Clasp knife, Pen knife, Jack knife

Cambridge District Scout Archive

Scout knives are most often depicted in archive photographs as folding knives (See Clasp Knives and Sheath Knives). The early folding knives are general purpose, the very form of which do not suggest acts of violence but of everyday utility – they have no point to the blade. They largely came from the jack knife/ clasp knife form and were far removed from the modern multi-blade forms with their huge variety of specialist blades and blade shapes.

Folding knives kept in place by a sprung bar go by many names. The three names above all carry for me different associations.

  • A penknife has its roots in a small and very sharp knife for trimming quills to make nibs. From experience to cut a quill they need to be thin and sharp without a great deal of flex. The Swiss Army multi bladed ‘penknives’ fit into this continuum in that they have small blades, limited in length to be a legal ‘everyday carry’ and made possible by technology. Swiss Army knives fall outside my archaic image of a penknife by being bulky with extras – they would not slip into a waistcoat pocket. They are a modern form.
  • A jack knife I associate with the military, in particular army use. The blade is a multi purpose tool, but not a weapon. It has a blade, a marlin spike, but is without any other modification other that the addition of a tin opener. The marlin spike is often referred to in working wire cables.
  • The clasp knife, like the jack knife, conveys to me a robust tool. They are fit for repeated heavy tasks.

Today they are differentiated by law from folding knives which can lock in place. It is possible that such differences were once not as clearly stated, but as a lock adds a level of security and is an extra manufacturing process it is likely that it would be highlighted as a selling point. Some names may have presumed knowledge of the lock; I am not aware of any nor of any Scouting specific references for a locking knife.

Early folding knives do not generally show more than one blade, a marlin spike for rope work and possibly, if of army origin, a tin opener. These are knives for general use and usually show a sheepsfoot blade which has a straight edge and a straight dull back that curves towards the edge at the end. It gives the most control, because the dull back edge is made to be held by fingers. Sheepsfoot blades were used to trim the hooves of sheep. Their shape bears no similarity to the foot of a sheep. They are the preferred form for rope work as they can take a blow to the back of the blade for a clean cut (slicing with a sawing motion tends to create an angled cut with flexible materials) and the lack of a point allows accurate placement when cutting separate strands of the rope.

Modern Jack knife by Silvermans

My experience of these knives is that they are very firmly sprung. This may be the design or the poor quality versions I have used. Robust tools are made to be used with vigour and need to be secure.

The old quip about the tool for getting stones from horses hooves reflects the lack of knowledge about the function of the marlin spike. It may have come from a reported ‘humorous’ interaction, ‘he didn’t know, we do’. In the advert below it is a ‘special tool for splicing ropes’. It may also have been used for extracting stones, it works on my boots. A hoof pick is a specific tool not found on penknives.

Gamages catalogue 1913

JWR Archivist Jan 2020