September 01, 2023
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It’s interesting to note that initially the Swiss Army Knife wasn’t actually Swiss. The original M1890 Swiss Soldiers Knife was produced in Germany and was designed to aid in cleaning and disassembling the Schmidt-Rubin Rifle M1889 Swiss service rifle, as well as opening food containers. This eliminated carrying multiple tools in the soldier’s pack, thus saving weight and space. In 1891, the Karl Elsener Company, later known as Victorinox, received a contract to manufacture the Swiss Soldiers Knife in Switzerland. In 1893, the company that would become Wenger SA also won a contract to produce M1890 knives. Swiss Army Knives would continue to be produced by both Victorinox and Wenger until Victorinox acquired Wenger in 2005.
What really made Elsener, though, was his production of what he named the “Swiss Officer’s and Sports Knife,” an improved M1890 knife he sold commercially. Over the ensuing decades myriad versions of the Swiss Army Knife have been produced for both military and civilian customers. Swiss military versions of the knife have evolved to fit the needs of a modern, citizen soldier. I have two military issue knives that I’ve used, including the Model 1961 in the 1994 configuration. It’s a small knife that incorporates a drop point blade, reamer, bottle opener/screw driver/wire stripper, and can opener/small screwdriver. In addition to aiding the Swiss soldier in preparing his rations, this Soldiers Knife was designed to aid in maintaining the Stgw57 and Stgw90 assault rifles.
Current issue is the Soldier Knife 08, sold by Victorinox commercially as the Trekker. I’ll discuss this one in detail later. I still have the first Swiss Army Knife I bought. I originally purchased it between 40 and 50 years ago and carried it in my pocket for at least 30 years in around 40 countries. During the pre-9/11 days, I normally carried it aboard airplanes with no drama. Post 9/11, I had to stick it in my checked luggage. A couple of times when I was flying with just carryon luggage I bought a Swiss Army Knife after I arrived.
I’m not sure the model I used for all of those years is currently marketed, but the knife sold as the Fieldmaster is close. Without going into great detail but to give some idea of the uses to which I’ve put my longtime companion Swiss Army Knife (SAK), I’ll give some examples of its uses. I’ve used the tweezers numerous times to pull out splinters and once — in conjunction with a lighter sterilized knife blade — to dig out a piece of copper jacket that had ricocheted into my forearm.
The toothpick has served its purpose after many exotic meals, and, trust me, it’s much safer than trying to use a knife as a toothpick! The scissors may be the most used of all the tools on my vintage SAK. I’ve trimmed my mustache, eyebrows, and hair; cut the sleeves off of shirts in tropical climes; cut out the front of a sneaker to give relief to an injured foot; and trimmed fingernails that were starting to look like those of Nosferatu. I’ve used the awl for an assortment of tasks, but one that I remember well is employing it to add a hole to my belt a couple of times when I dropped quite a bit of weight. And, a painful reminder is that I have used it to lance blisters after sterilizing the tip.
All of the tools on my Swiss Army Knife have served their intended and, in some cases, unintended purpose numerous times. The screwdrivers have come to the rescue often. The design of the Phillips screwdriver, which allows the SAK’s body to serve as a T-handle, gives the little screwdriver the ability to loosen tight screws. The metal file has proven useful for honing gun parts as well as other small parts. I’ve been particularly impressed with the saws incorporated into my SAK. The wood saw definitely is mighty for its size. I’ve sawn limbs up to 1½ to 2 inches with it surprisingly quickly. With the metal saw, I’ve cut through bolts or other steel items. I’ve occasionally encountered a task my much-traveled Swiss Army Knife couldn’t handle, but not very often.
Let me say a few words about some features I haven’t mentioned that are on other versions of the Swiss Army Knife. The Swiss Army Champ and some others incorporate a small magnifying glass. I’ve seen it written that it can be used to start a fire. That’s true, but it is a difficult process. I did it once with a Swiss Champ with a magnifier when I was writing a book on survival knives. It took me an hour or more and required bright sun, and really dry bark and tinder to get a fire going.
There is another option, though, Tortoise Gear’s Firefly. This is a small flint which fits into the toothpick recess on the SAK. Cost is $16.49 for three and they produce a shower of hot sparks when scraped with the back of the saw. For Swiss Army Knives with a corkscrew, Tortoise Gear’s Fireant is a clever fire-starting aid. This fire rod along with a Helix tinder, twist onto the corkscrew for storage. When needed, remove the Helix tinder and pull apart exposing the inner strands. Then use the back edge of the wood saw and scrape a shower of sparks off the Fireant onto the Helix tinder igniting it. Using the Fireant and Helix tinder I found it was easy to start a fire even in wet conditions. A 3-pack retails for $18.99 and visit www.tortoisegear.com for more information.
The corkscrew is useful if you need to open a wine bottle. I also found it useful for boring into a coconut. On many current SAKs, a tiny screwdriver useful for the screws on glasses fits into the corkscrew. That can be really useful for fixing glasses, but carrying a spare screw might be advisable as well. Some current SAKs incorporate a tiny ballpoint pen. I’m neutral on that one, but the ability to write a message in an emergency might be useful. Also incorporated into some current large Swiss Army Knives is a pair of pliers. Based on those I’ve examined, they are light duty pliers. I would prefer the pliers on a multi-tool, one of which I always carry in my truck and/or on my belt. Likewise, I’ve never really considered the SAKs with a compass a necessity as I normally use a M2 military-type compass if I’m off the beaten track.
I could continue to talk about various features of SAKs, but it’s easiest to sum up by saying: Victorinox offers an array of Swiss Army Knives suited to every taste. For me portability so I can carry mine in my pocket is important. As I mentioned earlier, I carry a SOG or Leatherman multi-tool in my truck and also a Swiss Champ Victorinox so I have an array of tool options if I need them. However, my primary location for the Swiss Army Knife remains in my pocket so it is always available. That brings me back to the latest Swiss military issue knife — the Soldier Knife 08.
The Soldier Knife 08 offers a lot of versatility but remains easily pocketed at only 4.4-inches long, .7-inch thick, and 4.6 ounces in weight. Unlike most SAKs, the SK 08 has a blade designed for one-hand opening and with a liner lock. Though it’s not designed for close combat it could be used for self-defense in an emergency. The blade is also lightly serrated. The SK 08 incorporates the following tools:
- Large blade with wavy edge
- Reamer, punch
- Bottle opener, lockable
- Wire stripper
- Screwdriver 7.5mm
- Wood saw
- Phillips screwdriver ½ inch
- Can opener
- Screwdriver 3mm
- Key ring
This knife retains most of the features of the SAK I’ve always liked but with a much more usable primary blade. I’ve removed the key ring so the knife doesn’t snag in my pocket. NOTE: The Soldier Knife 08 is available commercially as the Victorinox Trekker.
(Editor’s Note: The Victorinox Trekker is a great tool. I have had one with a non-serrated blade (which I prefer) for over nine years. The 4.4-inch blade is a practical shape, holds an edge well and can be opened with one hand. It cuts and slices well and is useful for a variety of basic cutting chores. What I like about this tool though is everything else it brings to the table. As Leroy has mentioned, the saw is very well designed and the teeth cut surprisingly well, making very fast work when sawing through a branch or other wood. Many today fail to appreciate the value and capabilities of a small saw like this when in the woods.
I like having a dedicated can opener, and the Victorinox design works efficiently. It’s faster and easier to use than a P-38. I don’t have much use for a bottle opener, but it works well and doubles as flat-head screwdriver, the same as the can opener. The reamer/awl works well and easily punches through leather while the Philips screwdriver is good to have in the mix and is a useful size. Tweezers are another good item to have and the Victorinox’s work well for removing splinters.
I have no use for the toothpick so replaced it with a Tortoise Gear Firefly fire starter. This was just a bit loose, so I added a dab of Super Glue at the top and let it dry and that extra material provided enough tension for it to be securely retained. Using the back of the saw to scrape the Flyfly produces a shower of sparks and thus provides the ability to make a fire.
What don’t I like about the Victorinox Trekker? I really wish it had a pocket clip! This would be a valuable addition for EDC. Plus the reamer/awl should have a hole in it, like some other models, so it can be used for sewing heavy material. Otherwise, it’s a well-made and practical tool to have with a street price around $60. The US Military has even adopted a variant of this model.)
I’ll conclude by stating that I don’t believe there is a “best Swiss Army Knife.” I think for the individual user there will be one that may suit his needs best. I own multiple Swiss Army Knives and use the larger Swiss Champ as a folding toolbox kept in my truck. My vintage one that I’ve carried for much of my adult life still lies atop my dresser and gets slipped into my pocket occasionally. For everyday pocket carry these days I choose the Swiss Soldier Knife 08 because of its more versatile primary blade, but it still retains most of the features I liked with my long-serving companion.
The article was originally posted in Be Ready! magazine. You can purchase an original copy at OSGnewsstand.com. If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.