Hand in Hand

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Longtime partner of John Wayne Enterprises, Case Knives has been producing pocket candy for more than a century.

Written by Wendy Bowman

If you grew up a city slicker, a pocket knife is probably not the first thing you grab before heading out the door. But, if like the majority of Americans who were raised hunting, fishing and camping, you likely carry a WR Case & Sons Cutlery Co. knife as part of your everyday routine. After all, the roots of the company go back to 1889.

Russ Case inspecting The Master’s Knife

Russ Case inspecting The Master’s Knife

“The story goes that a sister, Teresa, married a man from England, which is one of the birthplaces of pocket knives,” explains Fred Feightner of Case Knives. “We think that the brother-in-law came over and taught his brothers-in-law how to make knives, and together they formed the Case Brothers Co. in the late 1880s. As the brothers had their own offspring, one of them, John Russell Case, son of company namesake William Russell, became a young salesperson for the Case Brothers company. Eventually, J.R. went out on his own, and with his father’s help, he founded W.R. Case & Sons in a town called Little Valley, N.Y. After John Russell started W.R. Case & Sons, he moved to Bradford and built his first knife factory there in 1905.”

Since then, the knives not only have been used for everyday tasks and passed down for generations, they’ve also come in handy taming the American wilderness, landed on the moon and been used to defend our country’s freedom. Because the knives are carefully crafted with the finest materials and twice tested for durability and sharpness after they’re hardened and tempered, they’ve also found their way into the hands of famous admirers and avid collectors, including John Wayne, who is said to have carried a Case knife in his pocket at all times, as well Duke’s youngest son, Ethan Wayne, the president of John Wayne Enterprises, a longtime licensing partner with Case Knives.

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“John Wayne is known for being a rugged guy and a kind of person who always had the right tool for the job, so it makes sense that he would have a Case knife on him somewhere. The two go hand-in-hand; it’s a wonderful match.”

— Fred Feightner

“It’s a great match, because Case and John Wayne Enterprises are very family-oriented, family-centered and family-owned, and they both are American icons in terms of their branding,” says Feightner. “John Wayne is known for being a rugged guy and a kind of person who always had the right tool for the job, so it makes sense that he would have a Case knife on him somewhere. The two go hand-in-hand; it’s a wonderful match.”

Today, the company that in 1993 was purchased by Bradford-based, family-owned Zippo Manufacturing Co. hasn’t missed a beat when it comes to making hundreds of finely crafted folding and six-blade knives boasting a wide variety of blades, handles, wood and bone embellishments and treatments available at thousands of independent Case dealers nationwide, as well as chain stores catering to outdoors enthusiasts. Several thousand Case collectors worldwide also clamor for the company’s exclusive keepsake items, some of which have included exclusive models branded with the John Wayne Cancer Foundation insignia to raise funds for cancer research, and a 20th-anniversary edition of the Case RussLock pattern introduced in late July as a tribute to company Founder John Russell Case, who passed away in 1953.

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Coming up, look for a new addition to the Case x Winkler Knives American Hero Series featuring custom fixed-blade knife and axe designs honoring and commemorating past and present military personnel and first responders. Co-designed by master blade-smith Daniel Winkler (who made the knives and tomahawks for “The Last of the Mohicans” and has provided knives and axes to some of the nation’s most elite fighting forces since 2004) and U.S. Special Operations Veteran Kyle Lamb, the hunter knife is set to debut in October.

Yet other popular collectibles that serve as a testament to the company’s storied history include a reproduction of the classic Case V-42 military knife originally designed in 1942 during WWII by Lt. Col. Robert T Frederick (if found, an original can command a hefty price, says Feightner); along with a 50th anniversary, limited-edition reproduction of the astronaut knife to commemorate the original lightweight survival knife that NASA commissioned Case to make in the early 1960s and would ultimately be stowed inside every manned U.S. Gemini and Apollo mission’s spacecraft. Every now and then, some Case knives also are relegated to a vault, as part of the company’s Vault Program, and remain there for several years before they’re retooled and reintroduced to collectors. Among them is The Pocket Hunter, which is returning from the Case Vault toward the end of 2020. Small in size, the knife is equipped for everyday use, complete with a variety of unique handle and blade combinations.

“We’re always working into the future,” says Feightner. “Next year is going to be an exciting year for Case. We’ll continue to innovate and bring new products to market and keep moving the needle to become even better manufacturers and to appeal to even more consumers.” How to find the right Case knife for you? A lot of it is personal preference and what you plan to do with it, according to Feightner. “Some people like wood handles, some like bone; some prefer carbon steel blades because they feel they keep an edge longer than stainless-steel,” he says. “For others, it’s the patterns, the way it looks or a specific color. Some colors are more brilliant and some like more traditional.” No matter what someone seeks, there’s something for everybody in the Case arsenal.

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“We’re always working into the future. Next year is going to be an exciting year for Case. We’ll continue to innovate and bring new products to market and keep moving the needle to become even better manufacturers and to appeal to even more consumers.”

— Fred Feightner

Photos courtesy of Case Knives