If folding knives and pocket knives were developed as tools, fixed-blade knives began their history squarely as weapons. Crude stone blades were carried by Neolithic hunters who, we might guess, were anxious to subdue their prey before being preyed upon themselves. The earliest examples of these original survival weapons were made of minerals such as flint, which could be sharpened on both edges, as well as to a deadly point. Of course, human beings used knives as protection from other human beings, too, which is one reason why primitive materials such as stone eventually gave way to copper, bronze, iron, and finally steel.
By the Middle Ages, the term dagger had been coined to describe one of the most common types of fixed-blade knives. It was meant to be thrust at an enemy rather than slashed. Some variations like the rondel dagger were strong enough to puncture armour and had no edges at all, essentially an ice pick on steroids. Another branch in the dagger’s evolutionary tree was the stiletto, whose slender, pointed, double-edged blade made it a stealthy, lethal weapon.
In the 19th century, one of the most popular fixed-blade knives, the Bowie, appeared. Designed by Jim Bowie and fabricated first by Jesse Clifft, the almost 10-inch-long blade had a flat spine and no guard between its blade and handle.
That might have been the end of the story, but the knife and its namesake gained popular acclaim in 1827 when Bowie used it to kill a sword-cane-wielding attacker in a fight near Natchez, Mississippi. Subsequent Bowie knives were produced by New Orleans knife maker Daniel Searles, Arkansas blacksmith James Black, and cutlers in Sheffield England, who copied the Black version, marketed it as an “Arkansas toothpick,” and exported it back to the United States.
Several characteristics distinguished the Bowie. First and foremost was the design of the blade. Although the weapon used by Bowie in 1827 had a flat back, subsequent knives featured a clip point, or clip blade, which looked as if a concave slice had been taken out of the blade’s spine about two-thirds of the way toward the point from the handle. The handle was also a focal point of the knife. Many Bowies had what are known as coffin handles, which is perhaps fitting for a knife that put so many people in them.
Another 19th-century cutler was John Russell of Massachusetts, whose Green River Knife was carried by tens of thousands of westward immigrants in the 1840s, ’50s, and ’60s. Hunters and trappers liked them because the were long and had a rounded tip, making them good tools for skinning animals from buffalo to beaver, while their rugged handles were made of ebony and cocobolo, two of the hardest woods around.
Production of hunting knives continued into the 20th century by Buck, Case, and other cutlers. Rudy Ruana, whose knives are among the most collected today, got his start in the 1920s making skinning knives. But in the first half of the century, with two world wars, the need for fighting knives kept a number of new manufacturers busy producing knives for soldiers who found themselves in close-combat situations. Indeed, a soldier’s knife is a true survival weapon, the last resort when one’s ammunition and good fortune has failed...
During World War II, Ka-Bar knives were carried into battle by members of the Marine Corps, while those in Air Force favored knives made by an Orlando, Florida, cutler named Bo Randall. Beginning in 1966, Gerber Mark IIs were popular with troops in Vietnam. As for 19th-century knife manufacturer Camillus, that storied firm made knives for soldiers from World War I though Vietnam. Some of these knives, regardless of the manufacturer, were customized by soldiers in the field. Tweaking a knife’s handle was one of the most common alterations, and while these theater knives are somewhat similar to trench art, for obvious reasons they remained fully functional.