How to Identify Old Knives

Updated April 17, 2017

Knives are among the oldest implements known to humankind. Collectable old knives are commonly made of iron, steel or other metallic alloys. Knife blades differ widely in size and shape, the varying styles reflecting a range of uses. Knife handles, too, are adapted to the different kinds of blades and to the knife's ultimate use. Collectable knives are tools, weapons or hunting implements. Old knives are handmade and may be highly decorative.

Note the overall size of the piece. Knives used for everyday tasks, such as cutting, trimming and woodworking, range from small pocket knives to large machetes. Pocket knives feature blades no more than several inches in length. The folding blade fits neatly inside a case. Many examples sport an array of additional attachments, including specialised blades, forks and corkscrews. Makers include New England Cutlery, Crandall and Robeson.

Look for old knives with blades 6 to 12 inches long. If the blade is approximately 2 inches wide, it is likely a bowie knife or a similar sheath knife. These cutting implements straddle the line between cutting tools and fighting weapons. Popularised by frontiersman Jim Bowie, these antique knives are made of fine steel and resemble butcher knives in shape and weight. More elaborate versions can be 4 inches wide and feature guards near the hilt.

Note a thin, tapering blade, 10 to 13 inches long, on a handle that tapers away from the blade, which is the characteristic profile of the dirk, a style of old knife used as a weapon on both land and sea. Originating in the Scottish Highlands, dirks come in single- and double-edged varieties. Blades are often silver or silver mounted. Pommels, or handles, are topped by a flaring disk that makes it easier to ward off blows. The knife's handle is made of boxwood, ivy wood, carved stone or ivory and may be finished with gilt fittings or other metallic inlays.

Observe a long, broad blade that may curve slightly and broaden in width. Machetes are all-purpose cutting tools and weapons. Ancient prototypes, such as the European billhook and falchion and the Chinese dao, inspired the sturdy machete of recent centuries. Most machete blades are about 18 inches long. The South Asian kukri machete combines all the possibilities of an antique knife, including a sharp midsection for cutting, a point for stabbing, and a short area near the top that can be used for delicate carving.


Stick to traditional styles when beginning an old knife collection. Newer, more exotic pieces may be fads that lose value over time.


Become familiar with the appearance and pricing of specific styles and makes of old knives. Dealers may not always possess accurate information and may mislabel antique knives.

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About the Author

Brian Adler has been writing articles on history, politics, religion, art, architecture and antiques since 2002. His writing has been published with Demand Studios, as well as in an online magazine. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Columbia University.