In 1964, the Buck Knives company marketed its 110 Folding Hunter knife, which changed the knife-making industry forever. It introduced a revolutionary folding blade that locked into place so strongly it performed like a fixed-blade sheath knife. New Atlas looks at this game-changing outdoor cutlery.
The first folding knife that we know of was uncovered in Austria and dates back to the Iron Age in about 600 BCE. Since then, many different kinds of folding knives have appeared over the centuries, from simple peasant knives to an array of camper knives, Barlow knives, canoe knives, pen knives, peanut knives, stockman knives, trapper knives, and a great many more fitted with a bewildering variety of blades for everything from sharpening quills to extracting stones from horses’ hooves.
By the 20th century, folding knives had become so common and affordable that many men felt undressed if they left the house without one in their pocket. However, one problem remained – how to lock the knife blade in place once it was opened.
Folding knives were designed to be easy to open and, usually, a spring would then hold it in place. Unfortunately, these knives were also closed very easily – often on the user’s fingers. Various locking mechanisms were developed, but these tended to be expensive, hard to use, failed at the worst time, and any hard use would damage the mechanism.
Ideally, what a folding knife aspired to be was one that was as robust and reliable as a sheath knife, which has a fixed blade. Since there are no moving parts, a good sheath knife can be forged from a single piece of steel where the blade and the tang (a portion of the blade that extends into the handle) are one, with the latter encased in wood, leather, antler, bone or some other material to form the handle.
Then, in 1964, a new knife came on the market. Produced by the small American firm of H. H. Buck and Son, this was the Buck 110 Folding Hunter knife. Hand assembled, it boasted a very robust ergonomic design that fitted the parts together to very fine tolerances to eliminate destructive play, it combined new steel-tempering methods with a new locking mechanism.
The Buck 110 Folding Hunter Knife is still sold today
The result was the first mass-market knife that locked the blade into place so firmly that it functioned on the same level as a sheath knife, yet could be easily folded up and stowed in a small belt sheath when no longer needed. Within a few years, it became one of the best selling knives in the world as well as the most copied and most pirated.
We recently contacted Tony Wagner, historian at the Buck Knives company, to learn more about this remarkable instrument.
Would you regard the 110 yourself as being a bit of a game changer?
Yeah, absolutely. In 1963, there were other folding hunting knives that were on the market, but none of them had the strength of a fixed blade. So, Al Buck made it his passion project to develop a folding knife with a locking mechanism that would give it the rigidity and strength of a fixed blade knife to allow hunters a compact tool that they can take with them into the field. In 1964, the Buck 110 came out of the gate relatively slowly and then all of a sudden it caught traction. It really put Buck knives on the map in the cutlery industry and made us the world-recognized brand that we are today.
So Buck Knives wasn’t that big a company back in ’63.
The condensed history of it. Hoyt Buck is the founder of knife-making in the Buck family. As a blacksmith’s apprentice in 1902, he developed a way to heat-treat steel that would create a knife that would hold an edge longer than anything that he had found.
Flash forward to the war effort during World War Two. The US government put out a call for anybody to fashion weapons for the war effort. Hoyt said, “I don’t have any knives but I sure know how to make them,” so he went and bought an anvil. He bought some other equipment, built a forge in the basement of the church that he pastored, and started making knives out of discarded files, farrier rasps, and power hacksaw blades, and then gave those out.
Then Hoyt started to not feel so well and reached out to his oldest son, Al, who lived in San Diego at the time. He finally convinced Al to learn the knife-making business and it was a good thing he did because in 1949 Hoyt succumbed to stomach cancer and and passed away shortly thereafter. Al left San Diego, moved to the Tacoma area and in 1945, Al and his father started H. H. Buck and Son and started putting advertisements into sportsman’s magazines, basically saying send us five dollars and we’ll make you a knife and send it to you.
In the war, the guys that got the knives really sought these new knives out because they were very well made. They were about five to 10 times more expensive than knives on the market, but with Buck’s lifetime warranty, it meant that you only had to buy one knife and it was guaranteed for the rest of your life.
The Folding Hunter at its release in the ’64 Catalog really added quite a bit of traction to Buck Knives and, along with other products, it’s just carried us through all the way.
Let’s talk a little bit about the design of it. It’s one thing to say, “I’m going to make a folding knife that will lock and be as good as a sheath knife,” but how did they do it? What was the breakthrough?
That’s a good question. A lot of the knives are known as slip joint knives, where there wasn’t really a locking mechanism, it was just a spring. The tension of the spring held the knife open, but there was no lock so you could just close it. Most pocket knives are slip joint knives.
In a frame lock, the frame itself acts as the lock to keep the blade from folding in on itself. In a liner lock, the inside of the frame is a different material from the inside, so the liner itself acts as the locking mechanism.
These types of designs have a higher fail rate than the Buck 110, which is a lock back where the back spring hooks a lockbar that travels the entire spine of the knife.
The Buck 110 Folding Hunter Knife
So basically when it’s open it really does lock, almost like a full tang on a fixed blade knife.
It’s robust. It’s brass. So the liner and bolsters are integrated, solid brass and then the wood. The early ones were using Macassar ebony until 1994, so we now use sustainably sourced West African ebony.
What about the steel from the blade, I understand there’s something rather special there as well.
It’s not so much the steel as much as it is the heat treatment of the steel. Think of it almost like baking. You can have all of the same ingredients to bake a cookie, mix it all up exactly the same, but there is a difference in how the cookie is going to turn out if you set the oven at 400° F for eight minutes, or 300° F degrees for 14 minutes. It’s the heat treatment of the steel that is really going to affect the outcome and the performance of that steel as a knife.
We have to give all credit to Paul Bos. He started working with the Buck family in the 1950s and developed heat treating that created high Rockwell hardnesses, which hold a lot better edge and corrosion resistance.
There are two factors when you’re talking about knife steels. Depending on the use of the tool, it will determine what steel is best suited for that particular tool. If you need a rugged knife that I call a beater – something that you’re gonna use heavily in batoning wood, or as a camp knife or all purpose knife, you need a softer steel like 5160, which is spring steel. This is the same steel used in the spring leaves of your car suspension. It has more flexibility, so it can really take a beating without creating pits or chips or cracks in the steel, but you’re sacrificing the corrosion resistance. If you leave raw 5160 steel out, it will almost immediately start to rust.
Going back to the 110 Folding Hunter, there have been three main steels that have been used. In its release, it was 440C, which was a relatively high carbon steel at the time, but it was pretty standard as far as cutlery was concerned. Not a lot of outside-the-box thinking for blade steel, but the way it was tempered is what set it apart. So with the Paul Bos heat treatment – I’m going to paraphrase this, I can’t give out company secrets – it’s super heated to about 2,000 °F (1,093 °C), then it’s instantly flash frozen in a cryogenic chamber, and then slowly reheated back.The carbides start to meld into themselves in the steel itself during the heating, and then cooling, and then long tempering. If it’s done correctly, it will be a solid piece, if it’s done incorrectly, or too hastily, there will be fissures that can form in the steel. So under heavy use, that’s when you start to get broken blades. You start to get chips and other imperfections.
Do you use a 110? What’s your personal opinion of it as a knife?
Well, I have used the 110. The 110 for me is very nostalgic. My dad was one of seven brothers and all of them carried a 110. You weren’t a man unless you had a 110 on your hip. I’m not a hunter, so, for me, the practical use of a big knife like that just wasn’t really for me. Maybe it’s awkward for everyday carry, but for the use that it was intended for, it is unmatched in the cutlery world. There just isn’t anything else quite like the 110 Folding Hunter.
In a testament to its design, the Buck 110 Folding Hunter Knife is still sold today, so if you want your own piece of knife history you can get one from Buck Knives for US$59.95.