10 Stainless Steel, Spring-Loaded Things You Should Know About the Swiss Army Knife (Now With a Corkscrew!)

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Image credit: Flickr user AJ Cann

Pocket-sized multitools are a dime a dozen, but the Swiss Army Knife is an icon. Its name is shorthand for versatility and its cross-emblazoned red handle has gone to the North Pole, to the top of Mount Everest, to the depths of the Amazon, and even orbited around Earth on the space shuttle. On the tamer side, the knife is also admired for its design and is displayed in the New York Museum of Modern Art and the State Museum for Applied Art in Munich.

I've had a lot of knives in my day, but only recently got my first Swiss Army Knife as a gift. I'm endlessly fascinated by it and have been reading up on its history, so here are ten bits of trivia I just had to share.

1. The Swiss Army Knife has very humble origins. Switzerland was about as poor as it got in 19th century Europe, especially in the sparsely industrialized central cantons, where unemployment spurred emigration and the shuttering of businesses. Karl Elsener, a cutler, or knife maker, desperately wanted to create jobs in his home canton of Schwyz, but to industrialize the traditionally hand-crafted production of knives would have required enormous capital. Elsener could not afford to build a factory or buy machinery so, instead, he founded the Swiss Cutlers' Union in 1884 in the village of Ibach. A small group of some two dozen craftsmen joined the cooperative, manufacturing different knives for use in kitchens, in farm fields and on hiking trails.

2. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Swiss army decided to start issuing a pocket knife to each of its soldiers. Since no Swiss company had the means to produce the quantity needed, it purchased the first 15,000 knives from a German knife manufacturer. Elsener thought that the army's knives should come from Switzerland, so when the army contract was set to expire, he and the co-op seized the opportunity. He designed a simple folding knife - the Soldier Knife, or Modell 1890, that featured a wooden handle - with a blade, a punch/reamer, a screwdriver for the maintenance of the army's new rifles, and a can opener for preparing field rations. The army brass loved it, and Elsener's co-op was able to swipe the contract from the Germans.

3. After the first successful run of Soldier Knives and just a year into their contract, the Cutlers' Union began to falter. The craftsmen couldn't keep up with demand and many of the workers quit, but the others carried on and even released a new Elsener-designed "officer's knife." The new model's tools were spring-loaded, making it lighter and allowing for the addition of a corkscrew. The army looked at the Schweizer Offiziers und Sportsmesser, or "Swiss Officers and Sports knife," but deemed a corkscrew not "essential for survival." They continued to issue their officers the standard Soldier Knife, and left them to purchase the new model on their own.

4. Elsener's knives soon found their way across Europe. During World War II, American soldiers fell in love with them and bought them up whenever they hit the PX (Post Exchange) stores on American bases. Even the Greatest Generation had a hard time getting their mouths around Schweizer Offiziers und Sportsmesser, though, so they took to calling them “Swiss Army Knives.”

5. After his mother, Victoria, died, Elsener named the company that grew out of the Cutlers' Union in her honor. She had, after all, given Karl some of the money he needed to start the operation. Later, when the company started using stainless steel in some of the knives' components, Elsener added inox - a shortening of the French term for the metal - to the end of the company name to get Victorinox.

6. In 1908, the Swiss army decided to split its knife contract, giving half the order to Elsener's company in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and the other half to cutler Theodore Wenger's company in a French-speaking canton. They claimed this was in the interest of national harmony and absolved them of regional favoritism, but the competition probably also helped them with costs, and pushed both companies on the design front, too. Nearly a century later, in 2005, this arrangement came to an end when Victorinox purchased Wenger, reportedly to keep the Swiss Army Knife in Swiss hands after the struggling Wenger had been entertaining offers from foreign buyers.

7. Today, both Victorinox and its Wenger subsidiary continue to manufacture the knives in two Swiss factories. They each supply some 25,000 knives a year - less than a day's production - to the Swiss army. The rest of the two companies' massive output — each factory can make up to 28,000 knives a day and together they produce seven to fifteen million knives a year — goes to the civilian, mostly foreign, markets. Victorinox knives are now labeled as "The Original Swiss Army Knife" while the Wenger ones are identified as "The Genuine Swiss Army Knife."

8. The two companies put out more than 100 models of Swiss Army Knife between them, from the classic bare-bones Soldier-style knife to ones with laser pointers and 64 GB USB drives. Of the two, Wenger is more well known for its cutting-edge and unconventional models, like the ergonomically-contoured EvoGrip and the Giant, a nine-inch-wide, $1,400 monster of a knife with 85 implements. There are a few models that never got off the ground and were lost to history, too, like the one that had a special blade for cutting consistently sized slices of cheese.

9. Even with all this innovation, there have been just eight total models created for the Swiss army since 1891. The updates generally come out to accommodate changes to other army equipment, like new standard-issue rifles. These military model knives might seem alien to those familiar with the civilian version. They lack the iconic red plastic handle, and instead have a dark aluminum grip. They also feature a tool usually not found on the civilian models, meant to puncture ammunition cans and scrape carbon from the hard-to-reach parts of a firearm.

10. Karl Elsener ran the company he founded until 1918, and there has been a Karl at the helm ever since. Karl II ran the show until 1950, Karl III until 2007 and Karl IV is in charge today.

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May 16, 2012 - 11:56am
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