Readers of the Scrapboard will know that it is something of an understatement to say that I'm interested in knives. I've already covered designs such as the Kukri, Jambiya, Pesh Kabz, Barong and Kerambit. Here we look at the Fairbairn-Sykes Commando knife.
There are many knives marketed that claim to be fighting knives. Few can match the F-S in its scale of issue or longevity. The modern trend is often for multipurpose equipment that is often a poor compromise and a “jack of all trades, master of none”. Yet the F-S, a dedicated weapon, continues to be issued and carried.
The story of the F-S knife began with some knives made for William Ewart Fairbairn when he was serving with the Shanghai police during the 1930s. The name suggests it was a collaboration between Fairbairn and the hunter Eric Anthony Sykes, who was a police reservist heading the sniper unit. The White Russian Col. Nicholas Solntseff, was head of SMP Police Armoury and seems to have been responsible for the actual manufacture of most of the weapons. The US marines Samuel S. Yeaton and Luther Samuel Moore are claimed to have had some input in the design, but how much it seems to be disputed by some knife historians. Such discussion is outside the scope of this article, I'm more interested in the form these early weapons took.
The weapon here appears to have an overall length of 11" and blade of 6". Other illustrations of Shanghai knives beside rulers suggest an overall length of 10¼" and a blade of 5¾". Other sources suggest the blade was 6¼". Since the Shanghai knives were handmade it is understandable that there was some variation but it is probably safe to say that blades were shorter than the 6½ -7" blades of wartime mass produced F-S knives. The Shanghai knives vary in other details such as handle material and presence of a ricasso
The Shanghais were made from Boer War-era Lee Metford bayonets, so the ricasso probably varied with if the top or bottom part was used.
It is also interesting to view the context that these early knives were to be used in. They were not for sentry removal or an assassin's weapon but a police officer's fight finisher for when things are at their worst. A letter from Yeaton to his brother indicates that he intended to use his knife for stop-thrusts to the forearm of an enemy's knife hand a pretty sound defensive tactic with any knife.
There can be little doubt that many such Shanghai knives were carried concealed. Some of the sheaths we have images of are of a shoulder rig that would carry the knife pommel down with a “J” shaped structure that held the knife in position until it was lifted slightly. In “Get Tough” Fairbairn does mention that he personally favours concealed knife carry for its surprise and shock effect.
Fairbairn obviously drew on the Shanghai as inspiration when creating a fighting knife for the British forces. New roles, the requirements of mass production and wartime exigencies changed the form of the final weapon.
Currently I own three “Fairbairn-Sykes”-type knives. One is a chromed copy made in Pakistan and described as a “Hunting Knife” on the packaging. The second is modern reproduction of the Third pattern F-S, made by James Nohill & Sons in Sheffield. The third is a modern reproduction of the Case V-42. The V-42 was created for the Canadian-American First Special Service Force (F-SSF), better know as the Devil's Brigade. If you look closely at the badge of the Green Berets you'll see the dagger behind the crossed arrows is a V-42. Comparison of these three knives is interesting.
(4.5" grip area)
|Loa||10.25"||11.25"||12.5"|| 11 3/8"|
All of the above measurements are approximate, since I'm using a tape measure and rule rather than calipers. Dimensions for the Shanghai knife are estimated from a photo I have of a knife by a ruler. Shanghai knives show considerable variation in dimensions, handle material and features such as a ricasso.
|L to R: Chasse Thumb Knife, V-42, F-S and Pakistan Hunting knife|
The Pakistan blade is widest but is also made of very thin steel. The point and proportions are somewhat asymmetrical. I have my doubts about the quality of the steel it was hard to get an edge on, and when I took the Dremel to it kicked off barely a spark (that might be something to do with the chrome). Maybe I'm getting paranoid but the edge seems to disappear as soon as you put it down. On the other hand the thin section and acute point means that it penetrates the cardboard I've tried it on effortlessly, so it's an effective stabbing weapon.
The F-S blade is thicker and has more of a diamond section. It tapers a little more towards the point than the Pakistan model and is a shade narrower at the guard. Due to the blued finish and the shape this is the most attractive blade of the three weapons. An interesting thing that I've noticed is that the point angle is around 18°. A very experienced bow hunter called Howard Hill created a broadhead arrowhead that was intended to maximize the ratio of cutting edge to surface area for good penetration. His arrowheads were 1 1/8" wide and 3 3/8" long, giving a point angle of about 18°. Arrowheads of similar proportions are used with many native blowpipe darts.
The V-42 has the narrowest blade, which is surprising since its grip makes it the least concealable of the three. The blade has a taper but the edges are straighter so it is not as pleasing in appearance as the F-S. The distinctive feature of the V-42 blade is the ricasso with the “thumbprint” mark on one side, intended to remind users where to position their thumb for certain moves.
The Pakistan and F-S model both have grips and guards of a similar “vase” shape. This shape has been likened to the guard of a fencing foil. Its shape makes it naturally take a position under the thumb muscle and along the crease of the hand. Although of similar shape the F-S slips into this position somewhat more readily when the knife is drawn quickly, and I can only attribute that to the difference in balance. The Pakistan model has a centre of gravity at the guard, while the F-S has it an inch further back.
Both grips have circumferential rings or ridges. Those of the Pakistan model are slightly larger, are less rounded at the apex and the grip diameter is slightly larger. Both offer a good grip but I'd say the Pakistan model offers a slight improvement. That said, there is nothing wrong with the F-S grip and the balance is to be preferred.
The grip of the V-42 is composed of leather washers and is of quite large diameter, oval in section and barrel like in shape. Although popular for American military knives I've heard such grips criticized as giving a poor grip, particularly when worn. In fairness, that criticism is mainly made against knives with cylindrical round section grips such as the K-bar. The V-42 grip is a good grip, just is bulkier than the F-S pattern.
The guards of knives of this pattern are intended more to help transmit force from the hand to the blade than to defend the hand. The V-42 has the interesting feature of a piece of thick leather bonded to the top of the guard to act as a cushion. A variant of the F-S known to collectors as a “Camp X” knife had a section cut out of the guard so the thumb could be placed more easily on the ricasso. The V-42 has a “thumbprint” on one side of the ricasso to remind the soldier that his thumb may be placed here.
The other distinctive feature of the V-42 is that the grip ends in the famous “Skull-crusher” pommel which is also surprisingly large in diameter and bulk. On the early V-42s this point was quite sharp and caused problems catching on clothing and gear until soldiers filled it down. The point of mine is a blunt cone but can still do considerable damage. The idea of striking with the pommel has been mocked by some. Why do this when you have a perfectly good blade? From certain angles a pommel strike can be quicker than trying to reorientate the blade, and for a light blade this can be more decisive than a slashing attack. Use of the pommel also offers the option of a graduation of force and applied against the temple or crown can takedown a target without covering the area in blood, which can be useful in certain situations. Striking with the pommel can also be useful for breaking windows and other less bellicose applications. Incidentally it is believed that the verb “pummel” is derived from the action of striking with a sword pommel.
The pommel of my F-S is a round-headed hexagonal nut. This will probably be an effective striking tool although I might wish for something a little more ogival.
The Pakistan knife has a very simple leather sheath. The F-S has a similar sheath since I elected not to take the option of a more traditional wartime leg sheath. The sheath of the V-42 is one of the oddest I've encountered : it has a long loop so it hangs really low and the mouth is surrounded by metal staples historically accurate but seems to be an ideal way to scratch the finish off the blade. I prefer to keep my V-42 in a spare sheath for a M3 trench knife.
I've found that the secret to using the F-S is to use the “paintbrush hold” rather like a fencer's hold but with the flat of the blade parallel to the ground, so you can see both the blade's edges. When I adopt this my thumb rests on the middle of the guard, not the ricasso. This is somewhat easier with the V-42 since it has a thicker guard, but is by no means uncomfortable with the F-S. From what I understand the ricasso position for the thumb was only used for certain moves. The hold I describe is certainly more comfortable, natural and more responsive for most actions. OSS publications show the sides of a stilleto grip lightly pinched between thumb and forefinger, the hilt lying between the fatty tissues of the palm,
In Fairbairn's manual “Get Tough!” (also known by other titles mine is “All-In Fighting 1942”) he shows an F-S type knife being used to slash at the inside of an enemy's forearm or elbow to attack the arteries there. Using a F-S in this way has always seemed a little optimistic to me. The weight and bevel of the F-S blade make it unlikely that you will inflict a sufficiently deep wound, particularly if the target area is covered by clothing. The knife shown in the document appears to be a 1st pattern F-S, although the blade seems shorter so it may have been intended to be Fairbairn's Shanghai. I still doubt that these would work against a tweed coat or woolen tunic. A more practical way to attack these regions is to thrust with the point and then use the edge to increase damage by a push or pull cut.
The primary rule of thumb for using the F-S and most other knives is to use the point whenever you can. Yeaton's tactic of the stop thrust to the forearm is worth remembering.
It is a fact of life that when anyone or anything is very successful people will appear to point out imperfections. Criticisms of the F-S include complaints about poor temper, blunt edge and round handle.
Complaints about temper seem to be rooted in a batch of knives manufactured during the war. Modern knives are fine for the task they are intended for they are not prybars or for cutting firewood.
I like the round grip of the F-S. It's comfortable, provides a secure grip and allows the use of the paintbrush hold which is well suited to double-edged blades. A more oval section would be more secure and aid blade-referencing. The blade would benefit from a hollow grind. Yeaton mentions hollow grinding the blades of Shanghais in one of his letters. This feature seems to have been dropped for wartime mass production of the F-S.
This doesn't mean I think the F-S is the last word in knives of this class. One of the advantages of a knife of this type is that it is more compact than a Jambiya or Butcher's knife.
During the war shorter versions or modifications of the F-S were by no means unusual. Some of these were referred to as “¾” or “7⁄8”. At least one company offers a 4½" version of the F-S, though this is a little too short for my tastes. I'd be quite happy with the 5¾" blade used with many Shanghais.
Blade width would be increased a shade to 1" and there sould be a taper in thickness as well as width. Blade would be diamond section with a hollow grind, in effect creating a central rib down to the point.
I've heard that the “coke bottle” shape of the Gerber Mk II knife is preferred by some to that of the F-S. I can't speak from personal experience of the Gerber, and given the price of them this is unlikely to ever be the case unless someone fills the obvious vacancy in the market for an affordable replica. Hilt would be 4½" , although my small hands could tolerate 4¼" if the interface from grip area to pommel is designed right. The domed pommel on my current model would be OK, though something more ogival would be welcome, as would a more oval cross-section.
My personal taste would be to have a ricasso and the “S” shaped quillons of the 1st pattern F-S, although of only 2-2½" width. A leather cushion as shown on the V-42 would be a nice feature too. Having had some interesting experiences with electricity, I'd not object if a non-conductive grip could be created.
The F-S is still a fine weapon, however. Used correctly the F-S knife is an excellent weapon for the purpose it was designed for. Because it is mass-produced to a degree far greater than alternate fighting knives the unit cost is far lower. For the price it is hard to beat, and I suspect it betters many custom knives of many times the price.
Gerber Mk II
While I was writing this article I was lucky enough to acquire a Gerber Mk II Survival at a price I could live with. Despite the name the Mk II Survival is a dedicated fighting knife like the F-S. Since the two are often compared, some observations may be in order.
The blade edges appear to be parallel but in fact there is a gradual taper which meets in a point of good shape and performance. The blade is about ¼" thick at the guard and tapers down towards the point. Most distinctive feature is the serrated section on each edge (some Mk IIs lack this). This may help the edge bite during slashing attacks but does offer the option of rope cutting in an emergency. The grip is very comfortable. It's bulkier than an F-S grip but not so much that it prevents a paintbrush hold. The grip is also somewhat longer than the F-S and ends in a truncated cone that makes an effective striking device and includes a lanyard hole. The sheath is a bulky thing made from rigid condura with a rubber belt plate and fastex clip.
The Gerber MkII is a first rate knife but its bulkier hilt (and sheath) make it much more of a fighting knife for field wear rather than covert operations. The blade design is very functional and also very attractive. A shorter version of this blade mated with a F-S type hilt would make a very useful weapon.
As far as I know Gerber no longer make the MkII and no one makes a reproduction, which seems to be an obvious gap in the market.
Illustrated here is a drawing of an updated Shanghai knife. Like the originals this is intended as a defensive weapon for use in extremis.
The blade would resemble that of the Gerber Mk II Survival but is shorter at 5" and has a point angle more like that of the F-S. In silhouette the shape is rather like a Skein Dhu but obviously this design is double-edged. Blade width is around 1" at the grip and there would be a taper in thickness as well as width. Blade would be of a diamond section with a hollow grind in effect creating a central rib down to the point. A fuller may be included. The guard is quite small, for better concealment and easier draw. A leather or plastic cushion would form the upper surface of the guard.
The grip is closely based on that of the F-S although possibly it would have ridges more like those of the Pakistan model knife. The grip could possibly lose up to half an inch or so in length but I very much like the comfortable and secure grip the F-S gives. The pommel is more ogival than on the F-S and there is a lanyard hole drilled on the same plane as the blade.
There is, of course, room for several variations. Some people may want a shorter grip, although the standard length F-S is fine for my rather small hands. Some may want an even smaller guard, or possibly a larger one. A modular design where the grip or guard can be easily changed would be prudent. The serrated section on one edge could be removed and replaced by an unsharpened section for sale in areas where double-edged blades are not permitted. A longer-bladed version for more overt roles is also possible.
Some writers assign different meanings to the terms “Fighting knife” and “Combat knife”, using the latter term to designate a Soldier's utility knife. The M3 trench knife is a combat knife in the latter sense and was issued during World War Two as a utility knife for personnel that carried weapons that did not have a bayonet.
The M3 proved to be a handier tool than the issue sword bayonet and gave rise to a whole dynasty of bayonets based on the design. The M4 was issued for the M1/M2 carbine, the M5 for the Garand rifle, the M6 for the M14 and the M7 for the M16. I believe the M8 was for the experimental SPIW and had the unusual feature of the grip and blade having different axis, though the M3 ancestry is still apparent. During the 1980's many Survival magazines carried adverts for the “NATO Combat Knife” which was obviously closely based on the M3. This had the M8 scabbard used with the M7 bayonet which incorporated a device that was supposed to sharpen the edge every time the blade was replaced. A review I read tested this by resheathing the knife several dozen times and found that the edge was not noticeably sharper.
|L to R: M3, Gerber MkII and F-S|
The blade of the M3 is narrow with a spear point and is only sharpened and bevelled for part of its top edge, the rest being a thick spine. When used on Balisong knives such a blade form is called “Wee-Hawk”, and this form is also used on some Japanese daggers (Ko Gara Su). The guard has one quillon bent forward, so a user can determine where the main edge is purely by touch. The grip is made of stacked leather washers, basically a cylinder of oval section with deep grooves. Pommel is a thick metal disc. Bulk of the grip makes this a field knife, and less concealable than the F-S. Sheath of mine is a simple but attractive leather one, not the plastic M8 with sharpening gizmo.
I've not had time to personally test my M3. The review of the NATO combat knife I read commented that the blade was “ineffective at whittling, carving or cutting anything of depth but the broad angle gives good removal of wood chips”. For general survival use its contemporary the K-Bar was probably a better choice but the M3 was a combat utility tool. I've little doubt that it was an effective weapon punching through heavy clothing or equipment, and that the blade was thick enough to withstand many of the less bellicose uses and abuses soldiers subjected it to.
By the Author of the Scrapboard :
Attack, Avoid, Survive: Essential Principles of Self Defence
Available in Handy A5 and US Trade Formats.