Although folding knives are often thought of in terms of modern pocketknives and switchblades, they have existed for thousands of years. During the Viking Age, which lasted from the medieval eighth century to the eleventh century, the predecessor to more recent folding knives was developed in the north and introduced to the rest of Europe.
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The folding knife in its earliest form is found in archaeological sites dating back to Roman times. Many of these in Britain are around 2,000 years old, and are of the type referred to as a "friction" folder. When the Romans left Britain, folders disappeared until many years later, when Scandinavian invaders reintroduced the style. Viking folding knives, although sometimes friction folders, were usually "clasp" knives that were highly popular in the medieval period. Clasp knives were replaced in the seventeenth century by spring-back folding knives, the precursors to switchblades.
The Roman friction folding knives were made without springs or nail nicks and operated by resting the blade open against a metal collar attached to the handle of the knife. These knives opened and closed through friction alone. Although some of the Viking Age folding knives were also friction folders, the most common type was the clasp knife. Clasp knife blades were attached to the handles at the hinge by pins or lugs that allowed the blade to pivot away from the handle.
Like the Roman friction folders, Viking Age folding knives were mainly used as all-purpose tools suitable for cutting rope, making markings, eating and the occasional self-defence. At the table, Vikings used folding knives in place of forks and other utensils, along with short knives and spoons. Men carried their knives on them for convenience at all times, in their wallets, on belts or chains, and around their necks. Often, small sharpening stones were carried along with the knives, as constant use dulled the blades quickly.
Viking Age folding knives were small, usually 3 to 4 inches long when shut. The handles were made from mainly bone or wood due to the level of decorative carving that could be achieved using these easy materials. Viking knife handles were famously ornate, often designed to display highly complex pictures. Many knife handles found in archaeological digs today are decorated in patterns of engraved circles with stylised birds of prey. Others depict zoomorphs, or human-like animal depictions, acting out elaborate scenes that were intended to enhance the use of the knife.
Blade metals from the Viking Age were much softer than metals used in knives today, as they were mainly forged from bloomery iron and not alloy steels. Modern knifesmiths recreate this material using antique wrought iron as the closest substitute. The most common method of Viking Age folding knife creation involved making plain blades called "mono block," although there is evidence of other techniques such as lap welding, case hardening, piled strips, carbon core and full pattern welding, which was done on knives only for decorative purposes.
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