26 Things You Didn’t Know About The Swiss Army Knife

swiss army knife

You’ve all heard of the Swiss army knife. This is, undoubtedly, the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “pocket knife”.

You even probably own one yourself, or are planning to purchase one in the near future. But do you really know the Swiss army knife? I bet you don’t.

Here are 26 things you probably didn’t know about the Swiss army knife.

1) Swiss army knives were originally handcrafted

The origins of the Swiss army knife as we know it today are very humble. Switzerland was in great economic difficulty during the second half of the 19th century, and could not keep up with the growing industries of Europe brought about by the industrial revolution. Karl Elsener was desperate to create employment in his canton of Schwyz, but realised that it would require enormous capital to industrialise the area. Instead he founded the Swiss Cutlers’ Union in 1884, and started his own cutlery company to produce handcrafted knives, in the small town of Ibach. Elsener’s company consisted of a group of about 25 craftsmen, and set out to produce quality utility knives to be used in farms, hospitals and kitchens.

Ibach, Switzerland
Ibach, Switzerland

2) The original company was not meant to produce knives

Karl Elsener’s company was, in 1890, a surgical equipment company, so its seems quite weird that it became the official swiss knife production company a year later. However, Elsener’s Cutler’s Union was basically the only company in Switzerland that could produce knives in such quantity, and their quality handcrafted knives had earned them popularity and respect.

3) The first design of the Swiss army knife was not Swiss

In the late 1880’s, the Swiss army required a simple folding knife for its soldiers. The knives were intended to be utility tools, for soldiers to open food cans and disassemble and assemble their M1889 Swiss service rifles. At this time, there was no Swiss company capable of fulfilling such a contract, so the Swiss army ordered and received its first 15,000 knives from a German company, Wester & co. These knives were labelled Modell 1890. In 1891, Karl Elsener, believing that Swiss army knives should be made in Switzerland, seized the ending contract between the Swiss army and the German company, and took over the production of Modell 1890 knives. Elsener’s company is today known as Victorinox and still makes the official Swiss army knives.

Modell 1890
Modell 1890

4) Swiss army knives were not the first example of multi-tool knives

You might think they were, but they weren’t. In fact, they appeared 40 years after the first actual multitool pocket knife. There are references of such a knife from 1851, in Melville’s “Moby Dick”, which describes it in Chapter 107: “Sheffield contrivances, assuming the exterior – though a little swelled – of a common pocket knife; but containing, not only blades of various sizes, but also screwdrivers, corkscrews, tweezers, awls, pens, rulers, nail-filers, countersinkers.”

5) The swiss army knife was the first two-sided multi-tool

Karl Elsener revolutionized the design of the multitool pocket knife. He figured out in the 1890’s that he could put blades and tool on both sides of the handle using the same spring to hold both sides in place. With this, he was able to put twice as many features and tools on the knives as was previously possible.

6) There is a historical reason behind the screwdriver feature in swiss army knife models

The first Swiss army knife model, Modell 1890, had a spear point blade, a reamer, a can opener, and a screwdriver. Since then, the majority of Swiss army knife models have contained these features. The screwdriver was used by Swiss soldiers to maintain their new firearms. These weapons were brand new, and a screwdriver was needed to take care of them. From there, screwdrivers have been present in most knives, either as an actual screwdriver tool, or as a function of the can opener (Yes, the top of your can opener is a screwdriver – probably another thing you didn’t know).

Modell 1908
Modell 1908

7) In the 1890’s, the Swiss government felt that corkscrews on Swiss army knives were useless

After Elsener took over the contract to produce Swiss army knives in 1891, the Cutler’s Union became unstable, as craftsmen couldn’t keep up with the increasing demand. However, it still carried on its role and released an “officer’s knife”, designed by Elsener himself. The new model’s tools were spring-loaded, and included a corkscrew. This was the Schweizer Offiziers und Sportmesser, or “Swiss Officers and Sports knife”.However, the Swiss government deemed the addition of a corkscrew unnecessary, and continued to issue the soldiers with standard Modell 1890 knives.

8) There are actually two types of Swiss army knives

In 1908, the Swiss army decided to split its knife contract, giving half of the production to Karl Elsener’s company, and the other half to the Paul Bochéat (renamed Wenger) company, directed by Théodore Wenger. Both companies used the cross and shield logo, although the two were slightly different. Victorinox advertised their knives as the “Original Swiss Army knives” and Wenger as the “Genuine Swiss Army knives”. This continued until Victorinox acquired Wenger in 2005, retaining sole control of the Swiss army knife market and industry.

9) The Victorinox brand’s name has an interesting origin

Karl Elsener’s company, the Swiss Cutler’s Union, was founded in 1844. However, when Elsener’s mother, Victoria Elsener, died in 1909, Karl decided to rename his company “Victoria”, in her memory. In 1921, Victoria started using stainless steel to produce its blades. In french, “inox” is the shortened term for “acier inoxydable”, which means ‘stainless steel’. Hence, ‘Victoria’ and ‘inox’ were combined to create the portmanteau name “Victorinox”. This is still the name of the company today, and its headquarters are located in Ibach, Switzerland, where Karl Elsener I had founded the Cutlers’ Union.

10) The Swiss army knife was never supposed to be advertised as the “Swiss army knife”

The actual name of the Swiss army knife that has been produced from the 1890’s was the “Swiss Officers and Sports knife”, or Schweizer Offiziers und Sportmesser, in German. American soldiers completely fell in love with these knives during World War II, and brought them back to America. However, they had difficulty to pronounce the German name, and hence referred to them as the ‘Swiss army knives’.

11) However, this name has become so popular that it is now one of its official names

The fame of the ‘Swiss army knife’ spread throughout the USA and throughout the world. Eventually this name became so famous that Victorinox registered it as a trademark, together with its cross and shield logo.

12) Swiss army knives have since be very popular in the United States

The popularity of Swiss army knives in the United States only grew after the Second World War. One interesting fact is the importance given to the Swiss army knife by American presidents. Every president since Lyndon B. Johnson has issued their special guests with original Victorinox Swiss army knives. Quite unusual, hey? I bet you didn’t know that.

13) Swiss army knives have been used in space

Swiss army knives have been used in multiple space missions planned and carried out by NASA, since the late 1970’s. In 1978, NASA ordered 50 Master Craftsman Model knives, which were used by astronauts in space and in simulations. The versatile applications of the Swiss army knife made it useful, and there are several instances where repairs have reportedly been conducted in space using a Swiss army knife. Additionally, in 1985, Edward Payton sent a letter to Victorinox to order a Master Craftsman knife after seeing his brother, Gary Payton, use one in space.

The use of Swiss Army Knives in Space

14) There is a Swiss army knife that weighs about 2 pounds

The Giant model, inaugurated by Wenger in 2006, is not exactly the textbook definition of a ‘pocket knife’. It is an absolute monster. With 87 implements that allow it to perform over 140 functions, the Wenger giant weighs 2 pounds, spreads 9 inches wide, and costs over $1,400 (you can check out the actual price here on amazon). It must take quite long to unfold and refold all the accessories, and you really have to know it well to know where each tool is on the knife! It doesn’t quite fit in your pocket, but is truly one of the top knives one can have in a collection!

Wenger Giant
Wenger Giant

15) There are many Swiss army knife model. Many.

Over the 126 years since Karl Elsener took over the production of knives for the Swiss army, Victorinox and Wenger have released over 100 different models. Most of these still contain a can opener and a screwdriver, which were the original requirements of the Modell 1890. A popular model is the SwissChamp, which can perform 33 functions for a weight of approximately 6.5 ounces. You can get a SwissChamp Army Knife by following this link to amazon. Some others models have thermometers, ball-point pens, and flashlights. Some even have 64GB USB ports! There are also some ridiculous models that have never been commercialised. One of these, for example had a special blade which allowed one to cut cheese slices with perfectly regular width. These Swiss people really love their cheese too much!

16) The Swiss army has only ever used 8 of these models

That might seem quite surprising, but I guess that the Swiss army doesn’t want to have to change their knives every year. The updates are usually more for practicality than aestheticity, and come to accommodate changes in the military equipment, for example. new standard-issue rifles. These military knives are not the same as the civilian versions. They do not come in red, and feature a tool that is absent in the civilian knife, to puncture ammunition cans, and scrape carbon from the parts of a firearm that are hard to reach.

17) Swiss army knives are available in many colours – not just red

You probably visualize the Swiss army knife with a red plastic handle – don’t worry, that’s probably how everyone else sees it as well. However, Swiss army knives come is a variety of colours and materials. For example, you can get most models with a handle made out of black plastic, red plastic, transparent red plastic, transparent blue plastic, or even hardwood! Additionally, some recent models can come with black rubber grips on the handle, to facilitate outdoor use. Victorinox managed to make knives for all tastes and personalities. You will definitely find your model and colour that suits you.

18) The knives issued to the Swiss army are not red

No, the actual Swiss army knives are not red. You might think your whole life has been a lie, but when you think about it, it makes sense. Red is not the optimal colour if you want to cross open terrain without being spotted. The Swiss military is issued with knives that lack the iconic red plastic handle, and instead have a dark aluminium grip, which is much more practical, I would guess.

Modell 2008 Soldier Knife
Modell 2008 Soldier Knife

19) Quality control is one of the most important aspects of Swiss army knife production

If you get round to buying an actual Swiss army knife, you can be sure that it will do what it promised. Quality control is an essential part of the production of Victorinox knives, and every part of every knife is checked at every of the 7 phases of production. 15 to 20 million parts go through assembly lines every month, at the Victorinox factory. Every inch of raw steel is inspected before is it used. Blades are cut, polished, forged, ground down, sharpened, and stamped. They are also inspected by real people after every step of the production line. Perfectionism can only be an understatement.

20) The purpose of the pointed tool with a hole in it – the one you never knew when to use

The ‘pointy tool’, on the back of most Swiss army knife models, is a punch, and can be used as a large needle. You can put thread through the hole (yes, the hole is not random – that it actually what it is, a big needle), you can punch the needle through your fabric (leather, canvas, etc.), and sew what needs to be sewn or repaired. This tool can also be used as a reamer. It can allow you to make neat, good circular holes in wood or plastic, for example. Comment in the section below this post if you are discovering this for the first time. 😉

21) The purpose of the hook on the knife – the other tool you never knew when to use

The hook is a tool that is less common. However, it is still present on many Victorinox models, on the spine of the knife. Life the previous one (see paragraph 20), the hook is one of these tools on the Swiss army knife that leaves many users startled and confused as to how it should be used. So here it is: by attaching a string to the hook, you can turn you pocket knife into a fishing lure or a plumb bob. In fishing, other uses of this hook include hooking it through the jaw of the fish you catch, and carrying the fish around like a strung parcel. The hook can also help to remove your fishing hook from the fish’s interior, one you catch it. You can also use it to pull thread or a line through a tight spot.At least, now you’ll know!

22) The production of Victorinox Swiss army knives has always been led and overseen by a Karl

The Victorinox company has been producing Swiss army  knives for over 125 years, and this production has, since 1891, been run and directed by a Karl. Karl Elsener founded the Swiss Cutler’s Union in 1884, and the company officially started producing knives for the Swiss army in 1891. Elsener oversaw the company’s activity until 1918, when Karl Elsener II took over, running the recently re-named company, Victorinox, from 1918 to 1950. Karl III then took over and stayed there for 57 years, from 1951 to 2007, before the current owner of the company Victorinox, Karl IV, took over from him. It must be noted that Karl III worked for the company for about 70 years, which is quite a long time ! He started as an apprentice in 1937 and rapidly graduated to the rank of CEO in 1951, after Karl II.

Karl Elsener
Karl Elsener (the first)

23) Nowadays, Swiss army  knives are more for the common people than for the Swiss army

Today, Victorinox and its Wenger branch produce some 25 000 knives each for the Swiss army, every year. This might seem like a lot, but in reality this is less than a day’s production for the companies. Both produce on average about 28 000 knives per day. The rest of all these knives produced in the year (which accumulates to a whopping 15 Million) are mostly exported to foreign civilian markets. Guess it’s not just the Swiss army’s knife anymore…

24) Swiss army knives are not the main occupation of Victorinox anymore

Victorinox has branched off into many different products to benefit from its acquired popularity. Nowadays you can buy Swiss Army caps, Swiss Army perfumes and fragrances, Swiss Army suitcases, Swiss Army watches, and many other random items. Actually, Swiss Army knives now only make up about 40% of Victorinox’s market. But oh well… Who can blame them?

25) Many other countries have their own “Swiss army knife”

About 20 countries have developed their own versions and variations of the Swiss army knife. These nations include the United States, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, Malaysia, and France. These are very similar to the original Swiss army knife and usually contain the exact same tools, or a very close copy. Just keep in mind as well that there are many people who wish they could benefit from the Swiss army knife’s popularity; in other words beware of the fakes out there. Make sure that you knife reads “Victorinox Swiss-made” on the large blade, and that the logo is either the Victorinox or Wenger logo on the handle.

Malaysian 'Swiss' Army Knife
Malaysian ‘Swiss’ Army Knife

26) The Swiss army knife is a piece of art

The revolutionary design of the Swiss army knife and its popularity has made it so iconic that it is considered as a true piece of art. For example, the Swiss army knife was selected to be exhibited in the New York Museum of Modern Art. It also featured in the State museum for Applied Art, in Munich. Other instances revealing the knife’s cultural impact include its use in TV shows such as ‘MacGyver’ and ‘Psych Shawn Spencer’.

How was that? Did you know most of these already? Do you want to share a fact that I forgot to include? Feel free to comment in the section below to do so, or if you have any comments or questions. I look forward to hearing from you!

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