Know your Knives: The Fairbairn-Sykes Dagger.

fairbairn

The Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife has been both a weapon and a symbol of Special Operations Forces for 75 years.

People often talk of how the AK-47 rifle (and to a lesser extent the M-16 which opposed it) is a symbolic weapon. Not only has it played a role in pretty much every world conflict since its inception, it even appears in silhouette on the flag of Mozambique.

There are several famous knife styles whose profiles are recognizable and carry outsized symbolism. The Ka-Bar and Bowie-style knives come to mind. However, there is probably no other knife that has the historical significance and symbolism of the Fairbairn-Sykes (or F-S) Fighting Knife. This knife’s silhouette is featured on the battle flag of the WWII British Commandos, it is on the emblems for Commando Units of the Netherlands, Belgium and Australia. It is even a part of the US Army’s Special Forces insignia (technically its close-cousin and decedent the v-42 is represented) as well. This isn’t just symbolism though, the F-S remains an issue knife for forces in Malasia, the UK, and Greece.

In a sense, the name “Fighting Knife” is a bit of a misnomer. When employed as designed, there is very little “fighting” involved. This is an assassin’s knife. It is meant for thrusting through layers of clothing, between the ribs, and into the vital organs. Designed by William Fairbairn and Eric Sykes, it drew on their experiences serving on the Shanghai Municipal Police in the years before WWII.

 

My introduction to this famous knife came in about the 8th grade when I was reading WEB Griffin’s The Corps series of books, where the main protagonist – a young Marine named Kenneth McCoy carries one, and uses it early in the series when he kills an Italian Marine in a street fight in self-defense.

I have wanted to do a “Know your Knives” piece for a while now, but in my initial research I was finding either Wikipedia-level histories which were a bit on the general side for TTAK, or sites like the quite informative Fairbairnsykesfightingknives.com which is encyclopedic in its detail and history, but not the easiest site to try and blog about. It worth checking out if you want to explore the topic further. There is also a recent book by Leroy Thompson: Fairbairn-Sykes Commando Knife which looks to be well done, though I have not seen it myself.

One of our readers sent me a link that hit the sweet spot between superficial and bogged in minutia. “This Commando Blade was for Stabbing Nazis in the Back” comes from Medium.com, and is a fantastic read.

From the article:

“David Decker, a U.S. Navy veteran and Fairbairn-Sykes knife collector, said training with the blade taught confidence and aggression. In the hands of a properly-trained individual, it’s a fearsome weapon.

“The knife has tremendous capacity for penetration of an enemy’s clothing, web gear and person,” Decker told War Is Boring. “A vital part of the training was the instruction in hitting lethal targets on the human body.”

“Many of these targets had to be reached through the rib cage, so the slender blade was most efficient,” Decker added.

“The approximately seven-inch blade is capable of reaching all vital organs. Fluid in the hands, the grip was designed like that of a fencing foil to enhance the maneuverability of the knife.”

Someday I would like to get my hands on one to add to my collection. It isn’t a knife I have much of a use for, I just like the history. In the words of Mr. Decker:

“At least one knife-maker was quoted as saying he made knives for stabbing Germans, not peeling potatoes”.

Since I encounter very few Nazis in the course of my daily activities, I think I will stick with something more EDC friendly for the time being.

comments

  1. PeterK says:

    Yeah, that knife is instantly recognizable.

    I can’t remember where, but I remember learning about it through stories of the English resistance against the Nazi invasion (apparently in the channel isles). Basically a bunch of priests coordinated the efforts of the brave everymen who were given little more than these knives to harass Nazi troops. So they did, and did it well.

  2. knightofbob says:

    Somewhat nitpicking, but the knife on the Army SF crest is actually the American made V-42, as used by the Devil’s Brigade. I say somewhat, because the V-42 was derived from the Fairbairn-Sykes, but there are a too many improvements and specializations to consider it the same knife.

    I have no practical use for them either, but my combat daggers are some of my favorites in my collection. I don’t have anything particularly special, and certainly nothing as rare or historically important as a V-42, but that doesn’t stop me from reading and daydreaming.

    1. Pick away KoB.

      What are the specific differences? I would love to know.

      1. knightofbob says:

        Offhand, the V-42 has a pointed pommel, leather handle (it was designed for cold weather), a padded cross guard, and a different blade grind. The edge stops before it reaches the guard (presumably to allow for more grip variation), and there’s a thumb grip on the flat side of that portion.

        1. We cross posted. You answered while I was typing the question.

        2. I found a great piece when I was trying to look for differences. I plan on posting it as a “Weekend Long-read”.

          As far as the flat spot, it is a thumb rest meant to facilitate a horizontal orientation when gripping the knife. Better for sliding between the ribs of your enemy.

        3. knightofbob says:

          I look forward to reading it. I’ve noticed the flat area on a lot of my more modern fighting daggers. For example, the SOG Pentagon has the flat spot, and jimping on the sides. The textured thumb grip seems unique to the V-42, though.

      2. The only real difference I see is the v42 has a flat portion near the hilt, whereas the F-S edges go the full length. This particular feature is indistinguishable in profile.

        What else am I missing?

        1. knightofbob says:

          The distinguishing marks in the profile on the crest are the pointed pommel and the shape of the guard. The leather pad under the guard, when reduced to a simplified profile, makes it look thicker and flared toward the ends.

        2. Thanks.

          I don’t know if you caught it, but I rearranged a few sentences to acknowledge my error.

        3. knightofbob says:

          Hey, it’s all good, my life has just been a cascade of horrible side effects of modern convenience since November, and I’m currently decompressing before the next wave of awful that I’m sure is coming. The V-42 is basically the single piece that I would consider to complete my collection, and I’m slightly passionate about it. It’s like a Maserati or JP Sauer drilling: I’ll probably never have one, but nothing can stop me from dreaming.

  3. Sam L. says:

    It’s one of the knives I thought about buying many years ago, but decided against. Got the Gerber Mk II instead. It, too, is not a multipurpose knife–stabbing, some slicing, slashing only as a draw cut. Never did any of those things.

  4. David says:

    A very simple & classic design – probably why it works so well & why it is so well loved.

    The sheath pictured is pretty funky though 🙂

  5. Raina Collins says:

    The sheath is a nod to practicality; it doubles as a spatula for the chow wagon.

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Know your Knives: The Fairbairn-Sykes Dagger.

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