Bear & Son Cutlery
By Gary Zinn
Bear & Son medium stockman. Image courtesy of knifecenter.com
Bear & Son Cutlery has very quietly become a significant factor in the sporting knife industry. I had been aware that the firm was around virtually from their start in 1991, but I did not realize how far they had come until recently. I was doing research on the current status of the trapper and stockman pocket knife patterns and Bear & Son knives kept popping up. Consequently, I decided to take a closer look at the company in general. Here is what I found.
The firm that became Bear & Son Cutlery started in 1991, but there is a relevant backstory. This involved Parker Cutlery Co., founded by James F. Parker in the late 1960s as a cutlery marketing firm.
Over the next two decades, Jim Parker engaged in several enterprises in the knife business. Of most relevance to the present story, in 1976, Parker hired Ken Griffey to work for Parker Cutlery and in the mid-1980s the firm began making parts for Parker Edwards brand knives in a factory in Jacksonville, Alabama.
Parker Cutlery was liquidated circa 1990. One of its prime assets was the Jacksonville factory, which Ken Griffey and two partners purchased.
In 1991, they started their new knife business under the name Bear MGC. There soon followed what the Bear & Son website characterizes as, "a series of twists and turns, including a time when the firm actually was owned by Swiss Army Brands." The firm emerged from this period renamed Bear & Son Cutlery, with Ken Griffey still in charge.
Today, Bear & Son remains a private, closely controlled, family firm. Ken Griffey is the President and his wife Sandy and their son Matt occupy Vice President positions. Sandy was an engraver in the Parker Edwards days and Matt grew up in the family business. The Griffey family is supported by additional management and supervisory personnel who have extensive experience in the business, including with Gerber, Case, Parker Edwards and Schrade.
As I recall, Bear MGC started out producing a core of traditionally styled folding and fixed blade knives, based on patterns, parts and tooling they acquired with the Jacksonville plant. Over the years, the firm gradually expanded their offerings to include contemporary designs, such as locking and one hand opening folders.
Beyond the evolution of their main lines of products, there are three notable benchmarks in the company history. In 2006, Bear & Son became the maker of the iconic annual Bullet Knife series for Remington. In 2011, the firm started a line of knives called Bear OPS for the tactical market.
Potentially the most significant benchmark to date, in July 2014 Bear & Son and Remington Outdoor Co. announced that, beginning in 2015, Bear & Son would become the exclusive licensee for production and marketing of Remington brand cutlery products. The nature and potential implications of this expanded partnership is discussed more fully in the article Remington Knives Today.
Perhaps the strongest characteristic of the owners and managers of Bear & Son is that they are control freaks. I do not mean this in a disparaging way. Rather, I am referring to stated and demonstrated core values of company policy.
First, Bear & Son is a one facility operation. Their plant in Jacksonville makes not only the flagship Bear & Son brand knives, but also their Bear OPS tactical line and the increasingly important Remington line. This means that the Griffey family and their management team can continuously monitor everything that is being done to produce these product lines.
Further, the operations conducted at the factory are comprehensive. Ken Griffey explains:
"Our factory is unique because of the extensive in-house work we do, from research and development to hand finishing . . . The methods we employ ensure that all of our knives are high quality, yet affordable, and our commitment to excellence is steeped in a rich family tradition of craftsmanship."
When Griffey says "from research and development to hand finishing," he is including design, tooling, pressing, heat-treating, grinding, hafting, finishing, assembly and quality inspection. If I understand correctly, no ready-for-assembly components are acquired from outside vendors.
Next, Bear & Son is a poster child for "Made in the U.S.A." Again, here is what Ken Griffey has to say:
"Our fundamental position is clear and absolute: we make high-quality knives and we make them all right here in the U.S.A. When we say Made in America, we mean everything - the steels, every component right down to the tiniest screws and, of course, every step of manufacturing. We are a family company and we are dedicated to keeping it exactly that way."
As far as I can determine, the only components that Bear & Son acquires via import are exotic handle materials that simply are not obtainable within the U.S.A. There is a final Bear & Son policy that is not explicitly stated, but which I infer from what I have learned about the company history. They are conservative and methodical in their approach to designing, building and marketing their products.
By conservative, I mean that the company largely sticks to proven knife styles and patterns in their product lines. In their early days under the Bear MGC flag, their product line was defined by traditional slip joint folder and fixed blade patterns. Over time, they have patiently and methodically expanded and diversified these lines and have also developed less traditional lines (e.g., butterfly knives) and more contemporary products (e.g., assisted opening knives and multi-tools).
As another example, Bear & Son began their tactical knife line, Bear OPS, only in 2011, even though the tactical knife market segment had been developing for some time before that. I infer that Bear & Son chose not to enter that market until they clearly understood it and were confident they knew how to carve out a niche in it. Conservative and methodical may not win a sprint, but it is a superior strategy for running a marathon.
THE BEAR & SON PRODUCT LINE
The 2015 Bear & Son line can be browsed directly on the company website (www.bearandsoncutlery.com), or the current catalog can be downloaded. On the website, the knives are grouped by styles, while they are listed by pattern number in the catalog. I chose to follow the former organization here, since it makes it easier to summarize their offerings.
Ken Griffey comments that the inspiration for this style was the pocket knives that he remembers his grandfather carrying and using. He wanted to recreate these traditional knives as accurately as possible.
The 4th Generation style includes 36 specific knives, all but five of which are slip joint folders. All feature 1095 carbon steel blades, brass liners and nickel silver bolsters. Handle scale materials include walnut, red stag bone, rosewood, yellow Delrin and G10. Except for the G10, which appears on only four knives, the materials and styling of these knives are as traditional as it gets.
I wanted to get some hands-on experience with a current production Bear & Son knife for this article. I was drawn to the 4th Generation series because, like Ken Griffey, I remember the pocket knives that my grandfather and father used over a half century ago. The one I chose for a mini review is the Bear & Son 3-1/4 inch Heritage Walnut Medium Stockman (pictured at the top of this page.
Blue Jean series
This series includes ten knives, five each slip joint and locking folders. The distinguishing feature is G10 handle material in a blue jean color. Blades are 440 stainless steel.
There are 16 butterflies, 13 of which have epoxy powder coated zinc handles. Two knives have stag bone handles and one has cocobolo. One model has a Damascus blade, while the rest have blades of 440 stainless.
The company has gone strong in butterflies. Besides the 16 items here, there are another 16 in the Bear OPS line and four in the new ACC series under the Remington brand.
Bear & Son is one of the few commercial knife companies that offer any meaningful number of knives with Damascus steel blades. This set is 18 models strong, including three Bowies, four fixed blade hunters, eight lock backs and three slip joint folders.
Blade quality Damascus steel is very expensive to make, so Damascus steel knives are necessarily expensive. Upscale steel deserves upscale handle material, so most of these knives have genuine India stag bone handles.
Here are 23 mostly no-frills working knives. 20 are fixed blade and the other three are locking folders. All have 440 stainless steel blades, while handle materials include laminated and stained birch (called camowood), rosewood, Kraton, stag bone, Delrin, aluminum, cocobolo and white smooth bone.
This set includes six slip joint folders and one lock back. These are traditional patterns with 440 stainless blades. Their distinguishing feature is desert ironwood handle scales with a contemporary style shield. They are very nice looking knives.
An assortment of 24 lock backs, in different sizes and a range of handle materials, including white smooth bone, Zytel, stag bone, Kraton, stainless steel, rosewood and camowood. All have 440 stainless blades.
Six in number, including three different sizes and different blade and plier combinations. Stainless steel construction.
Sixteen models with lock back or liner lock mechanisms. Handles include rosewood, Zytel, G10, Delrin and stag bone. All have 440 stainless blades.
Stag Horn series
Seven slip joint folders with 440 stainless steel blades and genuine India stag horn handles. Nice.
This style includes 27 slip joint folders, one liner lock and one lock back with sheath, whetstone and honing oil. Handles include G10, Delrin, rosewood and stag bone. All have 440 stainless blades. Anyone who cannot find a modest priced, general purpose work knife among these is being very picky.
This is an impressive number of knife models, coming from a family owned business with a single plant and about 90 employees. Someone obviously knows how to efficiently run a small manufacturing business.
Before moving on, here is some sense of the price points for the products outlined above. Except for the Damascus blade knives, most of the Bear & Son knives have 2015 MSRPs in the $40 to $100 range. Among the Damascus models, the lowest MSRP is $90 and the highest is $325. Discounts are offered by some retailers, so these products are competitively priced across the board.
THE BEAR OPS PRODUCT LINE
As noted above, the Bear OPS line was started in 2011 to give Bear & Son a position in the tactical cutlery market. I am not going to cover the line in detail, because the tactical market is not my forte. I would probably just confuse everyone, including myself, if I tried to write too much.
In overview, the 2015 Bear OPS catalog lists a total of 47 specific knife models. These include three neck knives, six fixed blade models, 22 one hand or assisted opening folders and 16 butterfly knives.
Blade steels used include epoxy powder coated 1095 carbon, Damascus, CPM-S30V, 154CM, 14C28N and 440 stainless. (The latter on a few of the butterfly models only). Handle materials include G10, cocobolo and T-6 aluminum.
REMINGTON BRAND KNIVES
The Remington knife line and the evolving role of Bear & Son Cutlery in producing and marketing it is covered in detail in the article Remington Knives Today.
I remarked in Trapper Pattern Pocket Knives that Bear & Son is so far under the radar they cannot be found on Wikipedia. I do not believe they care. Many other cutlery businesses try to create and/or chase fads, or try to match the price points of the lower end imports. Meanwhile, Bear & Son sticks to its core values and business policies, doing what it does best.
It will be interesting to see how they evolve in the next few years. I am especially eager to see how they carry out their expanded role in developing, building and marketing the Remington knife line.
Copyright 2015 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.