jigged-bone handle.

A couple of German companies offered quality metal-handle wrench and pliers knives, with examples stamped “Hoffritz,” a New York importer, and others “Hugo Bauermann,” a knife company from Solingen, Germany. Through diligent searching, collectors can still find examples of the German wrench and pliers knives.

Valley Forge Cutlery and its parent company, H. Boker and Sons, offered pliers knives. Each featured a large spear-point master blade, a short wire stripper, screwdriver and a fascinating, miniature working set of backspring-operated pliers. The knives are rare, and rarer yet are those offered by and stamped “CASE.”

Patented Pliers Knife

The Oscar Barnett Tool Co. of Newark, New Jersey offered the most common and well-known pliers knife. Patented in 1900, the pattern featured two standard blades—a sharpened leather awl and a master blade. The Barnett tool knife also showcased a set of traditional-looking pliers that extended from one end of the handle.

Though many thousands of the knives were made, they were used hard, sharpened often, and apparently dropped frequently as evidenced by their overall poor condition. Finding one in very good condition is the quest of most all tool-knife collectors. 

Some of the Oscar Barnett Tool knives feature an implement that doubles as a screwdriver and bottle-cap lifter. In addition, an unusual square cutout in the middle of the screwdriver blade, referred to as a Prest-O-Lite, turned the valves on early automobile acetylene lamps.

Dedicated multi-blade collectors can still find dynamite knives featuring specialized pliers designed for crimping blasting caps onto dynamite wire. Primarily used by miners and construction workers building roadways and dams, dynamite knives included a traditional master blade for stripping insulation from wire. 

Robeson offered an automobile knife that not only had a large master blade, but also a combination screwdriver, wire stripper, cap lifter and Prest-O-Lite in a single implement, plus an additional leather awl or punch.

Official Boy Scout knives endorsed by the Boy Scouts of America, as well as non-official scout knives, make up the largest and most collected segment of multi-blades. Also called camp knives, a typical Boy Scout knife parades four implements that perform six functions—a master blade, leather punch, can opener and combination screwdriver and bottle cap lifter, the latter of which also serves as a Prest-O-Lite.

Most English or German Scout knives substitute a pen blade for the leather punch as one of the main four implements, and feature an additional corkscrew and leather awl or punch located on the back half of the knife. With the two extra implements, the German and English models become true multi-purpose multi-blades.

Mountainous Multi-Blade

The Ulster Knife Co. offered a World War II multi-blade that looks much like any bone-handle camp, scout or utility knife upon first glance, but added a Phillips screwdriver to the mix of four other common multi-blade implements. The Alpine troops, known as the 10th Mountain Division, employed the Phillips screwdriver to tighten the bindings of their snow skis.

The 10th Mountain Division was formed as a military fighting unit specializing in rapid deployment across rugged mountain terrain. The troops were trained primarily at Camp Hale in Eagle Park, Colorado in rock climbing, endurance, cross-country skiing, mountain survival, downhill skiing, winter conflict and winter camouflage. The unit faced its strongest test in Northern Italy against German troops when it suffered almost 5,000 casualties, but played a major role in the surrender of the German army in Italy in 1945.

Ulster’s multi-blade camp knife served an important role in the overall success of the 10th Mountain Division. The Phillips screwdriver proved an invaluable tool to soldiers on skis, serving them well in times of military conflict, as did the other blades and implements, whether for opening rations, repairing equipment, cutting cloth and wood, or for other tasks.

Modern versions of the multi-blade have been made with the finest handle materials and hardened steel, and are significantly smaller, with the blades opening and closing within millimeters of each other. The knives are easily tucked into a pocket, pouch, backpack or saddlebag, where they remain at the ready for any task.

Collecting vintage multi-blades provides you a chance to examine a variety of specialized implements, each blade made for a specific purpose, thus providing insight to the jobs for which they originally were designed. Treated with care, they gave their owners decades of service—and offer you untold hours of collecting enjoyment.

Richard D. White is a Field Editor for BLADE® Magazine, published by F+W Media.

All photographs by Richard D. White