(from the April 1999 KNIFE WORLD)
It’s been told before, but for those who came in late, here is one of the most loved stories in knifedom: In the late ‘30s, Florida citrus grower Walter Doane Randall, Jr. was vacationing at his family cabin on Walloon Lake, in Michigan. He saw his pal “Litch” Steinman scraping the hull of a boat with a Scagel knife.
Although he was horrified at the use to which it was being put, Randall admired the knife so much that he decided to make himself one like it. He did, and someone asked to buy it. After this happened several times in succession, Randall thought that it might be a good idea to produce these handcrafted works of art on a regular basis. In 1938, he founded Randall Made Knives. In doing so, he quite probably also founded the entire benchmade knife business as we know it today.
A sweeping claim? Not really. Over the years, most of what was written about handmade cutlery was written about Randall. This held until a Texas educator named B.R. Hughes began writing routinely about knives by other makers. And, yes, he wrote some about Randall, too. Until this happened in the late 1960s, knife articles were limited to very occasional pieces in gun magazines and men’s journals. There were no knife periodicals, and while Bill Moran was featured in a book mainly about historical arms, almost no sportsmen or soldiers had heard of any handmade knives other than those coming from Randall’s Orlando shop.
The deluge of publicity began in 1943, with a newspaper item that syndicated press affiliation spread across the country and into foreign lands where American GI’s read it. The fledgling company’s war effort flourished, and before long, many Randall knives were in the hands of troops on all fronts. Among the more noted owners were Maj. Richard Bong, a leading fighter ace, and Lt. General James M. Gavin, who led the 82nd Airborne Division into Normandy on that crucial day in June of 1944. Col. Rex Applegate, an OSS trainer in close combat, wrote a little manual on how to use the knife in battle, which happened more often than some modern scribes would have one believe. Knives and bayonets were especially effective in the Ranger attack on Axis positions at El Guettar in North Africa, and during the long Allied march up the “boot” of Italy. One correspondent told ‘Bo’ Randall that his Model 1 fighting knife played a “significant” role in his being credited with 384 enemy dead!
After the war, Randall continued to provide combat knives to soldiers willing to part with personal funds to acquire a better knife than they were issued. Sportsmen now knew about Randalls well beyond the confines of Clarence Brown’s Men’s Store in Orlando, where Bo’s father-in-law displayed the products of the forge. A few other select dealers carried Randalls, and the firm’s knives were stocked by the premier outfitter of the day, Abercrombie & Fitch. Most dealers were smaller, and it was in a drugstore that a young soldier named James Jones first saw the line. He couldn’t afford any until he’d published From Here to Eternity and could buy about anything he wanted! Jones promptly ordered a few Randalls and mentioned them in his subsequent book, Some Came Running. (Both novels were made into movies.) The bestselling author later worked with Bo to design a diver’s knife, which was to become Model 16 in the catalog.
The basis for the new dive knife was a pair of military designs that Bo had developed for the Marine Corps Equipment Board. These became the Model 14 Attack (for infantry) and Model 15 Airman, for pilots. The officers on the project never did much about it, and the Air Force, although impressed, admitted that their budget for survival items was too tight to buy such things. Nevertheless, both styles have been wildly popular with servicemen in all branches of the armed forces, who somehow found the money to buy them out of their own meager pay.
The dive knife used a stainless blade, and the relatively rust-free steel was becoming more in demand on other models. A few stainless blades had been made as early as 1938, mainly for fishing knives. The favored steel was, and is, 440B.
It wasn’t long before those stainless blades were literally “out of this world.” America entered the space program in a big way, desperate to eclipse Soviet efforts in this arena. When NASA selected the original seven astronauts, they turned to Randall for survival knives. Maj. Gordon Cooper worked with Bo to develop the Model 17, called the Astro. Adapted from the Model 15, it had distinct features that the Project Mercury and Gemini crews thought would assist them in exiting a space capsule that might well land in a remote area when it returned to Earth. NASA insisted on stainless blades and a full tang. The handle scales were tan Micarta, a substance that Randall had first seen being installed as kitchen counter tops in his new home. It has since become one of the most used handle materials in custom knives, particularly when the knife may see use under extreme conditions. For Randall, it replaced warp-prone Tenite as the new standard handle on Model 14 through Model 16 knives. Today, an old Randall with a Tenite handle is a valuable collectors’ prize. Maj. Cooper presented Randall with the Model 17 knife that he carried on his historical 23-orbit space mission. This was a more important flight than John Glenn’s celebrated trip, and Cooper’s knife became one of the most valuable of all time. The Randall family relished their association with the astronauts, and Bo donated their knives to NASA as a patriotic gesture. No doubt, he was aware how welcome a gift this was for men struggling to raise families on military incomes. NASA liked the knives so well that the agency ordered additional examples, and one was displayed in the Smithsonian Institution.
Within a few years, the nation had become embroiled in a bitter, divisive war in SE Asia, and Randall found his knives in such demand that he had a factory in Solingen, Germany make copies of some of his blades. He fitted hilts and handles, and sold the knives for lower cost than those forged in Orlando.
Although the initial cost was much less than for the forged blades, those Solingen products are today valuable collectors’ items, much desired by both Randall enthusiasts and by those who collect Vietnam-era knives in general. The cost is sometimes every bit as high as similar Orlando-made knives. Incidentally, those factory blades were often not as well made as expected, and the shop sometimes had to regrind them before they could bear the Randall name.
All Randalls were very popular during the conflict, with a decided preference being shown for the newer Models 14 and 15. An army doctor devised a variant of the Model 14 with a hollow handle and sawteeth atop the blade spine. Randall improved the initial sketch and produced the Model 18, among the first survival knives to feature these qualities. It was Models 14, 15, and 18 that were optionally available with the Solingen blades. Models 1 and 2, of course, remained popular, and quite a few hunting knives saw combat use.
Most Randall models have evolved somewhat over the years. In fact, the first Model 1’s had only a vague resemblance to later examples. Model 18 is a good case in point. The first ones had the handle fitted with a crutch tip. Present examples have the hollow handle machined to accept a screw-in brass cap. Collectors often seek out the older style, but “users” naturally prefer the present form.
Thus far, we’ve emphasized combat knives, but Bo always catered strongly to sportsmen. In fact, Until a Lt. Zacharias walked into his shop in the summer of 1942 with a sketch for what would become the Model 1, ALL Randalls were intended for hunters, anglers, and campers. Quite a few of these sporting Randalls were prized possessions of outdoor writers. Erwin Bauer, John H. Wootters, Jr., Leonard Lee Rue, John Jobson, Bradford Angier (who asked for certain custom features on his Model 5) and others used and recommended the Orlando shop’s cutlery. Ross Allen, a noted reptile authority and showman, often wore a long Model 5 in his public demonstrations with venomous snakes. Even cartoonists sometimes drew Randall knives in their strips, prime examples being Mark Trail, Buzz Sawyer, and Rick O’Shay. (One wonders whether Prince Valiant was ever portrayed with a dagger looking much like a fancy Model 2!)
For many years, Randall offered kits with blades in various stages of completion and with hilt and handle materials. These sold to those who thought they could do a decent job of making their own knives. Sometimes the results were beyond reproach. A good number of these knives show work as fine as that from the Randall shop. If an odd knife turns up, it may be one created from one of these kits. Alas, some were completed by people who simply lacked the talent to do a good job, and some of their work was confused with genuine Randall production. This hurt the name, and the kits also used up valuable materials needed to fill the backlog of orders. Thus, the kits haven’t been sold for a long time, but they’re part of the company history.
One aspect of the company’s knives that hasn’t been discussed much is blade hardness, something usually mentioned in coverage of other makers. Checking with the shop elicited the knowledge that present tool steel blades test about 54-55 on the Rockwell “C” scale, with stainless (440B) blades running a harder RC57-59. A letter from Bo Randall that was written in 1972 states a hardness of RC 53-54. This is softer than most competitive knives, but Randall feels that harder blades are too difficult for many customers to sharpen. The stainless blades are more in line with what one expects today, and some buyers prefer them for edge-holding as well as for added rust resistance. This is deceptive, because abrasion resistance is different, and additional hardness doesn’t necessarily translate to greater edgeholding. Actually, the catalog claims that the tool steel holds an edge some 10% better. Some observers feel that, over the long run of production, Randall’s shop tends to achieve a better, more uniform finish on their stainless blades. Others say this is mere conjecture, determined by which particular knives the observer has seen. Certainly, both steels give good service, and are well proven by long use in all climates. Randall does feel that non-stainless is easier to sharpen, but this is offset by the need to touch up the edge more often between uses if the knife is left setting around between hunting seasons. Stainless edges don’t lose keenness just from oxidation, and are easily the best choice for tropical or oceanic use.
Gary T. Randall joined his father as a summer intern while still in high school. This was about 1960, and as Bo aged over the years, Gary gradually assumed more responsibility, eventually buying the business. The senior Randall continued to spend time in the shop all of his life, however. Knifemaking was his love as well as a source of income, and he likely preferred it to the orange and paper industries that have sometimes been cited as the basis of the family wealth. Besides the orange groves, there is a ranch in the family, where Gary hunts wild pigs... with a bow. Of course, the field dressing and skinning of the carcasses gives him an excellent idea of how his knives perform.
1988 brought the firm’s 50th anniversary, along with a new, different catalog. Older catalogs were essentially updated editions of the same style, but this new one had a whole new layout. Most photos were taken by Jim Weyer, a noted specialist knife photographer. (Old Randall photos were often shot by Leep Zelones, who apparently had a studio in Orlando.) The Randalls also produced 300 examples of a 50th year knife. It was styled to look much as Bo’s early Scagel-derived pieces had. These were snapped up, and today command far in excess of the original $375 price.
W.D. Randall died on Christmas Day, 1989, of heart trouble. He had suffered from the ailment for some years, and had to have surgery for it. His sudden passing at home sent shock ripples throughout the community of those who love and collect fine knives. Fortunately, Gary had already assumed the helm, and the business has continued to flourish under his captaincy. The legacy endures, and many feel that Randall quality is the best yet.
With this look at the company’s origins and a few milestones as background, let’s look at operations today. Gary runs things, with son Jason as the third generation understudy and probable heir. Pete Hamilton is shop superintendent, and Valerie Rivera runs the office, which is equipped with specialized, computer programs that Gary developed to meet his rather unusual needs. The custom software is very important in record keeping and order fulfillment. The knives are actually made by 14 men in rooms adjoining the museum and a small sales floor. An effort is made to stock a good selection of basic models, some with custom features, so that as many orders as possible can be filled from stock. Of course, the sales area is necessary also to meet the needs of visitors.
Blades are still forged, with both hand and power hammers in use. After forging, the steel goes into electric ovens for a uniform tempering. That’s how the company can be sure that heat treated blades fall within the hardness parameters mentioned above, RC 54 for 01 tool steel and RC57-59 for the 440B option.
Leather washers remain the standard handle material, capped with a duralumin pommel. Ivory is no longer used unless supplied by the customer, and then only after a clear understanding that it may crack or split. Ivory Micarta is offered instead. It darkens, but doesn’t have ivory’s other faults, and isn’t subject to CITES wildlife treaties. Various woods are used, and black or maroon Micarta is offered on most models. Stag remains enormously popular, of course. Parachute cord has replaced leather laces for wrist thongs, and unlike leather, doesn’t rot or mildew.
The sheaths have evolved in the last decade, and now have an angled cut in the belt loop where the retaining strap fits. New sheaths are made by Greg Gutcher of Sullivan’s Holster Shop, and use brown thread in lieu of the white thread so familiar to buyers in years past. The color of the leather is also different, perhaps because of the tanning process or preservatives used. The type of sheath is a key factor in dating old Randall knives, and several suppliers have been used over the years. The best known are Johnson (1960s and ‘70s) and Heiser, a formerly famous holster maker in Denver. Collectors are very aware of these sheaths, and even advertise for old sheaths to match knives in their possession. A new investor should be aware that an old sheath may not be original to the knife with which it’s now matched. Handle spacers vary in number and color, and are another way to determine when a particular knife was made.
Prices for older knives have increased exponentially in recent years, especially if a knife has a Vietnam connection, or is even of that era. The new examples probably show the most consistent workmanship and hold the best edge. Let the collectors have the old ones, which are now priced beyond the reach of the sportsman or soldier planning to use a Randall.
Much of the collector interest can be traced to Rhett and Janie Stidham, who founded the Randall Knife Society about 1988. Although approved of by Gary Randall, the Society is operated by the Stidhams, who are knife dealers. Correspondence for them is not to be sent to the shop, which has no direct ties to the Society. The RKSA publishes a newsletter that will be priceless to collectors, and offers club knives, buckles, patches, and the like. Dues are $15 annually, and the address is: Randall Knife Society, P.O. Box 539, Roseland, FL 32957. Naturally, most of the specialty items offered by the Society are instant collectors’ items, and many increase in value quite rapidly.
Gary Randall recently announced the availability of miniature knives. Details on these and a color sheet of models not listed in the body of the catalog are shown with a price list. A fireman’s knife, a Model 16 modified as a “fighter” and other items are on this sheet, which can be requested if not sent with the catalog. It should be noted that the Model 16 Diver’s Knife is ALREADY a fine combat and survival knife, but evidently some customers felt they wanted something different.
Present Randalls show subtle changes made over the years. Pins that once secured certain handles were replaced by advanced epoxies. The dip in the blade spine on Model 1’s used to be more subtle, and some wish it still was! (If the dip bothers you, order what amounts to a Model 1 built on a Model 5 blade, which lacks the dip ahead of the guard. I did that, and am very pleased.) A Cut Down Tang version of the Model 14 amounts to a heavier Model 1 without the spine dip, and will please many who want a beefy knife without the pronounced spine dip seen on most recent Model 1’s. New guard options are offered on several models, and Models 14 and 15, once made with almost no variety, now come in several handle and guard (hilt) shapes.
The collector or general buff will want to keep an eye out for paper weights, hat pins, tie clips, patches and plastic glasses sold by the company over the years. Glass paper weights with a tiny Model 17 Astro embedded within are among the top items to look for among this memorabilia.
Randall’s prices have remained rather stable, given the rate of inflation. A basic “using” knife in most models will cost from $210-$275, depending on options. That’s in the medium range for modern handmade knives, and doesn’t trade on the Randall renown in the way that a few noted makers have charged a vast premium as a result of extensive publicity. A large Bowie with a lot of custom features will still usually run well under $1,000. In fact, it would be hard to spend that much on one. Yet, Randall knives hold their value better than most. Few other makers are as recognized and esteemed, and used Randalls generally cost as much or more than new ones.
The definitive text on the company’s wares is Randall Made Knives, by Bob Gaddis [available from Knife World Books}] At $59.95, the price will prove a bargain for anyone wanting to invest in Randalls. The book and the RKS newsletter are the primary sources of information on dating older knives and matching leather. It also features scrimshaw from Rick Bowles, the “official” Randall scrimmer.
Randall still doesn’t offer full-tang knives. Some were made a decade or so back, but evidently required so much work that it wasn’t feasible to make them a regular item. Moreover, Bo Randall was right in pointing out that the exposed edges of the tangs rust and discolor, and that handle slabs often become loose. Epoxy and pin fastening have largely cured the looseness in recent times, but it seems doubtful if Randall will ever make full tangs again.
Collectors who find one of those full-tang knives will want to snap it up! As a practical matter, Randall’s narrow tangs are so strong that they easily endure rugged use. If anyone is concerned about it, the patented, very heavy, tangs on Models 14-16 are especially rugged. The special, channeled handles expose the tang only on top.
1998 marked Randall’s 60th year as a family firm dedicated to making fine knives for both military and sporting use. With Jason Randall entering the business, prospects seem good for collectors to speculate on the form that the 100th anniversary knife will take! I hope to be around to see it!
[this article appeared in the April, 1999 issue of Knife World]
Copyright 1999, Knife World Publications