We expect a lot from modern pocket knives, like supersteel blades, grippy Micarta or G-10 scales, sturdy blade locks, discreet carry and instant one-hand opening. Oh yeah: they also need eye-catching good looks.
The Camillus ‘Demo’ knife is not a modern pocket knife. If it were a person (or a corporation, after the Citizens United decision) it would be drawing Social Security. It has none of these things. But if you’ve got a “beauty is as beauty does” aesthetic and a soft spot for history, you’ll dig it anyway.
A Demolition Knife By Any Other Name Would Still Cut As Cleanly…
This handy and indestructible pocket knife has been carried by literally millions of soldiers and airmen, sailors and Marines. (The Corps got their own version marked “USMC” and called the Model 1763, but otherwise identical.) Production was farmed out to many manufacturers including Case, Ulster and Western. Ontario makes them now, but a Camillus Demo knife is considered the ‘real’ Demo knife by collectors.
Today’s military gear is often referred to by model numbers or acronyms, but in my grandfather’s day GIs just gave their gear handy nicknames. Birth control glasses, 100-mph tape and John Wayne crackers were never ‘approved’ military terminology, even though every service member below the rank of General or Rear Admiral used them too.
Early military folklore had it that the Demo knife was designed for use by demolition and combat engineer units, because it was made of a special nonmagnetic alloy. This was total hogwash: it seems to have been designed as a general-issue field tool, and its stainless steel is emphatically not non-magnetic. The name ‘Demo’ knife is thus a misnomer, but like many of them it stuck anyway.
Design: The Original Leatherman?
The Demo knife was the Leatherman Tool of its day, back when rifles were made to be disassembled without wrenches or punches, and even tinkerers didn’t have to fret with 23 different sizes of Phillips, Allen and Torx fasteners. MacGuyver could save the world with one of these.
The Demo knife design seems to date back to 1945, although even the former Camillus company historian can’t pinpoint it for sure. It specs out like a fairly typical mid-century 4-bladed camping knife with a 2.75 inch spear point blade, can opener, screwdriver/bottle opener, and awl.
What made the Demo knife different was its all-stainless steel construction and recruit-proof ruggedness. At 3.6 ounces it’s not in the lightweight division, and that all-stainless construction provides incredible durability. You could drown it, drive over it or drop it in a campfire, because there’s nothing in it you could likely break without trying.
With one exception. The Demo knife was designed to be used one tool at a time, because the backsprings can weaken and eventually break if both of the blades on each spring are opened fully at the same time.
And How Does It Work?
My example is a gift from a friend who carried it through his Airborne career in the 1980s. It was made by Camillus in 1980, and it’s in excellent condition for a utility tool that saw rough field use for several years. The blades are still shiny and rock-solid in the frame (no wobble) and the backsprings are still very strong but not quite fingernail-breakers.
I hope you’ll forgive me for not running through the entire ‘rope, paper, cardboard’ testing routine with a classic old knife that’s becoming a low-cost collectible. It sharpens very easily to a nice edge that will easily slice hanging paper, but not reliably through newsprint. It was a decent cardboard-slicer, but like most small plain-edged blades it was pretty hopeless on 3/4″ Manila rope.
The blade steel isn’t specified, but it’s not terribly hard. One reviewer compares it to 420HC, but I’m not sure I agree: it’s nowhere near as hard as the Paul Bos 420HC that Buck uses in their knives.
The diamond-checkered steel frame slabs don’t give you the most precisely ergonomic grip, but then again neither do SAKs that still sell by the millions each year.
These knives were never expensive: around $10 in Vietnam, and less than $30 today. So many of them were made for so many years and by so many different manufacturers, that you’d think they were as collectible as used Orville Reddenbacher popcorn boxes.
Despite this, the humble Demo knife is starting to become collectible anyway. Many collectors are former service members who fondly remember this unassuming piece of field kit, and others are former boy scouts who started their collections with their fathers’ hand-me-down Vietnam era Demo knives.
And don’t think these common knives can’t become collector’s items. Recall that lowly Mosin-Nagant rifles sold by the crate less than ten years ago, with unit costs as low as $65 each for unissued M44 carbines. Now those same M44s, built by the millions, will bring in as much as $350 each.
Deservedly A Classic
The Demo knife is has been overtaken by more modern multitools and pocketknives, but it’s still as solid, simple and useful as it was in a grunt’s field pack in Vietnam. If you’re a knife guy, this classic knife might be too affordable and historic not to add to your collection.
For more information, read Ken Cook’s excellent article The Demo Knife.