the-history-of-the-pocket-knife
Every boy acquired a pocket knife at some point in time. Whether yours was a gift from your pops or you got it while working on your first badge as a Cub Scout, it no doubt became a trusty sidekick you relied on for a bunch of little tasks. The small folding knife has become a quintessential item in a man’s everyday carry collection. Here’s a bit of the history behind the iconic knife.

600-500 BC

The oldest pocket knife (or “jackknife”) ever discovered dates back to around 600-500 BC. It was unearthed in Hallstatt, Austria, and it features a single blade with a bone handle. (img)

1st Century

Romans were the next group to really use the pocket knife as a tool. Many bronze “friction folders” have been discovered from the Roman Empire. These knives didn’t have locks or springs, but rather used friction to stay closed and required pressure from the hand or thumb to stay open. (img)


200

The Romans actually even invented their own Swiss Army-esque knife that included a spoon, blade, spike, fork, spatula, and pick. It most likely belonged to a wealthy traveler. (img)

800

Many folding knives have been found from the viking era. They carried some friction folders, but more often appear to have used clasp knives that used a catch to hold the blade open. (img)

1600

The pistol grip Gully knife was a pocket knife that was most likely used for fighting. Examples have been found dating back to the 1600s. (img)

1650

Between 1650 and 1700, the peasant knife (or “penny knife”) became an affordable and widely distributed option for the first time in history. Sheffield, England became the epicenter of production. The cost made them popular items with farmers and workers. Opinel still makes knives reminiscent of these classics. (img) (buy)

1660: The Slipjoint Knife is Created

Slipjoint knives were also introduced around this time. They featured a backspring that kept them in the open position. While not widely available at the
time, the style would become the basis for many utility pocket knives made today. Once the Industrial Age hit, mass production became more feasible and
they grew in popularity.

Some of the most popular variations of the slipjoint knife include:

Barlow Knife

Designed to be rugged yet affordable. (img)

Camper Knife

Invented for camping, it features tools like a can opener, screwdriver, and awl. (buy)

Canoe Knife

Named for the shape of the handle which looks like a canoe. (buy)

Congress Knife

Features a slightly curved back with a convex front and usually four blades. (buy)

Elephants Toenail

Similar to the Sunfish but with one shorter end giving it the appearance of an elephant’s toenail. (img)

Laguiole Knife

Created by Jean-Pierre Calmels in 1829. The slim knife features a single blade and sometimes a corkscrew. (buy)

Okapi Knife

Created in 1902 for German colonies in Africa, they were affordable and useful for poorer folks. (img)

Peanut Knife

Named for its small size, the tiny knife historically features two blades. (img)

Penknife

Originally a penknife looked like a scalpel and was used to sharpen quills. It evolved into a folding knife. (img)

Sodbuster

Designed as the working man’s knife, the sodbuster featured a fat handle that wouldn’t annoy your hand after hours of use. (buy)

Stockman

Used by ranchers and cowboys, the knife features a sheep’s foot, a clip-joint, and a spey for spaying/neutering livestock. (img)

Sunfish

Like the elephant’s toenail but with both sides being equally as wide. (buy)

Trapper

Two-bladed knife with one clip and one spey blade. (buy)

Whittler

Knives made for whittling. (buy)

Late 1600

The navaja was a Spanish folding knife introduced at this time that operated like a basic peasant’s knife. While the knife was used for simple tasks and for sharpening quills, it was also a weapon. Years after it was introduced, the popular knife received a locking device making it one of the first lockback knives created. (img)

1710

Evidence suggests that the French developed the butterfly knife (or “balisong”) around this time (this is debated by many in the Philippines). Butterfly knives have two handles that conceal the blade until flipped around like the example posted above from the 1800s. The knife, which is clearly associated with the Philippines, was used for self-defense and as a utility knife. (img)

1750

Switchblade knives were originally developed in the mid-18th century in Sheffield. They’re known for their spring-loaded blades that are accessed with the push of a button. The infamous Italian stiletto style became popular in the US after WWII. (img)

1891

The term “Swiss Army knife” was created by US soldiers returning from WWII, but the knife was actually developed back in 1891. Modell 1890 was crafted with a blade, reamer, can-opener, and a screwdriver, and was distributed to Swiss Army soldiers. (img)

1896

The Japanese higonokami knife was invented in 1896. It’s a type of friction folder with a protruding tang. Higonokami knives were hand-forged and exceedingly popular in Japan for many years before they were banned. (buy)

1920

The Defender pocket knife hit the market. It featured a tiny .22 caliber pistol built into the knife. (img)

1927

The French Douk-Douk knife was created in the town of Thiers. It was designed to be cheap but strong. It’s still popular today. (buy)

1950

The Italian stiletto switchblade made by Schrade experienced a huge spike in popularity in the US after soldiers brought back examples from overseas. Unlike many pocket knives, the stiletto was primarily used as a weapon. (img)

1981

Spyderco created the first pocket knife with a round hole in the blade for quick opening. This was in response to the thin fingernail indent on most knives that can be troublesome at times. (img)

1990

The term “tactical folder” was coined by Bob Terzuola, and the style of linerlock knives, which had previously existed, experienced a spike in popularity amongst hunters and outdoorsmen. (img)







  • TommyRuss

    Great graphic history! One glaring omission: the 2000’s assisted opening era, spearheaded by Ken Onion’s Kershaw “Speedsafe” design.

  • Oh the humanity

    Well done, graphically, but the research seems to be lacking given the omission of the 1962 Buck Folding Hunter, the first mass production knife to include a locking, revolutionary at the time, mechanism. Pocket knives were never the same after that.

  • K

    More more more more stuff like this

  • Sarthurk

    I found a Sodbuster, with decades of sharpening evidenced, sitting on a rock at the edge of the Nestucca river, one day. Steelhead blood still on it. If anybody wants to claim it, tell me what year and where that was you caught it. I’ve been taking good care of it.

  • Tony

    What happened? Did you dump me because I couldn’t get past the popup?

  • Nick

    Please stop promoting Laguiole Knife made in Pakistan…

  • Dipti Bahuguna

    The pocket folding knives have always been advantageous due to their compact size and helping us in many daily activities. Gerber knives and camper knives have always been my favourite and they have always been with me in worst situations (as I love to travel). In Fact, these days you can buy knives online from many stores at reasonable rates.

  • tyred

    Girls don’t use pocketknives? That’s news to me.

  • dumbeldor

    Knife history should not exclude any knives. Why do you not want it listed and why should they listen to you?

  • Nick

    I’m not trying to exlude Laguiole Knife, It is just not “Cool” to promote Laguiole Knife who are not made in France and especially Laguiole Knife of poor quality comming from China or Pakistan. History is “savoir-faire”… Anyway everyone is free to buy anything !

  • Dipti Bahuguna

    I found Spyderco to be perfect as personalized pocket knives as it is fordable and easy to carry. The hole in its blade can be supportive when tied with some thread( it can then act as your neck knife probably).