The knife is a silent and deadly weapon that is easily concealed and against which, in the hands of an expert, there is no sure defence, except firearms or running like hell.
-From the declassified Special Operations Executive Syllabus
When it comes to modern combat knives, the two most iconic knives of the Western world are undoubtedly the American “KA-BAR” and the British Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife. These two knives represent completely different philosophies with the KA-BAR being a very strong and sturdy fighting knife of utilitarian design, and the Fairbairn-Sykes representing a more elegant design for more delicate use in clandestine operations.
To really understand these knives, however, we have to look back at the contexts for which they were designed and what needs they were intended to satisfy.
Fairbairn & Sykes
So, stepping back in history…
Famous British Lt. Col. W.E. Fairbairn joined the British Marines at the age of 15, using faked documents stating that he was of legal age, i.e. 18. He was deployed to serve in Japanese-occupied Korea already in 1903, then at the real age of 18. Here he spent much of his time practicing various forms of martial arts with Japanese and Korean fighters, practiced drilling with the Royal Marines and fighting Japanese Army troops with bayonet.
Fairbairn left the military in 1907 and instead joined the Shanghai Municipal Police, serving in one of the red light districts, then considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the world. Shanghai was a one of the most important centres for the opium trade, the precursor of today’s heroin and cocaine trade and just about as sinister, with related crime and well-armed gang activity. This increased dramatically after opium trade once again became illegal in 1906, after having been forced upon and “legalized” in China by the British Empire. (For more on this see the 1st Opium War & the 2nd Opium War). Of course as with any city, and in particular port cities, gambling and prostitution was also common and it was by some called the vice capital of the world. Around this time more than 10% of the Chinese were smoking opium. About 15% of China’s crop acreage was dedicated to opium while 20 years later twice as much, a change which would greatly diminish the need for British export of opium to China.
As a result of the initiative taken a year earlier, the Shanghai Municipal Council stopped issuing licenses to opium dens in 1907, the very year of Fairbairn’s arrival. The same year he was stabbed a dozen times by members of a Chinese separatist gang and left to die in the back streets of Shangha, but luckily he managed to survive this brutal experience.
Ten years later, in 1917, the last legal opium shop was closed. Opium trade didn’t disappear though. Quite the contrary. This was a golden age for the Green Gang triad, collaborating with the senior Chinese officer in the French gendarmerie Huang Jinrong in taking over the whole opium trade which now made more money than ever.
As if this wasn’t enough, Shanghai was also haunted by increased Chinese nationalist activity, an increasing amount of armed robberies. Terrorist kidnappings & bombings and rioting and large-scale conflict was also very common. The Green Gang was often hired by Chinese Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang for political violence and they, along with other criminal gangs took part in the White Terror massacre where some 5,000 pro-communist strikers in Shanghai were slaughtered in April 1927.
It was a huge boiling pot of vicious violence and Fairbarn was right in the middle of it at quite young age, something which would shape the rest of his life, laying the foundation of a very pragmatic and ruthless perspective on violence and martial arts.
Later, after the war, Fairbairn would create and train a special anti-riot squad for the SMP and many of the tactics and techniques developed here are still in use today.
It is here, in 1919 in Shanghai, that he met Eric A. Sykes, while Sykes was still working with weapons import/export at a British Secret Service-run company. Sykes was an expert marksman and came to form and oversee a team of civilian & police snipers for the SMP and naturally he also became the head of this unit in 1937. In 1939 Sykes would properly join the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS-MI6).
Based on their experiences and training the two designed their own martial arts system for specific use for the Shanghai Municipal Police called Defendu. For hand-to-hand combat Fairbairn mixed Savate, Jujitsu, early Judo, Chinese martial arts (he had studied Kung-Fu with the Empress’ former bodyguard), wrestling and boxing, all of it reflected against his own experience of raw and brutal street fighting as a police.
The below video is from a dvd released by Gutter Fighting Films in Australia and while dubbed in Greek it has been subtitled using the original and publicly available scripts. If you have an interest in the topic, then it is strongly suggested you support their work by ordering the dvd.
The system emphasized pragmatical rather than gentlemanly and honourable fighting, teaching rapid disabling of the opponent with potentially lethal force. Fairbairn declared:
Get tough, get down in the gutter, win at all costs… I teach what is called ‘Gutter Fighting.’ There’s no fair play, no rules except one: kill or be killed.
The techniques of the system were brutal and quick, which can be examplified by the following quote from the SOE syllabus:
The Queensberry rules enumerate, under the heading of ‘fouls’, some good targets which the boxer is not trained to defend. This, however, is WAR, not sport. Your aim is to kill your opponent as quickly as possible. … So forget the Queensberry rules; forget the term ‘foul methods’. That may sound cruel, but it is still more cruel to take longer than necessary to kill your opponent. ‘Foul methods’, so-called, help you to kill more quickly… Don’t just stop because an opponent is crippled. If you have broken his arm, for instance, that is only of value because it is then easier to kill.
During his 30 years of service in Shanghai Fairbairn reportedly engaged in at least 600 actual fights. Large parts of his body, with arms, legs, torso and even the palms of his hands are said to have been covered with scars from knife wounds sustained during those years.
The Defendu system was designed to be easy to learn and to provide effective results. It included unarmed fighting as well as gun combat & point shooting, use of knives, clubs and improvised weapons such as chairs or table legs. As such it fulfilled the needs of the military quite well too. Consequently, Fairbairn’s and Sykes’ teachings were adopted by the Allies in 1941 and first taught at the British Commando School in Scotland, although in a militarized form called British Close Quarters Combat. Much of Fairnbairn’s and Sykes’ pioneering work in close combat, riot control, clandestine operations and trained instinctive fighting with guns and knives is still in use by military and police around the world today.
The Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife
Already in Shanghai Fairbairn was working on designing a combat knife for their martial arts system, together with Sykes and a young US Marines officer; 2nd Lt. Samuel Sylvester Yeaton.
The work continued back in England in November 1940, then with the less commonly known, Col. Leslie Wood R.E and Jack Wilkinson Latham of manufacturer Wilkinson Sword Ltd. And this is the actual birth of the now quite iconic knife, the British commando knife, commonly called the Fairbairn-Sykes.
Possibly some inspiration was taken from the simple 17th and 18th cent. “plug” bayonets such as the one depicted below, but the design is also similar to many other classical dagger and stiletto designs of the preceding centuries. Regardless, the final result was a very carefully designed and engineered fighting knife.
Fairbairn’s philosophy for the design was naturally based on his experience of close quarters combat during the preceding decades, although in military version made longer to reach vital organs through thick military garments.
In close-quarters fighting there is no more deadly weapon than the knife. In choosing a knife there are two important factors to bear in mind: balance and keenness. The hilt should fit easily in your hand, and the blade should not be so heavy that it tends to drag the hilt from your fingers in a loose grip. It is essential that the blade have a sharp stabbing point and good cutting edges, because an artery torn through (as against a clean cut) tends to contract and stop the bleeding. If a main artery is cleanly severed, the wounded man will quickly lose consciousness and die.
This knife was designed primarily for quick, ruthless and silent disposal of enemies, preferably from behind, and was soon issued to British Commandos, the Airborne Forces, the SAS and many other troops. The knife came in many different versions; fully black, half-black, plain steel and also with a nickel-plated hilt. The latter followed Fairbairn’s philosophy of;
I believe that a knife should be bright and highly polished for the reason that 20% of the fight is lost by not striking awe in the mind of the victim that a flashing knife gives.
Almost two million of these British fighting knives are estimated to have been produced.
In June 1942 The two partners split ways on less than friendly terms with Sykes claiming that Fairbairn had treated him as an inferior. Fairbairn was borrowed to the US military and the OSS, to teach close combat techniques at Camp X in Canada and later at US Camp B (now Camp David). Maj. Eric A. Sykes stayed in Great Britain, training Special Operations Executive agents at their various training centres.
The OSS stiletto
One of Fairbairn’s American students, Col. Rex Applegate continued working on spreading and developing the teachings of Fairbairn and Sykes in his own teaching of OSS operatives at Camp X. Quite naturally this also led to the OSS’s own version of the Fairbairn-Sykes combat knife, the OSS Stiletto, a knife also used in Applegate’s 1943 manual “Kill or get killed“.
The knife was manufactured by several companies including Pasadena Firearms and Landers, Frary & Clark. The latter had manufactured pancake flappers before the war which is quite apparent from the design of the scabbard. Consequently that was also the name that was given to it, the pancake flapper. Reportedly it was Fairbairn’s personal favourite scabbard type.
Some 10,000 of these knives were produced until August 1943.
The US V-42 Stiletto
Meanwhile, US Lt. Colonel Robert T. Frederick, who had seen the Fairbairn-Sykes dagger while on duty in England, had come to wish for an American version of this knife and initiated the making of an improved version of it that would come to be designated the V-42 Stiletto.
This was designed for use by the American-Canadian elite commando; the 1st Special Service Force (FSSF), the so called Devil’s Brigade, and had a pointy pommel designed for cracking skulls, a blade with a double hollow-ground bevel and a ricasso designed specifically to promote thumbing the blade in a side-grip.
The V-42 Stiletto was first issued in 1942 to the FSSF as their standard fighting knife. The knife is said to have had great piercing capacities, even capable of piercing a steel helmet with liner, but also prone to breaking if used for prying. It also commonly got stuck in bone, making it difficult to withdraw and some soldiers are said to have ground down the tip because of this. Only 3000 V-42 Stilettos were manufactured with only one shipment of 1,750 knives delivered.
The US Marine Raider Stiletto
Following this the US military decided to design a more official copy of the Fairbairn-Sykes knife, albeit with some changes to the design due to financial concerns. The knife was manufactured by Camillus Cutlery Co and was in standard delivery decorated on the blade with the letters “USMC” framed by leaves. Some 15,000 were manufactured, although only ca 6,000 marines served as Raiders.
However, the changes to this version of the fighting knife had turned out to be serious flaws. The hilt was a zinc-aluminum one-piece die-cast directly onto the tang and with time, the zinc ions leaked out, leaving the hilt very brittle and weak. Furthermore, for economical reasons the blade had been made thinner and as the tempering was also inferior the whole knife was rather fragile, if still deadly when used correctly. A retired USMC commented on it in the following words:
It was pointed out that it should never be thrown, as it was designed as a hand-held weapon to be used only in combat. It was also pointed out that it was brittle and would break even if just dropped, particularly the point.
— M.G. Oscar F. Peatross, USMC retired
Consequently, non-commando troops commonly found it lacking for fighting and their need for every day utility use wasn’t nearly satisfied, with it’s inherent weakness and completely round grip. They would much rather have a more versatile tool that would not just let them fight, but also let them hammer, pry open boxes and tins & cans, cut wire, split wood etc. Consequently, for some troops, the stiletto was thus for a brief period replaced by short machetes or even personal hunting knives, commonly of Bowie-like designs like the Randall Model 1 and the Marble’s Ideal hunting knife, where the latter likely served as inspiration for what was to come.
The Mark 1 Trench Knife & Mark 3 Fighting Knife
Still in WWII the old WWI Mark 1 Trench Knife (M1918) was reissued by the Army as a large stock remained from WWI. Most of these were issued to Army Rangers and Airborne troops, but some were reissued to Marines, in particular Raiders.
Support for the knife was mixed but the expensive bronze knuckle hilt limited the gripping options and the somewhat weak blade had a tendency to break when prying things. As such it was not a success and in 1943 it was replaced by the M3 Fighting Knife. Some troops however, initially received the Raider Stiletto described above.
The M3 Fighting Knife in in turn would be highly influential on military knives around the world and served as the role model for many, many military knives which more or less copied the design.
The USMC Mark 2 Combat Knife
As a result of the issues with the Raider Stilettos and the Mark 1 Trench Knives, the USMC issued a specification for a request for a modern and more versatile fighting knife, sent to several military knife & tool suppliers in 1942. The starting point was to be the US Navy Mark 1 Utility knife and the Marble Ideal. Basic requirements included e.g. good strength and durability, reasonable cost and low enough weight for comfortable hip carrying. USMC Col. John M. Davis and Maj. Howard E. America worked together with Union Cutlery and the result was the USMC Fighting Knife, first designated 1219C2, later redesignated as the USMC Mark 2 Combat Knife.
It was adopted by the USMC on Nov 23 1942 and the first knives were shipped by the maker of the earlier USMC Raider Stiletto; Camillus Cutlery Co. on Jan 27 1943. In late 1943 it replaced the Raider Stiletto and it was subsequently also adopted by the US Navy, then marked as the US Navy Utility Knife Mark 2.
During WW2, the Mark 2 Combat knife was also contracted for manufacture by three more companies; Union Cutlery Co, Robeson Cutlery Co. and PAL Cutlery Co. The quality and design of the Mark 2 Combat Knife led to the knife becoming both popular and hugely successful in many different environments. Consequently it was eventually issued not just to Marines and Navy, but also Army, Coast Guard and Underwater Demolition teams.
While Camillus Cutlery Co. was the biggest manufacturer of contracted combat knives Union Cutlery Co. produced nearly as many knives and was the only company to stamp their knives with the mark “KA-BAR”. However, already in 1944 marines were refering to the knife type as “KA-BARs” and the name has stuck with it regardless of brand since then.
The name itself is said to come from a badly written letter from a fur trapper who wrote to Union Cutlery trying to describe an encounter he had had with a bear, where he had used the knife to kill it. The maker only just managed to make out a few of the letters of the phrase “K(ill) a b(e)ar“. Already in 1923 Union Cutlery was using the name to market their knives, but after the success of the Mark 2 combat knife Union Cutlery Co. renamed itself in 1952 to KA-BAR Cutlery Inc.
At first the KA-BAR received criticism for its dual-purpose, since it was believed that it would be lacking as a fighting knife. However, returning veterans and field reports quickly dispelled any such doubts. A fellow HEMA-fencer and ex-soldier recently commented on the practical difference between the Fairbairn-Sykes and the KA-BAR, based on his 30 years of Special Forces instructing in three different armies:
What special forces like most is a nice wide non-slip grip, and these had that! We didnt care too much about the blade as long as it was over 4 inches long an inch wide at least, and thick enough up the tang not to snap off when cranked about inside a human body. You could soak this grip in water or blood and still keep a good working grip on it.
We hated the Sykes-Fairbairn as the blade tips snapped off in bone and the grip was designed by a surgeon who thought he was doing brain surgery. We had to tape the grips but would mostly use “throwaways” (blades cut from plate steel with the grips taped) as they could be left behind without issue loss, and you could carry several on your webbing.
-Robert Loki Thornton
Former SAS regiment NCO and Special Force consultant
A change in philosphy with far-reaching effects
This radical change in philosophy for combat knives still lives strong in the market for both military and survival knives, especially in the US, where knives are commonly expected to be able to handle any need & abuse you submit them to, be it skinning game, clean fish, splitting wood, cutting wire & fabric, pry open cans, open beer bottles, disassemble a tank etc, etc.
This came to its extreme with the over-the-top Rambo Survival Knives so popular among chairborn rangers in the 80s, but it still exists although in upgraded shape and is currently having a bit of a revival among prepper larpers endlessly debating the virtues of full tang, different types of exotic steel and the evils of stainless steel, dreaming of a super-knife that will survive the cockroaches and be capable of killing 10 zombies in one single cut and still never need to be sharpened.
However, the same philosophy can also be seen in much more sensible application in various proper military survival knives around the world, and certainly in the knife in focus here; the KA-BAR Fighting/Utility Knife.
Moving onwards, after WWII other knives also became popular, among them the famous Randall Model 14 Attack Knife designed by Bo Randall in the 1950s, and the Gerber Mark 2, a knife first issued in 1967 and clearly derived from the Fairbairn-Sykes knife.
Although not officially a US Military fighting knife for the Korea and Vietnam Wars, many troops still carried the KA-BARs and some old WWII KA-BARs were even given by war veterans to their sons serving in these wars.
The KA-BAR Cutlery brand still exists though, although it has been sold several times e.g. in 1960, -61, -66 and -82, ending up sold to Alcas Co, now renamed to Cutco Co, in 1996. The company still manufactures very good knives for a wide array of uses, including bushcraft, military and tactical.
Camillus Cutlery Co, the first military contractor for this knife, filed for bankruptcy in 2007 and Acme United Co purchased the brand and relaunched it as Camillus Cutlery in 2009. More and more old designs are added to the product range but currently no Mark 2 Combat Knife type or other military/tactical knives.
Ontario Knife Company bought Robeson Cutlery Co, one of the original manufacturers of the WWII KA-BARs in 1971. They have had contract with the US military for making KA-BARs ever since 1980 and is currently the only contract holder.
Reports of 30 year old KA-Bars that still hold up magnificently despite constant use are not uncommon, which certainly says something, not just about their quality, but also about the love and care they are given.
Today still, many US soldiers choose to carry a classical KA-BAR with them into the field, trusting in it to keep them safe. In that, it really is a timeless piece of great design.