The more than military might of the Swiss Army Knife

swiss army knife

What do you call something so versatile a tool of utility that has led it to acquire a fairly common identity even beyond the borders of what defines it name? A Swiss army knife, perhaps? Indeed, a Swiss knife for sure.

Iconic in its red handle that which comes embossed with a white cross on a red shield, the Swiss army knife is no less an assertion of the Swiss masterclass than for say the exotic taste of Swiss chocolates or the luxury afforded by its world famous brand of watches. Ironically though, for a country reputed for its neutrality as far as concerns matters of the military, the Swiss army knife did indeed originate to cater to the needs of the militaria in the country. Sometime in the late 1880’s, a new folding pocket knife called the soldier knife was introduced to the Swiss soldiers, to be serving multiple purpose, particularly for use in opening canned food and also disassembling the Swiss service rifle, the Schmidt–Rubin, that required a screwdriver for assembly and disassembly. Initially imported from outside the country because Switzerland then did not have any suitable tool-producing factories, this multi tool pocketknife today is a cultural icon of the European nation that has gained worldwide recognition. In fact, standing today as the earliest contemporary example of such pocketknives that serve more than a singular purpose, the Swiss army knife has come to be a continuously worked and reworked upon version from its essential beginnings, that which yield just enough force as a knife blade, a reamer, a bottle-opener–screwdriver–wire stripper, and a can-opener–screwdriver all in one.

swiss army knives
Source: Victorinox

So how did a commonplace product, imported from the foreign land of Germany come to be so defining an attribute for a nation that stands today as an identity seeking to distance itself from conflicts for perhaps the longest time in modern history? The answer lies in a name that today is synonymous with the beginnings of this very product of military bearing. With the initial order for 15,000 knives designated as Modell 1890 filled by the German knife manufacturer Wester & Co. from Solingen, Germany back in 1891, the Swiss army knife might never have earned its country specific identity, if it had not been for a certain Karl Elsener who sought out to manufacture them in Switzerland through his surgical equipment manufacturing company. Establishing the Association of Swiss Master Cutlers, Elsener is able to deliver the first major supply of soldier’s knives to the Swiss Army. Not being satisfied with the design however and also in the face of complaints, Elsener set about creating a design in which tools were attached on both sides of the handle using a spring mechanism, something that allowed him to use the same spring to hold all the tools in place, thereby putting twice as many features on the knife. Completed by 1896 and remarkably when Elsener was on the verge of bankruptcy, and patented the very next year as Schweizer Offiziers- und Sportmesser or The Officer’s and Sports Knife, this innovative work on the utility tool was more revolutionary than what anyone could imagine, sustaining even today with its structural manifestation for something devised more than a century back in time. With the development of the design, Elsener lent the Swiss army knife not just its iconic identity but also marked the beginning of a journey that would come to define this cultural representation for years to come. Even in not having been commissioned by the Swiss army, the knife in its innovative design was successfully marketed internationally, thereby putting Elsener and company back on track in terms of the financial.

Moving on from the 19th century and through the 20th into the 21st, what continues to be understood as the Swiss army knife is essentially the Victorinox Swiss army knife, that which is still a stemming dating back to Elsener. Renaming his company Victory after his dead mother in 1909, Elsener registered the emblem of the Swiss coat of arms displaying the cross and shield as a trademark. Prior to that however, the cutler found his company facing competition from Paul Boéchat & Cie, headquartered in Delémont in the French-speaking region of Jura, as it began selling a similar product, starting 1893. This company, that would later come to be known as the Wenger Company after being acquired by Theodore Wenger, continue to be another of the key names associated with the Swiss army knife for the longest time along with Victoria. In fact, in 1908, the contract for the Swiss knife was split by the Swiss government, with half the orders accounted for by each. The difference perhaps could only be made out through the advertising terminology that was agreed on to cater exclusively to each as well. For Wenger, the marketing ploy rested on manufacturing “the Genuine Swiss Army Knife” with Victorinox choosing to stick to “the Original Swiss Army Knife”.

With the invention of stainless steel ushering in a new revolution in the cutlery industry and thereby also in the manufacture of the Swiss knives, Victoria came to be renamed in 1921 as Victoriniox by Elsener’s son Carl, as a portmanteau of Victoria and inox, the abbreviated French term for stainless steel, marking the beginnings of the use of the alloy in the manufacturing process. Exactly a decade later, Victorinox sets another benchmark in the production of these knives as the setting up of the world’s first all-electric hardening plant in Ibach brought along with a guarantee of producing Swiss knives that would consistently be of high quality. Despite such innovations and modifications that had come to characterise the Swiss army knife till that point in time, it wasn’t until much later that the name come to stuck, in its simple but profound references. Also sticking to the nomenclature of the Swiss knife very prominently and exclusively is the brand name of Victorinox that which is today the the sole supplier of knives to the Military of Switzerland. Particularly after its acquisition of Wenger in 2005, Victorinox came to reclaim indeed its status as producing the ‘original’ Swiss army knife, proceeding even to abandon the Wenger brand of knives in favour of its own from 2013.

Wenger 100th Anniversary Limited Edition Standard Issue
Source: SAKWiki

For a product so rooted in the cultural identity of Switzerland, it can come across as somewhat surprising that the Swiss army knife began to be called so by only the American soldiers after roughly half a century of its development. It was only after the second World War that this utility device attained international prominence, particularly in America where the the original name of it, Schweizer Offiziersmesser made way for the more common Swiss army knife owing to the difficulty encountered by the soldiers there in pronouncing the German name for officer’s knife or even in saying Sackmesser, as in the local Swiss-German dialect. The far simpler English name stuck and has since been professing such a eponymous Swiss legacy that finds expression today also outside the folds of the military. While each military recruit in Switzerland still receives a Swiss Army knife upon beginning their service, the prominent red handled device today has seen a crossover to realms of popular culture as well. Not just in its physicality however, this ingenious utility tool has come to encompass attributes also of the person that which has seen it lend itself so well as a metaphor for usefulness and adaptability. Reasserting also the tangible identity of this rather humble device is its presence in realms even beyond mere earthly premises, having been sent in space missions carried out by NASA since the late 1970s particularly in its Master Craftsman model. Finding expression also is the distinguished legacy associated with it that which led the Original Swiss Army Knife to become an exhibit for design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1977. Besides such distinguished mentions throughout the course of its existence, the Swiss Army Knife has also been a recurring phenomenon encountered in the realm of the entertaining arts, particularly in the 1985 television series MacGyver as well as its 2016 reboot.

This extension of its cultural image to popular culture globally is only an manifestation of the power yielded by this rather simple tool of tremendous utility. In fact, one of the Wenger produced Swiss Army knife called “The Giant” that came with 87 tools rendering it the capability of performing a whopping 141 different functions was recognized by the Guinness World Records as the world’s most multifunctional penknife. Venturing out of the norm though, a 1991 made unique 314-blade Swiss Army-style knife attributed to Master Cutler Hans Meister is the world’s largest penknife with its 5kg weight. There’s however no beating Victorinox when it comes to be the undisputed leader in Swiss army knives, rolling out even hazelnut chocolates wrapped like Swiss army knives, made with of course the pick of finest chocolates that Switzerland is (also) so known for. Equally interesting is Victorinox’s roll out of a certain- and still multi utility Swiss army knife model that comes in with a built in MP3 as well! The exploration into other facets that might venture a bit beyond the utilitarian does not however mean that Victorinox’s brand of Swiss army knives have ceased to yield as much influence among the militaria. Standing testaments to its unparalleled utility is the fact that armed forces of more than 20 different nations, including that of of Germany, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Malaysia and the United States have issued or approved the use of various versions of Swiss army knives made by Victorinox. In its tremendous multi dimension functionability efficiently incorporated within what caters to the size of a pocket, the Swiss army knife is indeed a further reinstatement of the Swiss craftsmanship’s allegiance to fine perfection.