The Fable of the $435 Hammer

This item ran in our “Hands-on Experience” feature in the Oct./Nov. 2016 issue. For the latest new hand tools on the market, read our Oct./Nov. 2016 issue.

Unless you were still in diapers in the early 1980s, you probably remember a lot of talk on the news about how the U.S. Pentagon was spending $435 on garden variety, wooden-handled hammers. (Some later accounts boosted the figure to $600.)

The story feed into a growing mistrust of government in the post-Watergate era, and later inspired Vice President Al Gore to dole out “Hammer Awards” for the worst examples of government waste.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t really true.

Government accounting practices required defense contractors to spread R&D and other overhead costs over all the items they were expensing. So those overinflated hammer invoices actually included development costs for everything from bulletproof vests to laser-guided missiles. But, on the flipside, you could pick up bunker-buster bombs for a steal.