When ever you mention the word pocket knife or multi-tool to any person, more than likely the first thing that comes to mind is “Swiss Army Knife”. Swiss Army Knives are, in my opinion one of the most iconic and most useful knives ever made, with a variety applications, such as camping, outdoor sports, and even in a trade environment. In my previous job as a fitter, a regularly carried a Swiss Army Knife, which I have used for many task, such as cutting open boxes, using the tweezers for pulling out splinters and even using the it a screwdriver when I did not have my tools nearby.
In today’s market, there are a wide variety of pocket knives out there, made by a wide variety of manufacturers, one good example is the Leatherman pliers style multi-tool. However, I still believe when it comes for form and functionality, nothing beats the Swiss Army Knife. I have in my experience found they much more easy to carry than other pocket knives and Leatherman multi-tools (even though some of them have pocket clips), while still having a good sized blade for most utility tasks.
Knives with multiple blades and attachment have existed for a long time, with the first mention of multiple bladed knives in contemporary literature such as:
- In the 1851 novel “Moby Dick”, Melville makes mention of a Swiss Army Knife like knife, which he refers to as a “Sheffield contrivances, assuming the exterior – though a little swelled – of a common pocket knife; but containing, not only blades of various sizes, but also screw-drivers, cork-screws, tweezers, awls, pens, rulers, nail-filers, countersinkers”.
- In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle “The return of Sherlock Holmes” (circa 1903-1904), knives with multiple tools as blades (similar to Swiss Army Knives) are refered to as “Multiplex knives” and are mentioned several times.
Strictly speaking, the first Swiss Army Knives were made in 1891, when the Swiss Army decided to issue a new folding knife to their soldiers capable or performing the following task:
- Cutting stuff (who would have guessed?),
- Opening canned food, and
- Having a flat-bladed screwdriver.
The flat-bladed screwdriver was requested so that it could be used as a tool for disassembling the then Swiss service rifle, the Schmidt–Rubin. During the time, Switzerland did not have the capability to manufacture the required quantity of knives, so the initial order was made by a German knife manufacturer Wester & Co. from Solingen, Germany.
In 1891, Karl Elsener, then owner of a company that made surgical equipment, set out to manufacture the knives in Switzerland itself. At the end of 1891 Elsener began production of the Modell 1890 knives.
In 1896, Elsener developed an improved model, allowing the attachment of tools on both sides of the handle using a special spring mechanism, allowing him to use the same spring to hold them in place; an innovation at the time. Elsener could then put twice as many features on the knife. On 12 June 1897, this new knife, featuring a second, smaller cutting blade, a corkscrew, and wood fiber grips, was first registered with the patent office as The Officer’s and Sports Knife.
Karl Elsener used the cross and shield to identify his knives, the symbol still used today on Victorinox-branded versions. When his mother died in 1909, Elsener decided to name his company “Victoria” in her memory. In 1921 the company started using stainless steel to make the Swiss Army Knife. Stainless steel is also known as “inox”, short for the French term “acier inoxydable”. “Victoria” and “inox” were then combined to create the company name “Victorinox”. Victorinox’s headquarters and show room are located in the Swiss town of Ibach.
These Victrinox knives later became popular with many European Armies, in particular the German Army in both World Wars. The name “Swiss Army Knife/Knives” was coined by American soldiers during and after World War Two due to the difficulty they had in pronouncing “”Offiziersmesser”, the German name for the knives.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, Swiss Army Knives were commonly carried by Astronauts, the most popular model being the Master Craftsman. Today, they are stilled used by some soldiers, civilians, tradesmen’s, and advernturist alike.
Swiss Army Knives are made out of stainless steel, and the whole knife is held together by brass pins and bushings, the handle scales used are made out of plastic. There are some variations with clear plastic handle scales and wooden handle scales. On some models the spacers between the tools and blades are made out of aluminum, on others they are made out of nickel silver. The blades on the knives are stainless steel, which are hard enough to hold a good edge, but tough enough to hold up to heavy use, and has adequate corrosion resistance in most situations. The blades are easily sharpened, while still being hard enough for practical use.
While the first batch of Swiss Army Knives, were limited in the tools they carried. Today, Swiss Army Knives come in a variety of models and sizes, all fitted with different tools, such as:
- Large blade (mprinted on the blade shank of Victorinox models with “VICTORINOX SWISS MADE” to verify the knife’s authenticity)
- Small blade
- Nail file / nail cleaner
- Nail file / nail cleaner / metal file / metal saw
- Wood saw
- Fish scaler / hook disgorger / ruler in cm and inches
- Electrician’s blade / wire scraper
- Pruning blade
- Pharmaceutical spatula (cuticle pusher)
- Cyber Tool (bit driver)
- Pliers / wire cutter / wire crimper
- LED light
- USB stick
- Magnifying lens
- Phillips screwdriver
- Hoof cleaner
- Shackle opener / marlinspike
- Can opener / 3 mm slotted screwdriver
- Cap opener / 6 mm slotted screwdriver / wire stripper
- Combination tool containing cap opener / can opener / 5 mm slotted screwdriver / wire stripper
- Multipurpose hook
- 2mm slotted screwdriver
- Corkscrew or Phillips driver
- Mini screwdriver (designed to fit within the corkscrew)
- Pressurized ballpoint pen (with a retractable version on smaller models, and can be used to set DIP switches)
- Stainless pin
- Digital clock / alarm / timer / altimeter /thermometer / barometer
Why are they good:
Swiss Army Knives are good for a number of reasons:
- They are functional tools, while they don’t compare well against a purpose built tool (such as a dedicated wire cutter, or a pair of scissors), considering the fact that it is a handy sized package that you can easily carry in your pocket, they are definitely worth having around.
- They are a great back up to a toolkit, this is especially true if you are a tradesman, there are times when you don’t have immediate access to your toolbox and you need something pocket sized (such as a screwdriver or tweezers).
- They are simple to use, in comparison to other modern folding knives, most Swiss Army Knives don’t have any locking mechanism, making them easy to open and close.
- They are aesthetically pleasing, for me there is something elegant about its minimalist shape and design and its combination of utility.
- They are high quality items, like anything that is Swiss made, the fit and finish on Swiss Army Knives is excellent.
- They are tough, I have been using a Swiss Army Knife in my job as a fitter, and it is still functional despite a year of hard use.
- MacGyver uses a Swiss Army Knife, and if it’s good enough for MacGyver, its good enough for me.
I really like Swiss Army Knives and I have used them for camping, in an industrial environment, for emergency use and even for house hold use. I personally like the convenience of a Swiss Army Knife and there is a feeling a assurance knowing you have a viable back up tool.
If I could only own one knife, it would definitely be a Swiss Army Knife. The Swiss Army Knife is perfect for anyone, whether you be a soldier, adventurist, tradesman, or hobby enthusiast.