Why the Skilcraft Pen Has Been Used by the Military Since 1968
When the U.S. military finds a good piece of gear, it tends to hang on to it for as long as possible. Generations of veterans have used weapons like the M1911 sidearm, the M16 family of rifles and the M2 “Ma Deuce” machine gun.
When it comes to nonlethal equipment, helmets and body armor come and go, but there’s one piece that has remained unchanged since around the time the M16 was first introduced: the Skilcraft pen.
It would be very difficult to believe anyone who’s served in the military or worked in federal service hasn’t come across the workhorse of U.S. military bureaucracy at some point in their career. The government’s go-to ballpoint was introduced in April 1968 and shows no signs of being replaced any time soon.
The pen is made by the National Industries for the Blind (Skilcraft is the NIB’s trade name), a nonprofit that provides training and employment for the visually impaired. They churn out a great product at just 60 cents per unit while living up to 16 full pages of government-mandated requirements.
The pens must be able to write a continuous line one mile long and be able to do it in temperatures ranging from -40 degrees to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Its ink must dry within five seconds without smearing or blotting; it can be submerged in water for up to 48 hours and will withstand two bleachings. They also have to be 5⅛ inches long, so they can be fully inserted into a uniform pocket.
Durability is a critical factor for any piece of equipment that has served in every American conflict since the Vietnam War, but in that time period, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have found a number of off-label uses for the pen.
On many maps, some sailors say, the pen’s length is equal to 150 nautical miles, which makes it easy to measure distance using the pen as a quick reference. The bottom part of the pen’s barrel is supposedly the same length as a two-minute fuse, and some medics have reportedly seen the pen’s barrel used for emergency tracheostomies.
Skilcraft pens have been used to keep the nails of female troops in regulation, to repair connectors on military aircraft avionics, plug holes in pipes and who knows how many other uses that have been specific to one’s military occupational specialty. Rumor even has it that they are refillable, but there are few anecdotes of anyone using all the ink before losing one.
Civilians interested in test-driving a Skilcraft pen but who aren’t employed by the United States can still have the chance to accidentally take one home. As the official pen of the federal government, they can be found at post offices around the country.
— Blake Stilwell can be reached at [email protected]. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.
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