The First Mass Produced EDC Knife: A Short History of the Barlow
Tony Sculimbrene 01.21.14
Three hundred years ago, you got around on your feet or on the back of a horse. News came via word of mouth or, in big cities, the first newspapers. The Revolutionary War was a century and a half in the future, and medicine consisted of leeches and biting bullets while your arm was amputated. Much has changed.
One thing that hasn’t changed in three centuries is the fact that one of the best knives for EDC is still the Barlow.
The Barlow is a traditional knife pattern that was first produced in the 1700s in or around Sheffield, England. It has a long bolster, a tear drop shaped handle, and a clip point blade. They almost all open with a nail knick. Dozens of companies have made Barlow pattern knives, and today you can get a cheap overseas-made version for $5 or fine custom ones for more than five figures.
From Sheffield, England, the Barlow, like other goods, was sent across the ocean in huge trade routes. It made its way up the Mississippi and into early America. Everyone that had a pocket knife in 1800s America probably owned a Barlow once in their life. They were cheap enough that even poor people could carry one. They were the first widespread EDC knife, so universal, in fact, that by the 19th century the word “Barlow” was genericized and came to mean “folding knife.” (Interesting note: I can’t think of another term that was specific, became generic, and then reverted back to a specific meaning). The Barlow was mentioned in two books of Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. This quintessential English, common man knife took hold in the New World and became the epitome of an American folding knife.
RETHINKING MASS PRODUCED KNIVES
The original design of the Barlow is based on a simple principle: getting a sturdy folding knife using less expensive materials. Centuries ago, folding knives were difficult to make sturdily. Romans had folding knives, but they were almost always high end pieces (at least the ones that survived), and they were, of course, all hand made. In England in the 1600s and 1700s, things were starting to change. The Industrial Revolution brought manufactured, mass produced goods to a whole new strata of society. Middle class people, what few there were, were able to afford the industrial made goods. Interchangeable parts and batch production made it possible to get lots and lots of stuff to people cheaply, but these very rudimentary machines simply could not produce things with even close to a good fit and finish. You had a choice: good and expensive or crappy and cheap.
In order to overcome the limitations of the machines and processes of the early Industrial Revolution to make a sturdy and useful knife, designers of the first Barlow (of whom there are no less than four people that are purported to be the designer) did a few things.
First, they lengthened the bolster. Normally a bolster covers the first 1/4 of the knife, surrounding the pivot and making the pivot section stronger (hence the term “bolster”). By lengthening the bolster, makers of the Barlow could compensate for lesser materials and lesser tolerances.
Second, they rounded the handle. This made the knife very easy to carry. In an age when no knife had a pocket clip and there weren’t machines that could ease or chamfer edges, the simple tear drop bottom of the Barlow made it a perfect knife to drop in the pocket and forget about until you needed it.
Third, the complement and arrangement of blades made the Barlow cheap to make. Many traditional knives have three or four blades. The Barlow had two at most: a large primary blade and a smaller pen blade. This made it less expensive to make; fewer parts equals lower cost.
Instead of orienting the blades at both ends like in a Congress, Canoe, or Muskrat pattern, the Barlow put the two blades on the same cheap but sturdy pivot. Again, this was a way to make an inexpensive but decent quality knife. In an age with lesser steel, the two blades gave the user a lot of sharp cutting edge without the need for resharpening.
Other touches made the Barlow cheap to the make as well. Barlows usually had minimally shaped handle scales, which were often made of wood instead of more costly bone or horn. The blade shapes, almost always a clip point and later a spear point, were cheap to make, requiring less grinding than other more complex styles like a spey blade with its multiple grinds. The utilitarian blade shapes were just easier to make, and they gave the Barlow a wide audience. This wasn’t a rancher’s knife, a farmer’s knife, or a doctor’s knife. Anyone and everyone could use the blades on the Barlow.
GOOD MODERN BARLOWS
There are quite a few terrible Barlows out there. Unlike other patterns, the Barlow has become widespread and mass produced to a degree other traditional knives aren’t. They have become logo knives, $5 throw away trinkets, but not all Barlows are junk. In fact there are quite a few good ones.
When it comes to traditional knives it never hurts to look at Case. Though the steel is soft (the CV steel being the exception), Case is the first name in traditional because of the fit and finish of their blades and the fidelity they show to the original pattern. In particular, I like the single-bladed Grand Daddy Barlow from Case’s Bradford Cutlery line. It is a little bigger than most Barlows with a 3.5 inch blade, but it is a beautiful looking knife.
Great Eastern Cutlery, one of the most interesting brands in knives, makes a beautiful two blade Barlow. Canal Street Cutlery, a brand created by Schrade employees after the latter brand was bought out and production sent overseas, makes a gorgeous Barlow with an very unusual steel 14-4CrMo, a steel made by Latrobe that is roughly equivalent to 154CM. That makes for an awesome combination of classic style and new steel.
But my favorite Barlow, a single blade version, comes from AG Russell. His medium Barlow is not only quite affordable, but it is also beautifully finished. The steel, 8Cr13MoV, is well done. The master stroke of the AG Russell design is that the French Cut (the long pull across the top of the blade) is cut aggressively enough to allow you to open it with one hand. It’s the best of old looks and new performance.
If you’re tired of black G10 or you just want something a little different, consider the Barlow. Over 400 years of use and production have distilled the knife to a brilliant and useful shape. Not only will you have the pleasure of carrying a knife that Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau might have carried, it will be something that is still amazingly capable today.