Bullet Proofs

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

There’s a small, but extremely active knife-collecting subculture in America. Most of these folks are tougher than a $2 steak. For all that toughness, marketing to them is like hunting cows…it’s so easy, it’s barely sporting. These hard men get weak in the knees for a limited edition tin, and a commemorative pin leaves them with a case of the vapors. So when Remington offered a free poster with each legacy knife it introduced over 16 years, the results were predictable.

The company got its start in Ilion, NY, in 1816 when young Eliphalet Remington made his first rifle out of scrap iron. His blacksmithing ability, along with Yankee ingenuity, shaped a company that pioneered the manufacture of rifles, typewriters, bicycles and sewing machines.

Guns sold best in Remington’s early years, which coincided with the Civil War and settlement of the American West. Unfortunately, a global outbreak of peace, as well as competition from overseas, sent the corporation into receivership in 1886. Remington was sold in 1888 to Hartley & Graham of New York. The new firm made ammo, guns and knives under the Remington name for a growing and heretofore unrecognized segment of the population: sportsmen.

Among the more popular items in its catalog were its knives, especially the Bullet Knife. Introduced in 1921, the sport knife featured a silhouette of a centerfire cartridge in the handle. Sold throughout the 1920s and 30s, the series was suspended during World War II as the company focused on war supplies.

In 1982, however, Remington relaunched the Bullet Knife in conjunction with two new centerfire rifles. The knife once again featured a silver metal silhouette of a centerfire cartridge on its handle, reminiscent of the brand’s earlier versions. Then someone got the bright idea of highlighting the new knife with a commemorative poster. The offer was, “Buy the rifle, get the poster and the Bullet Knife free.”

Gun companies like Winchester and Colt and fishing firms like Heddon and Shakespeare had a long history of using popular outdoor artists to sell products. Magazines like Field & Stream and Outdoor Life published scores of outdoor illustrations every year, the best of which ended up as calendars and posters. Today, some sporting promotional art brings tens of thousands of dollars at auction. Knowing that “nostalgia sells,” especially for a relaunch, the marketing folks at Remington figured a poster might add value.

“We thought the posters were something dealers might hang in their stores,” says Linda Berg, former art director at Remington’s ad agency, Rumrill-Hoyt.

Rumrill-Hoyt hired illustrator Larry Duke to design the first poster. A 1965 graduate of Los Angeles’ Art Center School of Design, Duke worked for several years as an art director at McCann-Erickson.

“I’d studied packaging design and advertising, and never thought of myself as an illustrator back then,” Duke recalls. But he did some point-of-purchase posters for Levi Strauss that won awards, and brought him to the attention of Rumrill-Hoyt.

Duke was given near-free rein on his initial designs; he then submitted a pencil drawing to the client for comment. Clients often asked if he could include the image of a favored executive in one of the scenes, a change he was glad to execute (he frequently put himself into his work, too). The final design was executed in acrylic on canvas. All lettering and copy was designed by Duke in a style that evoked an Indiana Jones movie crossed with Hemingway.

To own the original paintings, Remington paid Duke an average $18,000 apiece — fair pay, even by today’s standards.

“The quality of the posters was excellent,” notes Kevin Pipes, CEO and president of the Smoky Mountain Knife Works store in Sevierville, TN (“The World’s Largest Online Knife Store”). “Larry was great at tying in the theme of the poster to the knife he was presenting.”

Duke’s first poster for Remington in 1982 was titled Bad Time for a Snag. It depicted two loaded canoes desperately trying to stay afloat amid rapids, while a snagged rope hangs one on a submerged tree limb. A man uses his Bullet Knife to cut the entangling rope away. The scene leaves you almost gasping at the immediacy of the protagonist’s peril: but for the knife, they’re screwed.

“The first poster was recognized by a few collectors and sportsman as a throwback to the early 1900’s style of advertising and was snapped up,” recalls Arthur Wheaton, Remington’s then-VP of sales and marketing.

Remington offered a new Bullet Knife in 1983, but didn’t change the poster. Later that year, however, the company realized it could sell the knife on the strength of the poster. In 1984, Trouble on the Trail used an image of a sportsman freeing a rearing mule from a snagged pack rope to sell its Lockback knife.

“The knife was always the hero in every poster that Duke produced,” Wheaton says.

Remington ran the Bullet Knife posters from 1982 to 1997, 15 of which were by Duke. (The artist was out of town when Remington’s 1988 commission came by mail. Not hearing from him in time, they hired artist Bruce Wolfe. Duke found the envelope from Remington almost a year later in his carport with the message from the firm largely obliterated by banana slug tracks.)

Ultimately, Remington thought the Bullet Knife series could stand on its own. Nevertheless, the firm has all of the original paintings on display in its Madison, NC, headquarters.

Rod Taylor is senior VP-sales promotion for CoActive Marketing in Cincinnatti, OH. He can be reached at rtaylor@getcoactive.com.

A CUT ABOVE

Would-be knife and art collectors, here’s a current estimate of comparative value on the Bullet series:
YEAR TITLE KNIFE ARTIST VALUE
1982 “Bad Time for a Snag” Bullet Larry Duke $500
1983 “A Break in the Action” Baby Bullet Larry Duke $250
1984 “Trouble on the Trail” Lockback/Large Lockback Larry Duke $375
1985 “In the Nick of Time” Woodsman Larry Duke $250
1986 “Strapped” Hunter Larry Duke $195
1987 “Two on the Line” Fisherman Larry Duke $125
1988 “A Pack of Trouble” Muskrat Bruce Wolfe $125
1989 “Out on a Limb” Trapper Larry Duke $100
1990 “Rattled” Tracker Larry Duke $100
1991 “Through Thick and Thin” Mini-Tracker Larry Duke $100
1992 “Helping the Ol’ Sport Out” Guide Larry Duke $125
1993 “A Rack Awry” Bush Pilot Larry Duke $175
1994 “Times A-Wastin’ Son” Camp Larry Duke $150
1995 “Rapid Action” Master Guide Larry Duke $100
1996 “Knot in the Plan” Trail Hand Larry Duke $100
1997 “Cut and Run” Lumber Jack Larry Duke $100
*Source: Art Wheaton

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