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Old 27th February 2024, 04:02 AM   #1
M ELEY
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Default Revolutionary War era clasp knife

Here we have a truly massive specimen! This clasp knife (or penny knife, jack knife, folder, etc) was the kind carried in the 18th c. and earlier by both sailors, soldiers, frontiersmen, explorers, etc for centuries. They were primarily a tool, but could easily be used as a weapon in a pinch (Spanish Albecete clasp knives in particular, which ranged in size up to truly lethal lengths and were often associated with deadly knife dueling!).

This specimen measures 4" closed, with the blade measuring just under 3". For similar examples, please see Neumann's 'Swords and Blades of the American Revolution', Gilkerson's 'Boarders Away', and Wilbur's 'Pirates & Patriots of the American Revolution'. Gilkerson, in particular, brings up that these tiny knives were sometimes used in violent mutinies and killings aboard ships. For the most part, they were tools used to splice rope, whittle scrimshaw or other similar functions. One will note this one has a 'spike' tool as well, which could also have many uses (perhaps cleaning out congealed powder or dirt from a flintlock pan.)

The construction on these early pieces were very simple, with a pin contruction holding the two pieces of fluted horn grip together. Note the fancy 6-sided finial, which I suppose is just decorative? In comparison, I've included a British naval fighting dirk with, ahem, 'bone grips', also in a fluted pattern.
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Old 27th February 2024, 01:41 PM   #2
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Default Of course, there are different opinions on these...

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that others don't always agree that these knives were ever allowed on ships. I personally think that the smaller types might have been allowed, if NOT on treasure ships or (strict) naval vessel, at least merchantmen and undoubtedly Privateers/pirate vessels. Gikkerson in particular lists numerous accounts of actual events involving clasps used for the wrong reasons. Hopefully, for the mot part, these knives led ordinary existences as a sailor's best tool. Many of them were flat at the end (no point), so they mot certainly could have doubled as shaving razors. Likewise, landlubbers such as soldiers, craftsmen, explorers, etc, would have found them most useful. It can also be said that Native Americans also sometimes traded in them and examples have been found/dug up at tribal sites. See 'Indian Trade Relics' by Lar Hothem for examples.


http://www.vikingsword.com/vb/showth...reasure+Fleets

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Old 27th February 2024, 03:49 PM   #3
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This is a remarkable and esoteric topic Capn! and thank you for adding the alternate views on the viability and restrictions that were at hand in these times toward them.

I would agree on your take on allowance (or simply overlooking) the use of these small knives on vessels as important personal utilitarian tools. As with virtually any object that can be classified as a 'weapon of opportunity', it is impossible to ban or restrict everything.

I have always thought that these folding blade knives were distinctly associated with sailors, hence the term 'jack knife'. But I guess its more complicated than that. The term jack, which I thought referred to sailors (cf. 'jack tar) but apparently the term 'jack' is much older and broader, from middle English to mean a common fellow. There was the old term 'jakke' also for 'a mechanical device', and folding blade knives appear to have far older origins.

The descriptions of the character of these knives, as in this excellent example
with the augmenting tool features such as the spike. Tools/weapons on ships were multi featured as utility use was the primary function in real time, while as required, they were weapons. The 'cutlass' was probably used about 90% of the time as a tool for clearing deck debris, as well as ashore to clear brush. The serrations on the backs of blades as well as the teeth in the axes are good examples.

While collecting 'jack knives' is a genre of its own and of course these are seldom deemed weapons (despite the classification in the security protocols of today)...however these would have certainly had the ability for such use in close quarters as on ships.

Wonderful context alongside that perfect example dirk also!!!
VERY nice Capn!
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Old 27th February 2024, 09:24 PM   #4
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Thank you, Jim, for responding on this one. I was also under the assumption that the word 'jack knife' came from the nautical term 'Jack Tar'. Of coure, it makes sense that the original meaning to the name is much older, as these simple knife-types could span back many generations before Age of Fighting Sail. I'm just wondering when the first 'folder' came about versus a traditional fixed blade. Middle Ages? I'll have to do some research there.

I'm in full 'stubborn' agreement that these little examples were used by 'tars' are ships. The thought of banning such a versatile and tiny tool seems moot for the most part. First off, in the event of a mutiny, a good belay pin, grappling hook, oakum calker, sharpened fid or marlin pike/gaff would do just as well in a pinch. Secondly, a 3" bladed folding knife would never stand up to Royal Marines armed with muskets or midshipmen armed with fighting dirks. There'd be no contest there. Interestingly, most of the mutinies I've read of usually either involve the higher ranks, who already have access to weapons or the locker (Spencer Christian, anyone?) or the lower ranks seeking to 'lure' the officers/captain into a corner in ambush, in which case, even a bucket or piece of rope will do the trick. In any case, I'm happy with this little clasp and think it is a good representative piece for the collection.
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Old 29th February 2024, 01:05 PM   #5
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Capn,
On the topic of small knives such as 'jack knives', navaja and such, it was not about use in combat situations, but more at a baser level with personal disputes.
Such weapons were personal, typically concealed or considered utility items however likely to be used in the kinds of situations arising between men in confined circumstances. Case in point, the 'shiv' or 'shank' in prisons.

These personal small knives might be obtained in almost any number of situations by sailors, and as such might have come from virtually many forms circulating in the many cultural spheres these men experienced.
Like most maritime tools and weapons, there were not certain regulations or standards with these, but certain conventions and requirements existed obviously for functionality and durability.

The folding knife indeed has been around long into earlier history, but that needs of course far more research in a more specific discussion.

These are just my thoughts on this, and again, what I consider a most intriguing little knife, and its possible manner of use if found in a maritime context.
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Old 29th February 2024, 08:42 PM   #6
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What a great historical object M Eley, not many of these utility knives survive this long, given their hard working life. To top it, the ocean environment is especially rough on gear.

I agree that this was almost certainly a sailors' knife, the marlin spike being equally as useful to a sailor as the blade (for un-doing knots and other tasks where a bit of leverage helps).

Given the extra decorative features on the knife it's possible that it belonged to a more seniour member of the (civilian?) crew and hence why it managed to survive this long.
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