Bullet pencils, as the name suggests, are pencils whose casings are made from spent rifle cartridges. They originated on battlefields in the early nineteenth century, and were sold as souvenirs. .303 British rifle casings were the most commonly used.
As British colonialism spread in Africa, the industry of battlefield souvenirs boomed. Opportunistic scavengers-turned-entrepreneurs picked over battlefields, stepping around the bodies of fallen soldiers, in order to retrieve the bullet casings. They were then sent back to England in bulk to be cleaned up, manufactured into cheap writing instruments, and sold to anyone who wanted their very own piece of the action.
The early models were made by inserting a pencil and propelling mechanism into the bullet casing. The user could advance the graphite in increments in a method similar to modern mechanical pencils. The next generation of bullet pencils, included in Christmas care packages to soldiers from Her Royal Highness The Princess Mary in 1914, were much simpler and contained no moving parts. They were essentially a short pencil stuck into a bullet casing. They were also smaller and ideal for carrying in a pocket on a battlefield.
The mass commercial appropriation of the bullet pencil occurred in the United States beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1950s. The U.S. versions most closely resembled the Princess Mary version, half pencil half bullet, except that they didn’t use real bullet casings. Rather, manufacturers fashioned pieces of aluminum, brass, or other metals into a bullet shape resembling a .30/06 cartridge. Cheap and plentiful though they were, pencils from this era nonetheless were constructed with such durable materials that many have survived to this day, and are still available for purchase through private collectors.
In the late 1950s, “bullet pencils” were manufactured with cheap, flimsy plastic and included erasers and pocket clips. Many also boasted advertisements for every kind of business under the sun, including sports teams and food brands. While they were popular with golfers and umpires – folks for whom their size and lightweight construction made them ideal writing instruments – they barely resembled the original bullet pencils of the nineteenth century. Their shape became the merest suggestion of a bullet, and they were produced and handed out on a grand scale.
Modern manufacturers, including Midori in Japan and Metal Shop right here in the United States, have rebooted the bullet pencil. Modern designs incorporate the conveniences of the pocket clip and eraser with the classic style of the metal casings. The design is a marriage of high function with old-school aesthetics that pays tribute to the heritage of this iconic product. Check them out right here on Pencils.com.