Bullet pencils: Pocket-friendly utensils from a bygone era

Agricultural bullet pencilsFor reasons I can’t explain, I usually only talk about half of my pencil collection on here. I talk about new products, mostly — pencils available to most everyone that is for sale now.

But I also have a lot of advertising and souvenir pencils. Probably ten cigar boxes worth. They’re not particularly known for being good quality pencils, but they appeal to me in their uniqueness. Many of them are decades old; and I can only imagine that there are not many left in the world.

One subset of that collection are several agricultural bullet pencils. A good friend of mine gave them to me a few years ago after her grandmother died and my friend was in charge of cleaning out her farmhouse in Illinois. There was a drawer full of these old pencils — given to her by salesmen from seed supplier, feed yards, stockyards, and more.

I love these things, but they're pretty old.

I love these things, but they’re pretty decrepit.

I treasure them, though I never use them, mostly because they’re so old. The erasers have petrified and often, the pencil barrel has run down to no more than a nub . And I don’t have dozens and dozens like Aaron Draplin, perhaps known best among this community as the designer of Field Notes. Pencil Revolution interviewed Draplin back in 2011 about this very subject. Draplin loves these little guys. And for good reason:

First off, it’s the compact quality. I love having a tight little drawing tool in the front pocket at all times, and I’m here to tell ya, these little sonofabitches have saved my butt many a time…on airplanes, in meetings, in a pinch, wherever. I always keep one in the front, left pocket of my 501s.

What I love about them the most, is how banal they were back in the day. Simple, cheap advertising tools given away at local businesses. Feed-n-seed joints, car lots, insurance agents, what have you. Just crappy little promo items that packed a real wallop. I’ve got a couple old salesman sample sets. Old and beat up, and a look into what it was like to have a guy sit down and say, “Here’s what we can do for your company.” So good.

(See his entire interview on Pencil Revolution, in two parts: Part 1 and Part 2)

They are indeed so good. One of my few issues with wooden pencils is that when they’re new, they don’t fit easily into a pocket — they’re too long! If I need to easily carry around a pencil in a shirt pocket or pants pocket, and I don’t have a pencil halfway through its life, I’ll turn to the Zebra #2 mechanical or even — gasp — a Fisher bullet pen (though I can’t find mine as of late! I think it fell into the depths of the couch).

From a utilitarian perspective, bullet pencils are great. They’re really no more than 4 or 5 inches long when sheathed, but they extend out to full pencil length when in writing mode.

The trouble is, I don’t think you can get them anymore. (Pencil Talk doesn’t think so. Neither does Field Notes.) A friend of mine who owns a company that makes promotional products says that she was looking for those a couple of years ago, and came up dry.

From JetPens.com. Click image to follow the link.

From JetPens.com. Click image to follow the link.

JetPens.com has something similar, the Midori Brass Bullet Pencil, but to me, it doesn’t count. It’s $21, and made of brass. This isn’t the vintage, plastic cheapie thing that is given away free. (On the other hand, though, the description says that the brass develops a patina after multiple uses, which is pretty cool. And you can buy replacement pencils and erasers to go with it)

If the promotional bullet pencil is just a relic of the past, so be it. While they’re far from the main course of my pencil collection, they’re a delicious, delightful appetizer. Whenever I see one, I’m thrilled to run across it. And if they are becoming more and more rare, I have all the more reason to treasure the few that I have.

20 thoughts on “Bullet pencils: Pocket-friendly utensils from a bygone era

    • That’s a Gold Fibre writing pad by Ampad, Johnny! They sell them at Staples and I just love them. I’ve been using them for three or four years now, and they’re really gorgeous, and the paper is toothy and a light cream color. I wrote about them back in 2011 and still use it every day for notes, to-do lists, etc. at work. This is the 5×8 variety, but I also use the 8.5×11 spiral bound and the regular letter pad, too.

      Thanks for asking! And thanks for that original interview with Aaron Draplin — that was really helpful in helping me figure out if I can still track down those bullet pencils or not.

      • Copper wire=deluxe awesome!
        I already loved the “America the Beautiful” Field Notes for the paper. But, dang, YOU HAD ME AT “COPPER STAPLES.”
        I have to pick some of these Gold Fibre pads up and soon.

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  2. Great post. I love bullet pencils and just won a job-lot of 1930s-era brass advertising bullet pencils on eBay, which prompted me to look into the history of the format and then post my findings on The Jungle Is Neutral blog. Seems bullet pencils date from around the turn of the 20th Century as a kind of trench art from various colonial wars. http://thejungleisneutral.wordpress.com/2013/10/27/the-bullet-pencil/
    Like everyone else here, I’d love to see a new-manufactured metal bullet pencil (preferably Field Notes branded). Being naturally frugal, I’d feel stupid paying such an amount for a single Midori-brand bullet pencil.

  3. There were some a bit ago selling on Ebay as Referee’s pencils. I could see they would be handy for a ref or umpire to keep nestled in the pocket next to the leash for his guide dog.

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  5. I just learned about bullet pencils. My interest is the stockyard advertising on them. My first stockyard related purchase was a vintage 1930s matted photograph of the kansas city stockyards. then on ebay I found a 1940s stockyard invoice for bull purchases. then I found the bullet pencils with the stockyard advertising.

  6. Just came across this Bullet Pencil Blog I am collecting vintage Bullet Pencils advertising Insurance Companies and am looking for contacts to add to my collection.

    • HI Mark, I collect vintage Bullet and Mechanical Pencils advertising Insurance Companies both Life and Casualty. If you have any of these for sale please let me know.

  7. Just found a bullet pencil that was my Grandfather’s. It’s the “Monticello” Home of Thomas Jefferson.
    The pencil inside is a solid cylinder of graphite.

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