"A Hundred Years of Safety Hunters" by Mark Zalesky

[from the August 2002 KNIFE WORLD]

Two M.S.A.s
Two rare variations of Marble's Safety Hunting Knife. At top is an M.S.A. Co. 5" "light model" with optional stag handles, while the knife at bottom is an M.S.A. Co. "standard" 5" knife with hard rubber handles, the so-called "wagon wheel" variation. How these two fit into the scheme of things is detailed here. Lower knife courtesy David Shirley.

Marble’s Safety Folding Hunter: now there’s a knife that brings a warm fuzzy feeling to an awful lot of knife collectors. Of course those folks who specialize in knives made by the old Gladstone, Michigan firm love them, but they’ve also long held a special position in the hearts of pocketknife collectors for their attractive looks and fine quality. Those who like gadget knives admire their novel design, and those who collect old guns and sporting equipment recognize its similarities to Marble’s other innovative products like the Safety Axes, Waterproof Matchsafe, and the Game Getter Gun. It’s a knife that can be recognized from across the room, a knife copied in both the near and distant past, and a knife that will no doubt be inspiring folks for many years to come. In a word, the knife is legendary. And for all of this we have to thank... Milton H. Rowland.

Who?

Well, Milton H. Rowland; with the help of the Marble Safety Axe Co. and its founders Frank H. Van Cleve and Webster L. Marble.

As a longtime collector of Marble knives, I’d often wondered about Mr. Rowland, the man whose name is listed on the knife’s patent. While assembling this article, I sent a query about Rowland to the local library, and was surprised when the kind lady there directed me to old friend and official Marble’s historian Bob Schmeling, who is apparently more involved with local history than I had realized. Bob successfully checked a couple of items for me, and we now know... a little.

Milton H. Rowland was born in New York state in June of 1850. In about 1882 he married, and sometime before 1900 the couple moved to Gladstone, where they rented a house on Michigan Avenue. Rowland was apparently a leatherworker by trade, and though he struggled to find steady work in 1900, by 1902 he had relocated to Delta Ave. and found employment at the rapidly expanding Marble Safety Axe Co., as evidenced by these words in the Delta Reporter: “Marble Safety Axe Co. is putting out some unique hand engraved leather belts for ladies, and (sic) artistic work of Mr. Rowland.” [Dec. 27, 1902]

Sure enough, attractively decorated belts and knife sheaths appeared in the 1903 M.S.A. Co. catalog. In 1905, Marble would say of them, “All of our engravings and embossings are strictly the hand work of our expert engraver, and are made up after your order arrives...” Rowland was a busy man, as the Delta Reporter noted in April 1905, “Mr. Rowland has a large supply of orders for sheaths on his hook, two thousand or so.”He even designed a special sheath for Marble’s, which appeared in the 1903 and 1904 catalogs as “The Rowland Knife Sheath.” These are extremely rare today.

Patent
Applied for on July 23, 1902, Milton H. Rowland's "Hunting Knife" patent was both innovative and practical. It's a design that has stood the test of time.

We will probably never know for certain what inspired Rowland’s idea for an improved folding hunting knife, but even if he had not seen any knives of similar design, just being around Webster Marble’s Safety Axe on a daily basis could easily put one on the path to invention. In any case, Milton Rowland’s patent application was filed on July 23, 1902. The M.S.A. Co. quickly geared up for production, and was shipping the new “Safety Pocket Knife” (later, “Safety Hunting Knife”) long before the U.S. Patent Office got around to approving Rowland’s patent on May 19, 1903, legally protecting the interesting knife designed around an unusual blade guard/lock.

Part of Rowland’s patent claims: “A knife having a folding blade longer than the handle, and a guard for the end of the blade, arranged to serve as a lock for the blade when the latter is opened” — an apt description of the knife if ever there was one. Rowland referred to #728,416 in his later patent #770,118 (1904), which was the basis for Marble’s Safety Carver, Safety Saw, and Safety Fish Knife designs. In other words, the Safety Hunting Knife was the inspiration for those models, as the Safety Hunter itself may have been inspired by Webster Marble’s Safety Pocket Axe. How interesting that the man responsible for these designs was also the man who carved the decorative floral and cattail designs collectors find on early Marble sheaths!

On Jan. 6, 1906, the Delta Reporter noted that M.H. Rowland had left the Marble Safety Axe Co., and records show that he was no longer living in the area by 1910. I can’t help but wonder what caused him to leave Gladstone, and what compensation he may have received for designing the innovative items Marble’s would produce for many years to come.

In the 1903 catalog, the Safety Hunters are listed as models 1 through 4, in blade lengths of 4-1/4”, 5”, and 6”; the 5” model additionally being offered in what the firm called a “light blade” variation. Hard rubber handles (“side plates”) were standard, with stag an option for an additional $0.50, or pearl or ivory for a good bit more. Understandably, few of the more expensive variations were sold, as the knife was costly enough in the basic model. To put it in perspective, the basic 5” size sold for $4.00 at a time when similarly sized folding hunters from quality firms like Case Brothers, Robeson or even Press Button Knife Co. commonly ran in the $1.00-$1.50 range.

In 1906, the numbers were changed from 1-2-3-4 to 83-84-85-86, reflecting Marble’s larger and more complex product line, and between 1906 and 1907, the large 6”knife (#86) was dropped along with the “light blade”5” model (#84) leaving the standard 4-1/4” and 5”blade lengths in production as numbers 83 and 85 respectively. Marble’s would continue to use those two numbers throughout the rest of the knife’s production life.

One of the most important events to Marble’s collectors occurred in April of 1911, when the firm officially changed their name from the Marble Safety Axe Co. to the Marble Arms and Manufacturing Company and adopted the well known “Marble’s”trademark. However important this change to the rest of the line, it did not immediately affect the Safety Hunter. Instead, the inventory of M.S.A. Co. marked parts were used up in the best tradition of “waste not, want not.”

By the time the old parts ran out in 1913, Marble’s had a completely new design ready to go. This new design was both lighter and more graceful, updating the blade, handle, hand guard, extension guard, and sheath in one fell swoop. Through all these changes, the price remained the same. Gone, however, were the many options:just the two sizes, and to borrow from Henry Ford, you could have any handles you wanted so long as they were stag! (Of course, there’s an exception to that — with Marble’s, it seems that there is an exception to every rule.)

And so it remained for the next thirty years or so. With war looming on the horizon, the Safety Hunter was dropped prior to the 1941 catalog, followed by much of Marble’s extensive line by mid-1942. Like many of our boys, it never returned after the war.

Collecting the Safety Folding Hunter

While most antique knife collectors are familiar with these knives in their basic form, it seems that few are aware of the large number of variations that were made, many of them extremely rare. Handle materials and designs varied, as did bolster configuration, blade grind, blade and guard markings, liner material and other aspects. Unfortunately, though Marble’s catalogs came out on an annual basis, they are of little help when it comes to determining the rarity and time frame of these variations. What we know today is based partially on those catalogs, and largely on the careful study of these knives by advanced collectors.

M.S.A.Co. Variations

It seems clear that the first safety hunters produced by the M.S.A. Co. were made in the standard 5” blade configuration during 1902. These knives are characterized by a “PAT. APL’D FOR” marking on the knife’s extension guard and a “U” shaped bolster/handle junction at both ends of each handle scale. When the patent was approved in 1903, the extension guard marking was changed to “PAT. APPROVED”, and the knife was left otherwise unchanged. It was at this time that the 4-1/4”, “light” 5”, and 6”models were added to the line.

The “light” 5” and 6” models did not stick around for long, departing after the 1906 catalog. Both are rare today, particularly the 6” model. Over the years, there has been some debate over how to identify the “light” 5” knife, but I am convinced that it is merely a little narrower in proportion and lighter in weight than the standard 5” model. These are identifiable, if handled in hard rubber, by the handles that read “Marble’s Safety Pocket Knife”. Regardless of handle material, the difference can be told by measuring across the face of the bolster, perpendicular to its length. If approximately 11/16”in width, the knife is a light model; if approximately 13/16”, it’s a standard model.

Though the catalog cuts were never changed, towards the end of the decade the “U”bolsters were replaced with full bolsters that held the handle ends in place dovetail-style, thus eliminating the need for end pins. The “PAT. APPROVED” marking seems to have been dropped at about this time.

As for the handle materials on the M.S.A. knives, molded (“engraved”) hard rubber was the standard material until the model change in 1913. Stag was initially offered at an additional cost, and while rare it can occasionally be found on these early knives. Pearl and ivory were also offered in the early catalogs, at even greater cost. A few of these have turned up over the years, but the novice collector is advised to proceed with caution. All of the handle options beyond hard rubber were gone by 1910, and anything other than that material is quite rare on the full bolstered models.

lineup of safeties
An exceptional lineup of safety hunters. Left to right: M.S.A. standard 5" with hard rubber "wagon wheel" handles; M.S.A. standard 5" with more usual hard rubber handles and full bolsters; same with "U" bolsters; M.S.A. 4-1/4" hard rubber with "U" bolsters; Marble's 5" safety hunter; same; and the crown jewel; an M.S.A. "light" 5" model with the optional pearl handles. Total value: $12,000+. Photo courtesy David Shirley.

Collectors should make note that each size knife required a different handle made from a different mold, making the hard rubber knives easy to tell apart at a glance. It should also be pointed out that there was one change in design amongst the hard rubber handles during their production span. Towards the end of the standard 5”model’s production, the curved lettering &game scene handles were replaced with plainer handles with rosettes, small checkered panels, and only the lettering “M.S.A. Co.” on one side and “Marble” on the other. Often called “wagon wheels”by collectors due to the rosettes’ appearance, these knives are quite rare and prized by collectors. Iwould guess that they were first made sometime in 1910 or early 1911.

Marble’s Variations

When the Marble Arms and Manufacturing Co. started up production of their new model in 1913 after using up the old M.S.A. Co.parts, they went with a flat ground blade, a single piece folding hand guard, a nail nick in the extension guard and other changes, dropping the “swell center” handle style on the smaller model though not on the larger size. The end product looked a lot different than the old ones, and while it looks to have been a bit easier to manufacture than the M.S.A. Co. models, no concessions were made to quality — both are superb, well made knives.

Many collectors are unaware of the initial version of the second model, made without a cap bolster, as the old cutlers liked to call “barehead.” Only the smaller 4-1/4” version has been observed in this variation, made for a very short period of time in about 1913, and they are quite rare.

Marble's version
An unsharpened 4-1/4" safety hunter of the later Marble's type. The lines of the Marble's knives are sleeker and more modern than the M.S.A.'s, but I find both equally attractive.

All of the Marble’s marked Safety Hunters featured stag handles, with one exception. A handful of knives are known to have been handled in green or brown Rogers bone — a great rarity, and another knife to examine very closely if you are offered one. Even the stag handles changed quite a lot over the years, the earliest ones lying nearly flush with the bolsters while the later ones tended to be a good bit thicker. Too, the earlier stag handles tended to be more brown in color, and the later knives more orange, a color achieved by heating the stag with a torch.

Another interesting variation to look for lies in the liner material, nickel silver being more difficult to find than brass. I suspect that the very earliest Marble’s knives were lined with brass, followed by several years of nickel silver, only to be replaced by brass once more.

Sheaths

Like Buck’s 110 of sixty years later, the Safety Hunters were intended primarily for belt carry and not pocket carry. With this in mind, all Safety Hunters were supplied with sheaths through the entire production run, though a great many sheaths have not survived the years. The older style of sheath that was supplied with M.S.A.s and the earliest Marble’s models had a shape with the bottom corners “cut off” in a partial octagon. Most of these were brown in color, though Ihave seen at least one that was orange, and there is also some variation in the way the opening is shaped. All seem to have been stamped on the front with “Marble” atop a round shape that was presumably intended to represent a marble (the kind you shoot).

Most of the sheaths supplied with Marble’s marked knives are of slightly different design, a shape that had the bottom end rounded off. All I have seen were unmarked, and made of heavier leather than the earlier sheaths.

Who Made ‘Em?

Time and again, the question has been raised:did Marble’s actually make the Safety Hunters themselves, as with most of the sheath knives, or might they have been contracted out?

We may never know for certain, but evidence seems to suggest that the earlier M.S.A. Co. models were manufactured at the plant in Gladstone. On the other hand, the Marble’s models suggest a bit more consistency and convention in their form, and many feel that they were made by an outside firm or firms. Adding to this is the testimony of older Marble’s employees such as the late Chester Swanson, who worked at Marble’s from 1921 to 1972. In his August, 1997 KNIFEWORLDarticle, Chester stated, “The Safety Hunting Knives were subcontracted to knife makers on the East coast. At the Gladstone plant we checked them for defects, ground off any rough edges and buffed them if necessary.” We may never find a paper trail that proves this, but I’m inclined to believe Chester.

The Safety Hunter Lives On!

Perhaps I’m guilty of having a soft spot for the Safety Hunter, but one of the neatest new knives that I’ve seen in years is a reproduction of Rowland’s old M.S.A. design by Marble Arms and Bowie Corporation. Manufactured by the folks at Queen Cutlery Co., the new knives are based directly on the standard 5”“U” bolster knives of the early era and will certainly draw a double take from any collector seeing one for the first time. From the blade grind to the molded black handles, the detail of the new knives is superb, and the differences minor. Of course the materials have been updated a bit from carbon steel to 420HC stainless and hard rubber to modern synthetic, but the knives look just great. Collectors will be pleased to learn that the new knives are deeply stamped with the year of manufacture, so as to prevent any confusion with the older models. At $350 retail, they’re not cheap, but those who can understand the amount of effort it took to pull this off will find the price plenty reasonable.

Over the course of the past hundred years, the Safety Hunting Knife has been born, lived, evolved, died, and is now reborn once again. They say that you can’t keep a good man down, and so it must be with a good knife design. Here’s to you and your hunting knife, Mr. Rowland, it’s one for the ages.

The author would like to extend his thanks to Mary Crawford, Tom Elegeert, and Bob Schmeling for the information on M.H. Rowland; and collectors George Kerr, Paul Miller, Bob Schmeling, David Shirley, Bob Wentz, Gordon White, and Bill Wright for their assistance in identifying the rarer knife variations.

New safety hunter
The 2002 reproduction of the old "U" bolster M.S.A. Co. knife is a dead ringer for the original, close enough to stop a dyed in the wool collector in his tracks!


[the extensive table of variations that accompanied this article is not available on our website -- sorry!]

Copyright 2002, Knife World Publications



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