Long before the very cool Fisher Space Bullet Pen, there was the bullet pencil. A masterpiece of simplistic and purely functional design, the bullet pencil was little more than a pencil housed in a spent rifle cartridge, traditionally a .303 British cartridge.
The first recorded instance of the bullet pencil appears in the late 1890s. With Britain’s various colonial adventures in Africa (South Africa and the Sudan) came a surprising new niche industry – the commemorative battle souvenir peddlers. Ghoulish opportunists picked over the battlefields at Omdurman or Ladysmith stepping over dead enemy and friendly casualties as they collected thousands of spent rifle and Maxim gun cartridges. These were sent back to Jolly Old England in bulk for processing into cheap writing instruments to be sold at a premium as battlefield souvenirs or whatever they called trench art prior to World War I.
The cartridge cases were cleaned and polished, while special sterling silver or nickel-plated brass “bullets” were cast. Into these nonfunctional projectiles were initially were set one of a variety of propelling pencil mechanism.s To use, one simply removed the “projectile” from the cartridge, reversed it, advanced the graphite “lead” and wrote, sketched or scribbled to one’s heart’s content.
The next time we see the bullet pencil is 1914. As Britons prepared for what must surely be the end of the war at Christmas time in 1914, Her Royal Highness The Princess Mary was preparing her own special Chrissie prezzie for every man who “wore the King’s uniform”. This special Christmas gift took the form of a comfort package packed inside an ornate brass box issued to every British and Dominion serviceman and woman. Contents varied, but the standard box contained – a packet of pipe tobacco, a packet of cigarettes, a Christmas card and envelope, a photograph of Princess Mary and a pencil made from a spent .303 cartridge case.
The Princess Mary bullet pencil was much-simplified when compared with the turn-of-the-century models. Although it also used a spent .303 cartridge case as a base, it used a bomb-proof half-pencil set into a decorative “bullet”. There were no moving parts, nothing to rust or corrode and both the cartridge case and the pencil could be replaced very easily, even on the front lines. Befitting a royal gift, the cartridge case was highly polished, lacquered and monogrammed with the Princess Mary’s seal while the “bullet” was pressed and formed from a sheet of solid sterling silver. Shorter than the earlier versions, the Princess Mary bullet pen was the perfect size for carrying in a trouser or shirt pocket under the combat conditions seen on the Western Front prior to the 1915 stalemates that led to a 3-year-long trench warfare meat grinder.
WIth the idea of an ever-so-useful pencil made from a cartridge case deeply ingrained in the consciousness of millions of British Commonwealth Great War Veterans, it was just a matter of time before the concept was exploited commercially on a large scale. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, trinket manufacturers in the United States sold hundreds of thousands of bullet-style pencils made from brass or aluminium and plastered with labels advertising everything from hot dogs to sports teams to agricultural equipment to funeral homes to national monuments. These were often handed out as freely as business cards are today.
No longer made from actual spent cartridges, the US bullet pencils retained a superficial resemblance to a .30/06 cartridge fitted with a round-nose projectile. Considered cheap and nasty at the time, many of these cheap, commercial bullet pencils were so well made, and constructed of such durable materials that they have survived well into the second decade of the 21st Century. Indeed, this writer has been lucky enough to have bought a bulk lot of vintage bullet pencils, which is sufficient as a lifetime supply. Original metal advertising bullet pencils from the 1930s, 40s and 50s can be had very cheaply if you’re in the right place at the right time. Check eBay or Etsy for bargains.
The commercial bullet pencils advanced the design to its pinnacle in the 1950s by the addition of an eraser stuck in the end and a detachable pocket clip. With the advent of mass-produced moulded celluloid and other early plastics, the stage was set for the fall of the mighty bullet pencil.
Although highly popular with farmers and golfers, the bullet pencil found its niche in the United States through its adoption by Baseball, Basketball and Football umpires as their industry-standard, in-game writing instrument. The bullet pencil was the perfect shape and size to be carried unobtrusively in the front slash pockets of the umpires’ horrible black polyester trousers. The umpire’s love of the simple, but effective bullet pencil sucked the mojo right out of it. Brass and aluminium was replaced with soulless white plastic, and the pencils became mass-produced in automated Chinese sweat shops. The time of the bullet pencils had come to an end, and the original vintage metal commercial pencils became sought-after collector’s items.
Then came the Renaissance. Japanese stationer to the hipster masses, Midori plugged into the nostalgia surrounding the bullet pencil and released their own version. The Midori bullet pencil echoes both its military and commercial bullet pencil heritage, wraps it all in some clean, elegant and minimalistic industrial/military-chic packaging, then sells it to you at a stupid-high premium.
Midori aren’t the only modern manufacturer attempting to revive the bullet pencil. Penn State Industries in the USA have been selling their Buffalo Bullet Pencil Kits (http://www.pennstateind.com/store/PKBFPCLCH.html). Great looking kits and some of the pencils made from them by talented and skilled artisans are stunning. Besides the awesome cherry wood example from Duke’s Custom pictured above, you can find examples put together from walnut burl, corn cob, deer antler, old ivory and even stacked leather washers just like a Ka-Bar Mk1 utility knife. My only issue with the Penn State kits is that they are too long. Ergonomically, they are probably fine, but they defeat the purpose of the bullet pencil, which was a compact writing instrument able to be carried unobtrusively and comfortably in a front slash trouser pocket so as to be close at hand at all times. I’m thinking of picking up some Penn State Kits and shortening them by about half an inch for my own creation – a pair of custom triangular micarta bullet pencils.
Back in the 1990s, the Fisher Space Pen company tried to revive the concept of the bullet-format writing instrument with its bullet space pen. They were moderately successful and the Fisher Space bullet pens remain available for sale to this day and are very well regarded by outdoor enthusiasts and “cool guy” stationery aficionados alike.
I prefer a pencil.
The next post in this series will look at restoring a vintage brass or aluminium commercial bullet pencil.