A FINE KNIFE is a wonderful thing. That was my opinion as an 11-year-old kid. More than 60 years later, I have no reason to change that initial impression.
The subject of my youthful adoration was a Christmas gift. It was shining and new, a terrible Bowie-type knife 14 inches in length with a classic “clip point” upturned blade. Frankly, I’m amazed that my parents put such a package under the tree. I’m sure my mother was scandalized.
I had a pretty good grasp of Santa’s budget and figured that the knife and leather sheath couldn’t have cost more than $20 or $25. I still have the pitted, rusted, dinged Bowie; indeed, it now looks as if it could have been exhumed from the rubble of the Alamo.
But in 1957 it was a beauty. Big knives were popular back then, mainly because of TV and movie exposure. A surplus of mass-produced WW II and Korean combat knives also helped.
My Bowie blade was cut and tempered and beveled from a 1/4-inch thick slab of carbon steel. The stag handle was secured to the tang by three brass rivets. A full brass hilt separated blade and handle. One side of the blade ahead of the hilt was presumptuously engraved ORIGINAL BOWIE KNIFE and the opposite side boasted JOWIKA SOLINGEN GERMANY.
The big knife was utterly useless for practical work, but I carried it proudly along the banks of Houston’s Brays Bayou. Being a foolish and impetuous kid, I practiced throwing the heavy knife at the trunk of an unsympathetic oak tree and finally broke the brass hilt.
That first knife fueled a stoke for fine blades. Fine quality knives are, if nothing else, a pleasure to hold and admire. The good ones properly taken care of can be (literally) solid investments.
I have owned numerous knives, mostly relatively inexpensive factory-made models. Names that come to mind are Buck, KA-BAR, Marble’s, and Gerber. Oh, yes, and Case.
Early on, my first functional purchase was one of the original Buck knives—still have that one, too. It was the standard model, nine inches in length with a narrow five-inch blade and slightly upturned point. It just said Buck USA near the half-hilt, no model number or tricky name. It remains an excellent knife.
Old timers might recall the Buck ads in the national outdoor magazines. One early promotion showed a Buck being hit with a hammer to slice the blade through a steel bolt—which made about as much sense as throwing it at an unsympathetic oak tree.
During the ’70s and ’80s, the big Bowies and hunters fell out of favor and the drop-point design with a shorter four- to five-inch heavy blade was standard issue in most deer camps. Large folding knives also earned style points. Anybody toting a foot-long survival knife was immediately suspected of being a rookie.
Of course, to serious knife collectors, it’s all about hand-made blades. W.D. “Bo” Randall of Orlando, Fla., generally is acknowledged as the most famous of the American custom knife makers. He was influenced during the late ’30s by an early craftsman, Bill Scagel, and started tempering and beveling and honing blades from carbon tool steel. He gained major reputation during the ’40s and ’50s.
The big “Randall Made” Model 1 Fighter was revered by combat soldiers through several wars and remains one of the most beautiful clip-point profiles ever created. The Model 3 Hunter, a more versatile knife, was favored by sportsmen.
Bo Randall passed away in ’89 but the family shop remains in operation, utilizing the same methods (built-to-order knives are available on the website, with an advertised wait of at least six months).
Randall production always has been limited, but many other excellent knifesmiths are scattered across the country. Several dozen are in Texas. The modern craft might have originated in Florida, but nobody ever said Texas wasn’t knife country.
My first serious custom blade was made during the late ’70s by the late Chubby Hueske of Bellaire. He didn’t make a lot of knives, but they were beauties. Naturally, I opted for a drop point with a proper 4 1/2-inch blade.
I toted that knife in its hard leather sheath on many South Texas deer hunts. I shot a 168-gross, 11-point typical on a low-fenced ranch near Tilden (back when a 160 was a really big buck) and whipped out the Hueske to field dress the deer.
Being a foolish and impetuous young man, I got so excited that l used a big rock to whack the top of the blade to break the pelvic bone. The bone cracked, but the top of the Hueske suffered several irreparable dings.
I purchased several more custom knives over the years, not as a major collector or investor but because I was drawn to them. About a decade ago, with more steel than I could ever use, I put the whole thing on hold.
Then, recently, Gordy & Sons, a high-end outdoor store in Houston, obtained an estate collection of several dozen sheathed Randall knives—real Randall knives!
An amazing trove was on display. They were expensive, but not as pricey as I expected. My intention, burning with the Randall Fever, was to select a smaller drop-point model—a correct hunting knife by today’s standards. But I kept eyeballing the imposing gleam of a big, bad Model 1 Fighter.
Screw it, I thought, I was right 60 years ago, and I’m tired of trendy blades no bigger than my thumb. I want to wrap my good right hand around a real knife.
So, I walked out with a gorgeous old Randall I may never use. Then, being a foolish and impetuous old man, I finally did a smart thing. I double-dipped with the big blades. I hastened back and added a gleaming Model 3 Hunter to my collection.
Email Joe Doggett at [email protected]