The Sabertooth® Knife Story
By Jefferson Spivey
When people see the knife I carry into the backwoods they immediately want one. Unfortunately, the more than fifteen hundred I built are gone. The knife is called Sabertooth. I invented it during a horseback journey from ocean to ocean in 1968. That ride took seven months and covered 4000 miles through all the seasons. Necessity made me realize the kind of knife I needed. The Sabertooth at an overall length of 12 ¾ inches, with a 7 ½ inch blade is perfectly suited for wilderness survival.
The name Sabertooth, originally two words, (Saber tooth) came from my memory of a saber-toothed skull I saw in 1965 at the Los Angeles County Art Museum built on the La Brea tar-pits at Wilshire and La Cienega Boulevard in Hollywood, California. The extinct saber tooth (Smilodon), which was a foot shorter but nearly twice as heavy as a lion, did not eat with its long fangs, it stabbed with them. It held on to its prey and used its powerful neck and shoulder muscles to pound those dagger-like teeth through the tough hide of its victim. With each violent struggle of its quarry, the long fangs sank deeper. In my hand, the knife I invented reminded me of those sharp, well anchored teeth, so I named it Sabertooth.
A rock chipped to a sharp edge is probably the oldest implement of human design. No society, ancient or modern, has existed without the tool we call a knife. It is as old as intellect and could very well be partly the cause of it. Humans may have continued walking with their knuckles on the ground had it not been for the discovery of this simple tool. A good edge is as relevant today as it was in prehistoric times. Unlike a gun, a knife is not always used as a weapon. A knife has far more uses than a gun.
I used my knife for just about everything. I ate with it, dug fire pits, built windbreaks, cut rope and leather straps, sliced bread, bacon, elk steaks and stirred the stew. I drilled holes in leather belts, scraped mud from my boots and many other small tasks. There are times when one has to do things with a knife that they would not ordinarily do. Once while crossing a fence, instead of cutting the wires, I pried staples from a corner post so that I could lower the fence and cross with my horse. That of course is not something most people would have to do, unless they are traveling on horseback. With that kind of treatment, the blade of any knife will be dull the next time it is needed. Without a sharpener, streambed stones are just about everywhere and finding the right one was easy. When the grit of the stone was not right, I kept trying. It was either a grit up or grit down. In rough country, I was always able to find the right whetstone.
During my ocean-to-ocean journey, I sometimes had to hack my way down to a river, cross and then hack my way out on the other side. The knife I started my journey with was a Marble sheath knife. The blade was made of fine steel and the handle was caribou horn that had been carved into a mythical dragonhead. When my knife and gun were stolen, all I had left was a limber blade pocketknife. Because of that, I was forced to make choices I would not have made otherwise. I realized how important a straight-blade was only when I no longer had it. I brought it along because I thought it would be handy. I wanted it back because by then, I realized it was a necessity. Life in the backwoods can be difficult without a good sheath knife.
One hot day after crossing a swiftly flowing stream, no deeper than my knees in the saddle, my horse and I came out of the water in a dense patch of thorny underbrush. While hacking my way out, I tore open the skin of my knuckles to the bone. It was not a bad injury, but very painful and that night, with my swollen hand throbbing, I visualized a knife that could have prevented the pain. The next day, I opened my logbook and the knife I sketched eventually became a reality. I have carried a Sabertooth ever since.
While still living in Hollywood, California not long after my ocean to ocean ride, I got a call from Gun World publisher Jack Lewis. I had just finished writing an eight-part series called “The Long Ride” for Horse & Rider magazine. Jack’s call had not come out of the blue; Gun World and Horse & Rider were produced by Gallant Publishing under the same roof. “Jeff,” Jack said, “how ‘bout doing a story on that strange looking knife of yours?” I promptly agreed and titled the story, SABERTOOTH! Then, a month later, lo and behold there it was, a photograph of the only Sabertooth knife in existence on the cover of the October 1969 issue of Gun World magazine. It did not occur to me at the time that I would ever make any more than the one I had. But Jack Lewis was getting calls and letters from all over concerning the Sabertooth. Jack advised me to get a patent, which I received in 1972. By the time my Canada to Mexico ride began, in August 1984, I had built more than six hundred Sabertooth knives.
For a very long time I had toyed with the notion of building the Sabertooth knife on a custom basis. I had, over time, built about four or five knives for friends. But I would never have gotten serious had it not been for Dean Krakel, director, at that time, of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Years before, in 1968, at the end of my ocean to ocean ride, I had been honored by the Cowboy Hall. Before news cameras, Dean Krakel had presented me with a commemorative inscription. He was fascinated with my story and we became good friends. One morning the phone rang, and it was Dean Krakel. He had a copy of that old magazine with my knife on the cover. “Jefferson, I want to talk to you about your knife,” he said and then added the magic words, “Lunch is on me.”
While we ate, Dean stared down at Sabertooth number one and compared it with the magazine cover shot. In between bites, he turned the knife this way and that and then he finally said, “I would like for you to build a special edition for the Cowboy Hall. What do you say?”
I laughed. “Are you kidding?” I said. “I’m not a knife maker, I’m a writer and a saddle bum…you know that.” What Krakel wanted had come as a shock. I was all prepared to build one knife for Dean Krakel, but to instantly commit myself to such a long term project muddled my thinking.
Dean smiled. He knew I was a dreamer out of work and he was right. I had a wife and family to consider. “Well think it over, okay?”
That’s where we left it, with my good sense telling me to grab the offer and my sense of freedom standing in the way. After two weeks of serious cogitating, along with a cold wind crying at the windows, I caved in and to this day, I’m glad I did.
Okay, I decided, it’s time to hang up the gun and spurs, unsaddle the horse and become a real knife maker. I called Dean Krakel. “Dean, you know my name is on that knife,” I said. “And, you know I will not build a bad knife! What I’m saying is, I can’t just borrow the neighbor’s tools and build knives for the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. I’ve got to have my own tools, understand? That means I need the money up front!”
“I understand, Jefferson,” Dean said, without hesitation. “Come down Monday morning, there will be a check on my desk.” That’s how it was and there was no turning back, I was committed.
I got in touch with Bo Randall. I needed to know what type of steel to use. The legendary knife maker suggested Chromolly. “It’s as good as any, and better than most,” he said. “If tempered right, it will cut steel.” That was all I needed to hear. I ordered blanks made to the Sabertooth design and put the blades to the grindstone.
In time, Bo Randall returned my call. He wanted to know how the knives were coming along. As we spoke, I was working on Sabertooth #015. When I finished it, I sent it to Bo. Later, I learned that it was in the Randall Knife Museum.
I built knives that I thought people would really want to use, really make the metal ring, and not just collect. But many people who purchased Sabertooth knives locked them away in drawers and in vaults. The Sabertooth is just too darn pretty to use, a collector once told me.
The Cowboy Hall of Fame Sabertooth knives were all Smooth-spine and satin finished with American supreme black walnut handles. I made 108 of them beginning with 6 proofs from A to F in 1976-1977; they originally sold for $250 and have since brought as much as $1500 and more. Way too much money for me, but I’m not a knife collector.
I returned to the workshop one afternoon with a wooden Coke crate stacked with recently tempered Sabertooth knife blades. I had already ground the blades but there was still a lot of work to be done. One of the blades was cosmetically damaged; the bloodline (thermal-break) on half the blade had been ground too deep. Subsequently, it presented an ideal opportunity to test the temper of the steel without destroying a good blade. I placed the blade flat on its side, bridging two cinder blocks with space beneath it. Then, using a two pound hammer, I hit it so hard that it rang out and leaped skyward. I ducked and it hit the gravel driveway behind me. As I examined the blade, I thought to myself, it’s not too hard or it would have broken. Also, it’s not too soft or it would be bent, it was still perfectly straight. Now, I determined, it was time to test the sawtooth spine. After fitting the blade with walnut handles, I found a 1 ½ inch iron pipe in my junk box and clamped it in a vise. I leaned the sawtooth slightly to start the cut and then straightened it up and sawed steadily, more than halfway through the pipe. I hit the blade on the workbench to free any loose shavings and then I drew the sawtooth spine across the palm of my hand. The double row of biangular teeth were still very sharp, no damage had been done. The flawed blade contained the perfect temper. I wanted all Sabertooth knives to be the same.
After completing the Cowboy Hall of Fame series, I continued building the Sabertooth without the Cowboy Hall’s name on the blade, and these became known as the Standard models. More than 300 of them were made between 1977 and 1984, mainly handled in black walnut.
In the late 1970s to 1984 I made a hundred and ten Trail Models, using old leftover Cowboy Hall of Fames blank blades, stilled stamped with the Cowboy Hall name, which I turned into a fuller by ditching out the name with a mill. And to that, I added to each of the blade, a double row of biangular teeth on the spine. I cut one tooth at a time with a half-inch, half-round Nicholson file. It was the kind of work that made me want to shout out my praises for hi-tech. The rarest series built was the Renegade, made in the late 1970s. If my memory is correct some were Smooth-spine, but not all and ground and sharpened only on the right side. There were eleven Renegades built; one test model, followed by numbers from one to ten. Most of the early Sabertooth knives with the circle patent numbers stamped on the blade are Smooth-spine, and all are serialized on the finger-guard.
In 1984, after my Canada-to-Mexico ride, I began building the Cross-Country models. They were marked with a “Najah” Indian symbol. All Cross-Country Sabertooths have Sawtooth-spines, with the exception of thirty-five that were a special order. Twenty-two of the thirty-five were made in 1989 for the Oklahoma Centennial series, the remaining thirteen were sold as Cross-Country Smooth-spines.
The Cross-Country models are serialized below the cathead on the left side of the blade. Sabertooth #883, which has a black blade and stag handle, though not the last knife built, is the highest number reached from the original order of one thousand blank blades. The one hundred and seventeen blades never received either became fallouts in the initial blanking, or made several side trips before delivery. Recent history shows that one Sabertooth blank blade, never delivered to Spivey Knives, sold on eBay for $150.00.
Over the years, some models were sold not only by the old classic store, TG&Y, but Oshman’s and Abercrombie & Fitch as well. Though black walnut was predominantly used for the slab handles, other materials are ivory, cape and water buffalo horn, American elk antler, moose antler, India-stag, birds eye maple, rosewood, cherry, purple-heart, pink ivory and other exotic woods, including box elder, bois d’arc (Osage orange) and others. Moose is not good for it becomes too flexible when wet.
In a class of its own, the Sabertooth is so distinguishable that after fourteen years, when the design patent ran out, I applied for and received a U.S. trademark registration for the knife itself, which included both the sloping sawtooth spine and the Smooth-spine. I also slid the two words (Saber tooth) together and obtained a trademark for the single word Sabertooth.
At a Gun & Knife Show in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1988 several helicopter pilots purchased Sabertooth knives. I asked one what he planned to do with the knife. “Because of the teeth on the curved spine and the handgrip, it’s just the tool I need,” he said. “If I go down, I can rip through the skin of the chopper and kick a door out.”
There has always been a military interest in the Sabertooth knife. Since its first appearance on the cover of Gun World in ‘69, numerous letters have been received from various offices of the military; the Department of the Navy, Department of the Army, Aerospace Crew Equipment Department and other Special Units. At the time, during all the correspondence, with only one knife on hand, there was no way to respond appropriately.
Knives are objects of great interest to many people, and some collect Sabertooth knives. G. Bradfield Sullivan, owner of a tag agency, has more than fifty. George Gardner, now deceased, had even more. His were mostly early models. David Glover, a landscaper, has quite a varied collection. Patent attorney, Charles Codding, collects exotic Sabertooth’s with brass lined handles, mostly ivory and buffalo horn. Harley V. Duncan, a rancher who has more than a hundred Sabertooth knives, keeps his collection on display somewhere, most all the time. Thousands around the country have viewed his collection, via the Department of Tourism. Incredibly, a neighboring rancher traded Harley a prize bull for one standard model Sabertooth knife.
The only thing that matters to a user is a good sharp knife, but factors that determine the price of a Sabertooth knife for collectors are condition, model, serial number, and handle material. Cross-Country Sabertooth #001 with brass lined ivory handles sold for $3,000. I probably should have kept it for myself, but ‘ya can’t eat knives. I have carried Sabertooth #284 since my Canada to Mexico ride.
On March 21, 1994, my birthday, the Sabertooth record book in my overnight case was stolen from my motel room in Tulsa, Oklahoma along with a Walther .380, PPK Stainless. I speculate that whoever swiped them probably pocketed the .380 and threw all else in a dumpster. After all the years of recording the serial numbers and the names of those who had purchased each knife, I sorta lost heart and stopped keeping records altogether. Incredibly, seven years later, just when Knife World had gone to press with Sabertooth Knives of Jefferson Spivey, I learned that Sabertooth collector George Gardner had passed away and his wife Helen had discovered a copy of the original record book that had been stolen. Unknown to me, Gardner had made a copy of the book to keep with his collection. Without George’s thoughtful act, the history herein would not be possible. Most knives have been accounted for, but not all. When an undocumented Sabertooth knife is found, it will be added to the record book.
A Sabertooth is more than a knife; it eliminates the need for carrying a hatchet and saw. The finger-guard protects the finger while cutting or chopping. It is a trail tool that can hack, skin, dig and saw wood or bone. When I built the last few Sabertooth knives in late 2001, I had reached an impasse. Now, five years later, I have decided to re-establish the Sabertooth, but modernize to get the knife into a wider market. Grinding blades in all kinds of weather and then selling them one-on-one to pay the bills is not the way to accomplish that goal.
The Trademark Sabertooth will be more utilitarian than the earlier models. The new handle design will make it even more unique. It will be a tool that anyone would want to use. There will be other minor changes such as serializing, symbols, trademark registration. The sheath will be redesigned. And, there will be a corner of the workshop for personalizing the Sabertooth. As the Sabertooth knife was created in America, that event will be honored by building it entirely in the U.S.A. Over time, the new Sabertooth knives will be just as relevant as the originals. Though modern technology may play a role in the future of the Sabertooth, the basic design will remain the same. It will simply be a continuation of a survival tool that was conceived out of need, 39 years ago in the American wilderness.
The first Sabertooth knife sketch from Spivey's ocean to ocean
The first Sabertooth knife sketch from Spivey's ocean to ocean journey
This first Sabertooth started from an old roughed-out circular saw blade
Most ivory used in the Sabertooth knives, before outlawed, was elephant, hippo, and walrus
Current Production—Sabertooth Trademark model