ST. LOUIS — Americans are walking around with more knives in their pockets, although not for the same reasons they are rushing to buy guns.
Scouts, hunters and anglers, collectors and office workers who just want a tool for opening packages are boosting pocket knife sales. For a decade, airline safety rules and the Great Recession had cut into sales.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, airplane passengers accustomed to traveling with a pocket knife found that they had to leave it in checked luggage. Even then, TSA agents sometimes confiscate a blade.
Sales now are rebounding, due partly to a growing desire for preparedness in the aftermath of disasters such as the Joplin, Mo., tornado and Hurricane Sandy.
In Missouri, sales got an additional boost this year when the state legalized certain knives.
In July, Gov. Jay Nixon signed a law repealing the ban on possession, sale and manufacture of switchblade knives. A switchblade snaps open with the push of a button.
Now, just about anyone can legally own a switchblade under Missouri law. (But check with police to make sure switchblades are legal under local laws.)
After the state law change, customers flocked to stores to shop for switchblades, which had been banned for years. Some walked out with switchblades, which can cost $200 or more for top-of-the line models. Other, more frugal customers, bought less-expensive manual knives instead.
That has helped drive up sales of all types of knives by “a solid 10 to 15 percent,” said Al Rothweiler, one of the owners of Mid America Arms in south St. Louis County.
While Rothweiler also sells guns, he and others say that most knife buyers aren't looking for a weapon.
“A knife is simply a very useful tool,” says Doug Ritter. He is founder of Knife Rights, a nonprofit he calls “the NRA for knife owners.” His organization worked with the National Rifle Association to legalize switchblades in Missouri.
“For a part of America, putting a knife in your pocket when you get up is simply a part of getting dressed,” Ritter says. “It's like putting your keys in your pocket – it's normal.”
Paul Beretta is among the most active collectors and has his own website, www.paulberetta.com. The retired computer programmer has more than 500 knives, mostly Spydercos. He has 70 versions of one model, the Kiwi.
“I collect knives I don't use because they are pleasant and interesting to look at,” he explains.
He adds, “Nobody needs a hundred shot glasses or thimbles, or a dozen beer company clocks on their wall.”
Those who claim their collections are investments are “either deluding themselves,” he says, “or just trying to placate their wife.”
Beretta is single.
Besides the beauty of design and the craftsmanship, a knife's basic utility is what draws aficionados.
Jared Karlin, 30, a sign language interpreter in St. Louis, began collecting knives when he was about 12. He now has nearly three dozen fixed and folding blades for which he paid a total of about $5,000.
“I'm not carrying a knife as a weapon,” Karlin emphasized. “I carry it as a tool. I use it daily for some of the most mundane stuff you can imagine – from cleaning under my fingernails, to cutting open that blister pack from the big box store, to opening the mail. I'm always finding a use for it.”
He recently used his knife to help in an emergency.
He was driving with his mother in north St. Louis County and came upon a car that had crashed into an Interstate 270 barrier.
When an off-duty firefighter asked for something with which to pry open a car window, Karlin was ready. He handed over his Becker 3, a sturdy, 7-inch fixed blade used for prying doors and breaking glass. The firefighter broke open a window, cut the victim's seat belt and pulled him from the car. The crash victim survived.
A favorite spot for collectors is GPKnives, 20 minutes from downtown St. Louis in Troy, Ill. It's one of the few remaining brick-and-mortar stores in the U.S. where business is almost entirely in knives.
The store and its new warehouse are filled with scores of brands, including the Big Three for knife collectors: Chris Reeve, Strider and Hinderer. Prices range from $350 to more than $1,000.
Pricey collectibles sell out quickly and the store can't keep them in stock.
“Guys who are really into knives are looking for the Holy Grail,” says co-owner and buyer Justin Payton.
Walk-in trade is a tiny part of sales today. Internet sales have taken over the knife business and account for more than 75 percent of sales at GP and other sellers.
Imports represent the other big change in the knife business. Chinese factories produce knives for as little as one-seventh the cost of American factories.
Imports allow consumers to buy modestly priced production knives – at prices as low as $20 to $25 – based upon custom-made models costing hundreds of dollars more.
Imports also have cut deeply into the profits of U.S. manufacturers and retailers.
A.G. Russell, 79, is considered the dean of the knife business. He's been a designer, manufacturer and retailer for 49 years and says he has watched his profit margin shrink each year.
“So what I've got to do is make knives of equal or better quality that sell for less money,” Russell says. “But at some point, I've got to raise the price.”
Russell invented a drink dispenser device before opening the A.G. Russell Knives in Rogers, Ark. He still has considerable walk-in business, coupled with Internet and catalog sales.
Sales, he says, are better now than at any time in five years.
“Because I think people are tired of sitting on their money and scared of what's going to happen,” Russell adds.
That's a common theme among knife people. They see knife sales increasing in parallel with guns.
Gun sales have jumped across the country on fears that President Barack Obama would try to restrict gun sales. He hasn't, although the massacre of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut has revived talk of gun control.
Knife companies hark back to America's past and often emphasize their patriotism and religion.
At Buck Knives in Post Falls, Idaho, business meetings open with a prayer. Each knife comes with literature that says: “From the beginning, management determined to make God the Senior Partner.”
At the giant National Rifle Association convention held in St. Louis last April, knife buyers lined up at the company's exhibit, eager to have purchases autographed by CJ Buck, president of the company that bears his family's iconic name.
The company was founded in 1902 by Buck's great-grandfather. The Buck Model 110 has been so popular since its introduction in the 1960s that consumers sometimes call any brand of knife a “Buck.”
Buck reacted to customer criticism a few years ago by bringing back some manufacturing it had outsourced to China. Now, “90 to 95 percent of our new products every year are USA-made,” CJ Buck says.
Another prominent manufacturer is Spyderco, which Sal Glesser and his wife Gail started in 1976. The headquarters in Golden, Colo., sports a garrison-size, 20-foot-by-30-foot American flag.
“We wanted something that would stir the spirit, not some dinky little flag,” Glesser says.
Spyderco shares royalties from one of its Sage models with research for Alzheimer's disease. Part of the proceeds from another model go for cancer research and another goes to AIDS research. The company donates thousands of knives to soldiers and Marines stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We're not as profit-oriented” as many companies, Glesser says. Sales, he adds, have “grown steadily” since 2005.
Most knife companies are privately owned, like Spyderco, Buck and A.G. Russell. They don't report sales figures.
Nationally, knife sales have increased steadily for two years, says Jan Billeb, executive director of the American Knife & Tool Institute, an industry group.
She points to the estimated 37 million hunters and anglers in the U.S. as one big reason.
“If you're going hunting,” she says, “you can't go without a knife.”
Not everyone likes knives.
The district attorney in New York City has taken aim at pocket knives. He has filed criminal charges against some people just for possessing a folding knife that can be opened with one hand.
Ritter's Knife Rights organization has responded with an ongoing lawsuit against the prosecutor. Ritter says the arrests were unwarranted and that none of the knives had been used for any criminal activity.
But until the suit against the prosecutor is settled, most knife manufacturers and online retailers are refusing to ship their products to dealers or customers in New York City.
A favorite online site for knife collectors is bladeforums.com.