The Story of KA-BAR Knives
Roots of the cutlery business in Western New York
More than 200 years ago, the U.S. cutlery industry started in New England when a group of cutlers from England's famous Sheffield Cutlery Industry banded together in small factories. Passing down from generation to generation their skills and demand for quality cutlery, the industry grew and gradually moved westward with time. By the late 1800's a group of cutlers had settled in the Western New York and Northern Pennsylvania area.
All the cutlery companies that remain in the Olean, Franklinville, Springville, Bradford and Ellicottville areas today can trace their roots back to the migration of cutlers to the Little Valley and Cattaraugus areas in the late 1800's. At one time, more than 30 knife companies populated the relatively small area we now we refer to as Western New York and Northern Pennsylvania. Surviving market fluctuation and economic difficulties, only a few strong companies remain in the area today.
KA-BAR Knives, Inc. is one of the few remaining cutlery companies in the Western New York area.
KA-BAR's Historical Lineage
The historical lineage of KA-BAR began with a group of 38 men who applied on April 29, 1897 as an association to the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to form a Limited Partnership whose purpose was to manufacture and sell cutlery. The formation of this Limited Partnership, known as Tidioute Cutlery Company, is now widely considered to be the beginnings of KA-BAR's history. Although the partnership was formed in 1897, it is believed that cutlery items were not produced or sold until 1898. As a result, we consider 1898 KA-BAR's founding year.
Experiencing financial difficulties, not unlike many knife manufacturers at the time, the Tidioute Cutlery Company was dissolved at the turn of the century. In January 1902, Mr. Wallace R. Brown, a young man much involved in the industry, purchased the assets of the company. By March, a new association headed by Mr. Brown applied to the Governor of Pennsylvania to form a corporation, to be known as the Union Razor Company, for the purpose of manufacturing and selling cutlery. Within just one month the company was in full operation with Brown serving as Chairman and CEO.
On January 25, 1909, after operating under the Union Razor name for less than a decade, Brown and the Board of Directors decided that the company's name was no longer representative of its expanding product line and changed its name from Union Razor Company to Union Cutlery Company.
Shortly after the company's name change, in 1910, the City of Olean, New York, approached Wallace Brown and the company's Directors and proposed for the company to relocate its operations to their city. Within one year, the Union Cutlery Company was convinced that Olean, New York was the best site for their "new" operation and by December of 1911, efforts were underway to move the company. A new State of New York corporation was registered as the Union Cutlery Company, Olean, New York, creating two Union Cutlery Company incorporations: the original in Tidioute, Pennsylvania and the one set up by Wallace Brown in Olean, New York. With the Olean facility operating successfully, the Tidioute, Pennsylvania plant was closed down and by 1912, operations were in full swing at Union Cutlery Company's new location at 434 North Ninth Street, Olean, New York.
In the 1920s, when the company began to prosper and grow, there was a transition period of mixed markings which embellished the blades and handles of the older Union Razor knives and newer model Union Cutlery knives. During this period trademarks like OLCUT, KEENWELL, and the now-famous, KABAR were adopted.
How KA-BAR became KA-BAR
Soon after its introduction, the KA-BAR trademark became widely known and respected. There have been many versions of how the KA-BAR name was adopted, but all evidence points to a letter received from a fur trapper. This particular fur trapper's testimonial turned out to be one of the most significant ever received by the Company. He wrote, in very rough English, that his gun had jammed and that he had therefore relied on his knife to kill a wounded bear that was attacking him. In thanking the company for their quality product, the trapper described using his knife to "kill a bar." The way his writing was scrawled across the paper it looked like "ka bar." The company adapted his writing and adopted it as their trademark, KA-BAR.
Dan Brown's leadership: World War II to 1960
Overseeing many successful years of the Union Razor and Union Cutlery Company business, Wallace Brown fell ill and died in June of 1924. His brother, Emerson Brown, was quick to assume the role of authority at the company, but his tenure was cut short. Emerson Brown, President from 1924 to 1931, was superseded in 1931 by his nephew, Danforth Brown, son of the original Chairman and CEO, Wallace R. Brown.
Danforth Brown lead the company through many changes: some positive, some nearly detrimental to the life of this legendary company. The first real challenge Dan Brown was faced with as the new President of Union Cutlery Company, was to supply the military during its defense efforts of World War II.
Soon after the start of World War II, the Union Cutlery Company submitted a KA-BAR branded knife to the U.S. Marine Corps for issue to fighting personnel. Although the original design presented was not up to par, the Marine Corps accepted a reworked design of the knife and began issuing it as their standard fighting / utility knife in 1945. During the War, due to the dependable serviceability of the knife, now known as the Original USMC Fighting / Utility Knife, other branches of the armed services adopted the knife. Union Cutlery's wartime production totaled more than 1 million knives. Even though many other fighting / utility knives were issued under other company trademarks, they all became known affectionately as "KA-BARS." This due to their quality, abundance and the fact that many men relied on these knives for their everyday tasks such as repairing equipment, digging fox holes, sharpening tent stakes, opening ration cans and often defending their own lives. Other knives were manufactured for the military by KA-BAR during World War II as well. Some of these include the Tl29 Electrician's Knife and a rigging knife used by the Navy and Coast Guard. The World War II KA-BARS did their job so effectively that similar versions were used in the Korean, Vietnam and Desert Storm conflicts although the production of the KA-BAR fighting / utility knife ceased immediately following the end of World War II.
By 1952 the KA-BAR name had achieved such a high level of fame that Danforth Brown and the directors of the company decided to change the corporate name to KA-BAR Cutlery, Inc., dropping the Union Cutlery name entirely.
One difficulty under Danforth Brown's leadership was his unsuccessful attempt to transfer the manufacturing operations from New York to Dawsonville, Georgia in 1954. This experiment lasted only one year. The company was then regrouped back in Olean at its original factory site. Fortunately, the manufacturing facilities in the Olean plant were not completely discontinued, so the retreat was accomplished without a great deal of disruption in production.
Reviving the Brand
After Danforth Brown's death in March of 1960, the company changed hands several times. In 1961, the Brown family sold KA-BAR to two Olean businessmen who in turn sold it to a group of business entrepreneurs that eventually led the company into Chapter 11. Unfortunately, attempts to reorganize failed and the company was forced into liquidation. With intentions of re-establishing the business, Robinson Knife Company purchased the assets of the company, but in 1966 ended up selling the KA-BAR operations to Cole National Corporation in Cleveland, Ohio.
Cole, already involved somewhat in the cutlery business and experienced as an aggressive marketing operation, started to rebuild the KA-BAR name and product line. The entire product line was reorganized with emphasis on a moderately broad range of folding knives. A line of fixed blade hunting knives was also implemented which focused on KA-BAR's well-known leather handle construction. In addition, in 1975, as a part of its efforts to revive the company, KA-BAR also established and supported a special Collectors' Division. Its purpose was to produce significant and commemorative knives, to recreate famous antique KA-BAR knives and actively support the development and enjoyment of knife collecting in general.
The first knife produced by the new Collectors Club was in response to public demand for the reintroduction of the knife made famous in World War II. A full-dress version of the U.S.M.C. Fighting / Utility Knife was produced in limited number and released by the Club in 1976. It was a beautifully etched and gold filled fixed blade fighter made to the exact specifications, with exception of embellishments, of the original used during WWII. The knife would commemorate 200 years of service to the nation by the United States Marine Corps. The U.S.M.C. Commemorative was so enthusiastically received that one year later, the company returned the knife, in its standard issue form, to regular production.
A short time later, Cole National Corporation went into a period of business difficulty that put the company into bankruptcy in 1982. During liquidation the KA-BAR product line was purchased by American Consumer Products and eventually moved to Solon, Ohio. American Consumer Products, already involved in the cutlery business, rebuilt the business and operated it until June 1996, when the KA-BAR product line and assets were sold to Alcas Corporation of Olean, New York.
Alcas Corporation and the return to Western
Alcas was no stranger to the cutlery business or to KA-BAR. The company had, in fact, manufactured several knives for KA-BAR prior to purchasing the business, including the U.S.M.C. Fighting / Utility Knife. In June 1996, they acquired assets of KA-BAR were relocated to Alcas Corporation's Olean, New York headquarters. Later that year operations were in full swing, with KA-BAR once again manufacturing some of its own knives in Olean through the new parent corporation.
1997 marked another transition year for KA-BAR as the company, in June, moved its warehousing, customer service operations and executive offices to their current location at 1125 East State Street in Olean. In addition, by year end, KA-BAR Knives, Inc. dramatically enhanced its national product distribution channels with the addition of five manufacturing representative firms whose territory spanned the entire United States. Further, the company introduced new extensions to the Original USMC Fighting / Utility Knife and Next Generation Knife. The company also introduced two One-Hand Opening Lockbacks and a series of knives known and recognized as the Black KA-BARs.
KA-BAR, which celebrated 100 years of operation in 1998, has been faced with many challenges and has survived the worst. Looking forward to the next 100 years, the company believes that the rate of change in the knife industry will increase. The new demands of the knife market will place ever greater emphasis on new production processes and quicker product development cycles in order to respond to customers' desires for more and better products. KA-BAR is fortunate to be uniquely positioned to meet these challenges and will thrive in the years ahead because of the combined financial, product development, manufacturing and management resources of the ALCAS family of companies.