History of the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife
This is, first and foremost, a brief history of the Fairbairn-Sykes. I have not told all that could be told for a variety of reasons, among which economy of space and preservation of privacy are dominant.
This is, nevertheless, an accurate history. It has been produced with the full cooperation of Lieutenant Colonel William Ewart Fairbairn's son and daughter, with complete access to Fairbairn's personal papers and manuscripts. Similarly, I have enjoyed the full cooperation of all other parties involved with the weapon, or with their surviving relations. Facts and figures have been checked rechecked: against official documents (some still classified, some declassified specially for this account), and against interviews and correspondence with military instructors, intelligence officers, company historians, and cutlers the world over. The body of information thus collected is unique and unlikely to ever be duplicated.
Now that interest in the practical aspects of edged weaponry is once again in the ascendant, and with the original Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife available once again, it is important that the public be made aware of the history behind this most important of all fighting knife designs.
This weapon was designed by men who actually used it; therefore, it is not the idle invention of men who have never fired a shot in anger, nor unsheathed a blade to kill. This weapon was proven in war, both conventional and unconventional, over a period of almost half a century; proven in thousands of nameless battles by British special forces, American special forces, and by covert action personnel of at least three major intelligence agencies.
Thousands of lives have been taken and thousands more have been saved by this weapon. It is the standard of the fighting man's armoury. I do attempt to either glorify or condemn the killing. I am as the archaeologist, and merely examine the artifact for clues.
William L. Cassidy
Each century of man's useful habitation of earth has produced an edged weapon unique to that century. A weapon which is emblematic to its age; upon which all understanding of personal combat with edged weapons is focalized, subjects to the needs and limitations of the society and civilization of the time.
This evolutionary process (and it is indeed an evolutionary process, for it has seen the development of edged weapons progress from stone through bronze, and iron to steel), has reached its zenith in our own period, in what students of edged weapons now recognize as the most influential design of the twentieth century: the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife.
To call the Fairbairn-Sykes a mere fighting knife is to do it a disservice. The author prefers to think of the Fairbairn-Sykes as a composition: the sine qua non of all edged weapons that preceded. I know, after years of study, that its simplicity is only a mask for many subtle manifestations of perfection.
The Fairbairn-Sykes is indeed a perfect composition. The story of how it came to reach this perfection is to a significant degree the story of its inventors, and to a lesser degree, of the International Settlement at Shanghai in the decade 1930 to 1940; not so much a city as a state of mind.
But we anticipate. Let us first examine the weapon itself.
The Fairbairn-Sykes is, in its essential form, a delicately constructed, straight-bladed, double-edged weapon, with much of the dagger about it. Of daggers, its blade most closely resembles that of the fourteenth century baselard. Overall, the Fairbairn-Sykes is frequently, albeit most incorrectly, compared to the mid-seventeenth century Italian stiletto.
Unlike the dagger or stiletto, which are intended for use as thrusting weapons, the Fairbairn-Sykes is designed to exploit both of the two properties of edged weapons, viz. thrusting, and cutting, or slashing.
The distinctive feature which lends this quality to the Fairbairn-Sykes is its hilt. This hilt possesses a vase-like, cylindrical grip, not unlike that of both the common rapier and left-hand dagger grips of the seventeenth century English small sword (itself a refinement of the rapier). The Fairbairn-Sykes grip owes its science to the principle of use so admirably demonstrated by the cylindrical Italian foil grip: it in no way limits the possibilities for the weapon's employment.
The guard of the Fairbairn-Sykes may also bespeak rapier and left-hand dagger by the presence, in the first mass-produced model, of recurved quillions (known to collectors as the S-guard, or wavy-guard model).
As originally produced in Shanghai, the Fairbairn-Sykes had a blade 6-1/4 inches long. As manufactured in Great Britain, 1941 to 1945, blade length increased to between 6-1/2 inches and 6-7/8 inches. Today, one finds British blades a full 7 inches in length.
With reference to blade length, it is interesting to note a report regarding the specification of desirable bayonet designs, issued in 1924 by the Small Arms School at Hythe:
"It has been conclusively proved during the war, and since, with our present system of training in the bayonet, that 'reach' is not a main factor but that 'handiness' is. A man with a short, handy weapon will beat an equally skilled man with a long, cumbersome weapon practically every time. As regards length of blade for killing purposes, the Physical Training Staff went into this in considerable detail during the war, and came to the conclusion that a 6-in. blade was sufficiently long to deal with the most thickly clad of our enemies--potential or otherwise. The most thickly clad of our enemies was taken as being a Russian in winter clothing."
The grip of a typical, early mass-produced Fairbairn-Sykes is roughly 5 inches in length; cast and turned of brass, and knurled, to provide for a secure grasp. Its diameter at the largest point is almost 1 inch, this point being approximately 1-1/4 inches from the guard. Here, under ordinary circumstances, the second finger of the hand will rest. Point-of-balance in the weapon will be just slightly ahead of the second finger, approximately 1 inch from the guard.
The grip tapers in both directions from the greatest diameter, toward the guard until it reaches approximately 5/8 inch in diameter, and toward the pommel until it reaches 1/2 inch in diameter. At the pommel it flares larger, forming a small knob, which aids in withdrawing the weapon from a scabbard. This is a most important feature. Atop this knob there is a threaded pommel nut (with more than a dozen variations, 1941 to 1977), usually made of soft iron or brass. The pommel nut is used to affix the grip and guard to the tang of the blade.
One questions the use of the so-called skull-crusher pommel nut, which is reputedly of value for delivering blows to an opponent's temple area. This type of pommel nut has never been successfully employed with the Fairbairn-Sykes, owing to the proper method the latter's use. Let us put it another way: striking one's opponent with the pommel of one's knife is a dubious practice, the fanciful notion of those who have no real experience with knife fighting. Why not stab the fellow and be done with it?
The guard of the Fairbairn-Sykes is fashioned of 1/8 thick iron or steel, 2-1/3 inches by 5/8 inch oval. Rarely, one encounters a 3 inch specimen. As mentioned above, the first mass-produced type bore recurved quillions. Post-1941, the recurved quillion guard was changed and made more or less standard at 2 inches by 5/8 inch oval, struck flat. Thickness of the guard remained at 1/8 inch.
Here, then, is what we could call a typical Fairbairn-Sykes: a dagger-like cut and thrust weapon with a foil-like handle, 11-1/2 to 12 inches in overall length, weighing approximately 8 ounces.
The Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife was developed in 1931, in the International Settlement at Shanghai, China, by William Ewart Fairbairn (b. 28 February 1885, d. 20 June 1960), assisted by his son, John Edwin Fairbairn (b. 27 February 1914, d. 25 November 1977), and Eric Anthony Sykes (b. 5 February 1883, d. 12 May 1945). The earliest known specimen of a pre-Fairbairn-Sykes weapon that may have influenced the Fairbairn-Sykes design is dated 1933; a presentation piece for W. E. Fairbairn from two officers of the United States Marine Corps, Samuel S. Yeaton, and Luther Samuel Moore. There are ten known specimens of this design, known familiarly as the "Shanghai Model."
In 1931, both Fairbairn and his son were employed by the Shanghai Municipal Police; the elder as superintendent in charge of the SMP Reserve Unit: the legendary Shanghai Riot Squad. He also, in that same year, established the SMP Police Armoury, the first of its kind in the East, placing it under the supervision of a former White Russian colonel, Nicholas Solntseff.
Eric Anthony Sykes was a civilian. He was employed in Shanghai by the S. J. David Company, estate agents, and held a reserve rank in the Shanghai Municipal Police as sergeant in charge of the Sniper's Unit (a volunteer organization of skilled marksmen).
Both Fairbairn and Sykes brought the accumulated experience of colorful careers to bear upon the development of their weapon. W. E. Fairbairn left home at age fifteen to join the Royal Marines (the recruiter falsified his age), and spent the Russo-Japanese War in Seoul, Korea, as a member of the British Legation guard. In 1907, at the age of twenty-two, he joined the Shanghai Municipal Police, and was appointed Musketry and Drill Instructor three years later.
In 1918, having awakened in a hospital ward after a tour of duty in Shanghai's lawless brother district, Fairbairn sought and received permission to pursue judo instruction; first with Professor Okada (a sign in front of his studio proclaimed him a "Jiu-jitsu Instructor and Bone Setter"), and later, Inspector Ohgushi, officer in charge of the Japanese Branch of the SMP. On 18 February 1931, at forty-six years of age, Fairbairn received a Black Belt, 2nd Degree, certified by the famous Jogoro Kano, president of the Kodokan Jiu-jitsu Institution, Tokyo, Japan.
E. A. Sykes, for his part, was a shikari of considerable experience, and an uncommonly gifted marksman. Born in Great Britain under the name Eric Anthony Schwabe, he saw service as a sniper in the First World War, changing his name to Sykes because he allegedly found his true name too Germanic. Sykes first made the acquaintance of Fairbairn in the late 1920s, and due to common interests and temperament, the two became fast friends.
The clearest account of the development of the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife comes to us from Fairbairn's son, Major John Edwin Fairbairn, OBE, who participated in the process, and summarizes it by saying, "...it began with a hunting knife, a very nice hunting knife, and we thought what a lovely weapon this was. It was a pig sticking knife actually, but we made our first knives from the tops of bayonets, there in the armoury."
The new fighting knife encompassed the principles of close-combat Fairbairn and Sykes had learned from formal instruction, and from several hundred, documented, armed and unarmed encounters with members of the Shanghai underworld. It was small, it was equally efficient when thrusting or slashing, and could be handled like a foil. Thus it was particularly useful at close-quarters, when the parties had resorted to wrestling, or blows.
The first Fairbairn-Sykes found special favor among the young officers of the United States Marine Corps, then stationed in Shanghai. From time to time, interested officers would stop by the SMP Police Armoury, where Colonel Solntseff could occasionally be persuaded to have his staff produce a specimen by hand. Unfortunately, it is not known how many knives were produced in this fashion, nor are any Shanghai-made specimens (save one) known to survive.
The earliest known surviving example of a SMP Police Armory "Shanghai Model" (not to be confused with the Fairbairn-Sykes SMP Armoury model) was presented to Fairbairn by Yeaton and Moore. It represents an attempt by Yeaton and Moore to "improve" on the first Fairbairn-Sykes. Within the Fairbairn family, this knife was referred to as the "Mexican Knife." PHOTO
Following my introduction, Samuel S. Yeaton's younger brother, Prof. Kelly Yeaton, collaborated with Colonel Rex Applegate on a book describing their beliefs about the role of Samuel Yeaton in the development of the Fairbairn-Sykes, and the association of Kelly and Sam with Fairbairn personally. They also give Samuel Yeaton joint author's status on the work, yet Samuel Yeaton never knew Applegate.
Documentary evidence, the statements of Fairbairn's son and daughter, the statements of SMP Police Armory personnel, and my own correspondence with both Samuel and Kelly Yeaton lead me to conclude that Yeaton and Moore played no immediate role in the inspiration for and development of the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife. I believe that Yeaton greatly influenced Fairbairn's thoughts on pistols, that he assisted the SMP Police Armory, and that both he and Moore influenced Fairbairn's evolution of the Shanghai School of knife fighting technique, but his knife was the "Shanghai Model," also known in variation within the Yeaton family as "Slith."
On 26 April 1977, Fairbairn's daughter wrote to me reference the Yeaton-Moore issue. Miss Fairbairn served with the Special Operations Executive during the war, and was herself skilled in close-combat. I always found her to be a credible observer:
"Re Officers Yeaton and Moore... I believe the knife they gave to Dad was of Mexican design and these two Officers showed Dad what they knew of knife fighting."
The knife in question was delivered in 1933. On the obverse, the blade is inscribed in block letters filled with Chinese gold: TO WILLIAM EWART FAIRBAIRN / THE GREATEST OF THEM ALL. The reverse bears the names of Yeaton and Moore, and the legend SHANGHAI 1933. The guard is incised with a vine pattern, while the grip is of checkered buffalo horn (a specialty of the SMP Police Armoury workshop). The pommel bears a small Chinese gold inset of the Shanghai Municipal Police crest. Inlay work was done by a Japanese craftsman named Komai, who had a shop in the Bubbling Well Road.
The grip, from guard to end of pommel, is precisely 5 inches long. The blade, as mentioned previously, is 6-1/4 inches long. Overall the knife is 11-1/2 inches long, and weighs just under six ounces.
W. E. Fairbairn is known to have carried this presentation knife in a distinctive shoulder-scabbard. This scabbard, which allows the knife to be held vertically beneath the arm (blade up, hilt down), is steel reinforced for rigidity, and has built-in springs to hold the weapon securely in place. The leather covering is tooled in a leaf pattern. The rig was constructed by Jack Martin, of Berns-Martin fame, and is currently in the possession of a British police official. The knife is in the author's possession: a gift from Fairbairn's son and daughter.
In 1935, Fairbairn was promoted to Assistant Commissioner of the Shanghai Municipal Police, and in the following year was appointed officer in charge of the Armed and Training Reserve, and the Sikh Branch. In this capacity he distinguished himself through the most turbulent times in Shanghai's violent history, laying the foundation to a legend which has survived to the present day.
On 3 September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany, an event that led Fairbairn and Sykes to consider how best to contribute to the war effort. On 27 February 1940, Fairbairn retired with honor from the Shanghai Municipal Police he had served so well, and in the company of Sykes, returned to England.
This is not the proper forum for a recital of the events which awaited Fairbairn and Sykes in Great Britain. Theirs is a complicated story, that demands better than superficial treatment. Suffice to say that the two became specially employed as close-combat and silent killing instructors: Sykes at the Special Training Center, Lochailort, Invernesshire, Scotland, Fairbairn with the Special Operations Executive.
Our is, rather, the story of the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife, and the autumn of 1940 provided this story with one of its more interesting chapters.
The need for a proper fighting knife was apparent from the first few weeks of training specialized personnel. As Fairbairn later wrote, "...the authorities did not recognize a fighting knife as part of the equipment of the fighting services. In fact, such a thing as a fighting knife could not be purchased anywhere in Great Britain."
So in early November 1940, at the suggestion of the office of the Chief Inspector of Small Arms, newly gazetted Captains Fairbairn and Sykes paid a call to the offices of John Wilkinson-Latham, Wilkinson Sword Company, Ltd., Number 53 Pall Mall, London.
There they presented the Fairbairn-Sykes design, and after lengthy discussion, Fairbairn "...managed to persuade the Wilkinson Sword Company to manufacture it privately from a number of old bayonets they had in stock, personally guaranteeing the sale of three hundred."
An amusing anecdote has survived from this first meeting. In order to demonstrate the manner in which a knife ought to be used, Fairbairn astounded the sedate Wilkinson-Latham by suddenly grabbing a wooden ruler and assaulting Sykes in mock combat. The two knife fighting experts--with greying hair and well past middle age--feinted and parried until Fairbairn ended the demonstration by the simulated slashing of Sykes' throat.
Following this decidedly unconventional business meeting, Wilkinson-Latham contacted Charles Rose, head of the experimental workshop at Wilkinson Sword Company's factory in Southfield Road, Acton, London W3. He charged Rose, and the firm's foreman grinder, Mr. Martin, with the task of producing three prototype Fairbairn-Sykes knives.
Of these three prototypes, one is known to survive. Fairbairn kept it with him until the day of his death. From 1942 to 1960, he carried it in an OSS All-Ways scabbard. This scabbard, known among OSS trainees as the "pancake flapper," was designed by Fairbairn for the OSS and manufactured in the United States.
Wishing to spare the collector the nuisance of counterfeits, we will omit giving a detailed description of this prototype, save to say that it has distinctive features in common with the other two prototypes.
Of the two remaining specimens, one was presented to Sykes and is presumed lost. The other was retained by the factory. It was, in time, given to Wilkinson-Latham's grandson, Robert, when the latter was eleven years old. A year later, Robert traded it to a school chum for a bayonet. We may set our fancy to work, and imagine this unique specimen resting in the collection of some fortunate, although unknowing, knife collector.
The first mass-produced Fairbairn-Sykes, as manufactured by Wilkinson, is characterized by nickel plating of the guard, grip, and pommel nut; recurved quilions, and a rather unique blade. The blade has a square ricasso, or tablet, and tapers with straight edges to an extreme point. Among collectors, this is known as the "square shank." This particular model is depicted on page ninety-six of Fairbairn's book All-In Fighting, first published July 1942, and on page ninety-seven of the American edition, retitled Get Tough! How to Win in Hand-to-Hand Fighting.
No satisfactory explanation for the blade's unusual tablet has yet surfaced, though all knowledgeable parties have been consulted. Structurally, the tablet adds nothing, and was regarded as something of a nuisance by the grinders, who found it impeded fast production. It is not present in the original Fairbairn-Sykes design, so we may not claim that the factory was merely following form. That the weapon was so designed in order to accommodate marking seems unlikely, and in any case unnecessary: blades so marked and ground full length are found in great numbers. The most reasonable theory supposes that the tablet was necessary due to some structural peculiarity of the bayonets then used for grinding-stock.
On the obverse of the blade, the ricasso is etched with a mark of Fairbairn and Sykes' own design:
On the reverse appears Wilkinson's trademark: WILKINSON SWORD CO LTD LONDON, imposed on two swords.
These marks exist in variation. They were taken up on paper transfers from an etching plate with three sets of marks. The transfers were then cut apart, and the appropriate marks were rubbed on the blade. When the transfer paper was gently pulled away, acid resist remained on the blade. The blade was then etched according to conventional procedure.
Blades were ground by hand, and the grip was first cast and then turned on a lathe. Knurling was done with standard tools, showing sixteen lines per inch in a diamond pattern, with little care expended as to appearance. Guards were stamped out annealed and shaped. The pommel nut was set down tight on the tang with a wrench or plier, and the tang end was then filed and peened over. Guard and grip remain uniform on the first Wilkinson model Fairbairn-Sykes knives, but blades vary widely from specimen to specimen, owing to the hand-work. One seeming constant is thickness at the tablet: 3/16 inch in every specimen examined by the author.
The first government order of the Fairbairn-Sykes came 14 January 1941, from one of Fairbairn's colleagues at SOE. In the absence of a formal contract (security demanded that such matters be dispensed with), Wilkinson's own order number 960 was written for 98 Fairbairn-Sykes knives: 50 to be sent to Knebworth, whence they were removed to SOE's Station XII; 48 sent to Weedon, bound for SOE's Depot School near there. From these two centers the first specially purchased Fairbairn-Sykes knives were disbursed to other SOE schools and centers.
Wilkinson Sword Company awakened to demand for the weapon. According to Robert Wilkinson-Latham, "Deliveries were made to certain specified depots but the bulk of the production as it became available was held at the London showrooms, where they were given out against signed chits." For not only SOE, but the whole of Britain's special forces clamored for the Fairbairn-Sykes. "The day they arrived," Fairbairn remembered, "there was a near riot in the rush to buy them." Riot, the reader may understand, is not a word the former commander of Shanghai's Riot Squad used lightly.
Strange are the workings of secrecy. It is the once top secret purchases of the British Special Operations Executive which provide us with the only hard evidence we have of the first Wilkinson model Fairbairn-Sykes. Later in January 1941, order number 1005 was written for 150 knives to be sent to Knebworth. In March, order 1235 requested fifty scabbards for the same destination. On 29 April 1941, SOE purchased 500 knives per order number 1176.
As the demand for the Fairbairn-Sykes was clearly substantial, Wilkinson's sought to streamline production. In July 1941, Rose and Martin eliminated the blade's tablet, favoring a straight, full grind. Guards were struck flat. On 11 August 1941, per order number 1482, SOE purchased 51 knives of the square tablet variety. The following day, the SOE representative placed order number 1672 for 500 knives, with the notation, "to new design." This was quickly followed by an order for 720 knives, also "to new design."
Using the Contract Book of Wilkinson Sword Company as a reference, we can account for 799 square tablet type Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knives. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, more were produced for sale at showrooms. We cannot know the exact number for factory records were partially destroyed by bombing. The first Wilkinson model Fairbairn-Sykes then, though scare, is not as rare as previously thought.
The day after Christmas 1941, Wilkinson's received War Office order number 2323/W, for 1,000 Fairbairn-Sykes knives to be delivered to Experimental Station 6 (WD), a cover for SOE STA XII. The Fairbairn-Sykes had proven itself. Wilkinson's, at first reluctant to even consider the weapon, wound up producing some one quarter million Fairbairn-Sykes knives between 1941 and 1945. British Secret Service records indicate that 3,019 of these went to the SOE.
Wilkinson was not the only British manufacturer of the Fairbairn-Sykes, and the first and second Wilkinson models are not the sole two patterns. In about September of 1942, the so-called ring grip pattern was introduced, and quickly became standard. The grip, thought to be the original design of the Joseph Rodgers firm, of Sheffield, has 27 concentric rings, and is cast in a non-strategic alloy.
In the autumn of 1942, the Rodgers firm also produced what may be the finest of all the wartime Fairbairn-Sykes knives: the beads and ridges model, so named by collectors for its distinctive grip pattern of nine rings of tiny beads, spaced with eight sections of five rings each, cast in pure brass. The blades are delicate and uniform, and the weapon, though light, is perfectly balanced. A variation of the beads and ridges is the so-called ringed and cog-wheel pattern, which never matched the former's excellent handling qualities, perhaps because the grip was a bit longer than usual, and cast in zinc.
We are unable to discover any particulars regarding the manufacture of these two Rodgers variations. We do know that the beads and ridges model was produced in considerable quantity, and that thousands were sold as surplus in the United States and Canada during the post-war years. One need only consult the advertising pages of American Rifleman magazines published in the 1950s for suitable evidence. Among collectors, the ringed and cog-wheel pattern is considered the more desirable of the two.
To return to the ring grip pattern, this is the kind of weapon we see sold the world over as a "commando knife," at prices ranging from six to twenty dollars. Though consanguineous, we cannot really consider ring grip "commando knives" as true Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knives.
From the manufacturers point of view, the ring grip is a desirable pattern. It is inexpensive and simple to fabricate. From the scienced knife fighter's point of view it is a complete disaster. The grip is uncomfortable. When wet it is difficult to hold. Owing to the concentric rings it actually becomes easier for the weapon to roll from the hand, and finally, this form of grip all but destroys the exquisite balance of a proper Fairbairn-Sykes. Indeed, Fairbairn is known to have been bitterly disappointed with the ring grip pattern, which he felt spoiled the Fairbairn-Sykes beyond redemption.
The consensus of opinion among Sheffield manufacturers is that approximately 6 million ring grip pattern knives have been manufactured. Approximately 2 million were manufactured 1942 to 1945, and the remaining 4 million in the thirty-odd years thereafter. This estimate takes into account the ones made in nations other than Great Britain, such as Japan, Italy, or Spain.
The reader interested in further information regarding the marking of such knives, variations, and scabbard types, is directed to Captain Colin M. Stevens' excellent study, "Your Commando Knife," Military Collectors Club of Canada Journal,XII:1 (1975) pp. 20-24.
The American Office of Strategic Services, before it was so named, was known as the Office of the Coordinator of Information, or COI. In April 1942, W. E. Fairbairn found himself on loan to COI, under orders of the New York-based British Security Coordination (BSC).
One of Fairbairn's first concerns was to have the Fairbairn-Sykes knife manufactured for use by United States personnel. As he had, through the years, maintained contact with his former students in the U.S. Marine Corps, the Marines seemed a likely candidate for first service to adopt the Fairbairn-Sykes.
So, on 20 April 1942, within days of Fairbairn's arrival in the United States, the Marine Corps contacted the Camillus Cutlery Company, of Camillus, New York, and placed a substantial order for a new pattern Fairbairn-Sykes.
The new pattern incorporated a cast aluminum hilt. The Marine procurement specialists, working with William D. Wallace, plant manager at Camillus, contributed this feature: a disappointing variation that, once again, succeeded in destroying the weapon's balance and handling qualities. This Marine model Fairbairn-Sykes was produced in 1942 only, with 14,370 knives delivered in two shipments. Scabbards were purchased by Camillus from the Mosser Leather Company.
The Marine model was not a complete success, but Fairbairn did not give up. COI seemed the next likely choice, and that choice was a fortunate one. COI administration was warming to Fairbairn's methods and advice, and vast amounts of secret funds were being pumped into COI in anticipation of its reorganization as OSS.
On 12 June 1942, one day before COI became OSS, contract 8 UN-VG was issued to Landers, Frary & Clark, of New Britain, Connecticut, for 10,000 Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knives at $2.23 each. The Fairbairn-Sykes was now the first official dagger of America's first official cloak and dagger agency.
To digress for a moment, this matter of price is an interesting one. The first Fairbairn-Sykes knives delivered by Wilkinson to SOE were sold at 13/6, including scabbard. Wilkinson knives were reconditioned at 11/- and scabbards sold separately for 4/6. On 31 October 1942, when the first tendered contract was let to Wilkinson by the Ministry of Supply, the price had jumped to 17/9.
Yet, when COI planners were costing out the special weapons program, internal documents show that 5,000 Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knives were estimated to cost $150,000., based on British prices. In America, twice as many knives cost $22,300., against an original bid of $20,300.
Unfortunately, COI/OSS received exactly what it paid for. The Landers, Frary & CLark specimens, without exception, were improperly tempered, and subject to fracture and bending even after light use. It is a pity, as the knives were otherwise nicely finished, and the OSS style grip is regarded as the best ever to be placed on a Fairbairn-Sykes. The coarse knurling was laid on with a special rolling die, fourteen lines to the inch, allowed to run all the way to the guard. The author considers that rolling die to be a treasure. Unfortunately, it is lost.
The OSS model knives were supplied in the distinctive All-Ways scabbard, mentioned earlier. It is interesting to note that OSS planners agonized over whether to furnish the scabbard with black or brown leather(!) finally deciding upon brown leather for its real or imagined morale value. Such were the worries of America's first secret servants. Need we add they might have expended as much care to the choice of steel, or manufacturer?
By the autumn of 1942, the Fairbairn-Sykes design thus acquired something of a bad reputation in America. On the one hand, the Marine variations were returning from the field broken and otherwise battered, at least partly because the Marines were untrained in the correct method of the knife's use (something Fairbairn attempted to remedy in the autumn of 1942, when he briefly served as an instructor to Marine Corps personnel.
We quote Harold L. Peterson's excellent American Knives:
"None of the Marines liked them... because their blades were too light and brittle for all-purpose work and because they were designed so specifically for stabbing that they restricted the number of possible attacks and parries."
As know, this is a wholly incorrect assumption. The weapon was indeed designed so that it would in no way restrict either attack or parry. As regards brittleness of the blade, this may well be a function of a too thin cross-section. Camillus informs us that the blades were a "high carbon steel," which is, of course, meaningless, and sent into service at 59 on the Rockwell C scale, equally meaningless, as we do not know the steel. If, as we may safely assume, the "high carbon steel" was a class 350 steel, such as type 351 or 355, then it was a poor choice. Such steels are unsuitable for the Fairbairn-Sykes.
Turning to the other case, due to improper tempering by Landers, Frary & Clark, the OSS variations were almost totally useless. If you suspect sabotage, you are not the first. More than one German was employed in the U.S. cutlery industry in 1942, and a counterintelligence investigation was actually launched.
With the U.S. Marines and the OSS to accuse it, no wonder the Fairbairn-Sykes suffered at American hands. The author must also admit to assisting this slander by the criticisms appearing in the Complete Book of Knife Fighting(1975); something for which he was promptly taken to task by more knowledgeable persons than those originally consulted. By way of repentance, let me be the first to state that properly employed, the Fairbairn-Sykes is no more likely to break than any other knife, assuming proper care has been invested in its manufacture. For the Fairbairn-Sykes, however, this last is an unfortunately large assumption. Of all wartime manufacturers, we may say the only Wilkinson's managed to make the weapon properly, and then only for a brief period.
In order to conclusively establish whether or not the Fairbairn-Sykes is inordinately prone to breakage, the author consulted numbers of British subjects having direct experience with the weapon in wartime conditions. In this regard we may well remember that while 24,370 knives total were manufactured for U.S. personnel, on the order of 2 million were manufactured for U.K. personnel. I feel that the British are thus in a better position than we to judge the weapon's merits.
Britishers we consulted were unanimous in their praise of the Fairbairn-Sykes. There were, of course, instances of blade breakage. One fellow broke his slashing truck tires. Another by attempting to drive the blade into an oil drum in order to engage in a bit of fire raising. But we have not found a single instance where a properly manufactured Fairbairn-Sykes failed whilst being scientifically applied to the purpose for which it was originally designed.
Still, the Fairbairn-Sykes, in America at least, never quite recovered from the effects of shoddy workmanship. Late-war British specimens did nothing to add to its reputation and post-war specimens sealed its fate for a good long while.
At war's end, interest in the Fairbairn-Sykes faded, but still flickered. In 1948, all remaining stores of the OSS model were taken up by the Central Intelligence Agency, which thereafter issued the weapon as H00-0444 Knife, Fighting, Fairbairn, well into the early 1960s. Royal Marine Commandos still use the weapon, and Wilkinson's still manufactures the weapon under contract to the Ministry of Defense, and the Dutch and Norwegian governments. The knife was also manufactured in Japan, under CIA contract, as late as 1970, for the Studies and Observation Groups and similar long-range penetration teams working in Southeast Asia, but the quality just wasn't there. Too much time had passed since anyone had handled a proper Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife.
In the late 1970s, whilst concluding my researches, I was struck by the fact that Fairbairn never made a dime from his design. Accordingly, I put together an investment and management group and formed the Castle Knife Company, in San Francisco. I thereafter purchased the production line at a Sheffield factory and personally supervised a run of 1,100 blades. I took exclusive license from the Estate of W. E. Fairbairn to use his name, and paid his surviving child a royalty on each knife sold.
I purchased a special melt of class 410 oil-hardening cold work die steel for the forgings, and sample tested them at random throughout the run. As hardened, the blades ran between 65-1/2 to 66 Rockwell C. After tempering, all blades sampled ran 57-1/2 to 58-1/2 Rockwell C. As military specifications call for a bending test, this test was performed with the following result: the sample was bent under heavy load through an angle of 50 degrees before breaking. The two broken pieces had taken no permanent set and showed a fine, silky fracture. Military specifications merely call for a 30 degree angle. All testing was done under the personal supervision of the Senior metallurgist of the British Cutlery and Allied Trades Research Association (CATRA).
I retained the recurved quillions of the
first mass-produced model, and turned my attention to the grip. Special tooling
was designed and built which allowed the knurling to be run on in one operation:
fourteen lines to the inch, coarse, and extending to the guard, exactly as per
the OSS grip. Grips are cast in best quality statuary grade bronze, and will
take on a pleasing patina with age.
I brought the knives to America in small lots of fifty, and etched them with the original F-S mark on every blade. To distinguish them, I also etched on the Castle Knife Company logo. We sold them for $75. each, $80. for the "sanitary" model with no etching. Production stopped in 1979 and will never be resumed.
The above venture was, in the end, a money-losing proposition, but we did not do what we did for money. We did it to honor Fairbairn and Sykes, and the men and women of the silent services. It is my honest belief that we produced one of the better Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knives ever made.
I will end this brief account with one final touch of history. At London's Westminster Abbey, just to your right as you enter the doors, a few feet from Britain's tribute to Winston Churchill and close by the Unknown Soldier, is a memorial to the British Commando, established by the Queen. Her Majesty had wished to symbolize the fighting spirit that lighted England in her darkest days, and to commemorate the brave men who paid the highest price.
There in Westminster, near the graves of Kings, poets, and heroes, Her Majesty placed a solid gold Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife.