As I pointed out in the last issue, modern woodcraft enthusiasts have turned Nessmuk (19th century outdoor writer George Sears) and his choice of cutting tools into something of a cult. And as everyone knows, Nessmuk had absolutely no use for the Bowie-style hunting knives commonly sold in the late 19th century. While this is all well and good, if you look through the sporting goods catalogs of that same period you won’t find a single sheath knife that could be called a “Nessmuk.” What you do find is a wide selection of smaller Bowie knives, something modern cutlery writers now call “hunter’s butchers,” and large folders. Maybe Mr. Sears wasn’t as widely read as some think—or could it be period hunters simply didn’t agree with him?
A recent flea market find of my own is a good example of the sheath knives that were carried during Nessmuk’s period. The thin 6-inch clip-point blade bears the E.C. Simmons trademark, “Oak Leaf,” used by the hardware distributor from 1888 to 1920. Its handle is some kind of hard composition rubber with a checkered surface. The double handguard is cast pewter in a style that became popular shortly after the Civil War and probably fell out of common use around WW-I.
One look at this knife tells you that it was used hard for many years. Resharpening has worn away around 15 percent of the blade, but there are no chips, dings or other signs of abuse. It is simply a knife that someone went about their business with even when all the experts would have told him it was totally unsuitable and a sure sign of a “Billy the Kid” wannabe.
I have another knife that I picked up a few years ago from the grandson of its original owner. This one would have really set Mr. Sears to shaking his head, a 5-3/4-inch-bladed hunter’s Bowie from Joseph Allen Cutlery, Sheffield, England (1864-1947). The owner thought his grandfather had purchased the Bowie sometime before WW-I, but the knife was still in everyday use when I found it. Three generations of active hunters and fishermen had processed their fish and game with this one blade. The edge was, again, well worn but lacking any signs of serious abuse. On the other hand, the spine of the knife did bear the marks of having been pounded through many a deer pelvis. Though no accurate count had been kept, I was told the knife had been used on dozens of deer and elk, a few black bears and probably hundreds of ducks and geese over the past 80 or so years. As with the birds, there was also no real way to tell how many trout and salmon had been cleaned on the banks of local rivers. When you think about it, even a few animals a year adds up after that long.
Cruise the tables at any large gun or knife show and you will find scores of heavily used antique knives of the type old-time woodcraft experts ridiculed. While I won’t argue that the original owners might have been better off with a different design, it is obvious they made what they had work for them. It pays to remember that actual field experience is still just as important as having the latest web fad knife.
As I pointed out in the last issue, modern woodcraft enthusiasts have turned Nessmuk…
by Tactical Knives / Nov 28, 2008