Original Post by Mitch Jensen here: on Blade HQ
The Right Tool for Any Job
Picture this: you’re locked outside of a space station because the door won’t open. You’re all too aware of your limited oxygen supply and the thin wall of aluminum protecting you from the infinite expanse of space. What do you do?
In November of 1995, astronaut Chris Hadfield found himself in this exact situation. After three days of space travel, the shuttle Atlantis had finally docked with the Russian space station Mir. Chris and the rest of the crew were eager to begin their three-day mission resupplying and upgrading the space station. But there was just one problem. The door wouldn’t open.
Hurdling through space at more than 17,000 miles per hour roughly 200 miles above the earth’s surface, Chris had to be careful. Only a few inches of metal separated him and his crew from the cold, hard vacuum of space. Any mistake could easily lead to loss of life or billions of dollars’ worth of equipment. Naturally, he decided that he needed to break the door of the $4.2 billion space station.
“So,” Hadfield later wrote in his book, “I did the true space-age thing: I broke into the Mir using a Swiss Army Knife. Never leave the planet without one.”
Around the World, and Above it
Whether you’re on the planet or above it, the Swiss Army Knife is synonymous with reliability and versatility. Easily the most trusted and recognized pocket knife in the world, the Swiss Army Knife has become the standard by which we measure our gear’s utility and durability.
But what is it that made the Swiss Army Knife the world’s go-to pocket knife? What exactly makes those red scales and white seal so special? Today we’ll be doing a deep dive into Swiss Army Knives. We’ll go over everything you need to know about the iconic tool to find out how they’ve earned their reputation. We’ll start by taking a look at the incredible story of how Victorinox, the original maker of the Swiss Army Knife, created the perfect tool for every job.
What Do You Wanna Know?
The Original Swiss Army Knife
On June 10, 2022, the original Swiss Army Knife celebrated its 125th birthday. As part of the
birthday celebrations, Victorinox launched the Replica 1897 Limited Edition Swiss Army Knife. The Replica 1897, as you might imagine, looks just like the knife issued to Swiss soldiers more than a century ago. Compare the original SAK to the one you carry in your pocket today, and you’ll notice how little has changed. Just like the modern Red Spartan model, the original SAK featured a long and short blade, screwdriver, awl, can opener, and a corkscrew. How has this legendary tool gone relatively unchanged for more than 125 years? How has it remained one of the most popular multi-tools ever made?
The story of the Swiss Army Knife, naturally, starts with the Swiss Army. The Swiss Army has existed in some form or another since at least 1291 and boasts a proud history of defending its mountainous homeland. In 1648, Swiss mercenaries played a key role in securing Switzerland’s independence from the Holy Roman Empire. They also participated in the Napoleonic Wars, which ended in 1815. Since then, Switzerland has adopted a stance of armed neutrality. The government requires every male citizen to serve at least 21 weeks in the military in order to maintain that neutrality. This is where the story of the Swiss Army Knife begins.
In 1891, the Swiss War Technical Department replaced the Vetterli Model 1869/71 infantry rifle with the Schmidt-Rubin Model 1889. They needed a screwdriver to maintain the new rifle regularly, so they made the decision to issue each Swiss soldier a multi-functional pocket knife. At the time, there wasn’t a Swiss company that could meet the initial demand for 15,000 knives. This forced the government to turn to a German company.
As Swiss as Cheese and Chocolate
Karl Elsener, a patriotic Swiss citizen, owned a surgical equipment company, and was trying to expand into knife manufacturing. Elsener was determined to see Swiss soldiers equipped with Swiss-made knives. He started by securing a government contract to supply the army with a German designed knife known as the Model 1890.
Competing with German manufacturers was a tremendous risk. It’s worth noting that in the years before the first World War, the German Empire was one of the most industrious and affluent nations in the world. Plenty of German companies were more than capable of producing tens of thousands of knives in a matter of months. Karl Elsener, on the other hand, was limited to what he could find in a non-industrialized Switzerland.
Undeterred, Elsener joined forces with 30 other cutlers around Switzerland, forming the Swiss Master Cutlers Association. Using the small shops and water-powered forges in the town of Ibach, Switzerland, Elsener and his union of artisans were able to produce enough knives to fulfill the army’s needs. But at a cost.
As determined and scrappy as his grassroots operation was, Karl knew he couldn’t compete with the steam-powered German factories for very long. Even though he continued to meet the Swiss Army’s quotas, he was losing too much money. His company was spiraling towards bankruptcy. Something had to change.
Elsener took a closer look at the Model 1890 he’d been producing for years and decided to make it better. He wanted to take the bulky, heavy knife and trim it down. He wanted to make it more elegant and attractive without sacrificing any of the functionality Swiss soldiers had come to depend on.
After years of tinkering, Elsener came up with an ingenious spring mechanism. Elsener’s
innovation allowed him to put six different tools on a single knife using just two springs. Even today, every Victorinox knife uses this two-spring mechanism that Karl Elsener came up with more than 125 years ago and each one is still made in the same Swiss mountain town of Ibach.
The new Swiss Army Knife, was named the “Schweizer Offizeiers und Sportmesser” or “Swiss Officer’s and Sports Knife.” Elsener’s knife was instantly popular both among Swiss soldiers and civilians alike, ending his company’s financial troubles virtually overnight.
Genuine Swiss Army Knives vs Original Swiss Army Knives
In 1908, the Swiss Army decided to end their knife contract with German manufacturers, much to Karl Elsener’s delight. Equipping Swiss soldiers with Swiss-made knives was a big part of why he’d shifted his company into the knife making business in the first place. The Swiss government split the contract between Elsener’s company and Wenger, another Swiss based knife manufacturer. It’s unclear if the Swiss government split the contract in order to avoid showing regional favoritism or if they were simply hoping that competition would keep their costs lower.
Wenger, German companies, and other knife makers had started imitating Elsener’s design where they could. Elsener was concerned that the brand he’d worked so hard to build would be diluted. It was time to strengthen his brand. In 1921, Elsener renamed his knife company to Victorinox, combining his mother’s name, Victoria, with ‘Inox’ for stainless steel. In addition to the name change, Elsener came up with the iconic white cross-and-shield design found on every one of Victorinox’s products. Finally, Victorinox adopted the slogan “Maker of the original Swiss Army Knife.” Of course, this prompted Wenger to use “Maker of the genuine Swiss Army Knife” as their slogan.
The competition between Wenger and Victorinox would last 97 years with neither company able to gain the upper hand on the other. In 2005, Victorinox was finally able to acquire their biggest competitor. By 2013, Victorinox absorbed Wenger’s knife brand. The merger made Victorinox not only the original Swiss Army Knife, but the only authentic Swiss Army Knife.
What’s So Special About Swiss Army Knives?
Despite their ingenious design and incredible utility, Swiss Army Knives, or Offiziersmesser as they were most commonly called, were really only known throughout Switzerland, Germany, and France. It wasn’t until after World War Two that they became popular everywhere else. American soldiers stationed throughout France, Germany, and Belgium quickly became enamored with the red-scaled multitools. Unable (but mostly unwilling) to pronounce Offiziersmesser, American soldiers took to calling them Swiss Army Knives, coining the term used around the world today.
Swiss Army Knives were popular among US soldiers for the same reasons they’re popular around the world today. The bright red scales and white seal are attractive, and they look different from any other kind of pocket knife. Once they had them, it didn’t take long for the soldiers to discover just how useful they were. After all, the SAK was designed to make the life of a soldier simpler. Routine chores from opening cans of food or packages from home to doing small repairs and regular weapon maintenance were all way easier to do with a SAK than with a bulky fixed blade knife or a bayonet.
Americans bought SAKs en masse before returning home across the Atlantic. Because the exchange rate in post-war Europe heavily favored the dollar, most American soldiers could afford multiple Swiss Army Knives, and they bought them for themselves, their brothers, fathers, sons, and spouses as souvenirs.
To absolutely nobody’s surprise, the flood of red scaled knives pouring into the United States proved to be just as popular and useful for civilians during peacetime as they were for European soldiers across two world wars. They quickly became the preferred everyday carry knife for outdoorsmen, adventurers, and do-it-yourselfers around the world.
How Many Tools are Available on Swiss Army Knives?
Victorinox is constantly expanding their product line, offering new models to replace the outdated ones. In their pursuit to create the right tool for every job, Victorinox puts common tools into pocket knives creatively. They’ve also added quite a few uncommon tools to their models as well. Some of the tools you can find on Victorinox Swiss Army Knives include, but are definitely not limited to, a clock, a USB drive, a laser pointer, a compass, a magnifying glass, a flashlight, a ballpoint pen, and a golf tee punch.
Over the years, Victorinox has made at least 800 different tools spread out across more than 350 models. This gives us the confidence to say that no matter what tools you’re looking for, there’s a Swiss Army Knife for you. Always ready for whatever adventure you have in mind.
The Biggest Swiss Army Knife
When you hear that Swiss Army Knives are the right tool for any job, it’s natural to wonder how literal that statement is. If these knives are really supposed to be the right tool for any job, it stands to reason that they’d have to have basically every tool imaginable, right? If you’re really looking to carry around an entire toolbox in your pocket, we have a few suggestions for you.
The largest Swiss Army Knife in the world is the Wenger Giant. It has 87 implements and 141 functions, taking 49 layers to fit every tool that Wenger made before Victorinox took over. When it’s closed, it measures a respectable 3.25 inches long. Unfortunately for your pockets, it’s also over 9 inches thick and weighs about 3 pounds. If you’ve got room in your backpack and around $5,000 to spare, you can walk around with an entire toolbox. You’ll just have to find one for sale first.
If you’re looking for a large Swiss Army Knife that still fits in your pocket, we recommend the biggest SAK Victorinox makes. The Swiss Champ XXL. Appropriately named, the Swiss Champ XXL is the most versatile brick you’ll ever put in your pocket. Equipped with 73 different functions, you’ll be hard pressed to find a multitool that can do more and still fit in one hand.
SAKs on a Plane
In the years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a significant number of Victorinox’s sales were made in airports. After 9/11 came increased security and restrictions, inadvertently causing Swiss Army Knife sales to tank. While Victorinox was able to adapt and recover, Wenger was permanently weakened and as we talked about earlier, eventually absorbed by Victorinox.
One of the best things about Swiss Army Knives is that they aren’t aggressive weapons, they’re useful tools. SAKs aren’t kept for self-defense, but for convenience. Their discreet versatility is what makes them an essential travel companion. Unfortunately, you’re not able to bring Swiss Army Knives or any kind of blade on an airplane.
If you’re a frequent flier, you can appreciate how convenient it would be to have something like a Swiss Army Knife in your bag as you navigate busy airports. They’d be even more useful as you set out to explore your final destination. Adaptable as ever, Victorinox has a few options for you to consider.
The Victorinox Jetsetter features seven of the most useful tools you could want for everyday carry, but without a blade. Instead, it features a small pair of scissors, a bottle opener, a Phillips screwdriver, wire stripper, keyring, tweezers, and a toothpick.
The Best Swiss Army Knife
So what’s the best Swiss Army Knife? That’s a loaded question. With hundreds of unique models and tools to choose from, it really depends on what you’re doing and where you’re trying to go. Victorinox’s legendary versatility can be overwhelming. But the expansive selection of choices means that there’s a SAK out there that will perfectly fit your lifestyle. The best Swiss Army Knife will strike a balance between having enough tools to tackle any task while still being compact and easy to carry.
We actually have a lot of thoughts when it comes to the best Swiss Army Knife. It’s worth your time to take a look at the Best Swiss Army Knives article that we’ve put out to help make your decision. In the meantime, here’s a quick look at five of Victorinox’s most popular models.
2.28″ | 0.80 oz.
3.30″ | 1.60 oz.
3.58″ | 3.50 oz.
3.58″ | 2.40 oz.
3.58″ | 2.30 oz.
*5.8 cm | 22.6 g
*8.3 cm | 45.4 g
*9.1 cm | 99.2 g
*9.1 cm | 68.0 g
*9.1 cm | 65.2 g
* Metric conversion provided by Bushcraft Highway for us Canadians
Are Swiss Army Knives Worth It?
Victorinox adapts without dramatically changing their designs or raising costs. As the years have gone by, Victorinox has been diligent in upgrading both the quality of stainless steel they use in their knives, as well as the range of available tools. As a result, Swiss Army Knives have proven themselves in the harshest environments known to man. Decades of consistency and proven durability have made Swiss Army Knives trusted tools around the world. Useful anywhere from space shuttles to keychains, most of their models cost between $15 and $60.
Unparalleled versatility and accessibility are what make SAKs so special. The simple ability to solve a problem anytime, anywhere is priceless. The feeling of being prepared is powerful, and Victorinox has been helping people stay prepared and solve problems for 125 years. The ability to quickly and efficiently solve problems makes us more independent. Knowing that you have the tools to solve any problem at a moment’s notice can make you feel like MacGyver — who just so happened to use a Swiss Army Knife in most of his televised adventures. In case you’re wondering, his preferred model was the Victorinox Tinker, which appeared in more than 20 episodes.
You Can Do Anything You Want to Do If You Put Your Mind to It
The best thing about Swiss Army Knives is that they’re for everyone. People are natural problem solvers. As a species we tend to be resourceful and flexible — adapting to changing situations and excelling at finding creative solutions to the challenges we face. A Swiss Army Knife empowers the scrappy MacGyver that we all have inside of us.
In September 2022, the word MacGyver was officially added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a verb. The new verb means “to make, form, or repair (something) with what is conveniently on hand.” English’s newest verb is more than just a pop-culture Easter egg, it’s a mindset. One that reflects Victorinox’s history, as well as the attitude of its customers. This mindset includes the belief that you can turn seemingly bad situations around if you’re prepared and if you stay cool and calm. The Swiss Army attitude involves listening to your intuition and staying optimistic in stressful situations. That optimism is made possible by the confidence that comes when you know you have what you need to succeed in hand.
For more than 125 years, Victorinox Swiss Army Knives have helped us to build things, put things together, and helped us discover things from our backyard to the backcountry. Swiss Army Knives are an essential tool for unleashing your creativity and solving problems on your own terms. Whether you’re striving to be more self-sufficient or trying to free your crew from a malfunctioning door in space, your Swiss Army Knife has the tools you need.