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Bladeology
Western Knives
October 2016
Dan Martinez

If you were to ask the average outdoorsman of the mid-twentieth century, hunter or fisherman, to show you his knife, chances are that it would look like one of these.

Each of these knives were made by Western Cutlery in Colorado. Of course other knife makers made similar knives, but Western pretty much owned the market from the mid-30s to about the mid-seventies.

My Dad had one. It’s the one on the far left. My wife’s Grampa Rex had one. It’s the oak-handled one in the middle.

Most Western outdoorsman’s knives had handles of stacked leather. Grampa’s knife was no exception. It was handed down to my son Ben. But the leather washers were all dried out and shrunken. I attempted to treat the leather washers with neatsfoot oil to plump them up, but they ended up just falling apart. Remember that the knife is well over 50 years old. I ended up with egg on my face in front of Ben.

The saving grace for me was due to the unique construction of Western fixed blade knives. It is a construction that no other knife maker ever used. On July 24th, 1934, Harlow C. Platts was granted U.S. patent number 1,967,479 on the bifurcated, or split tang construction for knife making. This is what began Western Cutlery’s dominance in the field of fixed blade sheath knives for outdoorsmen.

All the other knife makers used a skinny single tang in the handle, and the stacked leather washers were O-shaped. Western used their patented double tang construction with H-shaped stacked leather washers. They claimed superior strength for this manner of knife construction.

Western manufactured knives for other companies as well, such as Sears (Craftsman and JC Higgins brands), Montgomery Wards (Western Field brand), Coast Cutlery, Western Auto, and others. If the old stacked leather handled knife you are looking at has the metal of the tang visible on the back and at the belly of the handle, it is of split tang construction and was made by Western Cutlery.

Decorative colored washers of plastic or fiber were used at the ends of the handle, with the leather washers in the middle, most of the time. Some were made with different patterns of stacking, especially when Western made knives to be branded for other companies.

Though all the leather washers from Grampa’s knife were rotted, most of the fiber washers were still usable. With the leather washers gone, the fiber washers could be removed by turning them 90°, then pulling them out between the split tangs.

Because of the split tang, we did not have to remove the aluminum pommel to do the repair work. Removing the pins that hold the pommel to the tang would have been very difficult to do without suffering irreparable damage. There would be no choice but to remove the pommel on a conventional stacked leather handled knife with a single tang and O-shaped washers.

When all the washers were removed, a rusty tang was revealed. A wire brush on an electric drill cleaned that up.

My plan was to fix the knife by replacing the leather washers with wood scales. But first I would need an important knife-making tool: a small belt sander.

So I searched Amazon and found one that looked like it would do the job. Next I went down to Woodworkers Source to pick up some small pieces of scrap wood of the size I would need to make knife scales. The next trip was to Hobby Bench to pick up a couple of pieces of brass rod. The final thing I needed was some clear epoxy which I picked up at the local auto parts store.

Since this was Ben’s knife, I wanted him to do most of the work so that he could take pride in the finished product. However, I guided him closely. We had to precisely trim the wood to fit between the remaining fiber washers. We also made two new washers out of aluminum sheet.

After we had our final washer set ready, we trimmed the two slabs of wood to final length, then drilled through them to take the brass rods. I instructed Ben to mix up the epoxy and to apply it generously to the insides of the two pieces of wood and to the space between the double tang. We clamped it all together and let the epoxy cure.

At this point, things looked pretty ugly, but I knew that there was a golden swan inside just waiting to be released. This is where the belt sander work began. In stages we worked our way to the finished product using 100, 240, and 400 grit sanding belts.

These knives were made with chrome vanadium high carbon steel. That means that they rust. With the age of these knives, most have been stashed away, neglected for many years, with their original owners no longer on this earth to care for them. Most that you will find will show signs of this neglect. Grampa’s knife was dark and pitted.

You can’t get rid of the pitting, but I have found that Flitz metal polishing paste does an excellent job of restoring most of the shine to these knives. Using a ceramic rod, I was able to put a fresh keen edge on the knife. It is now ready to go back to work for the next 50 years of its life.

Not only did Ben get Grampa Rex’s knife, but my Mom also gave him my Dad’s Western hunting knife. So to soothe my own need for Westerns, I started haunting eBay. I bought a few, and then some more. For now it seems that I have a hard time stopping. The more that I learn about the different models that were made, the more examples I seem to “need.” So let me run down a few of them to introduce you to some of the models.

Dad’s Western
Of course my earliest remembrances of a “hunting knife” were formed by this one. As I’ve mentioned before, Dad was more of a trout fisherman than he was a hunter. If I were to be asked, “What was your Dad’s favorite outdoors knife?” I would have to say that it was a Rapala filet knife. Nevertheless, he owned this Western hunting knife for as long as I can remember.

When I mentioned to my Mom that I was exploring the world of classic Western hunting knives like Dad used to have, then described what these looked like, she mentioned that she still had Dad’s old knife. It was on display, under glass in her living room, along with all of her other “Old West” type of decorations in the house.

As you can see, it was never cleaned up, just displayed as she had found it. There was white paint splattered on the handle, and the tip was broken off. The leather washers were quite aged, and had shrunken unevenly. The blade had a significant amount of black rust, but no orange rust.

For whatever reason, she decided to hand it down to Ben instead of me. I guess that he has a longer run ahead of him than I do or something.

So I re-profiled the tip on my new belt sander to repair the broken point. I lightly sanded the leather washers with the sander to even them up somewhat. I gave the blade, the finger guard, and the pommel my Flitz treatment, and was able to clean off the white paint. I treated the leather with leather dressing. Finally I gave it a fresh paper-slicing edge, and now it too is ready for the next fifty years.

The only thing is, I haven’t been able to figure out what model number this particular Western is. The blade is a touch over 4 inches long, with an overall length of slightly more than 8 inches. Best I can tell, based on some old ads I found, it could be a Model L52, but I’m not sure.

The tang stamp reads:

I believe that this tang stamp dates the knife from between 1934 to 1950. From what I’ve been able to learn, the tang stamps stopped mentioning the patent after 1950. It appears that these early knives were not stamped with a model number designation.

I was able to procure another knife of this pattern, but it is marked:

There is no doubt that this knife was made by Western. I was only able to find this Coast Cutlery and one other Western Boulder example of this pattern on eBay since I started looking. It is not common at all.

Model 648A
On the other hand, variations of the Model 48 are quite common because it was made for many years and was quite popular. It is about the same size and shape as a typical steak knife, but it is hunting knife sturdy at .105” thick at the spine. The blade is 4½ inches long, with an overall length of 8¼ inches.

Okay, now it’s time to explain the Western model numbering scheme. The first character denotes the handle material as follows:

F – Black Beauty series - Alternating aluminum and black fiber spacers

H – Imitation Stag Horn (Delrin)

L – Stacked Leather

P – Colored Smooth Plastic

W – Wood

2 – Imitation Pearl

3 – Brown or Golden Shell Composition

4 – White or Imitation Ivory

5 – Genuine Stag Horn

6 – Imitation Jigged Bone (Delrin)

7 – Ivory or Agate Composition

8 – Genuine Pearl

All handle materials were certainly not available on every blade pattern at any given time. Some materials were quite rare, and many were never offered on certain knife patterns ever.

My example is a Model 648A. The model number is stamped into the top of the brass finger guard. The 6 denotes the Delrin imitation jigged bone handle scales. “Jigged” means that an irregular pattern of traction grooves is cut (in the case of genuine bone) or molded (in the case of plastic) into the handles.

The “48” denotes this blade pattern. In the case of the 48 pattern, there was an A variant, a B variant, and for a very brief time, a C variant. They were actually different sizes and blade shapes, but Western chose to designate them all as variants of the 48 model. Go figure.

Originally, there was a 48A both with and without the “blood groove”. The blood grooved version was called the 48ABG. Eventually the non-BG version of the 48A was dropped and the blood groove became standard. From then, the BG designation was dropped and all 48As had the blood groove. That’s more detail than you wanted to know, I’m sure.

I think the 48s were popular for all-around outdoor use. They could be used for general purpose camp chores, from cutting rope and line, to cutting food. They could be used for cleaning small game and fish. They were stout enough that you could even use one to field dress a deer if you wanted to.

The tang stamp on my 648A reads simply:

This dates it from 1961 to 1977.

Model L66

Western Model L66
Left: Post 1991, Camillus-made L66
Center: Longmont - Coleman era L66, 1978 – 1990
Right: Boulder era L66, up through 1977

The model 66, in particular, the L66, was the most popular deer hunting knife in the Western line-up. The knife is characterized by a deep belly and an upswept tip that makes it a great skinner. The blade length is 4½ inches, with an overall length of about 8.6 inches. Grampa Rex’s knife was an L66 before we turned it into a custom W66.

Although the L66 is the most commonly found version of this knife pattern, I have seen F66, W66, and 666 versions of this knife. There may be others.

The story of the changes in the L66 over the years is the story of the history of the Western Knife company. I’ll give you a highly abbreviated version here.

Western Cutlery began in 1911 when H. N. Platts sold his interest in W. R. Case & Sons Cutlery and moved west to Boulder Colorado. There he established Western States Cutlery. Most all knife making operations in the U.S. were in and around New York and Pennsylvania at the time. Platts saw an opportunity to serve the interests of western miners, ranchers, and outdoorsmen with a western based knife factory.

At first, Western States simply purchased parts and some complete knives from his contacts back east and sold them under the Western States name, and these were mainly folding pocket knives. As time passed, more and more knife parts were manufactured in Boulder, until Western pocket knives began to be 100% locally made. But it wasn’t until the early 1930’s when Harlow Platts, son of the founder, came up with the patented split tang design, that Western fixed blade knife sales took off.

These sheath knives did indeed find high favor with westerners and they eventually reached national distribution and popularity with outdoorsmen everywhere, helped in no small part I’m sure, by their association with the “rugged West.”

The first Western sheath knives featured a round or mushroom shaped pommel which was common with other knife makers at the time. But then Western came up the with the “saddle horn” or “birds head” shaped aluminum pommel, which proved to be quite popular and was soon copied by most other knife makers.

During WW2, Western’s production, like most other U.S. industries, was devoted almost 100% to supplying knives to the troops. Western knives were never official government issue, but unit commanders had the leeway to place purchase orders directly with Western to equip their troops. Western knives were also widely available at the PX or BX for private purchase.

In 1956, the company’s name was shortened from Western States Cutlery to simply Western Cutlery. In 1957, the plant moved to a much larger facility in the Boulder Industrial Park. The 1960’s were a time of great growth, both in the number of products offered, but also with Western’s facilities.

Western Cutlery moved from Boulder to Longmont, Colorado in 1978. But the writing was on the wall. Increased competition from overseas in the 1980s prompted the Platts family to sell Western knives to Coleman in 1984. Western knives were then marked Coleman-Western.

That did not last very long, as in 1991, Coleman sold the Western knife making concern to Camillus. All U.S. knife making companies were under tremendous pressure at this time from overseas competition. Camillus went bankrupt in February of 2007, taking the name of Western knives with them.

Later that year, the trademarks and intellectual property of Camillus were purchased by conglomerate Acme United. So Camillus knives, and a recently reinvigorated line of Western branded knives can be found on the market today. But today’s Western knives bear no relation to the famous split tang knives of Western’s heyday.

Construction differences of the L66 over time
Left: Classic Boulder split tang construction
Center: Longmont-Coleman single tang construction
Right: Camillus design single tang, aluminum finger guard

So now let’s go back to the Western L66. There were basically three generations, or constructions of the L66. I call these the 1) Boulder; 2) the Longmont-Coleman; and 3) the Camillus generations. The basic L66 blade shape remained the same across all three generations, however the handle construction differed.

The Boulder generation uses the classic Platts split tang design. The back of the handle is a straight-line continuation of the back of the blade. The metal of the tang is visible at the back and belly of the handle. The saddle horn pommel is affixed to the split tang with two cross-pins, one through each of the tangs.

Somewhere around the time that Western made the move from Boulder to Longmont Colorado, they had a change of heart concerning the use of stacked leather with split tangs. They changed the design of all of their stacked leather handled knives to single tang and O-shaped leather washers, just like everyone else in the industry. They kept the split tang design for the other handle materials such as wood and Delrin (plastic). Their catalogs now contained the comment, “Because of the special qualities of leather, this knife is made in single tang only.” Maybe by this time, there were enough old knives out in the field, that the weakness of the center bridge of the H-shaped leather washer after aging had become evident.

L66 leather sheath differences
Left to right:
Boulder era, Longmont-Coleman era, Camillus era

In the Longmont-Coleman era knives, the pommel was affixed to the now single tang with a single steel cross-pin through the aluminum pommel and through the tang. The handle now was not a straight-line continuation of the back of the blade, but stood “proud” of the back of the blade by a little bit. The finger guard at the base of the blade was still brass as it was in the Boulder-era knives.

All Longmont-Coleman era knives were marked with an alphabetical date code starting in 1977 with A. 1978 was B, 1979 was C, and onwards ending with 1991 = O. Camillus did not continue the date coding after their acquisition of the brand.

The Camillus version of the L66 is identifiable by an aluminum finger guard replacing the brass of earlier versions. Additionally, the aluminum butt pommel was no longer pinned to the single tang. Instead, the end of the tang was round in cross section and threaded to accept a brass nut which is visible on the bottom of the saddle horn pommel. During production, the tang end and brass nut were ground down flush as part of the final shaping of the aluminum pommel.

The Western “Baby Shark”
During WW2, Western produced the G46 “Shark” fighting knife. Because brass and aluminum were strategic war materials, the materials used for the pommel and finger guard were steel and/or bakelite. Due to this, Sharks produced during the war are easily recognizable. The handle material was stacked leather, and the famous Western split tang construction was used.

The standard blade length of the Shark was 6 inches, but 8 inch and 5 inch variants were also produced. The blade design was a beefy clip point with a wide blood groove. The 5 inch version was popularly known as the “Baby Shark,” and was a favorite with naval aviators.

Left: Western Field Baby Shark pattern; Right: Model W36

After the war, the knife continued to be produced but was now called the L46 to align with their standard naming conventions. Brass and aluminum was again used for the finger guard and pommel. The various blade lengths were designated by appending a dash number, such as L46-5 for the Baby Shark variation.

My example is actually a Western Field knife, made for Montgomery Wards by Western. I do not know the Western Field model number, but this is clearly a Baby Shark pattern knife, identical to a post-war L46-5.

Here is what the previous owner had to say about the knife in his eBay listing:
“I bought this knife new in the early 60's when I was in the boy scouts. Other than wear it on my belt it has never been used for anything. It has been stored all the years since. It has never been sharpened, but is extremely sharp since new.”

Model W36
This model W36 is the biggest, beefiest Western that I own. It’s not the biggest knife that Western ever made, that honor would go to the Western W49 Bowie.

Not only is it my longest Western, with a blade length of 5½”, but it’s my thickest Western at .180” at the spine. It features a full flat grind blade profile. It is a Longmont-Coleman era knife with a date code of G for 1983. I believe that all of the W-series knives were made using this beautiful dark rosewood for the handle scales. The W36 was a little rusty when it came to me, but as you can see, it cleaned up nicely.

Interestingly, I later picked up a Boulder L36 in skeleton form for repair (sold with no leather washers since they had rotted off over the years). The L36 is exactly the same in blade size and shape, but it is noticeably lighter since the blade thickness is only .120 inches.


I know what you’re thinking. When I get obsessed with something I go completely overboard and you guys have to suffer through another one of my almost-encyclopedic newsletter stories. But I hope that you have found this at least a little bit interesting. I also hope that I’ve inspired at least one of you to go find Dad’s or Grampa’s old Western and give it a fresh shine and sharpening, and maybe take it out with you on your next trip into the great outdoors.

© Honeywell Sportsman Club. All rights reserved.


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