Originally published in the RKS newsletter #60 - November 2003
Brown micarta is probably the least understood of Randall factory supplied production handle materials and ranks at the top of the list in rarity. Notice I said “production” handle material, as there is some rare one-of-a kind type handles. The brown micarta I am referring to for the purpose of this article is the early 1960’s variety, not currently available “brown” micarta you see being used on Randall’s today. I will give an overview of the vintage brown micarta used as a Randall Handle material as well as reviews of individual knives to best give examples of its use.
The first indication of brown micarta being used by the Randall shop is in April/May 1959 (Gaddis) when Bo was developing the Ward Gay Special. In his correspondence with Bo, Mr. Gay requested the micarta handle for his new design. Exactly what prompted Bo to look for or offer a synthetic handle material is not known. Perhaps it was as simple as presenting an alternative non-leather handle material to stag and ivory for his customers. The next model using brown micarta was the model 17 Astro being developed for the Project Mercury astronauts in May/June 1960 (Gaddis). The micarta came in ¼” sheets and was originally used in circuit boards as an insulating material. The ¼” thickness was ideal for the handle scales on the Astro but what about the handle on the Ward Gay Special? How was it made? The use of brown micarta on the first Astro’s is well know and brings us to the question, other than the Ward Gay Special when and how did brown micarta first show up on existing models in the Randall line?
The first use of brown micarta on “existing” models of Randall knives appears to be in 1960 following its introduction in 1959 on the Ward Gay Special. Several years ago fellow collector Gary Colpitts acquired a few knives with brown micarta handles, a model 1-8, a 2-8, and a 4-6. All three knives in the group had the owner’s initials and dates burned into the back of the Johnson (now - 2012 - acknowledged as HKL) brown button sheaths. The model 1 and 2 had the date 1961 while the back of the model 4 sheath included the date 10/27/40 and the year 1960 below it. We have to assume what these dates represent are the acquisition of the respective knives. What pulls this information together in relation to the handles is how they were constructed. Yes they are brown micarta, in fact the same micarta scales used on the Astro but are comprised of four ¼” layers glued/epoxied together to form one larger “block” and then shaped into their final handle configuration. This method was used successfully on the very first Ward Gay Specials in 1959 and for the next few years following on those and other models in the Randall line. It wasn’t for another few years before a single piece large enough for a handle was available. I have had a chance to personally examine the model 4 and it is quite an interesting item. The four layers of micarta are very evident and the beautiful finger grips only enhance the mystique of this rare material. The models 1 and 2 were not available for my examination but Mr. Colpitts assured me the handles were of the same genre.
Model 4-7 courtesy of Ron Stepp
The next knife for review is a spectacular model 1-8 fighter with standard handle shape and a rare option of a small lugged hilt. This knife came with a letter from the original owner stating the knife was ordered in 1960-1961 along with a leather handled model 1-8 with both knives he believes arriving in early 1962. The brown micarta on the lugged hilt knife is comprised of the same ¼” layers glued/epoxied together as previously mentioned giving the handle a nice look with the “contrasting layers”. By contrasting layers, I mean the micarta is not glued/epoxied with the “grain” running the same direction. This is the case for all knives examined that used this material. In the letter the original owner states the handle material as he understood it to be was “a Formica-type handle that wouldn’t be affected by mildew in a tropical jungle.” The knife is preserved in near pristine condition and so is its Johnson brown button (vertical logo) sheath.
Model 1-8 Author's Collection
Now the discussion brings us to thesubsequent phase with the next two knives. The first is a model 2-8 with
an “SS” stamped blade circa 1963-64. The handle is a standard model 2shape made from one block of light brown micarta without a butt cap. The second model 2 has a 7” carbon blade, a scalloped brass butt cap, and the handle made from one block of brown micarta circa 1964-65. Both of these knives are in Johnson sheaths with baby dot snaps. The pertinent point about these two knives is a change in the color and texture of the brown micarta. The earlier knives I have spoken about all had linen based material with a lighter brown resin and a matt finish as does the 2-8. The 2-7 has what appears to be linen based material with a darker brown resin and a glossier finish. The darker brown micarta was used for a short period of time as far as I can tell, as there seems to be very few knives of this type around. I want to state this doesn’t mean that this material change was a one-time occurrence. What it does point out is that Bo was continually looking for a superior synthetic handle material to suit the needs of not only his customers but also facilitate the manufacture of his knives in the Randall shop. Gaddis mentions that the canvas brown micarta was difficult to finish on the model 14 and 15 when doing the finger grip area because it had the propensity to chip and fray during final polish. Apparently Bo sought out different micarta’s until he found one that worked best which included at least three types of brown and ultimately ended up using black. It is not known if brown was used as a matter of aesthetics or just that was what was available or Bo knew about at the time.
Collection of Author ( top: 2-8 bottom: 2-7 )
The most common (for lack of a betterterm) models of Randall’s usually seen with brown micarta handles are the 14 and 15 (the model 17 isn’t too far behind). The knives I have examined all are made out of one solid block of brown “canvaslike” (Gaddis) micarta channeled to accommodate the tang. Remember this material was sought after at least in part as a replacement to the “inferior” tenite material of the day, which is probably why the 14 and 15 are seen with brown micarta more frequently than other models in the Randall line. I would also venture to say during the early 1960’s that a synthetic handle material was not in great demand on Randall knives and any changes in handle material on models that came that way already (i.e. 14, 15, 16, and 17) were initiated by the Randall shop. It is interesting to note that it appears two different colored brown micarta’s were used on these models also. I know of an exposed tang 14 and 15 that have a dark brown handle. I have seen one non-exposed tang 14 with dark brown micarta. The rest I have seen are the lighter brown type. The four or five model 16’s I have seen all have the lighter brown handle material.
Model 14 one filled screw hole Author's Collection
Brown micarta was available on models 14, 15 and 16 at the same time tenite was still being used. There are several knives in collections with photographic record of like characteristics having both handle materials. Mike Silvey’s “Knives of the United States Military in Viet Nam” is a very good reference to compare some of these knives. You will see tenite and brown micarta knives with virtually identical blade grinds, hilt shapes, and sheath construction. When tenite was discontinued as handle material sometime around 1962-1963, brown micarta took over as the material of choice. It was used up through 1964-65 before it was finally replaced with a black canvas micarta that was described as “veined green.” I want to make clear the time frame for the demise of the tenite. The 1962-1963 date generally refers to exposed tang knives. As I mentioned, epoxied tenite knives were available at the same time as the brown micarta so the end for all tenite occurred a short time later probably during 1964. It should be pointed out that brown micarta was also still being used for a short time when the first black micarta became available. Bo didn’t throw anything away. I wouldn’t necessarily call brown micarta a transition material between tenite and black micarta, a progression is a more accurate description. .
The method of attachment to the tang for brown micarta varied also. The few exposed tang knives I know of all have exposed bolts like a tenite knife would have. The most common trait seen is bolts that are covered with a micarta dust and epoxy mix. We refer to this characteristic as “filled screw holes”. Some knives have two “filled screw holes” and some have one “filled screw hole”. There also exists a very few without any evidence of “filled screw holes” which we would assume are the last of the breed. I suppose the Randall shop had gained enough confidence in their epoxy enabling them to eliminate the additional step during fabrication. You will find some tenite knives from the same period using this method of handle attachment as well but to no avail. The tenite still warped and separated from the tang and once again proved itself an inferior material while brown micarta has remained steadfast over the years.
One additional brown micarta knife that needs mentioning is a model 7-5 currently residing with collector Chuck Shipman. This knife is made using the darker brown linen material, the same as the 2-7 mentioned previously. It is only the fifth Randall hunter or field knife I know of with a brown micarta handle, the others being the model 4 in this article, two model 3’s, and an original Ward Gay Special. Again, I don’t think a synthetic handle material was in great demand in the early to mid 1960’s with most customers wanting something other than standard leather opting for stag or possibly ivory as optional handle materials.
It should be pointed out that all Randall knives with brown micarta handles except of course the 14, 15, 16, and 17 are seven spacer period knives. The material was phased out in 1965 so you will not see it on knives with later spacer configurations. There should be no confusion about this. I have seen some collectors with late 1970’s vintage dark maroon micarta knives claiming it to be brown and nothing could be further from the truth. A more common area where collectors frequently get confused is when black micarta “appears” brown. Well, “appears” is an appropriate description but that is all it is. Some of the early “veined green” black micarta canvas base material turns brown or yellow with age and will give the handle a brownish hue. It in fact is black and when compared to a true brown micarta handle the difference is very evident, there is no mistaking it.
In conclusion, we have determined the period brown micarta was used - 1959 into 1965, what the early material was like, how its use progressed as Bo searched for a durable synthetic handle material, and have discussed a few knives as examples. How many in actual numbers were made? It is hard to say but the number is very low. Production of models 14, 15, and probably 16 is lower than like models with tenite handles for sure. I believe from what I have seen as well as information form publications and from fellow collectors that there are probably not more than 50 to 60 of all models known in collections. I am sure others will turn up as time moves on and to the lucky collector it is a rare find.
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