Trapper Pattern Pocket Knives
By Gary Zinn
Bear & Son Model CRSB54 Trapper. Image courtesy of Bear & Son Cutlery.
The trapper is a classic pocket knife pattern that is about a century old. The history of the cutlery industry is notoriously obscure, but it seems that one or another of the knife makers in the northeastern U.S. originated the pattern sometime in the early 20th Century. By the 1920s, it was an established, popular pattern.
The trapper is one of a family of knives known collectively as jack knives. Strictly defined, a jack knife is a slip joint folder with two blades that both open from the same end of the handle. Typically, the main blade of a jack knife will be a clip pattern, with a smaller secondary blade in a pen pattern. Closed lengths of jack knives generally range from less than three inches to about four inches long.
The most obvious thing that distinguishes trappers from other jack knives is that a trapper has equal length blades. The classic trapper has clip and spey pattern blades.
I began researching the current status of trappers, because I have a personal history with these knives. I quickly found that the trapper is apparently still one of the most popular traditional knife patterns. I base this conclusion on the number of companies that still make the pattern and on the number of specific models that are available.
I grew up in a rural West Virginia community during the mid-20th Century. Most families in my neighborhood practiced a semi-subsistence lifestyle that involved farming, hunting and fishing. Accordingly, virtually every man and boy routinely carried and used a capable pocket knife, with the trapper and stockman types being most common. Many of the women used pocket knives, too. My mother had a pet single blade folder that was always in her apron pocket when she was gardening. My father carried a trapper, so I came to appreciate the pattern at a young age.
Before going further, I want to comment on the trapper name. Whether the pattern was created for the purpose the name implies is unclear. Whatever the case, I can testify that the size and patterns of the blades make trappers well suited for dressing and skinning small animals.
I was an enthusiastic small game hunter from a tender age and got quite adept at bagging squirrels and rabbits. When I came home from a hunt with some critters, Dad and I used his trapper knife to clean them. The curved belly of the spey blade was just right for skinning, while the clip blade made short work of gutting a squirrel or rabbit. Incidentally, the key to skinning was to have the spey blade sharp enough to neatly strip the hide, but not so sharp that it would constantly cut into the meat.
The image above well represents the trapper as I remember it from my youth. This knife, called the Red Stag Bone Large Trapper, is by Bear & Son Cutlery. The knife is 4-1/8 inches long closed, with 3-1/4 inch pen and spey blades of 1095 carbon steel. It has nickel silver bolsters, brass liners and stag bone handle scales. The dimensions of and materials used in this knife are about as traditional as it gets a century after the inception of the pattern.
Enough of the history and nostalgia. It is time to move on to the current world of trapper knives. I will note the companies that are significant producers of quality trapper knives and summarize the models and variants they offer. Understand that this is an indicative survey, for it is not practical to mention every model that is available.
W.R. Case & Sons Cutlery Co.
It seems fitting that the company with one of the oldest U.S. knife brand names would make the most models and variants of the trapper. Case currently makes four sizes of two-blade trappers, ranging from a 4-1/8 inch traditional Trapper to a 2-3/8 inch Tiny Trapper, with 3-1/2 and 2-7/8 inch models in between. Case also makes two single blade 4-1/8 inch trappers, one a slip joint and the other a liner locking model. In addition, there is a three-blade 4-1/8 inch variant called the Hunter Trapper, with clip, gut hook and saw blades.
Currently (2015), Case lists well over a hundred specific trapper models and variants in production, with over half of these being the standard 4-1/8 inch size. The majority of Case trappers come with stainless steel blades, but carbon steel blade options are scattered throughout the line. The two blade models normally have the equal length clip and spey blades, but there is an occasional exception. For instance, Case makes a 3-1/2 inch Mini Trapper in which they substitute a Wharncliffe blade for the spey. I recently bought one of these, which I really like. I plan to write a complete review in the near future.
Turning to handle material and furniture, there is both uniformity and variety in the Case line. Almost all Case trappers have brass liners and nickel silver handle bolsters. Most have both front and back bolsters, though a few models lack a back bolster. Handle scale material is where the variety comes. Case uses a wide variety of natural and synthetic materials in their pocket knife handles, but the majority of their models, whatever the pattern, feature Zebu cattle bone handle scales. The bone is almost always dyed and jigged, resulting in a wide range of attractive visual effects.
As I noted in an earlier article Case Pocket Knives (Down the Rabbit Hole with Alice), the wide range of Case pocket knife patterns and models can be a challenge to sort through. If one is looking for a Case trapper knife with particular attributes, perhaps the search-and-sort guidelines covered in that article will help.
Bear & Son Cutlery
Bear & Son is so far under the radar they cannot even be found on Wikipedia. Nonetheless, the company churns out a surprising range of knife patterns and models from their facility in Jacksonville, Alabama. I found 31 specific trapper models among these. This is only about a fourth of the number of models offered by Case, but still puts Bear & Son in second place in number of trapper patterns offered.
Bear & Son trappers come in three sizes, 4-1/8, 3-1/2, and 3.0 inches closed length. Nine models come with 1095 carbon steel blades, two with Damascus blades and the rest with blades of 440 stainless steel. Like Case, Bear & Son favors brass liners and nickel silver bolsters on its trappers. Natural and synthetic handle materials include stag horn, bone, walnut, desert ironwood and G10.
Bear & Son have not done much fiddling with the trapper style. Instead, they produce a nice selection of traditional trappers. The knife pictured at the top of this article is a case in point.
Hen & Rooster
The venerable Hen & Rooster brand originated in Germany in the mid-1800s. At present, the brand name is owned by a U.S. based cutlery marketing firm. As best I could determine, there are currently 27 specific models of Hen & Rooster trappers. These include five sizes, ranging from 2-1/2 to 4-1/8 inches in length.
Six of the models feature Damascus steel blades. The remainder are quoted as having stainless steel or German stainless steel blades, with no precise description of the blade steel. Handle scale materials range from stag horn and bone to celluloid. The most interesting thing I noticed is that four of the models wear highly figured Corelon handle scales.
The majority of Hen & Rooster trappers are made in Germany and the rest in Spain, except for one model that is made in China. The latter troubles me, because it suggests that the marketing firm is not above exploiting the brand name by putting it on cheap Chinese made product. Given that, plus the vagueness of information about the steel used in the blades, and I am beginning to view the brand with caution. I am not saying that the Hen & Rooster brand has turned to junk, but I have put it on my watch list.
Remington brand knives are a special case, because Remington does not make knives. Rather, the Remington brand name is used to market knives that are produced under contract by some other firm.
The Remington trademark is owned by Remington Outdoor Company (ROC), which makes Remington firearms and ammunition, among other products. Who makes Remington brand knives?
Currently, the key player is Bear & Son. Bear & Son has been making the well-known Remington annual Bullet Knife series since 2006. Further, in 2014 the firms announced that, "In 2015, Bear & Son will become ROC's exclusive licensee for cutlery."
The full announcement, on the Bear & Son website, explains the arrangement in more detail. Obviously, this makes Bear & Son even more important in the knife industry generally and the trapper market specifically, since Remington knives include several trapper models.
I was able to identify fifteen specific Remington trapper models currently on the market. Nine of these are listed in the 2015 Remington knife catalog, five in the Bullet Knife series and the other four in the Heritage series. (The basic difference between the two series is that Bullet knives are somewhat upscale in materials and are intended for beginning or casual collectors, while the Heritage series features more utilitarian, but still high quality, working knifes.) Six earlier Bullet series trapper models are listed as still in stock by one major retail vendor or another.
After the three brands covered above, the number and variety of trappers offered by other makers falls off appreciably. Here are a handful of other makers of traditional trappers or variants (i.e., single blade or locking blade knives in the trapper style). These are firms that make at least three sizes or variants of the trapper.
Listed in no particular order, additional players in the trapper field include Canal Street Cutlery, Boker, Utica Cutlery, KA-BAR, Queen Cutlery and Eye Brand. These firms make good knives and offer trappers worthy of notice.
The early connection with trapper knives that I mentioned at the top of this article has continued. Currently, I own a half dozen trappers or variants. These include a traditional style Parker Eagle, two Remingtons, two Canal Street trapper variants and a recently bought Case Mini Trapper. Here is how I justify having this many trappers.
Parker Cutlery has been out of business for a quarter century, so the first knife has historical value. My first Remington is a Bullet Knife, one of the few knives I have bought specifically as a collectible. The second Remington is a Heritage series knife that I occasionally carry and use as a working knife.
I call my Canal Street trappers variants, as they are both single blade models. One is a slip joint and the other a lock back. I like Canal Street knives, because they feature semi-custom workmanship and unique handle materials. They are upscale without being outrageously expensive.
I bought my new Case Mini Trapper because it has some unique features that caught my fancy. To defend my knife habit to my wife, I say, "Honey, pocket knives are to a man as earrings are to a woman."The trapper is truly a classic pocket knife. It is encouraging to see that trappers are apparently still very popular and there is a good selection of them on the market.
Copyright 2015, 2016 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.