Evolution of Knives Used By Covert Operatives

November 9, 2009 by  
Filed under Trail Boss Articles


Prior to the 1950’s most knives used by covert operatives were designed to kill. No thought was really put into their use in escape and evasion or utility applications.  A great example of that is the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife. It was designed exclusively for surprise attack and fighting, with a slender blade that can easily penetrate a ribcage. The vase handle grants precise grip, and the double-edged blade is integral to its design to take out human targets.

The OSS did realize that a large knife was a real asset after seeing the success the Marines had with their Raider Bowie. They opted and designed their own version the Samtchet. However it was not widely used was designed more with killing in mind than as a multipurpose tool.   SmatchetKukriCurveR_small

A knusmcCollinsGungHoROA_smallife designed specifically to kill does not allow one to blend in with the locals if caught, searched or captured.  A knife can be a convenient tool for an assassin, and when used properly, can result in a quick silent kill. But a long thin shafted screw driver will accomplish the same thing and will not attract anyone’s attention if the operative is caught with it on his person, especially if he mixes it in with other tools. It is also easily discarded.

The whole point of the clandestine service is to be covert. A knife that is only used to kill sticks out and isspikeHatpinDaggerQuatrafoilFOA_small of little to no use to the operative when his real mission starts, escaping.  Out of necessity in this area things like the multi-tool were born it was known then as the lock breaker. Pocket folding knives were also issued.LockBreakerLCOA_small

T1sfpockethe successful operative learns to “improvise, adapt and overcome.”  “Learn to use what you’ve got or can get.”  After the 1950’s more emphasis was put on escape. An operative was taught that a cutting edge of some kind is a “must have” to survive away from civilization.  He might manage without one, but it will be much more difficult. They can improvise a cutting edge using a shard of glass, by sharpening a piece of scrap metal on a rock, or knapping an edge on a piece of hard quartz.  But planning to always a knife capable of getting you out of harms way is much easier. It allows you to blend with locals when you use a large knife that looks like it was designed for a woodsman.

Harry Archer the CIA’s Gadget Guy and Greg Kalnitzky of Air America both had lots of bush experience.  Everywhere they went they observed primitive native peoples in Asia, Africa and South America. These tribesmen favored big blades and used them for everything.   BuHARCHERt both Harry and Greg still preferred a multiple blade approach.

Greg carried a Mil-K-818, and Aircrew Knife.  Harry carried a Collins machete for SOGBoloRoundTipR_smallrough work and used a file to sharpen it. The machete was a used as a weapon, digging tool, chopping firewood, building shelters, he saved his fixed blade for fine work.  He personally designed the chute knife which was double-edged and made by Loveless.  Surgical “prep blades” were kept in the first aid kit.   He kept a small black Arkansas stone to touch it up the fixed or razor blades as needed.

In his later years in Africa Greg favored plain carbon steel blades. A plain carbon steel work knife can be sharpened KnifeSterileClipPointL_smallon a river rock and it will last for years   Plain carbon steel makes more sparks when striking the Doan tool than stainless, is easy to sharpen, doesn’t shine and takes a dull patina with use which is non-reflective.  Completely sterile carbon steel knives were often built with no markings, they were inexpensive and effective.

Neither Greg nor Harry had much use for serrated blades because they are difficult to re sharpen effectively. A plain blade is easier to maintain.  Greg carried a British Army Sheffield pocket steel and gave any blade a couple strokes to touch it up after every use.

An operative had to choose the most reliable, sturdy, compact, light weight tool to accomplish the task. The primary wilderness survival uses are digging for field sanitation and foraging, cutting poles and stripping fibers to make cordage for shelter and trap construction, preparing fires for warmth, signaling, water purification and for food preparation. A common choice was to combine a sturdy fixed blade of 5 inches or more with a compact utility pocket knife or multi-tool.

An WoodmansPal481OA_smalloperative’s choices are shaped by his experience and the experience of others. Mine is in North America, Lower Canada, New England and the Mid-Atlantic, My Vietnam-era military service was not in combat. I served as an engineer evaluating captured enemy equipment, interviewing troops to learn what gear and training worked and what didn’t and working with contractors to get “new toys to the boys” which worked better than what they  had.  Further, my friends at the farm had me out in the wilds doing my best to break and or damage their choices for survival, escape ad evasion. These knives were pushed past their limits.  If they stood up they were recommended, if not a full debrief was presented as to the reasons why the knife was not a good idea.

As an example when testing proposed aircrew knife designs we included some tests outside the norm: Point shape must enable ground crews or pilots to puncture and score a Plexiglas canopy (we used A4 Skyhawk), enlarging the opening, by using the butt as a hammer to break out the scored section, removing it from a jammed canopy to facilitate extraction of a pilot, including cutting through the 3-point ejection seat harness, all to be accomplished iAFSurvival_lgn under 2 minutes.  Batoning through hardwood pole or manually cutting through a 2-inch diameter sisal rope which has been soaked in sea water.  Knife blade must not break or bend more than 30 degrees when clamped in a vise and a 150 kg transverse load is applied for 30 seconds. The knife was used as a belay anchor point and piton.

Along with our testing an operative must know their equipment. No matter how hard we tested.  If this information was ignored it put the individual at a disadvantage

A case in point is the Aircrew Survival Knife NSN 7340-00-098-4327.  During the Vietnam era custom makers ground saw teeth on knives, supposedly to cut through sheet metal where the government didn’t provide an exit in a Chinook, but I never met a single military or company pilot who used one for that.

The teeth on the spine of the issue Aircrew knife are intended to perform two functions: 1) To shave magnesium fuzz from the Doan fire starting tool, and 2) to accurately cut notches in sticks for constructing fish and small game traps. “Blood grooves” or “fullers” are much more useful for placing your fingers, to choke up towards the point, controlling the knife in fine work, than for reducing adhesion when removing it from the subclavian artery of an enemy.

The holes in the hilt are not to tie the knife to a pole to make a spear.  The holes are to attach a tether so that you don’t lose the knife.  The sheath pocket contains a sharpening stone; pilots stretched the pocket to accept the Doan fire starter, and then had their rigger sew a narrow pocket along the back to hold a sharpening steel.   The substantial hex-butt of the aircrew knife served as an improvised hammer and sap.

The tie-down is not intended tied to the leg, but lashed securely, butt-down on a pack strap, the blade is quickly accessible, not flopping noisily to snag on brush.

When the enemy is listening pounding a knife through a sapling by striking the spine of the knife with a rock or stick is not good form.  Litter or shelter poles were cut by bending the sapling over until it touches the ground.  The blade is held horizontally, then pushed firmly and straight down where the stem bends from vertical to horizontal.  The sapling will yield, and can be finished off with a few quick cuts.  The blade has to be sharp enough and solid enough to do so.

A operative was given a lot of latitude in what he chose to carry. His choice could very well mean the difference between life and death or his ability to escape.

C.E. “Ed” Harris is well known to readers of American Rifleman, the Gun Digest and the Cast Bullet Association’s Fouling Shot magazine. During 12 years on the Technical Staff of the National Rifle Association he was a consultant to numerous military, law enforcement and firearms industry organizations and was officially commended by the U.S. Marine Corps Development Center, Quantico, Virginia for  expert technical assistance provided during the Development and Operational Testing of the M16A2 rifle. He is a graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, holds the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Professional Development Certification in Emergency Management and for 22 years he has worked for local government in Northern Virginia.



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