An iconic military pen is turning 50. Here's what you should know about that Skilcraft in your desk drawer.

The ubiquitous silver-and-black Skilcraft U.S. Government pens turn 50 this month.



If you're in the military, you know Skilcraft U.S. Government pens. It's the same for anyone who's worked for the federal government or addressed a package at the post office. The ubiquitous silver-and-black pens turn 50 this month. Here are some fun facts about them:

It all started with a 13 million-pen mistake

The nonprofit organization National Industries for the Blind was tapped to supply pens after another manufacturer made 13 million defective ballpoints in 1967. The Skilcraft was introduced to government buyers on April 20, 1968, and it's been going strong ever since.

They're made by the visually impaired

For five decades, the task of making the pens has been entrusted to blind workers. The pens are sold to the federal government through a program started in 1938 to create jobs for people with disabilities. In 2016, the AbilityOne program sold $3.3 billion in goods and services, with more than half coming from military orders.

They meet stringent requirements

There are 16 pages worth of requirements, to be precise. The pens must be able to write a continuous line 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) long and keep the ink flowing despite extreme temperatures — from 40 degrees below zero to 160 degrees (4 to 71 degrees Celsius).

"It was an achievement to actually have your pen run out before you lost it," said Steven Gray, a retired Navy lieutenant commander who served at sea on five vessels. "That was something everybody noticed, 'Hey, I actually burned through a Skilcraft pen this morning.'"

They have alternative uses

Sure, the pen is well-known among military and government families after finding its way into purses and backpacks for years. But it's also been used by the military as improvised devices to plug holes in pipes on boats or perform emergency medical procedures.

Gray said he read a number of accident reports about the pens being used aboard ships for emergency tracheotomies during a stint at the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk.

There are millions

In the pen's heyday, the government bought about 70 million per year. Now the Greensboro, N.C., plant and a second in Milwaukee combine to produce about 8 million of the flagship retractable ballpoints annually, with parts supplied by a third site in Missouri. All three employ visually impaired workers.


It's not just an income for the workers

Lynn Larsen, who's worked at Greensboro Industries of the Blind for 40 years, said the job helped her support her family after her father died. More recently, it was a source of pride when her nephew deployed to Afghanistan with the Army.

"He would tell the other soldiers that his aunt Lynn made that pen, and they thought it was real cool," she said.

The Greensboro workers earn well above minimum wage and can reach around $24 per hour, said Richard Oliver, the site's director of community outreach and government relations.

The benefits go beyond the pay, said Oliver, who is legally blind himself: "We didn't get the opportunity to serve in the military ... so this is our way to serve."

They're an occasional source of mirth

Duffel Blog, a satirical military news site (think The Onion for those who serve), recently paid tribute to the pen with a headline "Meet the Skilcraft pen with 38 career kills,"  which recounts the career-ending, document-signing adventures of Rusty the pen.

"Deep in the bowels of the Pentagon, the most legendary killer in the Department of Defense doesn’t hold high rank, hasn’t been head-hunted by a contractor, and doesn’t even demand a parking spot. In fact, he lives in a desk drawer," the site said.

The bulk of the information in this story is from an Associated Press report by Jonathan Drew.


Employees Lynn Larsen, left, and Clifford Alexander Sr. box Skilcraft pens for the U.S. government at the Industries of the Blind in Greensboro, N.C., on Monday, April 16, 2018. Government pens have been manufactured for 50 years by National Industries for the Blind.