Old-Style Pocket Knives – the Mercator Multi

Vintage WWI-era Mercator Multi

Mercator pattern knives originated in Germany in the mid-1860s and were made by a variety of manufacturers. The standard Mercator pocket knives are a marvel of design – slimline, with a secure backlock and are still large enough to be useful for a variety of uses. They were far ahead of their time and are still popular in this second decade of the 21st Century. Possum skinners in New Zealand (where our beloved Aussie brushtail possum is an invasive feral which needs to be eradicated) swear by these Mercator knives, which they commonly call “cat” knives. I have a few of the standard “cat” knives, and I even carry one in my Bob Cooper survival kit since it has such a slim profile. My EDC pocket knife is a brass-scaled “cat” knife which I use for chopping up fruit mostly. Look out for a separate post soon covering these standard Mercator pocket knives.

Back in the 1890s or so the German firm of Kaufmann and Son in Solingen decided to make a sportsman’s knife based on the 30 year old Mercator design. As was the fashion of the day, sportsman’s knives had multiple features aside from the main blade. These commonly included a can opener or bottle opener/screwdriver, a bodkin or awl, and even a corkscrew, which made these pocket multi tools a hit in places like France, Spain and Italy. Australia wasn’t immune to the Sportsman’s knife craze, with importers such as Jno Baker in Sydney flogging their own branded multi-tools which came out of Sheffield in England, which like Solingen in Germany, was a major centre for knives as well as razors, scissors and various horticultural and agricultural tools.

A 1910s ad for the original Kaufmann & Son Mercator Multi

Kaufmann’s sportsman’s knife was a Mercator lock knife with an awl, can opener and corkscrew added. These appear to have been made in three sizes – a small one, one the same size as a standard Mercator knife, and a large version. The Mercator Multi as it was known was extremely popular with German outdoorsmen and later, with German soldiers of both the First and the Second world wars. Originally, production of the Mercator Multi was halted around 1952. German immigrants to Australia both pre-and-post-WWI brought these pocket knives with them and occasionally you see them for sale on ebay or in antique and second hand stores in South Australia originating from this period. Australian Soldiers who fought the Germans in both wars often souvenired such knives and used them during the war/s themselves, not only in North Africa, but in the Pacific, and brought them back to Australia where many of the knives saw a third career – used for camping, hunting or even fishing.

It used to be that these Mercator Multi knives were a rare thing in Australia and were prized when they could be found. Those days are over. Ottermesser in Germany, the company who took over the Kaufmann knifemaking operation, in late 2012 released a newly-manufactured version of the large Mercator Multi sportsman’s knife. They went to great pains to make this knife historically accurate and it even bears the “Mercator D.R.G.M.” mark on the spine which is a German copyright mark used from 1891 but not seen since the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945.

D.R.G.M. marking on a 1910s vintage Mercator Multi

Being a bit slow on the uptake, I didn’t hear about these things until about four years after they hit the stores. When my normal bush pocket knife, a 1940-vintage Wenger Pattern 08 Swiss soldier’s knife broke on me (backspring broke – metal fatigue I think?), I sent it off to Victorinox in Switzerland for a warranty repair (77 years after manufacture!). I needed a period-style replacement while I waited for the Swiss army knife to come back so I decided to order an Ottermesser Mercator Multi.

There’s no Australian distributor for these tools that I’m aware of, so I bought mine online from Heinnie Haynes in the UK. After requesting that the British version of the GST (VAT – 20%) be removed from my order, it was probably the cheapest one going.

The Mercator Multi as delivered in its original box.

The knife came packed in a cardboard box, wrapped in greaseproof paper, with bi-lingual care instructions and a sachet of Ballistol oil. Most of the Ottermesser range come packed like this. I like it. My first impression of the knife was Wow, this thing is a lot bigger than I expected… You see, I hadn’t looked at the specs, and expected it to be the same basic dimensions as any other Mercator locking knife. It’s a big, solid chunk of metal which weighs almost 200 grams. Not for lightweight bushwalking.

New production Ottermesser Mercator Multi

The main locking blade on the knife measures just under 10cm, compared to 8.5cm blade length for the standard Mercator locking knife blade. The overall length of the Mercator multi with the main blade open is 23cm. The knife feels like it’s built like a tank. The handle “scales” are actually one folded piece of 19 gauge steel with a an oxidised brown/black finish.

Size comparison between the Mercator Multi (top) and the standard Mercator “cat” knife from my survival kit tin

Just like the originals, the spine of the Mercator Multi has MERCATOR D.R.G.M. stamped.  The blade is marked Germany Solingen and is made from C75 Carbon Steel which is strong and yet easy to maintain/sharpen out bush. Stropped on a leather belt, this steel is hair-popping sharp.

“MERCATOR D.R.G.M.” mark on the new-production Mercator Multi. A nod to the history of the knife and a nice touch.

The can opener is the traditional two-pronged type, identical to the one on my P08 Swiss Soldier Knife and on my 1942 vintage Whittingslowe Australian army clasp knife. It takes a bit of practice to open tins with it, but it works. The awl comes with rounded edges and this was a bit disappointing since I tended to use the awl on my P08 Swiss Soldier knife quite a bit for leatherworking. The Swiss knife awl has sharpened edges since the awl was designed to double as a chamber reamer for the Swiss K11 service rifle. To correct the situation, I have filed a bit of an edge on the Mercator Multi’s awl to make it a bit more useful for me. If you only use an awl as a fid for ropework (splicing and such) then the awl  on the Mercator Multi is fine right out of the box. The corkscrew has been improved from the original by the addition of a groove which follows the spiral of the corkscrew. This grabs a cork better and there’s less scope for the cork to self destruct while being pulled out of the bottle.

Although the Mercator Multi is probably slim enough to carry in the trouser pocket like its smaller cousin the “cat” knife”, I’ll make a belt pouch for mine out of some nice roo leather I have up in the shed.

One interesting feature of the Mercator Multi, which was probably completely unintended, is that when closed up the knife is an excellent striker for fire by flint and steel. With the closed blade facing up, it sparks on smashed quartz nicely, which means it’ll work just as well on the vintage musket flints I use in my traditional firemaking kit. Of course the back of the blade, either open or closed, will deliver a shower of sparks when used to scrape a ferro rod fire lighter too.

The Mercator Multi is one of a few current-production off-the-shelf pocket knives which are historically accurate and thus suitable for use on old style bushgoing trips. I have yet to take this knife out bush, but I am expecting it to be a worthy (if a little large) alternative to my P08 Swiss knife. If there are any issues I’ll edit this post and let you know.

One thought on “Old-Style Pocket Knives – the Mercator Multi

  1. I know I’m a little late to be commenting on this, but I just want to say that this is a fantastic write-up, and thank you for the amazing work! Keep these articles coming! I actually own a Mercator pocket knife and try to carry it every day. It’s truly phenomenal.

    Liked by 1 person

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