There are plenty of books out there on swords, powder horns, and other objects. But surprisingly, there’s not a whole lot out there on antique American knives. In his 1984 book, Madison Grant wrote one of the definitive books on antique knives, with pictures of many examples, albeit in black and white, and with a purposeful lack of dating opinion. In his introduction, he makes several good points about the importance of antique knife collecting and research.
The subject of antique knives in America has received limited attention. Their relatively small size and hard usage are factors that have resulted in a constantly decreasing number of pieces available to study . . . .
Much is left to be done in the field of knife study but each informational effort lends another experience to the beholder . . . .
Through either necessity or desire, gradual betterment has marked the advance of knife making from the stone age through the derivatives of various types of ore. Since mankind is aggressive by nature, a great deal of attention was paid to weaponry. However, there have ben other benefits from this effort. Scientific progress now seems to be relegating the knife to the fields of food preparation and sport, and this is as it should be.
The Knife in Homespun America, by Madison Grant, 1984.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t until recently that a book was published on the popular topic of Confederate Bowie Knives, perhaps one of the most sought-after categories of American antique knives – and the most faked. Seriously – buying a “Confederate” anything requires a PhD in whatever topic you’re buying in. In their book, “Confederate Bowie Knives,” by Jack Melton, Josh Phillips & John Sexton, published in 2012, more than just great color photos, it addresses some of the backstory of American knife making, and of the historical controversies and nuances of knife collecting today:
The blacksmith/file debate is further sparked by the many fake blacksmith-made knives encountered today. The knife-making blacksmith of today calls himself a blade smith. There are many such skilled craftsmen today in the custom knife world, as well as regular practicing blacksmiths, all of which can easily make a knife in a 19th century style and with largely authentic raw materials. Such a knife can then fall into the hands of the unscrupulous where it undergoes as [sic] series of treatments to artificially age it and deceive a potential buyer. Knives like this are often encountered at Civil War shows. Many of them retain traces of the modern file from which they were forged. With practice, however, all new collectors can learn to tell the difference between the modern fake and the authentic knife.
Some genuine specimens are found today with limited hammer marks, folding lines and occlusions in the steel, evidence of a lower quality steel to begin with and a hurried or limited finishing process. But some modern blacksmith counterfeiters pound out pitifully ugly and poorly finished specimens, replete with scores of hammer marks under the mistaken notion of creating what they think a genuine blacksmith made knife was like – that is, crude and sloppy. But “good blacksmiths regard inadvertent hammer marks as signs of inept workmanship. They made very few [marks] in the first place and went to some lengths to eradicate those that did happen. (There are, in fact, special tools, variously known as flatters or planishes, for such a purpose).”
Confederate Bowie Knives, by Jack Melton, Josh Phillips, & John Sexton (2012) pp. 26.
On this topic, Grant wrote that:
First, is it old? Examination should reveal natural aging in such materials as iron, wood, bone or brass. Next, are the various parts in harmony with each other, or does one part look like it has been added at a later date . . . .?
Details are important, such as normal shrinkage of wood, color of either bone or antler, rust pits, rivets or th black of them. Look for wear in normal places, corrosion or discoloration that only comes with age. If you are not confident in your own judgment, be willing to ask the opinion of someone with greater experience . . . .
There are, of course, occasions when a piece is either signed or dated and if they are genuine that settles the matter. In other cases, excavations of graves or historical sites with known spans of time can specifically tell us when an object was used.
The Knife in Homespun America, by Madison Grant, 1984, pp. 1
Having seen what contemporary knife makers and artists can do, I don’t have any doubt that anything could have been made recently. Anything. That thought can steal the fun out of knife collecting, but it should stay in the back of your mind. When items are relatively inexpensive, it doesn’t matter all that much. But if, for instance, looking at a Confederate Bowie Knife, you better know what you’re doing. Or pay an amount a new one would fetch. Which also wouldn’t necessarily be cheap.
And to the real point, here’s a bunch pics I’ve taken recently of fixed blade old knives. Some are blacksmith made, some are of European import. Massive numbers of bowies, for instance, were shipped to America from England around the Civil War era, and are still today regarded as great knives, and great steel – most notably from Sheffield, England.
Another thing to keep in mind about these imported knives is that these are much easier to date. Even without finding the specific manufacturer, you can usually tell at the very least if it’s pre-1890. Post 1890, U.S. law required imported knives to have the country of origin printed on them. If they don’t have that, and just the manufacturer, that’s a great indication that it’s pre 1890. Not that that necessarily narrows it down all that much.
The beauty of the blog format, is that I can add photos in seconds, add/delete/change information, and so on. Here are some of the pics I’ve taken recently of fixed blade knives, and some swords thrown in as well.
n the early 1800s, virtually every frontiersman packed some sort of edged weapon, largely because of the limitations and lack of surefire reliability of the firearms of that period. Regardless of whether one packed a pocket-sized folding knife, a medium-length hunting blade or a full-sized fighting weapon, a knife of some sort was essential to survival. Long before the advent of the bowie, blades of all sizes and shapes were commonly carried and were variously called long knives, rifleman’s knives, scalping knives, belt or sheath knives, dirks or the all-purpose butcher knives. Knives were quite simply a part of one’s everyday experience . . . .
Some photos, with descriptions, of items in the Sheffield Museum in England:
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