45,000 Swiss Army knives!
Yes, that is what the Victorinox factory at Ibach in Switzerland can produce in a day. These knives are exported to over 130 countries all over the world.
But does the Army of Switzerland actually use any of these knives?
The Switzerland army uses the Swiss Army Knife model ‘Soldier’ as standard issue. At the beginning of service, each new recruit in the Switzerland Army receives this model. This model is often referred to as Model 08.
Interestingly, the Standard Issue knife is also subjected to inspection, and as such a recruit is required to keep his Swiss Army Knife clean and shiny.
In fact, the soldiers of the Switzerland Army have been using a Swiss Army Knife since 1891!
To date, the Swiss Army has remained the biggest customer of Victorinox for more than a century.
The First ‘Swiss Army Knife’ for the Switzerland Army
The first multi-purpose knife that was issued to the Swiss Army is known as the Model 1890. It was introduced to the Swiss Army in January 1891.
Contrary to popular belief, it was not produced in Switzerland or by any Swiss company. Wester & Co, a German company based in Solingen produced the model as per the specifications of the Swiss army.
The Model 1890 had a blade, a screwdriver, a can opener, and an awl. It had a wooden handle and measured 100mm in length.
In fact, Model 1890 was not known as a Swiss Army Knife back then. It was more commonly known as the Swiss Soldier Knife. But by all means, it was the first multi-purpose folding knife issued to the Swiss soldiers and is the ancestor of present-day Swiss Soldier’s Knife 08.
Inspirations for the first ‘Swiss Soldier Knife’
The inspiration for the first multi-purpose knife for the Swiss army dates back to the 1860s when the army used Vetterli rifles.
For proper maintenance of these rifles, one had to carry a set of tools commonly known as ‘Vetterli tools‘.
By 1889, the Vetterli rifles used by the Swiss Army were replaced with Schmidt-Rubin rifles.
For servicing and maintenance of these rifles, the soldiers had to keep with them what is called a ‘Swiss SCHMIDT RUBIN cleaning kit‘. Especially, a screwdriver was required to disassemble these rifles.
Because of this, the army wanted a tool that could aid them in their day-to-day activities.
- Cleaning and disassembling Schmidt-Rubin rifles, specifically, the M1889 Swiss service rifle
- Opening food canisters
- Eliminate the need of carrying multiple tools in the soldier’s pack, thereby reducing weight and taking less space
As such, specific tools were included in Model 1890 to address these requirements.
Improvement of Model 1890
In 1891, Karl Elsener, a Swiss knife maker, secured a contract from the Swiss Army to produce the Model 1890 in Switzerland itself.
Karl Eslener’s knife-making company later went on to be known as Victorinox.
In 1897, Elsener improved upon the original model by designing a new folding pocket knife that employed two special springs.
This design enabled to have tools on both sides of the knife, making it more compact and functional.
This model was called the Swiss Officer’s and Sports Knife. The model also included a corkscrew. The Swiss Army did not consider a corkscrew as an essential tool for survival. As such, the ‘Soldier Knife’ remained the standard issue in the army.
However, the soldiers as well as the common people were free to purchase the Officer’s Knife separately. it was available for purchase in cutlery shops.
Later on, the dual spring design was incorporated into the Swiss Soldier Knife too.
Identification of Soldier Knife
The Soldier knife was also available for purchase individually for non-military use. As such, Victorinox devised a way for identification of the knife based on usage.
|Standard Issue for Swiss Army||The tang of the blade had the year of issue stamped on it|
|Non-military: not issued by the Army||These are the ones that you could buy from cutlery shops. The tang of the blade had the letter ‘P’ stamped on it.|
|Ex-commission, retired army personnel||After the commission is over, a soldier could keep his knife for personal use. In such cases, a ‘P’ was stamped on the tang of the blade along with the date of the year of issue.|
Evolution of The Soldier Knife: From Model 1890 to Model 08
The latest incarnation of the Swiss Army Knife model ‘Soldier’ or Model 08 is the result of many iterations and improvements over the very first model, the Model 1890.
Over a period of more than a century, Victorinox (along with Wenger) has designed and produced more than 400 different models of the Swiss Army knife. But the Swiss army has officially used only 8 of those models.
In fact, the Swiss army only issued updates to the official model when other changes in standard army equipment required new tools in the pocket knife. As such, major changes to the original design have been few and far between.
Out of these iterations and improvements over the original design, two design changes have been quite significant.
This model completely changed the look of the knife.
- The wooden handles were replaced with anodized Aluminium
- The length of the tool was reduced to 93mm
- All the tools were now made from stainless steel
- Minor changes in the design of some tools, like the can opener and the awl
The 1961 Model was more commonly referred to as the ‘Alox‘ model, coined from Aluminium and Inox (stainless steel). You may want to read more about Victorinox Alox along with its advantages and disadvantages that I explained here.
This model has remained the official knife of the Swiss army for 49 years! Presently, this model is marketed as ‘Pioneer Alox’ to the general public.
In fact, a slightly upgraded model, the ‘Pioneer X Alox‘ is one of the most popular Swiss Army Knife models. It adds an extra tool – a pair of scissors.
Model 2008 (current model)
This model again was a significant departure from the earlier 1961 model in terms of looks and functionality.
- Two-component anti-slip scales were introduced for a secure grip in extreme weather conditions
- The length of the tool was increased to 111mm
- The blade is made larger and longer with both plain and serrated edge
- The blade has a one-handed opening mechanism as well as a locking mechanism
- The screwdriver cum bottle opener also has a locking mechanism
- Two new tools were added – a Philips screwdriver and a wood saw
This model is known as Soldatenmesser 08 or ‘Soldier’s Knife 08’. However, more commonly it is referred to as the Swiss Army Knife Soldier.
Though it was designed in 2008, The Swiss army officially made this model a standard issue in 2009.
The current model has a black-and-olive-green combination handle.
The modified design has made the official pocket knife of the Swiss Army stronger, lighter, and more functional than any of the previous models.
All Swiss Army standard-issue models prior to Model 2008 were produced by both Victorinox and Wenger. As of today, since Wenger doesn’t exist as a separate company, Victorinox remains the sole producer of Model 2008.
To know the differences between the Swiss Army Knives produced by Victorinox and Wenger, do read:
Victorinox Vs Wenger SAKs: 16 Notable Differences
Other Armies that use Swiss Army Knife
The popularity and usefulness of the Swiss Army Knife have made many other countries adopt some variant of the Soldier Model 08 as the pocket knife of their armed forces. The variations often include slight changes in the tools and a stamp of the army of that country on the scales.
As of today, more than 20 countries have approved the use of specific models of the Swiss Army Knife in the army. The armed forces of some countries have even made the Swiss Army Knife a standard issue and have long-running contracts with Victorinox.
Victorinox is the official supplier of pocket knives to the military of the following countries:
- Germany – the model used by the German army is also known as the German Army Knife, or GAK
- United States – this model is commonly known as the Combat Utility Knife
- Netherlands – this model is also referred to as the Dutch Army Knife, or DAK
Karl Elsener wanted the Switzerland army to carry Swiss-made knives instead of German-made knives. Remember, Wester & Co, the German company which produced the first pocket knife for the Swiss army, Model 1890?
Well, today Elsener’s company Victorinox is the official supplier of the pocket knife that the German army uses.
The Swiss army has been using some models of the Swiss Army knife for more than a century.
The armed forces will probably go on approving a Swiss Army Knife as standard issue for the foreseeable future.
The official pocket knife of the Swiss Army
In fact, many Swiss soldiers carry two Swiss Army Knives. One issued by the army, and another that they actually use. This way they can keep the official one clean as it is subjected to regular inspection 🙂